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Van Rompuy: 'The EU will never become the United States of Europe'

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Van Rompuy: 'The EU will never become the United States of Europe'

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To celebrate Europe Day, euronews took over a room at the European Council in Brussels, which is usually reserved for heads of state and government. Here Herman Van Rompuy answered questions, put to him by euronews viewers.

Alex Taylor: “This is the first time a television programme has been recorded in this room. Hello Mr. President. Thank you very much. So you’re used to being here, welcome home. Is Europe, the art of extreme compromise?”

Herman Van Rompuy: “Yes and not just Europe. I remember a speech by President Obama who said: ‘This nation is built on compromise’. Even the United States is built on an agreement, compromise is the rule of life.”

Alex Taylor: “So you agree to reply to all our questions on this first topic? The euronews viewers sent their questions to ‘askthepresident.eu’, many of which concern the economic crisis that is sweeping across Europe at the moment – the crisis in Greece, but also the crisis in Spain.

“How far will it go? Should we pursue policies of austerity? In recent weeks we’re hearing from some sources that this is not the right solution. So how can we boost growth in Europe, we have a question from Bartholomew Rose.”

Bartholomew Rose: “Mr President, following the recent elections in France and the fall of the Dutch government, there seems to be a certain reluctance among European citizens towards the austerity policies imposed by the European Council. Are you finally considering putting in place a recovery plan to stimulate European growth?”

Alex Taylor: “Basically, are you going to change your mind?”

Herman Van Rompuy: “In fact we have taken care of growth since my very first informal EU summit in February 2010.”

Alex Taylor: “It was during the worst of the Greek crisis as well.”

Herman Van Rompuy: “Yes, but we did not know in advance, and I had scheduled a summit to increase economic growth, because my belief was that if we did not have enough economic growth, we could not finance our social model. Then came the Greek crisis and that has overshadowed everything. A year later, I had the European Council in this room, it was on innovation. The key elements were growth and energy and this year, in January and March,there was a theme; growth and jobs. So we have been looking at these issues for some time. This does not mean we will not increase our efforts and intensify them after the French elections. These major themes were already on the agenda.”

Alex Taylor: “And if Holland tries to renegotiate the financial pact, what are you going to do?”

Herman Van Rompuy: “That’s another thing, if it does happen, then we will deal with it in the coming weeks, but I think the most important thing is to agree on the content, like what are the levers and the instruments to increase economic growth and employment? There are many points of convergence, even with the new French President’s programme.”

Alex Taylor: “OK we have our first video question, it comes from Cristos, who lives in Dublin, and he poses a question in English.”

Cristos, from Dublin: “In the current economic crisis, we are witnessing a fall in citizen’s support for their country’s eurozone and EU membership. What do you think will be the best way for governments or politicians to restore confidence and support of the public in the members zones of the EU?”

Alex Taylor: “OK, let’s go into English. He sums up what everybody is asking about the current economic crisis.”

Herman Van Rompuy: “Yes, but there is still a huge majority in most of the countries for membership of the European Union and the eurozone. Even in Greece I saw an opinion poll just before the election which said that 75 percent of people don’t want to leave the eurozone.”

Alex Taylor: “It’s not really born out by the elections results though.”

Herman Van Rompuy: “The election results are about the program but people are still in favour of being eurozone members because they know there is no other issue [option] for their country, there is no future for their country [outside the EU], but in any case, we will convince people of the sense and the meaning of EU membership by results. That’s why we have to stabilise the eurozone and that’s why we have to increase economic growth, and create jobs.”

Alex Taylor: “Are we talking about a very long time, we are talking about what; two years, five years, twenty years?”

Herman Van Rompuy: “The long term starts today, that’s always with the long term. But giving people a perspective that would already important. For western European countries, the situation is different as it is for the southern European countries. Let’s say that for the North we will have, by the end of this year, positive economic growth. We’ve already had this in Belgium in the first quarter of this year and for next year all forecasts are positive for economic growth. So let’s keep the confidence as good as possible because if there are good signs, we have to tell the people this, and in any case we have to give perspective to the people.”

Alex Taylor: “And now our first question by tweet and this is from Andrea, tweeting from Murcia, Spain: “Mister President, do you think that Spain will need to be helped like in Greece?” Is Spain the next on the list?”

Herman Van Rompuy: “No they haven’t requested help at all. I think the Spanish government has taken courageous decisions, as did the previous government in Spain on the fiscal side, on the side of competitiveness and on labour market reforms. I think this will produce results. Spain also needs reforms in its banking sector to recapitalise the banks to make them stronger and I think the government is doing a good job and I have full confidence, full confidence in the Spanish government and the Spanish Parliament.”

Alex Taylor: “OK We have a question from Sara Pini, from Bienvenuta in Italy. Your question please?”

Sara, from Italy: “During the European business summit, you announced you will organise an informal dinner for EU leaders to discuss the question of growth, which is often presented in opposition to austerity and fiscal consolidation; but do you really think there is a contradiction between the two or are they complementary? In this case, which kind of growth measures could be more compatible with sound public finances?”

