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Speeches, Interviews

18.04.2006

European Subsidiarity Conference, Opening statement by Governor Pröll


 

In my capacity as Governor of Lower Austria, I would like to welcome you most cordially here in Lower Austria. I would like to thank you very much for coming to St. Pölten. Lower Austria is a European region which has already some experience in European dialogue since for eleven years now we have had the European forum at Göttweig Abbey which is situated quite close to here, and the Göttweig European forum has been an occasion for us to discuss the future of Europe.

Today, ladies and gentlemen, we have come together again to talk about the future of Europe, the road ahead for Europe. Now, we are confronted with a great deal of potential, but, of course, we are also encountering a number of problems on our way ahead. Now, the title of this conference is ‘Europe begins at home’. The past few days, I’ve been asked by several people why we’ve opted for such a simple title. Well, there are several explanations for this. First and foremost: there is this hard to pronounce word ‘subsidiarity’ and we want to translate this word into a language that everyone understands. We’ve also opted for this title because it expresses our emotions quite aptly. Now, the principle of subsidiarity will make or break Europe as it moves forward. Now, feeling at home: that is not something that refers to an institution or a technical entity; no, what is expressed here is emotions, feelings; you feel at ease, you feel safe when you are at home, you feel understood, you feel that you are taken seriously, you feel that you have a say in certain matters, and you feel respected as well. Ladies and Gentlemen, if we look at the emotions that we currently find at the European level, we will soon realise that this feeling of safety is not present among all Europeans and that there is still some headway that we have to make. What we are seeing is that people feel exposed, people feel powerless with regard to Europe and Europe’s future, and the future of the European Union and people are also frustrated and disillusioned; and here I’m talking about people living in our villages, in our regions, in our countries. People are afraid, they are afraid of losing their traditions, their autonomy, and what they consider home. People can no longer relate to their culture, to their individuality; or they find it harder and harder to relate to that. People feel that they don’t really have a say in European matters.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I will not pass a judgment on this, I am not going to say that this feeling, this sentiment is justified or not justified but what is quite clear to me, and of course this is a subjective statement, is the following: the larger the European Union, that is what people think, the less individual interests are protected. Or to put it differently: Euro-scepticism is on the rise. Now that is something that we do not promote, of course, that is not something on which Europe’s future should hinge. I’m convinced of the fact that the larger the world that we are entering the more important it will be to create our individual homes, a setting in which we feel at ease.

Ladies and gentlemen, this brings me to the first topic that I wish to address here. Now, if what I’ve said is true, then this means that we have to create this home ourselves, but we can only do that if our voice is heard and if we can make important decisions, if common sense and being close to citizens are more important than regulations that are superimposed on citizens. And this brings me to the core of this two-day conference in Lower Austria, in St. Pölten, the capital of Lower Austria: the principle of subsidiarity. Now to put it in a nutshell, ladies and gentlemen, this means that small entities should be given preference, and must be supported by the larger entities, if this is requested and if this is necessary.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me briefly talk about the principle of subsidiarity from the point of view of someone representing a region. Now, according to European law, the principle of subsidiarity was enshrined in the 1992 Maastricht treaty in art. 5, § 2, as well as in the protocol attached to this treaty. But let me make a critical comment here. The principle has been enshrined but there has not been any monitoring mechanism, this principle has not been called into question. It has been not been elucidated, if you like; and it has not been put into practice. That is why there is this prevailing sentiment of disillusionment, and then there is a new constitutional treaty that has been enlarged in art. 1/11 § 3, local and regional levels have been mentioned for the first time ever as a point of reference, but this is not a guarantee, this does not mean that all of this will be implemented in such a way that European citizens can benefit from this. The constitutional treaty does not contain any binding obligations with regard to paying head to regions and their needs, so wherever we are responsible, at whatever level we play our role, we need to make sure that laws and regulations and standards are animated, through our political every-day work we should breath new life into them so that individual citizens can benefit in specific terms from these laws and regulations, so that they can fully relate to Europe. To put it in a nutshell, there are four approaches that one may envisage so that people can relate to Europe more from political developments occurring at the European level.

