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Ladies and gentlemen,
It is wonderful to be here at the invitation of the Goethe Institute in Nicosia. This is my first visit to Cyprus after taking office as German Minister for Europe in December 2013. This visit is long overdue!
Let me begin by saying: I am not here just to give a speech and leave afterwards. I am here to learn from you about your country, about your personal experiences, about your views on Europe.
I have been asked to say a few introductory words on “Germany and Cyprus in a changing European Union”. Yes it is true: We are living in times of crises. And crises bring about change. I am sure many of you have personally felt the impact of the economic and social crisis in Cyprus.
Everywhere in Europe we can feel the winds of change approaching from many directions. In many respects, the winds of change feel more like a heavy storm than a slight breeze. These days, whenever you pick up a newspaper or follow tweets online you get the feeling that there are almost too many changes to handle at the same time.
This afternoon I would like to:
- first, have a look at the current crises in our common neighbourhood and how these crises impact Europe,
- second, illustrate how the EU is challenged by factors of change from the inside,
- and third give you examples of how our two countries cooperate in order to react to these forces of change.
Crises in our common neighbourhood
Let me begin with my first point: the crises in our neighbourhood. In 2014, it seems almost impossible to give a speech without making a reference to the troubled European history. These days, we look back to the catastrophes of the 20th century such as the outbreak of the First World War 100 years ago and the German invasion in Poland 75 years ago. Who would have thought a few months ago that in 2014 we are once again confronted with the danger of war in our direct neighbourhood?
In 2014 we also remember the wonderful moments in our history: 10 years ago Cyprus and nine other countries joined the EU. I strongly believe that the accession of the so-called "new" Member States to the EU in 2004 has been a great success for both old and new Member States.
Even if peace has almost become self-evident to us in Europe, we are not living in peaceful times. When we look at the conflict in the Eastern Ukraine, the civil wars in Syria, Libya and Iraq or the “come-back” of the Middle East conflict, we realize that these crises are happening at our very doorstep – for Cyprus this is even more literally true than for Germany. I am well aware that due to its geographic location, Cyprus is more than any other EU member state affected by those conflicts.
Look for example how the Crimean crisis has led to immediate actions regarding the energy supply for some Middle- and East-European countries, where winter is only a few of weeks away. Or take the European sanctions against Russia. I know that you have controversial discussions on the necessity and effectiveness of sanctions in your country. The same is true for Germany.
It is obvious that the sanctions will not only have an impact on Russia but also on our own economies. I am convinced that we have to pay this prize. We can send a strong signal to Moscow only if the EU remains united in this conflict: We will not tolerate Russia’s breaches of international law in Ukraine and we urge Russia to return to the negotiation table.
Another example: Instabilities in many countries of the Middle East and Northern Africa are forcing thousands of refugees away from their homes, into the hands of criminal human traffickers who ignore any standards of security or humanity. Only last week several hundred people drowned off the Libyan and Maltese coasts. The number of people crossing the Mediterranean has reached an all-time high. The consequences are terrible: more victims of drowning than ever before – terrible human tragedies – but also problems arising once the migrants make it safely into our countries.
I know that small countries like Cyprus have only limited means to provide the needed facilities and services for these refugees. Larger southern-European countries like Italy and Greece demand more solidarity from northern countries like Germany, for example by accepting more refugees. Let me reassure you that Germany is willing to take its responsibility in this respect. But you should also know: due to federal structures in Germany, it is mostly the cities and regions that are responsible for housing and caring for the refugees. Therefore, they demand more money from the federal level in order to provide those services. I am saying this to illustrate that also in Germany, every level is affected by such changes from the outside.
Factors of change from inside the EU
Change is not only coming from outside the EU. This brings me to my second point: There are challenges and developments inside the EU that seriously question the fundaments of Europe as a union of solidarity and values. Let me give you a few examples:
Six years after the beginning of the financial and economic crisis, the EU still faces serious challenges to its social and economic condition. Inacceptable high rates of unemployment, especially among Europe’s youth, and unsatisfactory levels of economic growth require strong common action. Cyprus is confronted with these problems as well: Your country is struggling hard to overcome the recession which started in 2012. 19 percent of the total population and 35 percent of the young people in Cyprus are without a job. Finding a solution to this problem must be our top priority!
Our response to the crisis has to be more than just austerity or liberalisation. Instead, we need a comprehensive policy approach: Long-term stability, strengthening social cohesion and promoting growth as well as employment are as important as fiscal discipline. The EU must be politically and economically strong but at the same time socially balanced.
Recently, I visited Finland. I was very impressed by what I saw. The Nordic countries can teach us an important lesson: Reforms do not necessarily result in a crackdown on the social system. We can learn from the Nordics that a strong and competitive economy is compatible with social cohesion.
Let me give you another example: our reaction to the financial crisis. Ireland, Spain and Portugal have gone through serious adjustment programs that combined structural reforms with financial support from the bailout funds.
