Friday, November 12, 2021

We face a choice between national sovereignty and European identity

Outgoing Czech Prime Minister's speech at the Core Europe conference: National Sovereignty or European Identity in the Integration of the European Union

On Friday, 12 November 2021, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš spoke via video greeting at the Flagship Europe conference: National Sovereignty or European Identity in the Integration of the European Union. The theme of the conference is the future of strategic autonomy and European federalism in the European Union.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to open this conference entitled "Core Europe: National Sovereignty or European Identity?"

The title of your conference suggests that we are clearly faced with a choice between national sovereignty or European identity. However, I believe that this duality is not correct. Membership of the European Union should not present us with such a dilemma, but should, on the contrary, guarantee both. National sovereignty should be the foundation and the concept of European identity the roof of the European Union project. There should be an equal relationship between these two ideas – national sovereignty should support European identity and vice versa.

Today, unfortunately, this is not the case. After the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon, the EU began to promote the concept of European identity at the expense of the concept of national sovereignty. Although this assertion was not very strong at first, it has become increasingly evident over the last few years, including the drive for more centralised decision-making within the European Union and the expansion of areas where decisions are taken by qualified majority voting. The European Commission and the European courts have a much stronger tendency to interfere in the affairs of Member States, as in the case of Poland or Hungary, and the European Parliament is trying to assert itself at the expense of individual countries, as the Czech Republic is well aware.

In short, the political elites in Brussels and in Western Europe are clearly exerting pressure to transform the European Union into a supranational federation. Resistance to these attempts is coming from the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, particularly from the V4 Member States. These states were part of the Soviet bloc for almost half a century and are therefore very sensitive to moves to erode their national sovereignty. Unilateral and non-consensual moves to turn the EU into a supranational federation are met with their scepticism and suspicion. I believe that these steps are a fundamental mistake which will ultimately weaken the entire European Union and which, in the long term, risks the disintegration of the European project itself.

I am hearing from an increasing number of people in the Czech Republic a story that goes something like this:
"In 2003, I had no doubt whatsoever that voting in the referendum to join the European Union was the right thing to do. After more than 40 years of Communist rule, it was a clear signal that the Czech Republic should once again become part of democratic Europe, where it has always belonged. In 2004, when the Czech Republic became a member of the EU, I was full of optimism and hope, and I simply ignored the warnings of some politicians that the EU would deprive us of our national sovereignty as absurd.

But today, unfortunately, I see that their predictions are coming true. I feel disillusioned and dissatisfied. When I look at the EU, I see a very different organisation from the one I voted to join in 2003. I see an organisation that no longer promotes the free exchange of goods, people and ideas, but a swelling bureaucracy that is far removed from the problems we face and, at the same time, increasingly intrusive in our daily lives. And all the good that the European Union has ever achieved is now overshadowed by ridiculous policy intentions, the latest example of which are the proposals being pushed by the European Commission in the context of the Green Deal – such as emission allowances for households and transportation.

The European Union does not represent an opportunity for growth and I see its presence as intrusive and imposed. The EU wants to tell us how to travel, where to live, what to eat. I feel that the European Union has turned into a club for the rich and powerful who are trying to change our way of life through a kind of social experiment, not by consensus but by force. This is wrong, and I certainly do not want to be part of such a European Union. I feel cheated. If I had known that, I would never have voted JOIN in the referendum."
That is the story I hear but do not want to hear.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is clear that the European Union has changed significantly. Thirty years ago, the vision of the EU was based on the single market and its four fundamental freedoms: free movement of goods, free movement of persons, free movement of services and free movement of capital. But, especially after the Treaty of Lisbon, the political aspect has begun to take precedence over the economic aspect. A common foreign and security policy was born, there was a shift from unanimity to qualified majority voting, the European Parliament gained greater powers at the expense of the Member States, a Charter of Fundamental Rights was introduced, etc. The EU's presence began to be felt in more and more areas of life.

But this does not mean that the EU does not have positive results in some areas. It has been effective in negotiating and concluding free trade agreements with other countries. At the same time, however, the EU is failing to use its strength abroad, even in regions neighbouring Europe. If crises hit Ukraine, Armenia, Turkey, Syria, Libya, Iraq, etc., the EU must be a strong and visible player. Otherwise, no one will take the European Union seriously.

I think that the time has come to admit that the European project does not live up to the ideals and ideas on which it was initially based. Although the European Union has been gaining more and more powers, it has failed to complete the projects it started. The single market is still not complete, the four freedoms have not been fully achieved. The foreign and security policy looks good on paper, but in reality it does not exist. The Schengen area strategy is not complete and some EU members have not yet been allowed to join. The expansion of the Schengen area should be easier than the expansion of the European Union, but Bulgaria and Romania are not part of it even after ten years since joining the EU. Illegal migration is causing serious problems in Western Europe, which more and more cities cannot cope with, but the idea of migration quotas lives on. Countries that previously criticised Hungary for building a fence on its border are now asking the European Commission for money to build their own fences. And the list could go on.

Despite all these shortcomings, Brussels has a growing appetite for more and more powers and more and more areas to control. Returning to my metaphor of the EU as a house in which national sovereignty is the foundation and European identity is the roof, we can imagine the powers appropriated by the EU as rooms in that house. I see the EU as an institution that tries to enlarge the house and, at the same time, tries to cover these extensions with the roof of a European identity without strengthening the foundations on which the house rests. Even more surprising is the fact that there are no clear plans for how big the house should be, who should have access to it or what it should look like. The result is an increasingly unstable house. Part of the house actually fell down a few years ago, but construction continues with unabated fervor.

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that the European Union needs to think long and critically about what it has become. An increasingly rigid construction, far removed from the citizens it was intended to serve when it was founded. If we do not want the whole edifice to fall on our heads, it is, in my opinion, absolutely essential that we stop building our house and start reinforcing it.

We need to finish the unfinished projects, especially the Single Market and the Schengen area, where there is a requirement for a well-guarded external border. Once these steps have been completed, I think we should review the powers conferred on Brussels and, in some areas, return them to the Member States. Under no circumstances should we delegate more powers to Brussels or extend the areas in which the European Council can decide by qualified majority vote, thus doing away with the principle of unanimity in areas such as taxation, social policy, family law and foreign policy. In short, we must solidify the foundations, that is, the national sovereignty of the Member States, and rebalance the idea of European identity and national sovereignty. We do not need more European Union, but a stronger European Union.

We do not need to delegate more powers to Brussels; we need to complete the projects in progress. We do not need more federation, but more nation states. Only then can the European Union continue as a project that people will trust and support. Thank you for your attention.

Andrej Babiš
Prime Minister

Translated with (free version)

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