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Ladies and gentlemen,
It is more than a diplomatic visit that brings me today to speak at the American Council on Germany. As I myself benefited considerably from programs such as those the ACG provides for young professionals, it is my pleasure to engage in discussion with you. It was only last year that I participated in an ACG meeting in Berlin!
Germany and the U.S. are close friends. But even we cannot take the transatlantic relationship for granted! The transatlantic partnership has to be filled with life and lived out in practice.
When we think about transatlantic relations, we also have to consider European integration. I am absolutely convinced that we have to address the main challenges at European level if we really want to find sustainable solutions. As this is important and relevant for our transatlantic cooperation, I am happy to speak today about developments in the EU!
Let me focus on three points: First, I will address current challenges within the European Union. Then I would like to turn to Germany’s role in the European Union. Finally, I will take a brief look at the transatlantic dimension of a globalized world from a European perspective.
1. Current challenges
Let us briefly go back in time to the Europe of 2004. The EU had just concluded the negotiations on a constitutional treaty. Ten Eastern European states joined the European Union; Romania and Bulgaria followed in 2007.
Where do we stand now, ten years later?
We have managed to put the EU on a new footing. The Treaty of Lisbon provides a new framework for a Union which now comprises 28 Member States. One key step was the creation of a High Representative as a kind of “Foreign Minister of the EU”.
The integration of the Eastern European countries has been successful. Croatia has joined the EU. The eurozone has also been enlarged. The EU is coping well with a Union which is not only bigger, but also more diverse.„Unity in diversity“ – this formula is truer than ever. And by the way, I think it also fits quite well with the American formula „E pluribus unum“.
In 2014 we had European elections which brought fresh political impetus. For the first time we elected a President of the European Commission on the clear basis of the results of the European elections. A huge success for European democracy!
There are three main challenges.
The first challenge: the EU’s economy and welfare state
With regard to the economy, for a long time the agenda was dominated by the euro crisis. Signs of economic recovery are visible. Many countries have undergone reform processes and are putting much effort into modernization. But high unemployment rates and low investment remain serious problems in a number of countries. Youth unemployment is a tragedy! Particularly worrying is the fact that it leaves young people without any perspective and fuels their skepticism towards the EU and its ability to solve their problems. Europe has to fully overcome its economic and social crisis to be a politically strong partner in our transatlantic friendship. We have to deliver results: for the people in Europe, and also for our partnership.
We are focusing on generating growth and jobs and strengthening social cohesion. One important initiative is the investment plan that the new Commission has launched.
We want to mobilize 315 billion euros of private capital to realize projects with European added value. Take a look at the policy of recent months and you will see that we are pushing forward concrete initiatives for growth and social cohesion. We now need bold and determined action to implement them.
The allegation that we are pursuing a policy of pure austerity is simply false. The European agenda has become the focus for a three‑pronged strategy of budget consolidation, structural reform and growth and investment to raise employment levels – in fact it was also Germany that pushed for this.
But we had to acknowledge that the crisis has revealed structural weaknesses, particularly in the eurozone. We have a common monetary policy for the 19 euro member states, but each of these 19 countries has its own fiscal, economic, labor market and social policy. This is resulting in growing imbalances within the eurozone.
The findings of a recent study conducted by the German Bertelsmann Foundation are quite similar: almost a quarter of people in Europe are affected by poverty and social exclusion. According to this study, we risk a social divide within Europe between the rich northern Member States and the poor south-eastern Member States if we do not implement appropriate measures now.
We do have ambitious common goals, such as an employment rate of 75 percent for both women and men. We also need to ensure unrestricted access to education, child care, social security systems and public infrastructure in the EU. But what is missing is more social and economic convergence in the eurozone – if not in Europe as a whole. The members of the monetary union enjoy such close ties that decisions on matters of tax, economic policy, labor market policy and social policy directly affect all the others. The monetary union has to become a real economic, fiscal and social union. We need more binding cooperation on economic, social and fiscal policy, especially in the eurozone. And I’m not talking about blind harmonization and blind homogenization here.
What we need in the eurozone are, for example, margins for tax rates and minimum quality standards for healthcare, pensions and education.
Just a brief word on Greece: We stand in solidarity with Greece. There are treaties and agreements with Greece that we feel duty‑bound to respect. Germany has always been a reliable partner for Greece, and as partners in the eurozone we want to continue to be so.
The second challenge: foreign policy
In foreign policy, the challenges remain considerable. Little more than one week ago, an overcrowded vessel capsized in the Mediterranean, killing more than 900 refugees. Our priority must be to save lives! Here, we need European answers, for this issue affects all of us, but first and foremost we share a responsibility that derives from humanity and solidarity.
