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European leaders call for change at State of the Union conference in Italy

Xinhua | Updated: 2019-05-04 09:51
Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi delivers a speech during the "21st-Century's Democracy in Europe" at the State of the Union conference organized by the European University Institute, in Florence, central Italy, May 2, 2019. [Photo/IC]

ROME - European heads of government, ministers, commissioners and political experts gathered in Florence, Italy, for the 9th annual State of the Union conference on Friday.

Titled "21st-century Democracy in Europe", the conference explored democracy and European Parliament elections to be held at the end of the month, the rule of law and the legal powers of the EU, disinformation and fake news, immigration, the next generation of EU citizens, and the single market.

THE FUTURE IS FEDERALISM

Among the high-level speakers on Friday was Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi. He reviewed the achievements of the EU in creating prosperity and stability and keeping the peace in Europe for its over 500,000 citizens, and painted a picture of what he sees for its future, namely, a European federation.

European integration generated "a feeling of European affiliation" that is not "that false feeling of supremacy which for centuries accompanied Europeans" but rather "the birth of a spontaneous European identity: everyone who lives within the European space naturally and simply assimilates that feeling", he said.

"Everyone who has come to Europe or been born in Europe after the 1970s has a radically different vision compared to those from preceding generations," he added. "They don't see citizens of other European countries as real or potential enemies."

"Even those who criticize and are skeptical of the Union develop European ways of thinking," Moavero Milanesi said.

According to GlobalStat data released by conference organizers, 70 percent of European respondents in 2018 said they see themselves as European citizens, compared to 62 percent in 2010.

The minister also cited Eurobarometer data showing that "seven in 10 Europeans declare they are enthusiastically in favor of the free circulation of people, and believe we should preserve the free circulation of goods and services."

However, the EU needs to make some changes if it is to survive, the minister said.

The current system doesn't allow Europe to fully and successfully enter into the globalization process, he said. The continent is slipping in terms of the ability to develop new technologies.

Europe has been slow to tackle issues such as migration, and Moavero Milanesi cited more Eurobarometer data showing that 50 percent of respondents identify migration as a big issue, another 50 percent focus on economic growth and youth unemployment, and a good 40 percent is concerned with the threat of international terrorism and security, and the possible consequences of climate change.

The minister made several proposals for a stronger, more inclusive Europe: endowing the European Parliament with lawmaking powers, giving the Union powers to issue eurobonds and to levy European taxes on big economic players such as multinationals, giving Europe a common stance on migration, asylum, and border control, and changing the current rule that foreign and defense policy decisions must be unanimous.

"I think we could ask governments to agree among themselves on a pact that foreign policy decisions should be taken on a majority basis," he said. "It's revolutionary but it's feasible."

"Clarity of objectives is essential to maintaining citizen consensus," Moavero Milanesi said. "The architecture of the EU must be simplified and completed, and brought closer to citizens" with the ultimate goal of achieving true federalism, he said.

A NEW EUROPEAN RENAISSANCE

Also on hand was French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who delivered a high-level address on behalf of French President Emmanuel Macron and the French government in which he called for "a new European Renaissance"

"Europe is at a crossroads," said Le Drian. "The real dividing lines between those who wish to stop Europe and those who wish to make it advance will come out into the open (at the upcoming European Parliament elections)."

The French minister went on to list potentially fatal threats to the EU: that of division and what he described as "the ill winds" that fan the flames of populism and are "calling into question the values of the rule of law."

"As we learn our lesson from Brexit, we should consider the increase of populisms in Europe for what it is -- a symptom of a deep malaise over the distance between institutions and citizens, over globalization, which affects our people in full force, over inequalities within and between our societies and yes, the threats of terrorism, the spectre of trade war and the prospect of a climate catastrophe," Le Drian said.

"It is not too late to act, as long as we are aware of these dangers," he said. "The lessons of the British withdrawal should not be a signal of alarm condemning us to repeat past errors and allowing the bonds between us to be broken."

Like his Italian counterpart, Le Drian called for a consolidated border policy, a European asylum bureau, and a return to "the fundamentals of the European project" based on social progress and "a real social shield -- a minimum threshold for protection to the benefit of workers and all European citizens".

EUROPE MUST RETHINK ITSELF

In his conference closing address, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said that "Europe must rethink itself."

"In recent years, Europe has abdicated its fundamental role of representation and failed to intercept the needs, hopes and fears of its citizens," said Conte, who leads a populist-rightwing coalition government.

"It has been perceived as oligarchic and out of touch with the real lives of citizens, while social and economic in-qualities have excluded parts of the population, exacerbating feelings of abandonment and loss, especially in the younger generations," Conte said.

"Europe must urgently take courageous steps to change course from the current path, which has proven to be a failure."

Like Moavero Milanesi, Conte called for giving more powers to the European Parliament as a way to "finally overcome the idea that European policies are being decided by remote bureaucrats in inaccessible places".

Conte went on to call for European salaries and unemployment protections, investments in the circular economy to fight climate change, and a change in EU competition rules in order to allow state aid to ailing national companies.

Taking place ahead of the May 23-26 elections in which European citizens will choose their representatives in the European Parliament, this edition of the State of the Union also featured a debate amongst the lead candidates for the position of President of the European Commission, which was broadcast across the continent.

The event, which kicked off on Thursday, will conclude on Saturday, with an Open Day of cultural, leisure and art activities open to the public.

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