The European Parliament may not be perfect but should keep pushing to reform and strengthen its democracy while celebrating its diversity, European leaders said at a ceremony to mark the institution's 70th anniversary.
Roberta Metsola, the President of the European Parliament, kicked off the commemoration of the creation of the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 by stressing it has since evolved into "the only directly elected multilingual, multi-party, transnational parliament in the world."
"I am not here to say that we are perfect. We are not," she told her fellow MEPs and European Commissioners who had convened in the French city.
"Our process is sometimes frustrating, progress is not always fast enough or deep enough or easy enough. We must keep reforming. We must keep pushing for positive change, day in and day out," she said.
"But I am proud of our achievements as our way of being a beacon of the defence of democracy, of the way that we have never been indifferent."
The actual anniversary was on September 10 but a number of commemorative events are scheduled through next summer to mark the occasion.
When it was first created, it was a consultative assembly made up of 78 appointed parliamentarians drawn from the national parliaments of the six member states: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.
It got its actual name in 1962 with the first direct elections held in 1979. Now, it is the EU's law-making body, with 705 MEPs hailing from 27 member states.
"It was no coincidence that the EU flag was raised over Kherson after so many months of occupation. It is because it symbolises hope, courage and belief. This is the legacy of our Europe. The legacy of this House. The legacy of the last 70 years," Metsola added.
'Diversity is not a limit'
The prime ministers of Belgium, France and Luxembourg addressed the parliament as part of the ceremony as the three countries are the body's host nations.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo focused on the recent and ongoing crises the EU has had to weather, from COVID-19 to the war in Ukraine and soaring energy prices.
He argued that these crises have shone a light on how national and European authorities must increasingly work together to tackle these issues.
"If we really want to strengthen our democracy, we must also strengthen our European parliament," he said, drawing a round of applause because all the major challenges "are played out at the international level and therefore we must strengthen our democracy at this same international level and therefore at our European level."
"We need you," he told MEPs. "We need your support to be a vigilant watchdog. In that, still more has to be done together with you from the European Green Deal to European security, energy security and transition to migration reform."
His counterpart from Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel, inspired by a video recapping the 70-year anniversary of the Parliament, meanwhile referenced World War II and the Parliament's first female President, Simone Veil, a French politician, who survived Nazi concentration camps.
He also stressed that as a gay person of Jewish origin, he might not have survived the war.
"We may be different, we may have different opinions, we may have different backgrounds but this richness is not a limit. This diversity is the wealth of our European continent. And let's not let it be destroyed. And if we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the European Parliament this year, this diversity must remain the strength."
"European Parliament, you have a task that is so important, it is to remind us also of these values," he went on.
"There is a tendency in the European Union to say what is happening at the other end of the world, what is wrong. I must also tell you that we, in our European family, it is important to remind ourselves of our values."
Elisabeth Borne, the French Prime Minister, turned her gaze to the future.
"The immediate future is the end of this legislature. So many major projects are underway. I am thinking of several essential pieces of legislation for the ecological transition with the Fit for 55 package, the reform of the Schengen area, which is such a precious support for our fellow citizens, for the conquest of our sovereignty, our energy, digital, technological and strategic sovereignties," she said.
"This list is of course not exhaustive. But it shows that you are at the heart of all the challenges of our time. The next few months will be busy," she added, before pivoting to the 2024 European elections.
"This democratic breathing space every five years is structuring the life of the Union. I hope that this election will be the occasion for real debates in our countries so that we can continue to build together a Europe of action, a Europe at the service of our fellow citizens," she said.
The prime ministers's speeches were followed by statements from the leaders of the political party's groups in parliament.
European People's Party group chair Manfred Weber said that only a "democratic Europe" is one that has a future and spoke about strengthening the parliament.
Iratxe Garcia Perez, chair of the Socialists and Democrats group, looked back at the history of the parliament, stating that the body had changed significantly in seven decades and spoke of the countries that are still waiting to join the EU.
The co-chair of the European Conservatives and Reformists group, Ryszard Legutko, meanwhile heavily criticised the European Parliament, saying it had caused a lot of damage and was "infected with shameless partisanship".
Metsola countered that with Legutko's two-minute statement, he had proven that "pluralism and diversity and democracy actually exists in this house."