Dear Manfred, dear Andrej,
Indeed, I will also always remember 1 January of this year when I had the honour and the pleasure to be in Zagreb and to celebrate with you the integration in Schengen and the euro. It was amazing and heartwarming to see the pride of this country to join Schengen and the Eurozone. Croatia is a European success story. And it is your leadership that brought Croatia exactly to that point.
I also want to thank you for the last four years. We have together navigated through manifold crises. It started indeed with a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and then the brutal war that Russia unleashed against Ukraine. At the same time, we have together agreed and worked through one of the most ambitious legislative agendas of the European Union since its beginning. Many thanks for your leadership, clear guidance and orientation, and the good work we have done together. In nine months from now, there will be European elections. So the Study Days are very good to take stock but also to look forward, to take the opportunity to reflect on what we have done in the last four years but also to set the priorities for the future.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has proven that there is a strong need for Europe to adapt to a more dangerous and volatile geostrategic and geopolitical environment. We have stepped up our efforts towards a Defence Union and strengthened our ties with trusted global partners but also with NATO allies. All of this while supporting Ukraine financially as well as with military support and humanitarian aid, with a sum of by now EUR 81 billion. We have seen Russia’s strong blackmail on energy that strained our energy system. But thanks to a very determined and united answer, we have gotten largely rid of our dependency on Russian fossil fuels. Energy prices, that were skyrocketing last year in summer, have come back down to pre-war levels. But we know that they remain structurally high. This is one of the topics we will discuss when we look at competitiveness globally on the international scene. A key solution to that is to engage and to improve the clean technologies. Because this increases our independence, it is good-paying jobs here, it is homegrown energy, it reinforces our competitiveness and strengthens our sovereignty.
Another challenge we must face is irregular migration. The latest events in Lampedusa show the need to fix our asylum and migration system. Thanks also to the EPP, we have made good progress – and I thank you for that, Manfred, and for your leadership – in adopting proposals that are core to the Pact on Migration and Asylum. I strongly urge now the Members States to find agreement on the crisis regulation in the meeting of the Ministers for Home Affairs today. We must now finish the job, we must ensure proper implementation of the Migration and Asylum Pact then in the European Union. We need these common rules. Let me stress this: Our citizens, rightly so, expect that it is Europe that will decide who comes to us and under what circumstances, and not the traffickers and smugglers. As EPP, we know that organised crime – and these are the traffickers and smugglers – must be fought.
Finally, enlargement is indeed – the three of us mentioned it – a topic that is very close to our heart. The past enlargement has been a great success for countries such as Croatia, and a great benefit for the European Union. We must replicate this with the current candidate countries. Of course, it is a merit-based process. But this requires simultaneously structural reforms in the candidate countries and a parallel track of reform on the side of the European Union. It is very important that we explain to our Member States and to our EU citizens that in the new geostrategic environment an enlargement that is merit-based is strengthening us and is necessary and beneficial for us.
So, this is a view on the discussions we will have today. Many thanks again for the invitation, it is good to be back in Croatia. And it is good to be together with our EPP members.