Herman Van Rompuy: “I am very happy with this question because it gives me the chance to clarify our position; the ultimate goal of our policy to stabilise the eurozone is growth and jobs. We are not stabilising the eurozone, we are not taking all these unpopular measures just for the pleasure of taking them. There is a goal and it is growth and employment. That’s my first answer; my second is that we are working for the long term. We have to strengthen the supply side of our economy: innovation, education, training, research and development, that’s the highest priority, even in the midst of operations of fiscal consolidation. And then we are considering now, together with the European Commission, how to promote investment -increasing the capital of the European Investment Bank with a 10 billion [euro] increase of capital. You can create 160 billion [euro] new investment. We are working on project bonds to enhance the volume of investment in some key areas in the eurozone; so we are working on different levels and different domains, in order to enhance structural , economic growth. And this does not contradict austerity, it can contradict it in the very short term because people from other countries have to correct their unbalances and increase their competitiveness but at the same time, we are working in the north and in the south on making a stronger path for economic growth.”

Alex Taylor: “What will be your message to the unemployed in Spain?”

Herman Van Rompuy: “What we can say is that we have to go through this difficult period, we know this but we are working as much as we can, on a European level to promote investment and growth. And when we are doing well in the eurozone, as a whole, Spain will benefit from this also. And of course, in their own country, their government has to do whatever possible to promote employment through specific measures targeted at youth employment.”

Alex Taylor: “OK, let’s have a look at another question which was sent via the internet, by Rémy from Cairo: “I am quite concerned by the growth of the far right and openly xenophobic parties in Europe. The very idea of Europe and the values of its founders are being challenged. What can the President of the European Council do about it?” Can you do anything?”

Herman Van Rompuy: “I come from a country and even a region in a country which has had a rather sad experience with the far right.”

Alex Taylor: “AR Vlaams Blok…”

Herman Van Rompuy: “Yes, that was 25 percent of the electorate in 2004. Today it is half of the electorate, [half of 25 percent] so you can beat the far right….”

Alex Taylor (interrupts): “It is not the case in other countries, like France or in Greece, we have seen that this weekend.”

Herman Van Rompuy: “The far right now has 17 percent in France, this was also the case in 2002. So the rise of the far right is not a phenomenon linked to the crisis in the eurozone, it was well ahead of the crisis of the eurozone. But the most important thing of course, is that we defend our values, that we use a language which is the language of the European Union – defending the rule of law, defending democratic freedoms, defending human beings whoever they are, without any discrimination. So strong speech is very important. Of course we have to ask people living in the European Union to respect our laws, to respect the constitutions, to respect the separation of churches and states, to respect the equality of men and women. But most important is that we fight and that we show we are defending our values.”

Alex Taylor: “OK, here on this euronews special in honour of Europe day, let’s have another tweet; this one comes from Johanne, who is watching us in Ploiesti, Romania: “What would you say to the EU citizens and leaders who do not realise the cost of abandoning the EU? Who think that their future will be better without it?” I presume he means if a country withdraws like Greece withdrawing and how much will it cost, does anybody really know?”

Herman Van Rompuy: “But Greece is not the only case. In The Netherlands there are people, even leaders who are defending the leaving of the eurozone and even the European Union; you can imagine, I take the example of Belgium and The Netherlands, so as to not always use Greece as an example, that we are limited for our business and our economies to 10 million inhabitants, to 15 million inhabitants, and losing this sight [this market] of 500 million consumers, we are confined to very small markets and we have to show passports to cross the French borders and The Netherlands.”

Alex Taylor: “But these 500 million consumers are putting an incredible pressure on austerity measures in Greece.”

Herman Van Rompuy: “No, no it is also an opportunity. I come from a country that suffered from very high structural unemployment in the 1950s and then we had the opening to the other markets from France, Italy and Germany and it has created enormous wealth. So creating new markets can be a source of prosperity, not only can, it is the source of prosperity.”

Alex Taylor: “OK let’s have another question from the room. I think that we have Luigi who would like to ask a question, where are you from?”

Luigi, from Belgian: “Mr. President, in a context where European integration is struggling and in a context where the economic and financial problems keep arising in an increasing number of countries, how is it possible for the EU to keep enlarging, admitting new countries such as Croatia, while those new countries will make the EU integration process even more difficult and painful?”

Alex Taylor: “I met a Croatian last week and he told me that some people in Croatia are starting to wonder if they really want to come in.”

Herman Van Rompuy: “There was a referendum and that was very positive for the membership of Croatia to the European Union. But, being brief but at the same time precise, the European Union is a Union of values. Spain, Portugal and Greece have entered the Union because they have put aside dictatorship and fascism, and then you had the former communist countries; there is no future for those democracies without an anchor in the European Union. So the European Union is not only a work of peace it is and it was but it is also the guarantee for democracy and that’s why those countries have joined the European Union. And for former Yugoslavia; this is also the case. There was a civil war, there was even genocide 15 years ago and the only chance to prevent civil war in the future is a European perspective. Of course, they have to meet the target and to fulfil all the conditions but their future is a European one, otherwise we could have war in Europe.”

