Ladies and gentlemen,
But above all, esteemed colleagues,
Just a few weeks ago, I never thought a day would come when I would miss the Federal Foreign Office’s Weltsaal. But now in particular, in the midst of this crisis, I would very much have liked to be able to see trusted faces, not least because an Ambassadors Conference, like diplomacy as a whole, feeds off personal contacts and talks on the margins of the meeting.
And yet our virtual event today and tomorrow is likely to be one of our most important for years to come because the three elements that define an Ambassadors Conference are needed more than ever at times like this. We need to
- define where we stand,
- decide where we are headed
- and reflect on whether we are on track.
On that note, a warm welcome to the Federal Foreign Office’s first-ever digital Ambassadors Conference!
Do we need to get used to a world where nothing will ever be the same again? Or is this crisis merely another seismic shift in our ministry’s chequered 150-year history?
Is the pandemic simply accelerating existing geopolitical, economic and social developments? Or is it a watershed as profound as the other huge turning points in our history during the 20th century, like those of 1919, 1949 and 1989?
At the risk of ruining the suspense, let me tell you straight away that my answer is “yes and yes”.
This crisis entails both a collapse and a new start, both radical change and the heightening of existing trends.
If we want to set the right course for the post-corona world, we need to
- look at the situation very closely,
- produce a nuanced analysis
- and above all, distinguish clearly between the complex reality and the overly simple narratives that turn the much-discussed notion of systemic rivalry into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For example, if we look at the question of who seems to be emerging victorious from the current geopolitical wrangling, most people would bet on China. But is it that simple?
Sure, China sees itself as a country that has weathered the crisis better than anyone else. But if demands for transparency are consistently ignored, how will that affect global trust in China as a leader? And will international firms continue producing “just in time” in China if the causes of a crisis of this kind cannot be verifiably ascertained?
A warped image has also developed as regards the other side of the Atlantic. This image depicts the US as completely overwhelmed, somewhere between a collapsing health system and skyrocketing unemployment figures. At the same time, almost all experts agree that one sector in particular will emerge even stronger from the crisis – the digital sector. And that means a large number of US firms.
And what about Europe? The crisis has also had a detrimental impact on our image. With a view to the closed borders, intellectuals like Ivan Krastev fear a comeback of the nation state. And George Soros believes the EU is already fighting for survival.
I can certainly understand the concern underlying these views, not least when one thinks of which forces have been calling for years for the borders to be closed. And yet I do not share this fatalism about Europe in any way.
When Germany takes on the Presidency of the Council of the European Union on 1 July, it will have a particular responsibility for countering this narrative unambiguously in both word and deed.
After all, the two fundamental principles of European democracy are solidarity and subsidiarity! And both were needed in the crisis.
It was only the resolute action taken by the nation states at the start that paved the way to solidarity on an unprecedented scale, that is, the largest aid package in the history of our continent, a package worth over a billion euro.
And in view of a pandemic that knows no borders, aren’t the virtues that we Europeans have practised for decades, namely the willingness to compromise, pragmatism and international cooperation, what is most needed?
Given the size of the challenges that lie ahead of us, I believe that we could certainly benefit from having greater faith in ourselves and in Europe’s ability to think outside the box.
- In the United Nations, the G7 and the G20, we are experiencing how the confrontation between the US and China is making it extremely difficult to achieve global solutions.
- The collapse of the global economy – the IMF talks of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression – will further curtail scope in foreign, security and development policy.
- Global imbalances will inevitably increase, thus exacerbating existing conflicts and plunging some fragile economies into new, dramatic crises.
Everything we can do in the first, truly global crisis of our century can only be done at European level.
This European imperative demands that all member states, including ours, see European interests as being national interests, and view our national interests through a European lens –and of course that they act accordingly.
During our Presidency of the Council, this will hold all the more true, especially for us.
The public will rightfully judge us on how effectively we manage the crisis. This crisis management ranges from talks on a forward-looking programme for rebuilding the economy and our efforts to make a vaccine available on a global scale to re-establishing the single market and freedom of travel. For we can be certain of one thing – the European Union would be eviscerated without cross-border exchange.
That is why I have held innumerable talks with my European colleagues in recent days on a coordinated end to border controls and quarantine regulations.
