Austrian National Council President Sobotka and Austrian Federal Council President Appé Welcome Colleagues to the Conference of Speakers of European Union Parliaments at the Vienna Konzerthaus

Austrian Parliament, 8 April 2019

Wolfgang Sobotka advocates an active EU Neighbourhood Policy; Ingo Appé urges greater proximity to citizens and transparency

Vienna (PK) - Around 50 speakers of parliaments from 37 European countries accepted the invitation issued by Austrian National Council President Wolfgang Sobotka and Austrian Federal Council President Ingo Appé to attend this year's Conference of Speakers of European Union Parliaments taking place at the Vienna Konzerthaus, whose agenda is to focus on EU Neighbourhood Policy and the challenges associated with the upcoming European elections. Participants also include parliamentary speakers from Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. “It is important to allow all EU partners to present their views and various perspectives and to discuss shared ideas for paving the way toward the future,” said Mr. Sobotka in the run-up to the conference.

All of the countries of the Western Balkans were invited for the first time as well. “The invitation is intended as a clear signal not only to the entire region, but also to all EU Member States: The future of Southeast Europe lies within the European Union,” stressed Mr. Sobotka.

Wolfgang Sobotka on the integration of the Western Balkans: Europe is not just a promise, but also a mutual obligation

The first day of the conference was devoted to EU Neighbourhood Policy, covering a broad spectrum ranging from the Southern Neighbourhood, Turkey, the Eastern Partnership and Russia to the EU Strategy for the Danube Region and the Western Balkans.

Mr. Sobotka stressed the importance of integrating the countries of the Western Balkans into the EU not only to bolster stability in Europe, but also to shore up democracy and the rule of law in the countries themselves. “There is no stronger incentive for implementing the necessary reforms than the prospect of EU accession,” said Mr. Sobotka. “Only a strong commitment on the part of the EU in the Western Balkans can prevent other actors from exploiting the vacuum,” he warned.

At the same time, Mr. Sobotka made it clear that Europe was not just a promise, but a mutual obligationas well. For the candidate countries, this means that they must attain accession readiness by enacting reforms, as “EU accession light” is not an option. In return, the EU must credibly support their prospects for accession and reward progress.

Mr. Sobotka also sees the integration process as part of the remit of the national parliaments of the EU Member States, as questions of democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights highlight essential aspects in the integration process. Against this backdrop he presented the Austrian Parliament's scholarship programme for employees of the parliamentary administrations of the Western Balkan states and pointed out that there is also support for democracy education initiatives.

Major challenges for EU Neighbourhood Policy

Wolfgang Sobotka also addressed the additional challenges posed by the EU Neighbourhood Policy. Lasting peace in Europe would be impossible without the Russian Federation, Mr. Sobotka noted, however, also leaving no doubt that an easing of EU sanctions could only come about in light of visible progress in the Minsk process. In the conflict with Ukraine, it is incumbent on the EU to act as a mediator, he said, also drawing attention to a variety of espionage and cyber incidents that have strained relations with Russia. “Russia is an important neighbour with whom we must maintain an open dialogue, both at the official and the civil society level,” Mr. Sobotka said.

He also expressed his criticism and concern at the development of the rule of law in Turkey, which he described as an important strategic EU partner, especially with regard to economic cooperation, energy security and security policy, in particular when it comes to combating terrorism.

The Austrian National Council President also underlined the importance of cooperation with Mediterranean countries, recalling the impetus provided by the EU-Africa Forum in Vienna last December initiated by the Austrian EU Presidency. The objective is to establish a partnership with Africa that puts economic development, education and innovation at the forefront. “Only by successfully opening up perspectives to people in Africa on an equal footing will we be able to curb migration pressures over the long term,” he said.

Ingo Appé: Europe must be capable of taking action, crisis-proof, transparent and close to its citizens

In his welcoming address, Austrian Federal Council President Ingo Appé expressed his concern at the loss of confidence in the European project. Regaining this trust will require the EU to demonstrate that it is capable of taking action and is crisis-proof, all while not losing sight of the well-being of its citizens. This is especially true in light of the current challenges, especially as the EU is currently experiencing turbulence, as evidenced by Brexit, climate change, the issue of migration, conflicts in the EU’s neighbourhood and the challenges posed by technological innovations, to cite a few examples.

At the same time it is necessary to bring the EU closer to its citizens by enhancing transparency. Mr. Appé cited his particular attachment to cooperation between national parliaments and EU institutions, but also to a more efficient and active subsidiarity policy. In this context, he called for a greater involvement of regional parliaments in European legislation. “Ongoing formal and informal dialogue between the regions on the one hand and the European Union on the other is indispensable. For local and regional authorities, subsidiarity and the associated co-determination in European legislative and decision-making processes is a fundamental principle for a sustainable Europe,” said Mr. Appé.

He also recognised the importance of the countries and regions above all against the backdrop of the upcoming elections to the European Parliament. “After all, they are the ones who are closest to the citizens, thereby making an indispensable contribution to keeping them informed.”

Mairead McGuinness: European elections not to be taken lightly

First Vice-President of the European Parliament Mairead McGuinness issued an urgent call for European elections to be taken as seriously as elections to national legislative bodies. European elections should not be taken lightly, she said, explicitly calling on national parliaments to become involved in the election process. Above all, it is important to establish rules for social media to prevent manipulation, even if doing so is by no means easy, she urged.

Ms. McGuinness also addressed the fears and the loss of confidence among European citizens and advocated a socially sustainable Single Market and solidarity between Member States. She identified climate policy as a key issue for the future, defining economic prosperity, competition and climate policy as perfectly compatible.

Interparliamentary cooperation across party lines and the active involvement of national parliaments is one of the most essential prerequisites for a strong European Union, she said, summing up the challenges of the EU 28 and the EU 27 by stating, “We need a policy of compromise and not a policy of conflict. Political blockades are in nobody’s interest.”

On the issue of Brexit, Ms. McGuinness said that the main thing to focus on is the orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom and openness to postponing the withdrawal date. Patience is important in the current phase; however, a plan ensuring an orderly Brexit is also necessary, she added. In any case, Ms. McGuinness stressed that the lessons from Brexit had to be learned for the future, remarking critically, “Perhaps we have not communicated and listened enough.”

The Conference of Presidents of the Parliaments of the EU Member States and of the European Parliament (EU-PPK)

The Conference of Speakers of European Union Parliaments was held for the first time in 1963 and has been held annually since 1999 (previously every two years, alternating with the Conference of Presidents of Parliament of the Council of Europe). The country holding the European Council Presidency in the second half of the previous year hosts the conference in the first half of the following year. The 41 parliamentary chambers of the national parliaments of the EU Member States and the European Parliament are represented at the EU Speakers Conference by their speakers. Following the Vienna conference, Finland will take over the Speakers Conference, as it will hold the European Council Presidency from 1 July 2019. (Continuation, Conference of Speakers of European Union Parliaments) jan/keg

PLEASE NOTE: Photos of the conference can be found at Parliament’s website:

Conference of Speakers of the European Union Parliaments