Dr. Heinz Fischer - President of the Republic of Austria - Formal address to the House

February 16, 2006

Brussels, 15 Feb 2006

Dr. Heinz Fischer, President of the Republic of Austria, was warmly welcomed by President Borrell, who expressed his great honour and pleasure to have Dr. Fischer speaking in the Parliament. Dr. Fischer spoke with certainty about the European project, and began by mentioning how the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 had given him more confidence in the possibility to achieve the seemingly impossible, and considered such confidence as relevant to many tasks that the Union faces today.

(Working translation from German)

A few days ago a well-meaning Member of this House â€" from Austria â€" advised me not to spend too much time on introductory commonplaces in my speech before the European Parliament today.

She pointed out that you, Ladies and Gentlemen, quite often welcome Heads of State or Government from the widest variety of countries as guest speakers on this rostrum and were more interested in politics than in being paid elaborate compliments.

Well, I will follow her advice. But let me state one thing: I am myself an old parliamentary warhorse who is happy to breathe the air of Parliament. I was elected to the Austrian Parliament for the first time in 1971 and was active there until I was elected Austrian Federal President in 2004. For 12 years I held the office of President of the Austrian National Council.

For a large part of that time the division of Europe into East and West by the Iron Curtain seemed to be an unalterable fact.

Admittedly, Andrej Amalrik had written a fascinating book entitled “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984“, in which he prophesied the collapse of the Soviet system, but this seemed to be out of touch with the political reality at the time. Hence for me, and I assume most of us, the year 1989 and the months before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall were something of a political miracle.

Today we know much more about the real causes of these developments.

Nevertheless, this chapter of our history has left a lasting impact on me. Since that time I believe in the possibility of political miracles, or at least that what appears initially to be a difficult or even forlorn endeavour can in fact be accomplished.

At all events, the enthusiasm for the European project received an enormous boost at that time and took an additional dimension. Alongside the principles underlying the European project as conceived by its founding fathers, namely the idea of peace and the ideal of personal and economic freedom of movement in the largest possible European area, for millions of people who had had to live with four decades of Communist dictatorship after the end of the Second World War, it opened up the prospect of being able to lead a life in democracy and freedom after all.

It was almost inevitable that after the collapse of Communism and the enlargement of the European Union from 12 to 15 Member States on 1 January 1995 the topic of a large round of enlargement, which was also seen as a kind of reunification of Europe, would appear on the agenda.

This enlargement was successfully achieved in 2004 and Bulgaria and Romania are also scheduled to join soon.

In the wake of this development the issues of the borders of Europe and the European identity are increasingly being raised.

Much has been said and written about the borders of Europe.

But sometimes the answers to complex issues are relatively straightforward.

The western, northern and southern borders of Europe are very simple to define. They are uncontested. In the East the geographic borders of Europe neither correspond to the cultural and historical borders nor are they identical with the existing national borders. For the European project of the future we are therefore obliged to draw meaningful political borders and to develop these borders into partnerships through intensive cooperation with the neighbouring countries (keyword: wider Europe).

At all events, both the fulfilment of the accession criteria and the European Union’s ability to admit new members are decisive factors in the definition of the political borders of the European project.

It is my firm conviction that the Western Balkan states, too, deserve to be offered a membership perspective, provided that they fulfil the accession criteria when time comes. But it would be unrealistic to give binding deadlines or dates, because there are numerous factors that still come into play.

For the perspective that I have just tried to outline we are in urgent need of an improved set of rules. It is to be hoped that everybody now realises that an EU of 25 plus cannot work ideally, or perhaps not even satisfactorily, with the structures of the EU of 12.

The European Convention was established as a response to this problem and it impressively elaborated the draft Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.

The willingness to compromise eventually made it possible for agreement to be reached by all governments and the European Parliament on a text that while not satisfying all of our wishes, is or would be important and useful for the European project as a whole.

The negative outcome of the referendums held in two EU Member States has not only brought matters to a halt for the moment but has also put a huge damper on the pro-Europe mood. And moods do play an essential role in politics.

We are now in a phase of reflection, but this reflection must be made visible and audible in order to give people the opportunity to agree with or oppose to the ideas presented.

My personal reflection leads me to the conviction that it would be a mistake to lie down meekly and allow the project of a Constitutional Treaty to perish and to more or less escort it to the cemetery.

I also realise that there are powerful arguments against starting the entire procedure all over again.

Which leads me to share the view of all those who believe that once this pause for reflection has come to an end, it would be useful to refocus in a mature manner and with fresh energy on the objectives of the Constitutional Treaty, which will also contribute to strengthening the EU’s democratic parliamentarian system. The Austrian EU Council Presidency is committed to making an effective contribution and to preparing the ground in this respect. I mentioned the term “referendum” before.

Frankly, I am not a supporter of plebiscitary democracy and in Austria we deliberately make sparing use of referendums.

But if we make or want to make use of referendums in EU Member States on major European decisions, I consider the current practice of holding a referendum in some Member States and not in others, thereby creating a sort of “patchwork of referendums” across Europe, to be rather unsatisfactory.

I would prefer to carry out an EU-wide referendum on specific matters of particular importance to Europe and to apply the system of double majority, where the referendum would be passed if the majority of all voters and a majority of the Member States were in favour. If this idea were generally welcomed in Europe it would of course also be necessary to reach agreement on the modalities for adopting a decision on an EU-wide referendum.

One topic of vital importance that I should like to discuss is the issue of the social dimension, i.e. the role played by the social component in European politics.

