Good afternoon, and welcome to our liveblog of today’s “Citizens’ Dialogue” in Liège, Belgium, with José Manuel Barroso, European Commission President, Didier Reynders, Minister for Foreign Affairs and European Affairs, and Jean-Claude Marcourt, Walloon Minister of Economy and Higher Education.
This dialogue is one of series the Commission is holding in cities in every EU country, giving ordinary people an opportunity to speak directly to EU politicians about their rights, the kind of Europe they want to live in, and expectations for the European Union.
They follow a call by European Commission President Barroso for an EU-wide debate on proposals to deepen Economic and Monetary Union, and to create a legitimate political union.
“There must be a broad debate all over Europe. A debate of truly European dimension,” he said. “We cannot continue trying to solve European problems just with national solutions. This debate has to take place in our societies and among our citizens”.
The debates are part of the 2013 European Year of Citizens: an entire year dedicated to your rights as a European citizen.
And, that’s all folks! But stay tuned to Debating Europe, because we’ll be looking at some of the issues raised today in greater detail over the coming days.
Barroso says next year will be the 100-year anniversary of the First World War, which affected Belgium greatly. The war, however, began in the Balkans – and Barroso believes this underlines the fact you cannot turn inwards and ignore the world around you.
The audience is being asked the last question of the evening: “Do we have to reinforce the European Union by creating a political union?”
And the response comes back as a massive majority in favour of political union.
An interesting question from the audience:
Should the summits of the EU heads of states be filmed, so that everybody can see everything that is happening?
Barroso explains why he thinks this would be a bad idea:
I was Minister of Foreign Affairs in Portugal in 1992 and, for the first time, we decided to introduce transparency by allowing cameras into the Council. And we were all very formal, and everybody spoke only for the television cameras for his or her country; and they all conveyed the national message. Then, only when the television cameras had left the room, we started the negotiation.
So, we need a space for negotiation. If the negotiation is public, everybody will be very strong – stronger than the others – but, as in a national government, as in any sort of negotiation, we need to have a certain space for compromise. Not a hidden space, but a discrete space.
Didier Reynders, the Belgian Minister for European Affairs, is now talking about the future of Europe:
We have to have a real debate. We need, after the European elections, to look at the treaties again. It’s not going to be easy, but one day we have to give the European Commission the role of a real government, and have the Council of Ministers act as a representation of the member states. But we have to defend the idea of a federal Europe.
The moderator attempts to introduce a brief video interlude. The video screams, stutters, and jerks onto the screen – “Shining Stars of Europe” reads the title – and then it just hangs there, frozen.
Not missing a beat, the moderator moves to the next item on the agenda:
I think that we have a few technical problems tonight.
Another tough question for Barroso, this one about protectionism and international trade:
You talk about rules within Europe for trade. We have environmental rules, we have social rules that are being implemented for all products, and this is very nice. But you do not see these rules elsewhere. And yet you want to open up this internal market to the United States whilst they do not have these same rules.
Barroso responds, seeming slightly on the defensive:
We do not want to decrease standards in terms of environmental standards or protection of the workers… It is a big thing to have this treaty with the Americans… In the US, there are a lot of non-tariff obstacles that we want to remove. And this is a splendid opportunity for Europe.
Barroso is asked why a citizen of Liège can go shopping across the border in Aachen and find that VAT is different on goods in Germany. He responds that this is not (currently) a matter for the EU:
It’s a national competence, and we need unanimity [between EU governments] for tax issues. The EU is not the United States, and even in the US each state has a different tax policy.
One angry member of the audience has just hurled an egg at the stage. The man is escorted from the room, and a joke is made about not being able to make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.
A Belgian Socialist MEP, Véronique De Keyser, has stood up in the audience and accused the Commission of promoting devastating austerity measures in Cyprus, Greece and other countries that are already “choking” because of the crisis.
You think we are interested in creating more suffering for our Greek and Cypriot friends? But all the adjustment programmes, whether in Greece, Cyprus, or in my country, Portugal, are implemented with the amounts put at our disposal [by the EU member state governments]. If we had more money, we could have had a correction of the debt which was more flexible.
An optimistic audience in the room today. They are asked “Will Europe emerge from the crisis stronger?”, and a slight majority have chosen to vote in the affirmative.
Barroso is asked if Europe has learned the lessons of the crisis.
Yes. The proof is that we have created instruments [to prevent a repeat of what happened]. Today, investments are coming back to Europe. It’s because Europe, with a lot of sacrifice, obtained again the confidence of investors. Now, if [another financial crisis] happened again, would we be protected? Yes. It would be much better.
A tough question from a woman in the audience:
I am worried, because I see how the steel industry in Liege is collapsing. What can Europe do to avoid the collapse of the steel industry?
We are presenting a plan to the member states for the steel industry, and it is a detailed and multi-part plan. The main problem is we have a decrease in demand in Europe, which is why we launched a plan – Car 2020 – to help the car industry, for example, and a plan for the housing sector, because there is a problem of lack of construction… But, of course, the competitive environment has changed. So, we have to look at dumping, and the Commission is willing to use all the tools at our disposal to protect the Internal Market.
This is an interesting statement coming from Barroso, who has traditionally been seen as being strongly anti-protectionist.
Barroso complains that the successes of the EU often go unrecognised:
Very often, Europe is a scapegoat for problems that occur at the national level. When things go well, the member states take the credit, and when things go wrong, the mistake is blamed on Europe.
Barroso is talking about EU structural and cohesion funds. He says that some countries, particularly poorer countries within the EU, want these funds to be spent only in poorer countries. Barroso, however, says he has fought to keep European structural funds for all member states, so that wealthier countries like Belgium can also benefit from them.
The audience is being asked to vote on whether they think their voice is being heard in Europe. A huge majority says “No”, they don’t think their voice is heard (and you can see our recent post on this question for more).
Ok, music aside, the debate is beginning. The moderator is now outlining the structure of the debate that will take place today with the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso.
Who is in charge of the music today? Quentin Tarantino?
Now I’m getting a bit of a trip-hop / early ’00s coffee bar vibe.
Nice bit of acid jazz playing in the background of the livestream while we wait for the show to kick off…