Speech by His Majesty the King on the occasion of his visit to the European Parliament, Brussels

Mr President, Members of the European Parliament,

It is a very special experience for me to be visiting you during the Netherlands’ Presidency of the Council of the European Union. You represent the citizens of the Union at European level. You represent not only their needs and expectations, but also their concerns and fears. Not only their ideals and hopes, but also their anger and disillusionment. All the views that galvanise the European electorate converge here in Brussels, where they can be voiced and heard.                                                                                      

You have an important task. A difficult task, too – especially now. A chill wind is blowing in Europe. Much of what we Europeans hold dear is under pressure.

Two months ago, this city – including this very neighbourhood – was hit by extremist attacks which killed 32 people of many nationalities. Today our thoughts are with their loved ones, whose lives will be forever altered by pain and grief. Our thoughts are also with those who were injured in the attacks and are doing their best to put their lives back together.

The attacks struck at the very heart of Brussels – the city where the nations of Europe come together. Just as attacks struck Paris last year, and have struck so many countries around us, in cities like Ankara, Aleppo, Beirut, Baghdad, Sousse and Lahore.

Violence and oppression dominate the lives of millions of people in the regions surrounding Europe. Whole societies have been torn apart. Many desperate people feel they have no other option than to flee. The crisis is placing a heavy burden on the countries receiving the biggest influx of refugees: Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and several African countries. The EU member states are also feeling the effects of the refugee crisis; some more than others. As a result, the absorption capacity of our societies and the solidarity within our Union are being put to the test.

People have a basic need for shelter. For a place they can feel at home. As the German philosopher Rüdiger Safranski observed, ‘We can communicate and travel globally, but we cannot live globally. We can only live here or there.’

It is important that we stay mindful of this very human attachment to a specific place in the world. For many Europeans, their own country provides an essential bedrock, with history, traditions and customs they consider their own.

That certainly applies to the 17 million inhabitants of the European part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The Dutch love their country and are proud of the legacy left by Erasmus, Grotius, Spinoza, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Cornelis Lely and Johan Cruyff.

But despite the attachment and love we feel for our own country, we must never forget all that we have gained from the wider European civilisation and the peoples and cultures around us. Including important norms and values.

The Greeks planted the seeds of the democratic polity we cherish today. The Italians gave us the Renaissance, a shining source of cultural and scientific innovation. It was a French immigrant, Christophe Plantin, who in the late 16th century published the first dictionaries of the Dutch language. German and French thinkers such as Leibniz and Voltaire laid the foundations for the Enlightenment. And in the final years of the Second World War, our British and Polish allies fought for Dutch freedom, at great personal cost.

Great things are rarely achieved at purely national level. The deeper we dig, the more we see how interwoven the roots of our countries and cultures are. You can fence off territory, but not culture. Europe represents an ideal of civilisation: one of personal freedom, human dignity, equality and solidarity.

My mother, Queen Beatrix, addressed this assembly in 1984 and in 2004. On the latter occasion she recalled the high expectations that many young people had of Europe in the early 1960s. ‘What started with such prosaic building blocks as coal and steel grew to become a movement that would break down the dividing lines in Europe, keep the peace and give our continent new resilience and energy,’ she said.

I was born in 1967, and for my generation 1989 was a defining moment. Those dividing lines between Eastern and Western Europe, which had seemed so unassailable, rocked on their foundations and fell. The end of the Cold War was the start of a new era. The people of Europe were free to forge new ties. It became clear that the countries of Europe have a common responsibility.

Gradually we realised something else, too: in the space of a few generations, Europe’s position in the world has changed. We can no longer assume that our way of thinking will set the tone. We are no longer the centre of the world, economically, geopolitically or culturally. The values we consider universal are not self-evident everywhere, and in many places are under threat. It’s vital that we work together, precisely because we believe in those values and in our shared tradition. It is no longer the past that compels us to unite, but the future.

At this difficult time we need to ask ourselves: what kind of Europe do we stand for? What do we still dare to feel proud of?

We tend to focus on the problems, the shortcomings and the concerns. But those concerns – as serious and justified as they are – must be seen against the backdrop of all we have achieved thanks to European cooperation.

It’s all too easy to take peace for granted. Since the Schuman Declaration, no member state has fired a single shot at another member state. In our Union, power is now anchored in law. I belong to the first generation of Europeans in history to enjoy this good fortune, and I hope future generations will enjoy it too.

Embracing European integration meant jointly anchoring free and open societies in a common legal order. Five hundred million Europeans are now joined in a Union of shared values.

