Simone Veil in 1979 (Getty Images)
On 17 July 1979, during the first session of the first directly-elected European Parliament, Simone Veil, the newly-elected President of the European Parliament, delivers a speech which throws the spotlight on the Parliament’s role as the driving force in the quest for European integration. Here you can find some excerpts of her speech (the full speech is available here):
While we cannot forget the substantial achievements of the Assemblies which preceded us, I must now lay full emphasis on the fundamentally new departure that has been made by the European Communities in having their Parliament elected for the first time by direct universal suffrage. For this is the first time in history, a history in which we have so frequently been divided, pitted one against the other, bent on mutual destruction, that the people of Europe have together elected their delegates to a common assembly representing, in this Chamber today, more than 260 million people. Let there be no doubt, these elections form a milestone on the path of Europe, the most important since the signing of the Treaties. It is true that the electoral systems still vary from one Member State to the other — and this was laid down in the Act of 20 September 1976 on the election of representatives to the Assembly by direct universal suffrage — and it will be for us to draw up a uniform electoral system for future elections. This is a task to which, along with you, I shall devote my energies. Whatever our political beliefs, we are all aware that this historic step, the election of the European Parliament by universal suffrage, has been taken at a crucial time for the people of the Community. All its Member States are faced with three great challenges: the challenge of peace, the challenge of freedom and the challenge of prosperity, and it seems clear that they can only be met through the European dimension.
Let us begin with the challenge of peace. In a world where the balance of power has enabled us so far to avoid the suicidal cataclysm of armed conflict between the superpowers, localized wars have, in contrast, proliferated. The period of peace we have enjoyed in Europe has been an exceptional piece of good fortune, but we should none of us underestimate its fragility. Is there any need to stress the novelty of this situation in Europe, whose history is a long chapter of fratricidal and bloody wars? Like its forerunners, our Assembly has, whatever our differences, a fundamental responsibility for maintaining this peace, which is probably the most precious asset in all Europe. The tension prevailing in the world today makes this responsibility an even heavier one, and the legitimacy bestowed on our Assembly by its election by universal suffrage will, let us hope, help us to bear it, and spread this peace of ours to the outside world.
The second basic challenge is that of freedom. The frontiers of totalitarianism have spread so far that the islands of freedom are surrounded by regimes in which force prevails. Our Europe is one such island; let us welcome the fact that Greece, Spain and Portugal, with traditions as old as our own, have joined the ranks of the free countries. The Community will be happy to receive them. Here too, the European dimension should help to strengthen that freedom whose value is too often not realized until it has been lost.
Finally, Europe has to meet the great challenge of prosperity, by which I mean the threat to the living standards of our peoples posed by the basic upheaval which, over the past five years, the oil crisis has both sparked off and revealed in its full dimensions. After experiencing for a generation a rapid and steady rise in living standards without precedent in history, every country in Europe is now faced with a kind of economic warfare which has brought the return of that forgotten plague, unemployment, and jeopardize the rise in living standards. This upheaval is leading to far-reaching change. In our different countries, everyone is fully aware that change is inevitable but at the same time fears it. Everyone expects guarantees, safeguards and reassuring action from the governments and elected representatives, at both national and European level. We all know that these challenges, which are being felt throughout Europe with equal intensity, can only be effectively met through solidarity.
Beside the superpowers, only Europe as a whole is capable of taking the necessary action which is beyond its individual members in isolation. However, in order to take effective action the European Communities must unite and gather strength. The European Parliament, now elected that it is by direct universal suffrage, will in future bear a special responsibility. If the challenges facing Europe are to be met, we need a Europe capable of solidarity, of independence and of cooperation. By a Europe of solidarity I mean solidarity among peoples, regions and individuals. In the relations between our peoples there can be no question of overriding or neglecting the fundamental national interests of each of the Community Member States. However, it is undoubtedly true that, very often, the interests of all are better served by European solutions than by persistent opposition. While no country can consider itself exempt from the discipline and effort now demanded at national level by the new economic constraints, our Assembly must nevertheless continually press for a reduction of existing disparities since a deterioration of the situation would destroy the unity of the Common Market and, with it, the privileged position of some of its members. Social solidarity, in other words the smoothing out of economic and sometimes financial inequalities, is also required if regional disparities are to be reduced. The Community has already taken practical and effective action in this field. It should continue to pursue this policy as a long as the results are in proportion to the expenditure. Policy must also be adapted in order to redress not only the situation, in the traditionally depressed regions, but also that of regions considered up to quite recently as strong and prosperous but now stricken by economic disasters. Finally, and most important of all, solidarity between men must be fostered. Despite the real, and indeed remarkable, progress achieved in this area over the past few decades, much remains to be done. However, at a time when all citizens will undoubtedly be required to accept the fact that the rise in the standard of living must come to a halt or progress more slowly, and also to accept a brake on the growth of social expenditure, the necessary sacrifices will not be made unless there is a genuine reduction in social inequalities.
Simone Veil, 1979