Now, the first such approach is this: we need a mindset imbued with subsidiarity at the EU level. That is a major prerequisite because that will give rise to a culture of subsidiarity at all levels of our continent. This will then result in the following situation: people can relate to Europe, they can identify with Europe, Europe can therefore have more diversity, it will be a more multifaceted and multicoloured continent. The European institutions will need to let go; they exert a lot of influence, they make a lot of decisions; but they will need to let go so that more influence can be exerted in such a way that individuals can more freely express their individuality.

The second approach, and this is where the Commission is called upon to take action, the Commission needs to undertake, to hear what the regions need prior to law-making and to include these text also in the law-making process.

And  the third approach in my view is a call on the  national states: the member countries of the European Union, as well as their national parliaments need to make sure that before the constitutional treaty takes effect, the principles of subsidiarity need to be put into practice. That’s what individual member countries need to make sure.

And then the fourth approach: this involves the regions themselves. I believe, ladies and gentlemen, that the regions have not fully explored all avenues. They have not sounded out the entire potential of subsidiarity in order to put into practice their own ideas in a pertinent legal situation.

Ladies and gentlemen, even if we adopt a critical approach in assessing what we are doing, we can nevertheless say that there are also very promising approaches and we need to focus on these positive and constructive approaches, and that will then result in a stronger feeling of subsidiarity. Let me give you three short examples:

First, there is the subsidiarity network of the Committee of the Regions. In the past few months, this network has evolved and this really is a pilot project, if you like. There are two draft directives on clean air, for example, and on air quality in Europe. And this pilot project includes 21 regions that will be surveyed so that they will get a chance to make their concerns heard. And this is a litmus test, if you like, for European regions. The European regions will need to be heard in Brussels so that sustainability can be achieved. That is one example. Let me give you another example: in Lower Austria in the past few months, we have been confronted with issues concerning mobile telephony and we have reached an agreement on mobile telephony and this is a case in point. It is important to invest time and energy so that regions can reach their potential and this also applies to the question of mobile telephony. What was the essential point? Brussels gave us some time, the time that we needed in order to come up with tailor-made solutions and the Austrian Federal government did not influence our regulations, thus respecting our regional intentions and ideas.

Let me give you a third and last example, another example of the positive developments that we are seeing; and here I am talking about an initiative for the promotion of border regions. In the past one and a half years, we have pooled ideas coming from border regions in order to make sure that these border regions will be funded appropriately. We wanted to get feedback from Brussels. We struck a very responsive chord with Brussels and the outcome has been very positive. And this will help these old as well as new border regions so that they can see better developments and this is also in the interest of the people living in these border regions.

Let me come to a conclusion, ladies and gentlemen. I do hope that this two-day conference will make significant contributions and will provide for an impetus, an impetus that transgresses the European level. I am firmly convinced that we need these discussions, they are an important step on our way toward a bigger future of Europe. This conference, ladies and gentlemen, and let me make this wish now that the conference is opened, this conference is to create a mindset, a certain mentality, and it should also give thought to the instruments that we have at our disposal and it should also be an eye-opener for our regions, because a lot of things are possible if the European institutions are committed to the cause. This conference is also to encourage us to build sustainable networks for better implementing the interests of regions. Last but not least, ladies and gentlemen, this conference is to make clear to everyone that citizens will be in favour of Europe if regulations concerning them are meaningful regulations and if they are not superimposed on them.

With this in mind, I would like to thank you once again for coming to St. Pölten, I would like to thank the Federal Chancellor and President of the Council for having initiated this conference  and I do hope that a strong signal will be sent out from Lower Austria, from St. Pölten to Europe, and that this signal will result in positive developments.  

Thank you very much for your attention.

 

Date: 18.04.2006