Greece and Cyprus are still in the middle – to be precise: in the last third – of their respective programs. Cyprus has achieved remarkable progress in the implementation of the adjustment program. It has returned to the international financial markets and improved its international ratings. I am confident that government and parliament will assume their responsibility and continue to push forward all necessary reforms.
We are aware that there is still a long and painful way to go for Cyprus. But Germany is ready to support Cyprus on its reform path.
Reform was necessary and continues to be necessary. But there has to be a clear perspective for the time after the reform program. How can we promote growth and employment in Cyprus? How can we secure a promising future for the young generation? What is the right economic and social model for Cyprus? I am eager to hear your view on this!
I am convinced that there is big potential in tourism, the shipping industry or energy supply. The offshore gas field located at the southern coast of Cyprus is a big opportunity – economically and politically.
During his visit to Berlin in April Foreign Minister Kasoulides spoke about these energy sources as “a new tool for peace and stability” and a “game changer” for Cyprus.
Or take the question when, how, or if at all, the EU enlargement process should go on. Germany continues to support the prospect of EU membership for the countries of the Western Balkans and for Turkey – as soon as they fulfil the accession criteria. At the moment the accession negotiations with Turkey have come to a standstill. One reason for this is that Cyprus is blocking the opening of new negotiating chapters unilaterally.
We could sit here all night long and discuss the role of Turkey under its new President Erdogan.
I do not want to keep quiet with regard to critical developments in Turkey – like corruption, freedom of speech or the independence of the judiciary. Let me be very clear:
The EU is much more than a common market. It is first and foremost a community of values. Therefore, progress with regard to democracy and the rule of law lies at the heart of the accession process. This is why the German government is strongly advocating opening the negotiating chapters 23 and 24 which deal with these questions. I hope that the Cypriot government will agree with us on this issue in the very near future.
In order to reach a compromise, both sides have to make concessions. Turkey has to implement the Ankara Protocol, which would extend the customs union between Turkey and the EU to Cyprus. Seen against this background, the conflict between Cyprus and Turkey is not only a bilateral problem, it also matters to the EU as a whole.
That brings me to another factor of change: Recently the negotiations for a solution of the Cyprus question have been revived under the umbrella of the United Nations.
A united Cyprus within the European Union is certainly possible. There are some good news: Both sides agree that the status quo is inacceptable. Both sides have realized that a settlement would have positive consequences for the Greek and for the Turkish Cypriots. But there are still a lot of stumbling blocks on the path to a settlement of the conflict.
We have to be aware that the window of opportunity for a solution of the Cyprus question will not be open forever. In Germany, we have our own experiences: 25 years ago, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the process of unification only took a few months. This illustrates: Sometimes, politicians have to act with courage and determination to seize a window of opportunity before it is closing again.
Perhaps this year’s 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall can be an inspiration and encouragement for politicians in both parts of Cyprus. The time for a solution is now!
How Cyprus and Germany cooperate in order to react to change
My third and final point: How do Cyprus and Germany cooperate in order to react to the various forces of change I have outlined?
Let me emphasize the importance of good bilateral relations between Germany and Cyprus. The stability, the trust and the shared values in our bilateral relations are crucial in these challenging times. Even controversial decisions about sanctions against Russia are concerted closely between our governments. Yes, finding a compromise among 28 EU member states can be difficult.
But European politics benefits from different views, varying expectations and variable experiences.
On an institutional level, Germany provides concrete expertise to Cyprus in fields such as energy, health or financial institutions.
We want Cyprus to emerge stronger from the crisis than before. Of course, more than institutional cooperation is needed: personal contacts between the governments are important, too. This year, President Anastasiades and Foreign Minister Kasoulides have paid successful visits to Germany. I am confident that more members of the German government will visit Cyprus in the future, taking part in the exchange of ideas and visions. Let me assure you – and this is not a threat: I will come back to Cyprus!
We are talking about profound changes that demand a lot from citizens. We need a strong and active civil society in order for the EU to be successful.
Europe is much more than a technical process for political elites and legal experts – it is a project for society as a whole! This is why I am counting on your support. I know that European policies can seem very technical and complex. However, I am convinced that it is well worth the effort!
Like I said in the beginning: These days, we can feel the winds of change from many directions. It is good to know that Germany and Cyprus are in this storm together. Germany has always thought of itself as an advocate for smaller member states. I am convinced: Small is beautiful! It is not the size of a country that matters in the EU. What really matters are ideas, creativity and a pro-European commitment. In this respect the smaller countries – like Cyprus – have a lot to offer! And they are valuable players in our European team.
And now let us open the floor and invite my fellow members of the German Bundestag, Heinz-Joachim Barchmann and Manuel Sarrazin, to join the discussion. I hope that they will not disagree with everything I have just said!