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Speech by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the 53rd Munich Security Conference

18.02.2017

Ladies and gentlemen,

I think we have known for a long time that German foreign policy is no longer simply about mastering east-west relations. We are in a position, these days, to develop analysis on practically every region of the world. The key question today, however, is this: in a world that we do understand pretty well but in which we have little influence, how can we Germans, we Europeans, enhance our active role in that world? We Germans can only do that within the framework of Europe.

What we must ask ourselves is whether we Europeans – i.e. the European Union – with the structures through which we can act and our understanding of politics, are actually compatible with today’s world.

If we are honest, America is not the only entity to have a tradition of exceptionalism, the policy of a country convinced of its merits and its structure, trying to spread them around the world, in part with instruments which we have not always considered sensible.

No; there is also a European exceptionalism, which also consists of believing that our values are unique in the world while at the same time striving to keep at arms length any conflict that discomposes us.

For some years now, however, we have been reluctantly learning that this is impossible. The streams of refugees coming to us from around the world are one example. They are connected to violent developments in regions of the world that are not part of Europe.

And if we are entirely open and honest with one another in that context, we do have to admit that, in each of these conflicts, we have to some extent been ultimately relying on American leadership to solve the problem somehow in the end. And if we didn’t agree with the outcome, we criticised the Americans for it.

We ourselves have been somewhat distant and reticent about actually getting involved in the world as it has, all around us, grown ever more difficult than we would like. So the question is this: are the structures through which we act and our understanding of politics compatible with a more and more difficult world?

Dyed-in-the-wool Europhiles might find that a provocative question at first glance, given that we are involved in practically all multilateral and international processes: the G20, the United Nations, the WTO, negotiations on protecting the climate.

And yet I am not absolutely convinced that we Europeans are currently in a position to fully realise our potential influence.

That should by no means be read as an accusation. The European Union was not designed to be a global player. It was intended to create peace and prosperity for its members. And it has been successfully fulfilling that remit for decades. But maybe we have given too little consideration to the fact that we are living through a change of world order.

Take the rapid development in Asia, for example. China, with its growing economy and population, is no longer merely a place to sell our exports or produce goods at low prices. We are now trading partners, and we are competitors.

We have not yet completely managed the leap from the old to the new, continually changing world order. That said, we have become significantly closer to the outside world since the Iron Curtain was removed. As I have mentioned, the refugees coming from North Africa, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere are the most topical example.

Let me put it in more definitive terms: we have created a system which has to all intents and purposes eliminated the risk of war in Europe, at least in the European Union.

But we have not yet learned how to deal with the realities of crises and wars outside the European Union, on our external borders.

We in Europe need to quickly learn to see that we are part of a world in which power politics, even pursued by means of war, regrettably still has a place in the political toolbox – and indeed is once again being wielded more than it was. And we need to understand that we will not avoid this sometimes troubled and belligerent world by trying to shut ourselves off.

At the same time, we are facing a major crisis of confidence in Europe. However, we cannot restore confidence by withdrawing into smaller and smaller groupings. Yes, there are already different speeds within Europe, differing levels of integration. This can and will still be the case in future, e.g. in security and defence policy.

Nonetheless, the principle must continue to apply: the European Union is a community based on shared values, shared responsibilities and shared duties. Amputation is not a very acceptable way of dealing with problems here – not least with respect to Greece within the eurozone.

Our objective must be to re-establish a better balance within Europe and make sure that no country in Europe needs to see itself as the loser. That means reviving the culture of responsibility in Europe, perhaps as we saw in Schuman’s day.

How courageous must those people have been who invited Germany, of all countries, back to the European table shortly after the Second World War. I cannot imagine that there was much popular enthusiasm for that move in France, the Benelux countries and Italy. It was probably met with great consternation. But Schuman’s generation nevertheless knew that this was the only way to bring about stability and security in Europe, and they had the courage to stand by their vision and see it through. Compared to the courage they needed, I really don’t think we have any reason to be afraid nowadays. On the contrary, we have many more possible ways of holding Europe together than the founders did. The most important thing is that we mustn’t abandon Europe to those who want to destroy it. We need to talk about what the core of this European project is that we need to protect, cement or even recreate.

For me, a stronger Europe will principally grow out of closer cooperation in the following five areas:

1. Strengthening the joint formulation and conduct of European foreign policy, and then – as a consequence thereof, not a prelude – of common defence and security policy. That at least is how I have always understood the primacy of politics: foreign policy must come before security and defence policy, not the other way around.

2. Jointly protecting Europe’s external borders rather than leaving it to member states alone. This has to become a truly European job. And Germany has in the past been among those who were not prepared to do this and regarded it as a field of national policy.

