Back to the Future – My Speech at the PES Talks


In the aftermath of the corona crisis many people, especially young, feel like they have been stolen their future. For too many there is no job. It’s like the teenage boy in the famous nineteen-eighties film, they need to get back to their future. 

But it is not self-evident what the future will be. Will there be more wellbeing and international cooperation, or more short-sighted competition and seeking of narrow national self-interest?

These days bring to my mind the captivating book of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig “The world of yesterday, memories of a European”. Just on the eve of the devastating war he saw what he thought was an inevitable European integration. The future proved to be horribly different, and his vision only came into reality much later.

They say history repeats itself, but of course it doesn’t. Instead, societies tend to follow long-term development paths, which they only temporarily leave. When they return, history seems to repeat itself.

What is the long-term development path of Europe? Has the idea of common Europe been firmly established over these decades? Or shall we see a return to the era of mutually distrusting nation states with ever deepening protectionist policies?

Europe is now at a watershed. This is not another euro crisis. To this we should not respond with austerity or fiscal action only at national level. In this pivotal moment we can choose: either boldly invest in common European Recovery or revert to the calculating, protectionist national action. 

There are forces who want to turn the clock back. But for me the choice is simple: Together we must rebuild our European economy and let the EU become the World’s most competitive, socially inclusive carbon neutral economy.

To that end, we must remain vigilant. A well-functioning single market is a guarantee of the EU’s prosperity. Therefore, securing and strengthening our single market should be at the heart of the EU’s recovery and long-term growth. Globally, the EU’s role as a defender of multilateral cooperation and rules-based free trade is crucial in these times. The discussion of the European strategic autonomy must not lead to protectionism. That would be a return to the past.

We simply cannot afford to let the unemployment rise. That entails a huge political risk that could turn progress into regress. That is why we must put the wellbeing of our citizens in the core and centre of our action.

Especially for the all the young Europeans we must have a decisive message. As Doc Brown says in the film: “Your future is whatever you make it. So, make it a good one.”

I believe that the European development path of democracy, rule of law and human rights holds. It’s the social Europe.

So, dear friends and colleagues, together we will take our citizens Back to the Future.

PES question: How can we ensure that every Member State upholds the Rule of Law and the fundamental rights of European citizens?”

Protecting our common values, rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights is an obligation. It’s not a question of opinion or political choice, it’s something that we must be adamant in upholding.

The union is founded on these values and they are enshrined in our treaties.

EU is not merely a joint economic undertaking. EU’s leitmotif is to guarantee peace between European countries and to safeguard human rights within its Member States.

Fortunately, we have tools at our disposal to protect the Rule of Law. I wish to highlight three.

First, for six years now the EU Member States have been conducting a dialogue to foster and treasure the Rule of Law. The time is now ripe to strengthen the dialogue. It should be more systematic and fact-based, a genuine annual stocktaking of the state of the rule of law in the EU. 

This approach enables us to hold a more positive and constructive debate.

The new Rule of Law Review Cycle by the European Commission now provides the necessary data. Next autumn we can have the reformed dialog under the German Presidency. 

Second, we have the Article 7 process, that requires the Council to assess whether the rule of law is being compromised in an EU country. The ongoing Article 7 procedures must be brought forward by having state of plays and hearings in the Council meetings. We are all responsible for keeping them on the EU agenda until the situation has improved.

Finally, a strong Rule of Law conditionality should be included in EU’s next Multiannual Financial Framework. With this new instrument EU may freeze its funds in a Member State, if Rule of Law deficiencies there put our common budget at risk.

Linking EU funding to the respect for the Rule of Law is of utmost importance and it shall apply also to the Recovery Fund. This conditionality is intended to deter, not coerce.

After all, we must be sure our common EU funding is used to support and promote our common, treaty-based values.

PES question: This crisis showed the importance of frontline workers: Nurses, caretakers, health workers, shop clerks, truck drivers, etc. These are the people that kept our economies working. Can we ensure that their contributions are fairly recognized and compensated? What is the role of the Social Pillar?”

It is our honour and duty to show respect to workers at the forefront fighting the virus. They have saved lives and healed people or made sure that we have had food in grocery stores and medicines in pharmacies. Their invaluable work has to be recognized!

We will make sure, that the EU guarantees them and their families peace and stability, and a possibility to travel, study and work freely also in the future.

As we start building a post-crisis Europe, we must ensure a socially sustainable growth that generates well-being. We must build stronger social Europe by fully implementing the European Social pillar. 

Three messages on this. First: EU funds – European Social Fund+ and European Globalization Adjustment Fund -shall be strengthened to make sure they are available to all European workers. 

Secondly, I like to stress the need to reform the European Semester for better coordination of Member States’ economic policies. The European Semester has to pay more attention to decent living standards. It has to pay more attention to labour market that delivers high employment and fair wages. 

And thirdly: While respecting the national systems, the EU regulation should guarantee workers strong minimum rights. These include decent working conditions, social security, strong occupational health, and a balance between work and family life. 

During the lockdown, it has been heart-warming to witness a community solidarity in Italy, Spain and Portugal. People singing from balconies and applauding to healthcare workers. It has lifted spirits and shown that no one is alone. This newly found feeling of togetherness must not only be cherished but integrated into our recovery strategy.

There is one more thing I’d like to highlight. Gender equality, and especially equality in the working life cannot be stressed enough. In this fight women have been in the frontline. Their input securing the wellbeing of their communities and their contributions to the European economy cannot be overlooked. Therefore, the recovery strategy must have a strong emphasis on gender mainstreaming.

We will not let the coronavirus defeat us and steal our lives and livelihoods. Together we will move back to future.