“We want our children and our country to live in freedom and not in the backyard of a powerful neighbour who dictates to us what we must and must not do.” These were the words used by Georgian lawyers in Tbilisi to explain to me why they’re doing all they can to help their country gain membership of the European Union.
For these women in Georgia, the European Union stands for peace, reconciliation and prosperity. Above all, however, it stands for one thing: freedom. And that’s exactly what I hear in so many talks when I’m on an official trip as Foreign Minister, especially from young people, schoolchildren, as well as journalists and ministers – in the Western Balkans, in Moldova or in Ukraine.
People there want their countries to join the European Union because free elections take place here, because the media can report freely and courts can work independently. And they want this accession because EU member states are free to determine their own future. Because on our own, without strong friends, we would all, each and every one of our countries, be too weak to do that.
The EU is a community of countries and people who want to be free together and can only be strong and free by standing together.
For too long, we in Germany – especially in the western part – were not sufficiently aware of this idea of the European Union as a community of freedom because we took freedom for granted. Time and again at historic moments, however, this idea guided those who built today’s Europe.
José Manuel, the Spanish and Portuguese peoples were drawn to the European Community from the 1970s onwards after they had shaken off the shackles of dictatorship because they wanted to be free.
After the peaceful revolution of 1989 in the GDR and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, people wanted membership of the European Union and NATO because they wanted to be free.
And I would like to remind you that it was people in Central and Eastern Europe who were the first to rise up against dictatorship and tyranny, thus laying the foundation for German reunification and for a free, united Europe.
As I said when I was in our neighbouring country Poland, in Warsaw on 3 October, we should therefore always remember that, of course, the accession of ten Central and Eastern European countries to the EU on 1 May 2004 would have been inconceivable without German reunification on 3 October 1990.
However, 3 October 1990 is inextricably linked to 1 May 2004. For a reunited Germany belongs in a united, free Europe – together with its eastern neighbours. We should think of this when we see the immense appeal that the European Union once more has for millions of people in Europe. We’re again experiencing a historic moment when our generation can resolve to further develop the European Union as our community of freedom.
For we Europeans are facing a turbulent world in which this freedom clearly cannot be taken for granted. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has shattered peace in Europe. Autocratic states are undermining international law and using their economic clout to push through political goals.
Our democracies are under pressure due to cyberattacks, online trolls and disinformation campaigns which can divide entire societies.
All of this shows, unfortunately, that we Europeans have to adapt to sustained systemic rivalry with autocratic powers.
In this endeavour, the European Union guarantees our freedom even today – for our peoples and for our countries.
I’m glad, José Manuel, that the Spanish Presidency of the EU Council is highlighting the very issues which will help us to strengthen the European Union as a community of freedom.
For as long as necessary, we will continue to stand together by the people of Ukraine in their struggle to defend themselves against Russia’s war of aggression. For true peace in Ukraine can only grow out of freedom and not out of subjugation.
We will stand side by side with people in Moldova and in the Western Balkan countries and make it clear to them that we’re serious about their countries’ prospect of EU membership. In all honesty, we have to admit that they have been disappointed by us too often.
At the same time, Spain will use its special expertise to ensure that we strengthen our partnerships beyond Europe – in our southern neighbourhood, in Latin America and, in particular, in the spheres of climate action and the energy transition.
José Manuel, we said again today that if you need support then you can rely on us in the coming months, that we will be there by your side.
I know that José Manuel and I agree on three further points:
First of all, the European Union can only succeed as a community of freedom in the world if it acts together with the United States. European sovereignty and transatlantic partnership are two sides of the same coin.
That is particularly clear in light of the accession to NATO of our partners Finland – and hopefully Sweden soon. Their accession will bolster our shared freedom on both sides of the Atlantic.
Secondly, the European Union can only be effective vis-à-vis a player such as China if it presents a united front to Beijing. Only by working together can we reduce risks and one-sided economic dependencies through de-risking.
Such a concerted European approach to China as a partner, competitor and systemic rival will also form the core of Germany’s new strategy on China, which we’re drafting at present.
Thirdly, José Manuel and I agree that the European Union can only be credible in the world if it also treats freedom at home as a precious asset – each and every day. I therefore want to state very clearly that we will take even more decisive action in future whenever democracy and the rule of law are undermined in our Union.
We can have impassioned debates in the European Union about subsidiarity, directives and regulations, the distribution of competences between Brussels and national capitals.
What is not up for discussion, however, is that free societies are our community’s DNA: the independence of judges, the freedom of journalists and the dignity of each individual.
The European Union unites democracies which are rightly proud of their very different cultures and histories. This diversity makes us strong. And that’s why diversity is part of our daily reality in the European Union.
However, our national and cultural autonomy must not be used to justify undermining the fundamental rights of minorities, the fundamental rights of women or LGBTIQ people.
Every member state must guarantee its citizens these fundamental rights. After all, it’s these rights that make our European Union a community of freedom, also of individual freedom.
Something else is crucial for this community: the realisation that the best way to protect our freedom is to show solidarity with each other. Neither the Commission nor the Court of Justice pose a threat to the sovereignty of the European Union’s member states. Rather, the danger lies in a fragmented Union in which everyone looks out for themselves or their immediate neighbourhood.
To put it plainly, it’s our solidarity with each other which ensures our ability to act – the joint solidarity of all member states in North and South, in West and East.
José Manuel, there are almost 3000 kilometres between Madrid and Tallinn. Nevertheless, your country is standing firmly by its partners in Central and Eastern Europe in the face of the threat posed by Russia – in the EU and in NATO.
It’s precisely this European solidarity which benefits each individual member state. For only with a united European Union will we be strong on a durable basis.
We want to strengthen the unity of the European Union, also by modernising our decision-making processes. Especially in a future European Union with over thirty members, we will have to continue to decide and act quickly and effectively.
That’s why we – the two of us as well as our Foreign Ministries and Governments – are calling for more decisions by qualified majority in our common foreign policy.
We will work with other partners to put forward proposals on how we can make progress on this. Pragmatically, with patience and step by step.
I know it will take some effort to make headway in these very areas. I’ve already discussed this with some of you, especially with those of you posted in countries which are a bit more sceptical.
However, it always takes some effort to move Europe forward.
I also know – and that’s the good thing about this – that we can count on all of you, the heads of our missions in the European Union.
Many of you have many months of hard toil behind you as you worked with your staff to advance projects of this very nature, projects which cost some effort.
I’d therefore like to express my sincere gratitude to you personally – and please pass on my thanks to your staff. We have been able to rely on you at all times in this exceptional year for the European Union, which unfortunately has already lasted more than twelve months, even though that has meant strong headwinds on many occasions.
All of you will have a key role to play if we are to further strengthen the European Union as our community of freedom – as a Union which the lawyers I met in Tbilisi want for their children. A Union in which people are free and states don’t have imperial backyards. Thank you very much.