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Students of VERN University,
I guess some of you probably started the New Year with resolutions. Resolutions are like challenges. Either we want to challenge ourselves or we decide to address existing challenges. In any case, many of us perceive the turn of the year as the right time to take stock. We feel the need to see what is on our plate and to roll up our sleeves and get things done.
To some extent, this also applies to the European Union, in particular the notion of a crossroads after the UK’s Brexit vote. You could even say, rather than a new year we have in fact entered a new era. And there is a lot on the EU’s plate: the spread of populism, the return of nationalism, the wake of the financial and economic crisis, the migration issue, security threats inside and military conflicts surrounding the EU.
The European Union is certainly facing a decisive moment if not even an existential crisis in the history of European integration. Yet, never before has it been so crystal clear that a united Europe must be our response to this crisis.
The way we address the current challenges will determine our future. It will determine the future of Europe. When it comes to the road Europe will head along, the bad news is: it could go either way. Nothing is automatic. The good news is: if we understand what lies at the core of the current crisis, we might find the right answers and the courage to do something about it. Let me go into this a little bit more.
I read on your university website that the mission of VERN is not just to teach competences for successful entrepreneurs. Along with such teaching, the vision is to pass on values that are a precondition for socially responsible entrepreneurs who promote the community's well-being. But why am I stressing this?
We live in times where values like the ones your university is promoting – respect for others, openness, responsibility - are vital for our society, and vital for Europe.
This brings me to what I see as the core of the current EU “poly-crisis”. In a number of EU member states, society is deeply divided. Nationalists advocate homogeneous societies and fuel fears of being overrun by people from different ethnic groups, cultures and religions. They fuel fears of losing identity which in turn feeds resentment and prejudice. Populists, on the other hand, fuel the perception of a growing gap between the people and the elite – by the way, the economic as well as the political elite.
As a result, the EU is experiencing something that national politics in many respects are also confronted with: contempt. As our values of non-discrimination, tolerance and solidarity are called into question, the very foundation of our shared house Europe – our model of a pluralist and open society – is eroding.
One thing is especially important to me: we mustn’t allow populists and nationalists to determine our actions. We, whether politicians or citizens – in particular you, as the youth of Europe - must jointly respond in the strongest terms and speak up for our values and beliefs! Let’s not leave the stage to groups who claim to present the majority, but don’t respect fundamental rights such as freedom of opinion or protection of minorities. Let’s not leave the stage to those who reject a model of pluralist and open society based on the values of tolerance and respect for others.
Admittedly, it is not easy to speak up for Europe and be committed at the moment. In a world of fake news, sensationalism and echo chambers of online social communities, demagogues have a field day. In addition to these social trends, Europe is struggling with major political challenges:
The EU is still dealing with the repercussions of the financial and economic crisis. Greece, for example, has been hit hard by the economic crisis and we are seeing the consequences.
The recent Eurobarometer revealed that in Greece a huge majority of 84 percent feels their voice does not count in the EU. Just to put this in context, in Croatia and in Germany, the majority of those questioned said the opposite: they agree that their voice counts in the EU.
Besides, EU member states are struggling to find a common answer to migration based on solidarity and humanity. The EU urgently has to address threats to internal security posed by terrorism. And, we have to assume greater responsibility in our neighbourhood where destabilisation and armed conflicts continue to impact our external security.
When we speak up, our message must be clear: all of these challenges are the very reason why we need Europe more than ever. Only Europe can be our response to cross-border challenges. Let me give you two examples.
Firstly, many people feel that the EU has failed in the migration crisis. I don’t believe that’s true. Although it is true that we still have a lot of work to do among the EU member states. Not every member state is convinced that we need a truly “European” migration policy, a common approach to a shared problem. Again, when it comes down to it, populist blame-game and rearing national egoism comes at a price.
However, important initial steps have been taken. Cooperation on migration policy with countries of origin and transit has become an integral part of European foreign and development policy. And, some progress has been made on strengthening solidarity within the EU. The member states intend to do more to help each other, coordinated by Frontex, in order to regain control over our external borders. One major milestone in this respect is the establishment of a European border and coast guard agency.
The European Council in December has set a clear timeline on achieving consensus on a comprehensive reform of the Common European Asylum System during the current Maltese Presidency. I believe this decision is an important political commitment by all 28 leaders - rather than simply a new year’s resolution.
Here’s another example, why we need Europe more than ever. The EU has been founded on a legacy that weighs heavily to this day: its history of war, nationalism and racism. The EU’s DNA is twisted around the mission to overcome this legacy. And it’s a great success story. The European Union is a unique peace project and remains our ticket to what people long for all over the world: peace, prosperity and freedom.
Looking around the EU’s closer neighbourhood, we see armed conflicts and crises taking place right on our doorstep, as in Ukraine or in Syria. It must be our shared aspiration that the EU peace project is transformed into a European peace project.
We, as part of the European Union, have a special obligation to ensure that peace, stability, freedom and democracy prevail throughout Europe. For that very reason, it’s so important to continue to give the countries of the Western Balkans an EU perspective and not to leave Eastern Europe to its own destiny.
Last but not least, I want to make a very personal plea to you. The best way to counter Europe fatigue is to experience Europe. We have to make sure that as many young people as possible experience Europe first hand, regardless of their parents’ financial means. So, I can only encourage you: go and study abroad and take part in an Erasmus exchange programme. Get to know your fellow Europeans, their languages, their cultures. Play an active part in this great endeavour. Now and in the future, we need Europe. And for Europe to have a bright future, we need you.