Yet migration is also very closely linked to foreign policy: we have to work to stabilize key transit countries like Libya, and we need to improve living conditions and political stability in the countries of origin and transit. We need both short‑term measures and a medium to long‑term strategy. There are no quick fixes!
The biggest foreign policy challenge is, of course, the crisis in Ukraine and our relations with Russia. The past year has shown that peace on the European continent can still not be taken for granted. The EU has presented a united stance on Russia. We are indeed speaking with a single voice, and while we are aware that we have different experiences and therefore different perceptions, we still stand together. And we are coordinating closely with the United States, for example with regard to our sanctions policy. It is important that we maintain this unity in upholding the principles of territorial integrity and international law.
At the same time, we have to keep communication channels with Russia open and continue to work on our longstanding relations, as Russia remains our neighbor and is also a crucial player on the international stage.
The visibility of our action is as vital as the unity of our action. And the European Union has gained visibility: the nuclear talks with Iran, the fruitful Pristina-Belgrade Dialogue and the process initiated by Foreign Minister Steinmeier and his British counterpart to bring Bosnia closer to the EU, to name just a few areas in which the EU’s profile has been raised.
The third challenge: our European values
This brings me to the third challenge: upholding our values, which we undoubtedly also share with our American friends. Democracy, the rule of law, cultural and religious diversity, protection of minorities and freedom of the press – all these values are our trademarks. The EU is much more than a single market: first and foremost it is a unique community of shared values.
The EU’s response to the Ukraine crisis has been strong because we stand united in defending our common values. On the other hand, the reason why the EU is so attractive for Ukraine and others is because of these very values.
We also need to live up to our fundamental values within the EU, so that we are in a position to demand the same of others. Yet threats to our common values also come from within the EU:
We saw a rise in populist parties in the last European elections. If you ask me, I am not convinced by the tendency of some to latch onto certain bits of populist arguments. There will always be a far‑right or far‑left which is more radical and thus more original. For me what is important is to be a convinced and committed European with a community attitude. We also have to uphold the rule of law in the EU Member States.
I personally fought long and hard to establish a new mechanism to safeguard respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights in the Council of the European Union. From now on we will have regular discussions in which we will take a detailed look at where we stand individually!
2. Germany’s role in the European Union
Germany’s foreign policy has to be embedded in a European strategy. The EU is a team project! Finding a compromise among 28 is the main element. We have to align our positions: this is particularly important for France and Germany: And that is what we do, as it has always been in the interests of the EU as a whole.
But traveling around, I realize that there are also very high expectations of my country. We are the largest Member State, and we are expected to be the decisive player.
For me this is not a contradiction in terms, but rather two sides of the same coin! Negotiations at European level are about finding solutions which are good for everyone in the EU, regardless of size or duration of membership. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in his speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, spoke of Germany as the “Chief Facilitating Officer”, working for common EU solutions. This does not mean putting aside German interests. It simply means that a united EU position is in Germany’s best interest.
3. Europe and the transatlantic partnership
I guess there cannot be a much more helpful picture than that of a bridge when we talk about transatlantic relations. It is also a role we hope Germany can play between the U.S. and Europe. Close transatlantic cooperation is the only option we have as countries which share the same challenges, but also the same values.
The EU is the vehicle through which we as Europeans have to address the challenges of globalization. In the globalized world of the 21st century, even Germany, though apparently so big, can only realize and defend its interests within and through Europe. We’re all pretty small fishes on our own! Our aspiration is to be a global partner. Our task as Germany is to help keep this vehicle running smoothly and to make sure that the European Union remains true to its role as a strong and reliable political and economic transatlantic partner. Its ties with the U.S. amount to more than a sporadic community of interests: Our transatlantic partnership is crucial at global level and is in the interests of both sides.
Here’s a current example of an area in which I’d like to see more courage, as it will certainly be a decisive factor in our partnership. Probably you have heard about the protests in some EU countries.
Not all the criticism leveled at the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, is unjustified, even though some absurd perceptions and myths prevail with regard to the TTIP and the threat it could pose. I believe that transparency and participation are important when dealing with issues which affect peoples’ lives.
But for me, the TTIP offers a unique chance, in a challenging context, to shape globalization and ultimately to improve standards on a global scale. That is why I am convinced that we Europeans should be more confident in conducting these negotiations. Ultimately, though, the TTIP should benefit not only the economy but also workers and consumers. We will have to decide whether this is the case when the results are on the table.
For now, though, I am very much looking forward to our discussion.