On 8 July, the day after the debate on the review of the Latvian Presidency, which came to a close on 30 June 2015, Xavier Bettel, Luxembourg's Prime Minister, presented the European Parliament with the priorities for Luxembourg's twelfth Presidency of the Council of the EU which it is holding until the end of 2015.
The Prime Minister took the opportunity to affirm Luxembourg's "deep-rooted commitment" to European integration. Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, echoed this view, describing Luxembourg as "one of the pillars of European integration", even going so far as to refer to it as the "incarnation" thereof, particularly in light of its capacity to reach compromises, without which Europe could not progress, as he explained to the press following the parliamentary session.
Xavier Bettel assured the MEPs that "we will do everything in our power to ensure sincere and effective cooperation with the European Parliament, based on pragmatism and good sense", before setting out the following seven priority themes for the Luxembourg Presidency:
- Stimulating investment to boost growth and employment
- Deepening the European Union’s social dimension
- Managing migration, combining freedom, justice and security
- Revitalising the single market by focusing on the digital dimension
- Placing European competitiveness in a global and transparent framework
- Promoting sustainable development
- Strengthening the European Union’s presence on the global stage
Xavier Bettel pointed out that "we are faced with serious challenges"
"The Presidency is no routine matter for Luxembourg", stated the Prime Minister upon addressing the MEPs. "Current conditions are difficult", and this is a "critical time for the Union".
Luxembourg's Prime Minister explained that "we are faced with serious challenges", listing them as: "absence of growth in certain Member States", as well as "unemployment, particularly youth unemployment", which remains "a scourge on society". Addressing the press, Xavier Bettel emphasised the importance of working towards a more socially oriented Europe, and of helping European citizens see that Europe is acting in their interest.
"Knowing the despair of the hundreds of thousands of migrants looking to come to Europe, we must put in place a new migration policy, on both political and moral grounds", added Xavier Bettel, highlighting that it is "no easy task", referring to the point discussed with the MEPs. People who leave their country with nothing more than a plastic bag to carry their belongings in do not do so with a spring in their step; they leave to save their own lives and the lives of their children. "During the European Council meeting held at the end of June, the sensitive nature of these issues became apparent. I am confident that we will reach an understanding between the Member States, European institutions and citizens for fair and proper management of migration, and I also know that each of us will have to make a contribution", Xavier Bettel explained earlier on. At the press conference following the debate, the Prime Minister concluded by expressing the need to explain the concept of solidarity, welcoming "support from most of the political groups" who understand the difficult situation in relation to the questions of society.
"This is also true of challenges in relation to security and sustainable development", added the Luxembourg Prime Minister. When asked about the issue of combating climate change during the debate, Xavier Bettel reiterated his position in light of the upcoming Paris Conference in December. The Prime Minister expressed the view that "We need an ambitious and binding commitment from all parties" and called for an end to environmental dumping. "The Paris Conference is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss", he reiterated to the press.
Bettel emphasised that "the Luxembourg Presidency will work to ensure that the real, direct interest of citizens is part of all European Union policies"and stated that he was "counting on the commitment and determination of the European Parliament". "We must act together - unified and determined", he said to the MEPs. The Prime Minister reminded them that "it falls to us as politicians and representatives of European citizens to show that Europe can bring solutions to the table".
In this context, Xavier Bettel focused on the new inter-institutional agreement on improvements to the regulatory framework which the Luxembourg Presidency will work to complete before the end on the year through negotiations promised to be conducted on a "constructive and pragmatic basis, with European interests at the heart of the process". Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, welcomed the encouraging message and assured the press that he would "work tirelessly" on the agreement.
Schulz also noted that investment and tax policy would be targeted, taking the view that it is "important to make progress" in these areas. Xavier Bettel reiterated to the press that "Luxembourg is keen to make progress on taxation". "This is a priority for Luxembourg as part of general policy with a view to ensuring fair competition at all times", the Prime Minister explained during the plenary session, emphasizing the need to ensure a "level playing field" established at global level.
The evening before, Xavier Bettel participated in the Eurozone Summit convened the day after the Greek referendum on 5 July. The Luxembourg Prime Minister briefly evoked that meeting with the MEPs who were also due to host the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, the same morning. On the subject of the referendum, Xavier Bettel stated that "we have taken note" of the decision of the Greek people and "we must respect it". However, he wished to "give voice to the disappointment felt by the majority of leaders" who met the night before, saying "that they have not received any concrete proposals" from Greece. "We held out our hands, and someone arrived with his hands in his pockets", was how he summarised his disappointment to the press. Xavier Bettel explained that such proposals are expected for 9 July, noting that they will have to be accepted by all. The Prime Minister, emphasizing that "the Luxembourg Presidency is not in favour of a Grexit", expressed hope that a solution could be found in the interests of all. However, he also reminded the press that while he will do whatever is necessary to prevent a Grexit, all parties must take responsibility.