Alex Taylor: “OK let’s have another tweet you sent in about an issue which is hitting the news at the moment, that comes from Andriy15 in Ukraine: “Boycotting Euro 2012 won’t do Ukraine any good. Why not visit the country, meet its government and ask difficult questions? Otherwise, you are just pushing Ukraine into Russia’s hands despite the people’s desire to join the EU.” This obviously has to do with Ioulia Timoshenko who is on hunger strike at the moment.”

Herman Van Rompuy: “I was in Kiev with President Barroso in December and we discussed this for hours with President Yanukovitch. We initiated an association agreement with Ukraine, giving them a European perspective but we did not ratify it explicitly, why? Because we say we can only ratify it if you comply to our values because an association agreement is not only about trade, it is also a political agreement and so the way Ukraine is dealing with the former Prime Minister, Ioulia Timoshenko, is just unacceptable. We have said this very clearly, very clearly to President Ianoukovicth. I will not attend the tournament because there is no European team and Belgium has not qualified. But in any case, we can give a very strong political message; the Prime Minister of Ukraine announced he would come to Brussels, we said: ‘Stay home!’ It is a clear signal from our side that they have to change inside Ukraine. Ukraine was a model of democracy in 2004 and it has to become that once again.”

Alex Taylor: “OK you are watching a euronews special for Europe Day May 9th. We have a new batch of questions about a different topic. These questions have been sent in to Herman Van Rompuy about the confusing nature of Europe itself. We are here in the European Council but there is also the Council of Ministers, people don’t really realise who is the president? The President of the Commission? You are the President of the European Council but how did you get the job? Who elects you and how do these institutions function? There are a lot of questions about the way we set up the European institutions themselves.

“Let’s first of all go to a tweet from Marius in Cluj-Napoca, Romania: “Do you see the European Union becoming a federal union in a decade from now on? Will member states accept to transfer an essential part of their sovereignty to the Union?” Lots of people would say in some countries that has already happened quite a lot. Where are we? Are we going to become one country at some stage in the future?”

Herman Van Rompuy: “No I don’t think so. The European Union will never become the United States of Europe. There are 27 or 28 [member states] with Croatia. Each country has its own history, some have a history of 200 years, like Belgium and some have a history of a thousand years. So we are not like an American State. We have our own languages, we have 23 languages in Europe. We have a special identity in each of our member states and a very specific situation due to our history but what we have to do is to create every time we can, and a crisis period is a very fruitful period for this. Unfortunately, we have to create more Europe, more European integration.”

Alex Taylor: “It seems the vote for the extreme right is often a vote against Europe.”

Herman Van Rompuy: “Yes but not a majority, it’s not a majority in any country at all, there is no majority for the far right. There is still, in most of our countries, a broad majority of pro-Europe and there is still not a real majority, politicians, governments, prime ministers have to take responsibility, they have to show courage and tell their people there is no future without Europe and then go to the voters and ask for their verdict but in any case, there is no other future than us and what we are doing now is, during this crisis, is creating more Europe, more integration, giving the European Commission more powers under the control of the Parliament and in collaboration with the Council but going ahead, this is our aim.”

Alex Taylor: “OK, let’s have a final question here from Andy Carling.”

Andy Carling: “How should the President be chosen? Should there be candidates and manifestos, or even a public vote?”

Herman Van Rompuy: “I was chosen by the 27 Heads of States and governments, all of whom are democratically elected. I share in their meetings, I work on compromises, build bridges, facilitate solutions, that’s my role. I am not the President of the European Union; I am the President of the European Council. If the President of the European Council was directly elected, then he would be in a completely different position, he would have to defend his own program and defend his own position, making it much more difficult, even impossible to look for a compromise, to search for a compromise, because in the first place he has to be in accordance with his own program. So I think that this formula of having a President of the European Council, elected or appointed by colleagues from different countries is a very good solution. The term is two and a half years, renewable once, so only five years. There is no danger of a dictatorship, or a monopoly of power whatsoever. I think it is a wise solution.”

Alex Taylor: “Let’s have one final question which concerns today especially.”

Video Question: “We noticed that nobody is familiar with May 9 as ‘Europe Day’. We think it would create a positive European vibe if May 9 was an official day off for all EU-citizens. Our question is, make May 9 a holiday!”

Alex Taylor: “Europe day is a good idea because there are not enough festivals in Europe in general. But it’s not very emotional, that’s the problem.”

Herman Van Rompuy: “It is up to the member states. If we agreed, of course I would be involved but it’s true that in some countries they are trying to reduce the number of holidays but in any case, the speaker is right, is it still an attractive idea if the leaders don’t support it? They have to show the advantages, be enthusiastic, believe their own cause which would then impact everyone. And then the calls, I have understood very well and I fully support them, the fact that May 9 is a holiday will not change much. Again if there is an agreement, I will be involved. But speaking positively on the construction of Europe, which is unprecedented in human history, that is extremely important.”

Alex Taylor: “Thank you very much Herman Van Rompuy for joining us at the European Council and see you soon for another episode on euronews. Thank you very much.”

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