Fulfilling and upholding those values has always involved a great deal of discussion and emotion. Feelings can run high, including in this Parliament. Translating abstract values into concrete legislation, rules and plans requires vigorous debate. There can be major disagreements, which are sometimes viewed as proof of Europe’s weakness. But they are proof of Europe’s strength. Critical reflection, freedom of expression, open debate and democratic scrutiny are part of Europe. Only in dictatorships is there no public debate.

Why is it important that we continue to work together? We answer that question ourselves every day. With almost every new challenge comes the call for stronger cooperation. Managing the flow of refugees. Combating human trafficking, terrorism and crime. Improving our energy supplies. Managing climate change. Fostering economic growth and creating jobs for the 22 million Europeans who are out of work. And let’s not forget: strengthening our position as a moral beacon, shining in places where freedom is under threat. In all these challenges we need each other. As Erasmus wrote 500 years ago, ‘There is nothing easier than conquering the divided.’

Europe, in all its diversity, is one. Every country’s contribution is essential. The European bouquet is not complete without the Spanish carnation, the French fleur-de-lys, the Greek acanthus, the Danish marguerite, the German cornflower, the Austrian edelweiss, the Croatian iris and the Dutch and Hungarian tulips. Nor is it complete without the English rose.

The European Union can hold its head up high. But that does not absolve us of our duty to be open to criticism and to be critical of our own performance.

Often we tackle pressing common issues only once the urgency has become so great that there is no alternative. It happened with the banking crisis. It happened recently with the humanitarian crisis that resulted from the flow of refugees from Syria and other conflict zones. Anticipating problems is not Europe’s strongest suit. After all, Europe can only move as fast as its member states. So the interaction between the Union and its member states, and between, say, this parliament and the national parliaments, on new challenges and problems on the horizon is more important than ever. At the same time, this also places demands on the way the EU functions.

The same applies to bolstering our economy. Our young people are our future capital. Are we doing enough to offer them good prospects? The untapped potential of our single market is estimated at one-and-a-quarter trillion euros. Sixty years after the founding of the common market, that should give us food for thought.

Offering economic and social prospects for all is essential. That challenge involves much more than simply pursuing growth via the single market. After all, our common legal order is also a social order. It’s about providing equal opportunities too.

The right to study, to work, to do business, and to use public services in another member state is a major achievement. But we must never forget about the prospects of those who choose to stay at home. What they experience isn’t so much extra opportunities as extra competition. For some, Europe means getting the chance to spread your wings. For others, it means stepping aside and watching others move ahead.

The concern many people feel about Europe’s impact on them meshes easily with discontent with the way the EU is governed. Some see Brussels less as an ally and more as a meddler or bogeyman.

For a long time, we have worked to preserve an ideal image of Europe. An image of a steadily advancing European project. But, as with building a stable bridge, it’s always crucial to take account of physical laws like tension and torsion, and of the need for solid foundations. Otherwise it will eventually reach breaking point.

The need to strengthen the Union’s support structure is recognised within the European institutions, including the European Parliament. The answer lies not in creating more rules, but in making sure the rules we have work better. Concentrating on essential issues which truly require a common approach. Ensuring that decisions are made as close to the people as possible.

This will not only enhance the EU’s effectiveness, but will also address people’s concern that they are ceding control of events and losing their cultural identity.

The member states’ citizens will only feel like European citizens if they feel at home in their own country, town and neighbourhood. Europe starts at the kitchen table. A proud European is also – and must also be – a proud Finn, Pole, French citizen, Portuguese, Bulgarian, Briton, Greek, German or Dutch national.

No political order can flourish without a close bond with its people. The EU must not be an elitist project. Every citizen of every member state must feel at home in the Union. After all, it belongs to all of us. The professor, the truck driver, the small businessperson, the jobseeker, the retired factory worker. The refugee with a residence permit. And the school leaver.

Every year, one out of every three Europeans visits another European country. This means that two out of three do not. The European Union needs to speak to them all. To those who wish to travel further afield and those who prefer to stay at home.

As the EU’s directly elected institution, the European Parliament has a special responsibility in this regard. Not only towards your voters, but also towards the many who only voice their opinion in national elections. The results of national elections and referendums can complicate life for the EU – as my own country has shown. But Europe’s story can only be written together. It can only move forward if the elected and the electorate listen to each other, at both EU and national level.

For sixty years European cooperation has been our bridge to the future. At first that bridge was narrow, but over the years we’ve broadened its base, and our needs and ambitions have grown. It is up to us to ensure that the bridge can continue to support us. And that depends on whether we succeed in maintaining the strength of its structure and of the rivets that hold it together.

You have an essential role in this regard, as representatives of Europe’s citizens in all their diversity. But however great that diversity and however great our differences, there is still more – much more – that unites us.

I wish you every success in your important work.

Thank you.