Before concluding, Xavier Bettel also took a moment to comment on the referendum under preparation by the United Kingdom regarding its relationship with the European Union. "We will listen carefully to the British government's proposals, and I am convinced that we will find common grounds for solutions", he reassured an agitated Chamber. "But the 'acquis communautaire' cannot be jeopardised", he cautioned before declaring that he did not doubt that the United Kingdom would remain within the European Union. Xavier Bettel concluded that "the Luxembourg Presidency is ready, for its part, to contribute to achieving this objective" to the applause of many of those present in the Chamber.
The debate in the European Parliament
For Luxembourgish MEP Frank Engel, speaking on behalf of the EPP group, the Luxembourg Presidency is taking place when 'times are hard and there are many challenges ahead'. In his view, there are several important issues - in particular the legislative reform on protection of personal data, the PNR, the Paris Climate Conference and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the United States - which 'are a source of both worry and concern for citizens'. He is of the opinion that progress must also be made with regard to tax justice and the 'European Fund for Strategic Investments' (EFSI), that shoulb be a success because 'Europe is cruelly lacking strategic investment'. All these are priorities in the Programme of the Luxembourg Presidency. 'With regard to the Greek situation and beyond', Frank Engel recalled that Luxembourg has a 'long tradition of moderation and reconciling differing positions'. According to Frank Engel, it is regrettable that Europe has experienced fractures. The MEP hopes that the Luxembourg Presidency will restore a 'more central balance'.
MEP Gianni Pittella, S&D Leader, stated that the Luxembourg Presidency faces a 'huge' task. He believes that it is necessary to reach an agreement with Greece to 'avoid catastrophic consequences for the EU'. He also stressed the willingness of the S&D group to introduce 'a binding mechanism to enhance solidarity between Member States' with regard to distribution of refugees within the EU. In the name of the principle of solidarity, the EU must also fight against social dumping, implement a plan for investment and higher employment, and show solidarity with the rest of the world. Gianni Pittella also called for support for the social economy and to facilitate the transition to a green and circular economy, before expressing the belief of his political party that the Luxembourg Presidency is equipped to meet the significant challenges that lie ahead.
For MEP Mark Demesmaeker, speaking on behalf of the ECR group, the programme of the Luxembourg Presidency is 'ambitious', but will have to face a number of challenges, such as the Greek crisis and migration. 'It will take all of your negotiating skills to reach agreements', he said. For the ECR group, an agreement on the PNR is 'essential' in order to establish a European framework to advance the fight against terrorism. 'In Europe, there is no room for the type of aggression we have seen in Ukraine' he added. Lastly, Mark Demesmaeker stressed the importance of the 'Better Regulation' initiative, the TTIP and the digital single market. He also highlighted the need to reach an international agreement at the Paris Climate Conference.
Luxembourgish MEP Charles Goerens, representing the ALDE group, expressed his satisfaction in finding the priorities of his political party amongst those set out by the Luxembourg Presidency, in particular stimulating growth, implementing a digital single market, the obligation to succeed in the fight against climate change and the Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa. In his view, the Luxembourg Presidency is taking place against a 'different' background because 'fewer people are willing to defend the European project'. 'What we need (...), is a steadfast commitment to preserving its essential features - the ties between nations and between the citizens living in our countries, with the courage and determination to defend our freedoms', he continued. He underlined the need to accept refugees, stating that, 'the European project is based on the uncompromising nature of human dignity' rather than a 'Malthusian approach'.
The Luxembourg Presidency will have to 'deal with all sorts of problems currently facing the people of Europe', explained MEP Neoclis Sylikiotis (GUE/NGL). He believes that Europe must show solidarity and needs a progressive policy for growth, employment and social justice, not 'neoliberal policies favouring strict austerity measures which exacerbate the crisis and impoverish entire populations'. With regard to migration, Neoclis Sylikiotis highlighted the importance of equitable burden-sharing among Member States based on GDP and population size.
For Luxembourgish MEP Claude Turmes, representing the Greens/EFA, the Luxembourg Presidency will take place at a crucial time for Europe. Luxembourg will have to play the role of the mediator in order to build bridges. He is of the opinion that there will be four main priorities over the next six months: climate, refugees, a fair fiscal policy and the Greek situation. Regarding climate, Claude Turmes stressed the need to reach an agreement at the Paris Climate Conference.'If we don't respect its limits, nature will spin out of control as recently demonstrated by the heatwaves in India, Pakistan and Europe', he said.