European Council
Council of the European Union

Address by President Donald Tusk to the Committee of the Regions

European Council
  • 10/02/2016
  • 16:10
  • Speech
  • 43/16
  • Home Affairs
  • Institutional affairs
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Preben Aamann
European Council President Spokesperson
+32 22815150
+32 476850543

Thank you for the opportunity to be here today. Before discussing the European Council's agenda for the coming weeks, please allow me to share my thoughts on the role regions play in Europe's political life, and my own experiences in this respect.

I am a long-time advocate of regionalism in Europe. Actually, one of my first jobs was as a journalist with the first regional weekly publication in Poland called Pomerania. Together with the Solidarity Movement, my ethnic roots, my hometown of Gdansk, and my region of Kashubia have probably played the most formative role in my life. I am a gdańszczanin, that is an inhabitant of Gdansk, a Kashubian and a Pole.             

Of course, I am also a very proud European. For me, it all goes together in harmony. It is why we love Europe, in fact. It is the chance to share many cultures and have many identities in one place. We need a European politics that reflects this reality. 

I have always believed that strong regions show a strong country. The more a country is just about its capital city, especially in cultural and political life, the less healthy it is. Everything that is bad in European history is usually the result of the urge to centralise and to make everything homogenous. Communism, fascism, nationalism. These were expressions of an ever-present temptation to try to control the world by making everything the same. This is best described by the German word gleischschaltung.

The idea of Europe is much older than Europe's nations. That is why our heritage is as much about Wales, Provence or Lapland or Kashubia - and their diversity - as it is about single nation states. Nationalism means being separate. And separatism, also on the regional level does not lead to better democracy, or greater diversity.  For me, real regionalism is a strong antidote to nationalism and separatism.

When the European community first came into existence in the 1950s and 1960s, empowering the regions once more was a large part of the early thinking of its founders. Europe's regions are more organic than national boundaries. A Europe of the regions would be freer and fairer than a Europe of new fatherlands. Better to have a Europe of one currency and many regions than vice versa.

As you may know, the term 'Europe of the regions' was coined by Denis de Rougemont, the Swiss philosopher of regionalism. De Rougemont was also a great opponent of centralisation, predicting the new European unity would fail utterly if it attempted to build a super-state and a single European nationalism. Instead, De Rougemont believed in 'unity in diversity', the motto of today's European Union. For him, a Europe of the regions was the best way to deliver peace, community, justice and prosperity. And it was the best guarantor of security and order.

Regionalism is practical co-existence, tried and tested already for a very long time. We have much to learn from it. But regionalism only really works in a Europe without internal borders. Borders are between states, not regions. Regions cut across borders and pre-date them. Take Tyrol - an area I know personally very well - which transcends the state borders with villages where three languages are spoken inter-changeably: Ladino, Italian and German.  

I know these are mainly intellectual reflections. But they underline in very real terms why the present crisis of confidence in Schengen is so concerning. It is the reason why, as I have said, we must get the current migratory flows under control before Spring. No-one in Europe wants to see a region as traditional as the Tyrol being artificially broken up by the return of permanent border controls between Italy and Austria. We need a Europe without internal borders so we can keep and cherish connections that transcend national boundaries all over the continent.  This is what we are fighting for.

Preserving Schengen in the worst migratory crisis Europe has ever faced, is unfortunately, only one of several very tough challenges we have to deal with. It is no exaggeration to say that the next six weeks will be key for the future of the European Union. European leaders will meet twice over this period. Also on our agenda is the need to prevent a so-called Brexit, and the job of finding consensus around the table on Britain's future in Europe. I am confident that we can do this. Then we are in the hands of the British people who will, I hope, carefully weigh what is at stake.

At the March European Council, the heads of state and government will be engaged in the practical work to honour commitments reached at COP21 in Paris last December. We will take forward the European semester and address the need to put the current economic recovery on firmer ground at an uncertain time for the global economy. Of course, we will also be meeting under the continued threat of terrorism. Over the coming weeks, we will keep building a stronger security policy for the free movement area by deepening co-operation and information-sharing between national services. Much is already happening on this front.

The role of our cities, local communities and regions will be pivotal in confronting all of these challenges. And not just because you are responsible for the implementation of the majority of European legislation. From the Greek islands to Hamburg, to Calais and Dunkirk, you are also on the frontlines in dealing with the large numbers of asylum seekers still arriving in Europe every day. With the proper support, local communities and civil society organisations can respond more quickly and more effectively in some cases than central governments or international bureaucracies. In the US, for example, it is churches and local communities that do most to resettle refugees, not the federal government.  Migration and asylum is an issue which clearly needs to be mainstreamed, not only in our foreign policy, but also in our debates on regional funding. I welcome the Committee's input on this, including on how we deal with the educational needs of newcomers at local level.

As I mentioned in my video message to the Committee last December, only cities and communities can do the hard work of actually integrating newcomers and you are also on the frontlines when it comes to preventing the radicalisation of vulnerable minorities. Yes, we must defend ourselves against aggressive Islam. But we also must protect Muslims that are ready to respect others. They must respect the identities of others; and others must respect their identity. This is not controversial, complicated or unprecedented. If you read history, Norman Sicily is one excellent example  of different cultures and religions all living together in mutual prosperity. Today we need simple, reasonable, practical co-existence of the kind that has defined European regionalism for over 1,000 years.

If I have a last reflection on the future of Europe to share with you today, it is that we must confront the growing vacuum of power and responsibilities between our different levels of government. For the EU as we know it today to survive, the gap between policy articulation and actual delivery must be closed. Do not pretend that 'Brussels' is a super-power that can solve all major problems alone. That is useless fiction. Do not call for 'a European solution' as a way of escaping political responsibility or avoiding the hard questions. It is dangerous to create the public expectation that the Union has centralised authority over peoples' daily lives. This was never the intention. It is high time to revitalise the roots of Europe by clearly recognising this.

Another way to do that is to look again at the importance of regions as the places where things get done. We need to fully reflect this in how we structure our political conversations and also in how we manage crises. The Committee of the Regions has my promise that the European Council welcomes your input and ideas, also through our territorial dialogue which President Markkula and I agreed to re-start last November.

Your support and creativity will be much needed in designing solutions to Europe's many challenges over the coming months. And with your considerable input, I feel we have a much better chance for success.

I might close by quoting Denis de Rougemont again: "As we learn from the myth of Cadmus, Europe is only to be found in the process of creating it. The true way to define Europe is to build Europe.”

In this spirit, I hope we can try to work together step by step as the European Union faces into a crucial few weeks.

Thank you.