The market economy has become established in Europe. But the acceptance of both the market economy and the process of integration require a market economy with an adequate social component. In other words, a social market economy that does not regard the individual as a mere cost factor and that is committed to the principle of sustainability.

Frankly, the term “human capital” has always aroused suspicion in me.

The figure of 19 million unemployed is quite simply unacceptable.

If we want to increase acceptance of the European model rather than put this acceptance at risk, the reduction of unemployment, which is like a millstone around Europe’s neck, must be a priority at both the national and the European level.

Europe needs to stand on two legs: a sound economy and a sound social symmetry.

In this spirit I would welcome it if you were really to succeed tomorrow in adopting a compromise on the issue of the Services Directive that also takes account of the concerns and unease of employees and many businesspeople. And I also believe that it is important to find viable answers to the question of opportunities for control and enforcement capabilities.

At the beginning of Austria’s Presidency Salzburg hosted a large discussion on Europe entitled “Sound of Europe“, also alluding to the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

First, the politicians took the floor, then the artists.

Naturally the artists made use of their right to hold up a mirror to politicians and to point to the imperfections of politics.

Not everything that was stated in this context actually convinced me.

But one thing is true:

The cultural dimension of the European project contains many buried treasures and still has a lot of untold reserves.

It has been pointed out time and again that Europe is more and more able to keep pace with the United States in economic terms but that in military terms â€" as they say â€" it is a dwarf, although the latter irritates me less than the lopsided social situation.

But shouldn’t we concern ourselves in more detail with the way these relations look like in the field of culture?

The consistency and volume of Europe’s cultural output, from the Iliad to present day works of art, represent an incredible wealth of treasures. In that respect we can hold our heads up high.

So let’s use this wealth to strengthen the European identity and to raise awareness of what we share and let’s not forget that Modern Art, today’s artistic expression, will form part of tomorrow’s cultural heritage.

And what holds true for art also applies to science and education.

Less than two weeks ago, the German Federal President Horst Köhler invited seven European Presidents of State for a dialogue to Dresden. At the end of this meeting a discussion was organised with students from more than a dozen of countries. The students had prepared very carefully for this discussion and were passionate and informed Europeans. They handed over to us a “Dresden Manifesto” which outlined very concrete demands regarding Europe. One of these demands was for an increase in expenditure for research and development not just to three but to five per cent of the gross national product; a very bold target indeed, but one that is well worth striving for if we are to develop a knowledge-based society in Europe.

The Dresden Manifesto prepared by young students from a large number of European countries also included another demand: it called for the establishment of a common house for European contemporary history that would report objectively on the history of the 20th century and on Europe today and describe the European project in detail so as to promote public understanding of Europe.

I am sharing the content of this manifesto with you today not only to demonstrate to these young people that their requests and concerns are taken seriously by being presented to this highest European forum but also because education and research â€" as you are all aware â€" are factors of production of very special quality. Martin Walser once wrote that the existence of utopia was the prerequisite for utopia to stop being a utopia.

The very real utopia of European peace and the utopia of a sustainable and ecologically responsible economic order need to be supplemented by a cultural utopia and an educational utopia with the elaboration of very specific goals and their implementation as a priority consideration.

Austria has held the Presidency of the EU Council for exactly one and a half months now and will hand it over at the end of June to the reliable hands of Finland with whom we are cooperating excellently.

It is exactly four weeks since Federal Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel addressed the European Parliament and presented the objectives of the Austrian EU Presidency.

I do not intend to repeat what was said then but would only like to add that there have been a lot of activities and developments in these four weeks.

This relates for instance to the Balkan priority set by the Austrian Presidency, but also to the progress made with respect to the preparations for the EU-Latin America/Caribbean Summit which will be held in Vienna in the middle of May 2006.

We have been particularly dismayed by the enormous tensions and acts of violence which were triggered apparently by the Mohammed caricatures.

There appears to be a clash here of two irreconcilable positions: the principle of the freedom of opinion and of the press on the one hand, and the strong need to protect religious sensitivities and values on the other.

I take respect for religious feelings and what people regard as holy, in the truest sense of the word, as self-evident, as an important element in the coexistence of people and nations and not as an unacceptable restriction of a fundamental right. If a ban on pictorial representation constitutes an essential element of a religion one ought not and must not offend against this principle twice - not only by disrespecting this ban, but also by reinforcing this hurtful violation of a taboo in the form of a caricature. Journalistic freedom, like the inalienable freedom of art, is nevertheless subject to legal restrictions and demands consideration and respect. If billions of people are to live together peacefully on a planet, consideration for the values of the others and mutual respect should not be regarded as an expendable luxury. This, by the way, holds true in all directions.

However, violence and the systematic incitement to violence and taking the law into one’s own hands are certainly not an appropriate response. I respect and think highly in particular of those Muslims who, as in Austria, have made their protest in a clear but peaceful manner.

And I strongly and unreservedly condemn the attitude of governments who allow diplomatic missions, embassies and innocent people to be attacked and exposed to danger. The willingness and the honest intention to further intensify dialogue between cultures, religions, civilisations and people remains a priority in this context. This is my appeal to all concerned. Let me conclude by sharing with you the following conviction:

The European project which is based on the many things we have in common will be a success. We therefore have the right and the duty to strengthen the confidence that we will succeed in our endeavour of shaping both the “old” and the “new” Europe into the Europe of the future.

I thank you for having given me the opportunity to speak up for this vision from such an important rostrum as the European Parliament.

European Parliament
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