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EUROPE TURNS 50: TIME FOR A NEW START

27-03-2007

by Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the European Parliament

From the vantage point of 50 years of the Rome Treaties, I look back with pride, and I look forward with cautious optimism. From the modest beginnings of European unification's pioneering days there has emerged, with unprecedented rapidity, a European Union of 27 Member States and almost 500 million people. The greatest achievement has been the reversal the division of Europe. Our shared values have prevailed on a continental scale.

The 50th anniversary on 25 March is a good opportunity to muster our strength for the next great challenge: addressing globalisation together. More and more of the challenges faced by Europe and the world are only amenable to European solutions. Present-day examples are worldwide climate change and energy security against a background of dwindling raw materials. In an increasingly interconnected world, anyone who plays the national card or acts out of national self-interest will come to grief. But if we Europeans combine our strengths, we will increase our chances of success - economically, socially and environmentally. It is clear to me that the European Union of today is not yet adequately equipped to do this. So we must work resolutely to reform it and make it fit for the future.

This being the case, my hope for the forthcoming European anniversary is not for a party mood, but for a mood of new departures. The signal for the fresh start could be the joint 'Declaration on the Future of Europe' that will be unveiled in Berlin on 25 March. This day should put an end to the phase of disarray brought about by the French and Dutch no-votes on the constitutional treaty. It will once again become more apparent to the public that we Europeans have a well-stocked store cupboard of things held in common on which we can draw when shaping shared policies.

This will create a favourable climate for the stalemate over ratification of the European Constitutional Treaty to be broken. I know the objections and the risks - and I counter them with these words: the European Parliament stands by the treaty. We must do everything in our power to maintain the substance of the planned reform and to implement it before the next European election, in June 2009. It will do no harm to subject the draft to a kind of 'spring detox', at the end of which it will have shed many of its superfluous detailed provisions. This goes in particular for its extensive coverage of individual policy areas. Even the word 'constitution' in the title is not sacrosanct, if a more modest form of words will do the job. But its substantive core, including the fundamental values and rights, is non-negotiable, because this will be the foundation for continuing European union in the decades to come.

I would like to use Europe's imminent 'big birthday' to get closer to those Europeans who have hitherto been sceptical about Europe. 'Brussels' is often perceived as distant, bureaucratic and inefficient, but people overlook the fact that the constitutional treaty is the ideal tool to eradicate or correct the perceived deficits. Above all, it serves to allay the fears of a creeping shift of powers towards Brussels, leading ultimately to a kind of 'superstate'.

A clear distribution of powers and the subsidiarity principle make such a shift impossible. Subsidiarity means priority for smaller units; so towns and local authorities come first, followed by the regional and national levels. The European Union only comes into play if an issue can be addressed more effectively and efficiently at EU level. But the interplay of all these layers will only be successful when some vigour is finally put back into the process of European unification. With a rejuvenated spirit of community, a new sense of being 'us', we Europeans can overcome the obstacles to the constitutional treaty and make effective progress on issues that are of vital importance to our future.