And I am confident that we will be able to make trips within Europe possible again under clear conditions before the start of our Presidency. From mid-June on, we also want to change the global travel warning into detailed travel advice, provided that the infection rate permits this. We want to do this as a step out of the crisis and to show support for a united Europe.
As if all this weren’t already enough for one Presidency, we will need more than mere crisis management, as the crisis has thrown old weaknesses into sharp relief.
I want to mention just one example here, namely European sovereignty.
We urgently need to reduce our dependencies in strategically important sectors such as healthcare, energy, IT, food, logistics, raw materials and rare earths. When it comes to public health and safety, the EU must be able to guarantee a secure supply.
This does not mean turning our backs on free trade.
But we need to re-calibrate balance between the international division of labour and the risks of strategic dependencies. And I want Germany and Europe to be in the vanguard here.
All this naturally also involves safeguarding Europe’s influence in a post-corona world. Josep Borrell and I have often discussed how we in Europe can take a more united stance towards China or finally broaden our minimum consensus on our policy on Russia. We want to take steps towards this during our Presidency.
Furthermore, the limited capacities in Brussels and European capitals mean that this “corona presidency” will need to be determined by one thing above all – strategic priority setting.
We need an agreement on our relations with the country that will be our most important future neighbour outside the EU. Anything else would be a risky journey into the unknown for the UK and the EU.
And beyond that, preserving stability in our neighbourhood is a key aim of our Presidency. That is why we will help the Western Balkan and Eastern Partnership countries in particular, but also our neighbouring continent of Africa, to overcome the crisis.
In addition to all that – and this crisis leaves no doubt about this either – Europe will have to be the engine for global multilateral solutions.
At the international level, and not least thanks to the Alliance for Multilateralism, we have been able to ensure that a future vaccine will be a global public good. And we are also making use of the “European spring” in the Security Council, that is, the consecutive Estonian, French and German presidencies, to lend greater weight to European views on the international stage in areas where this is particularly important, namely as regards the impact of major health risks on security.
But let us also use our meeting to think beyond the domain of health. What the COVID pandemic is today could be a devastating cyberattack tomorrow, or a major ecological disaster or even a conflict with new high-tech weapons. The corona crisis shows how quickly such scenarios can become reality.
That is why we have been working for years on clear international rules. This is often akin to tilting at windmills. However, if we Europeans do no lead the fight for multilateralism in the 21st century, then nor will anyone else.
We should make use of the fact that this crisis is also making people think in some other capitals. At a time of drastically decreasing budget scope, arms control, for example, is likely to become of greater interest to Moscow, Beijing and Washington.
The crisis has accelerated digital transformation. Shouldn’t this also give rise to digital diplomacy where we work as equal partners with international tech firms to identify solutions for the future?
That is why we want to set up a digital diplomacy network during our Presidency.
And we will also make the Federal Foreign Office more flexible and better equipped for digital transformation. Remote working is essential in times of crisis, and indeed not only then. All of us experienced that particularly intensively in the past weeks. We thus decided this week that over the next three years, we will enable all our staff, both in Berlin and abroad, to work remotely.
However, I am very aware that in taking this step, we are merely doing something we should have done a long time ago.
I am thus extremely grateful for your hard work in our Embassies and Consulates in recent weeks.
Above all, I would like to thank you and your teams for helping over 240,000 people to return to Germany, not least because all the things I called for at the start of my speech today – looking at the situation very closely and producing a nuanced analysis – never went away. They also needed to be done.
Now in particular, when it is not possible to travel, our missions’ “feel” for a situation is more important than ever before. In recent days, and in a very different way, I experienced once again how well this works. And at the same time, you are needed more than ever as a “window to Germany and Europe” – Thank you very much for this!
Josep, you will be able to make use of this network in the coming six months of our Presidency. And even after that, Germany and its diplomats will always be part of what you call “Team Europe”.
At the start of my speech, I mentioned the turning points that determined the course of history for our ministry, our country and Europe. Although they were very different, they all had one thing in common. They showed us all that international cooperation is absolutely vital.
We cannot yet say with certainty whether this view will ultimately prove victorious in the current crisis.
But “Team Europe” should do everything it can to make it happen.