3. Conducting common internal security policy.

4. Breathing new life into the European Union’s promise of prosperity by investing in competitiveness, research, education and development and the creation of jobs.

5. Developing the internal market into a social market economy that generates not only entrepreneurial freedom and a level playing field for competition but also greater social security and mutual responsibility.

This also applies to our relationship with the UK. I very much regret the British decision in favour of Brexit, but we have to respect it. We should also resist the temptation to deal overly harshly with Britain now – not out of sympathy but for reasons of self-interest. We need Britain as a partner in security policy. And Britain needs us; of that I am sure. 

In relations with the US too, we shouldn’t take offence at and ignore the shifts that were discernible even before President Trump’s election. It was President Obama who declared the US a Pacific nation, with his “pivot to Asia”. This is therefore not a particularly new development. And the idea is guided not only by economic considerations but also – and I address this to our UK friends – by the fact that, in a few years, the majority of US citizens will no longer be of European origin but will have Asian, Latin American or African roots. That is sure to alter the country’s ties to Europe and to Britain.

After 70 years of US leadership, it is not unreasonable for Washington to redefine its role in the world and in relation to Europe. Our job must now be to make sure that does not result in a vacuum and instead develop a strong Europe which is willing to shoulder responsibility.

What we can offer the US is joint formulation of interests, joint setting of priorities – and a shared platform of common values.

That approach does have one precondition, however, which is that both sides need to define their interests and not let ideology determine their foreign policy. Widely though interests may diverge, there are always ways to accommodate them. Ideologies make that impossible. They split the world into “us and them”, and such divisions are ultimately not bridgeable.

Ladies and gentlemen,

What does that mean for us Europeans now? My advice is to stay optimistic, but not unprepared. “Hoping for the best and preparing for the worst,” as they say. But let’s not do it as pessimists. Even if all the various developments in global politics turn out as well as they possibly could, we in Europe are going to have to change. But the good news is that, if we prepare for the worst-case scenario, we will also be better prepared for the best-case scenario. And we won’t be doing that because of the US but because we in Europe need it ourselves. Growing stronger is good for us. We can also assure our European partners, to paraphrase Mario Draghi’s “Whatever it takes” slightly, that

Germany will do all it can to stop Europe splitting up.

This includes listening more in Europe and accepting that others have problems, perspectives and challenges that are not the same as Germany’s.

It includes Germany and the European Union defending and standing by the ideas referred to as Western values – liberty, democracy and mutual responsibility.

It also includes us Europeans assuming more responsibility together. And we are doing so. France and Germany, for instance, will continue talks with Russia and Ukraine this afternoon in order to make progress – in spite of all the difficulties – on the Minsk peace process.

I understand and accept that the US expects Europe to shoulder a greater share of responsibility for security in the world. However, it would be entirely wrong to believe that one could more readily expect this from a Europe disintegrating into its component nation states. Ultimately and in the long term, the “best deals” are reached through rules-based international cooperation.

I want to say a word about military expenditure too. I understand that we have an obligation. But we do have to be a bit careful that we don’t fall back into the times when we thought increased military spending equated to increased security. We have known for a long time that crisis prevention, reconstruction and economic cooperation generate prospects for people and that this can have a much more significant effect than any military expenditure.

It is regrettably true that we do sometimes need to use military means, since you cannot build schools when there are violent criminals and terrorists without first defeating them.

But with all due respect for the 2% goal, one of the European countries that have achieved it is Greece. Using 2% of Greece’s GDP for defence at a time when pensions cannot be paid – we need to think about whether that is a particularly clever idea and whether it is contributing to greater stability in Greece.

So we need to be a little careful not to over-interpret the 2% idea. The broader objective is clear, and nobody is questioning it. But what it means in practice is that Germany would have to spend 25 billion euros more on defence within a few years. And I will add at this point that we have to stay fairly realistic, including during election campaigns, about what politics can promise and what it can actually bring about. I certainly do not know where those tens of billions are supposed to come from, particularly not when tax cuts are being proposed at the same time.

Let’s keep things in proportion and hold the line, and let us not skip blithely into a new spiral of armament. Arms alone cannot guarantee security.

Let me conclude by raising one point which I think we need to keep reiterating both to our American friends and to ourselves in Europe. For all the difficulties this continent has, for all its challenges and arguments, I know of no region in the world where people can live with as much peace, democracy and social security as they can in the European Union.

Europe is the greatest civilising project of the 20th century, and in the 21st century, many people around the world still envy us our problems. They would be glad to have nothing worse to deal with. That uniqueness does, in a way, make us proud to be European.

Thank you very much!

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