Not 1,000 kilometres from Berlin, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has been raging for 616 days and nights.
And in the Middle East: terrorism of Hamas. The most brutal violence Israel has faced in its history. Civilian casualties in Gaza everyday.
The images that pour in on us day after day through social media, the images that our children are growing up with day after day, are shocking. And quite honestly, they exhaust us.
But we know also that now, of all times, we can’t afford to be exhausted. Right now, we need strength to swim together against these swirling currents of crisis.
For those images don’t show isolated incidents; what we’re seeing are symptoms – symptoms of a world whose order is growing ever more porous; in which authoritarian actors are trying ever more aggressively to stake out their zones of influence – by not only military but also political and economic means; a world whose conflicts extend into our own societies, right into our living rooms; amplified by quick clicks with little place for complexity but plenty for simple headlines or even fake news; a world whose conflicts are exacerbating geopolitical faultlines, putting our partnerships around the world to the test.
These challenges will shape our century.
I want to begin by saying that we, the EU, have attained a massive foreign policy achievement with our united response to Russia’s war of aggression.
It must also be said in all honesty, however, that this unity can’t be taken for granted. It has been tested on every single one of those 616 days. And, in all honesty, we have seen in the last few weeks how we have wrestled over our stances; how we have differed in our perspectives and our roles in respect of important questions regarding the crisis in the Middle East – on details, but on important details; and how it has not always been easy to find common language for all those things. And yes, there are no easy answers to such substantive questions.
That struggle for compromise will always be a part of the European Union. That, of course, will be one topic of the discussions we have here today. But we are surely all aware that we Europeans will only hold our own in this world if we stand together – as a community of half a billion people; as the largest internal common market in the world and as a union for freedom and peace. Only together can we exercise sovereignty – as an EU capable of action in both internal and external relations.
That’s why the major European question of our time is not whether but how we should give the EU more clout – how we, together, make our European Union stronger. That’s why we’re here today.
And that’s why I’m grateful that so many of my esteemed counterparts have come. The consensus within the EU now is that we need to enlarge our EU. That’s the geopolitical consequence of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. But an enlarged EU will only be stronger if we do what we have long hesitated to do, namely revise the way our union functions. After all, if the number of EU members rises by almost a third, our community is going to need a strong structure – from the basement to the roof. This means not only embellishing the façade but reinforcing the edifice itself, so that the structure remains sound for decades to come. And we should be honest on this too: the work will be anything but easy.
Such structural work is less glamorous than coming up with designs for the next skyscraper. As we know, Europe has always grown in waves. And the history of European unification is often told in terms of the major landmarks, from the Schuman Plan to the foundation of the internal market to the major enlargement 20 years ago – as a series of visions and discussions, sometimes very rich in pathos, about the perfect union.
But the European Union, the unification of Europe, has always also been a tale of prosaic work on improvements and compromises and the quest for joint solutions – which don’t reflect everyone’s point of view 100 percent, but with which everyone has to identify. Unity in diversity.
Maybe this is exactly the time for such prosaic work. The good thing is we have all now understood that we need that joint reinforcement. And that’s why we’re here today. Therein, for all its prosaic nature, lies great strength – and a great opportunity.
The heads of state and government agreed at the informal meeting of the European Council in Granada to launch a reform process that will run parallel to the enlargement process. This will involve many separate issues, which we must resolve by hard work. In the EU, each compromise is a skilfully crafted gem. But that’s the very reason why it’s important that we now get started on that process in concrete terms. I’m very grateful to the Spanish Presidency for advancing the reform process with such energetic commitment.
At our conference today, we want to bring together the various perspectives already in place and build on them to work up new ideas. This debate will be taken up again in December, at the European Council. That’s why fresh impetus is so important, since December is just around the corner.
I’d like to underline two guiding principles for that endeavour. Firstly, enlarging our union is a geopolitical necessity, but it’s also a geopolitical opportunity for the EU.
Putin’s Moscow will keep trying to drive an imperialist divide through Europe, intended to separate us not only from Ukraine but also from Moldova, Georgia and the Western Balkans. If Russia can destabilise these countries for the long term, that makes us vulnerable too; it makes us all vulnerable.
We can no longer afford any grey areas in Europe.
But if we support these countries, while the accession process is ongoing, in strengthening their democratic institutions, enhancing their resilience and giving people economic prospects, then we will not only be protecting a geopolitical flank. We’ll also be strengthening our community.
For our neighbours’ future will determine our future too. When all of us EU foreign ministers were in Kyiv together last month, we all felt it: the beating heart of Europe is in Kyiv. The conviction with which people in Kyiv, Kharkiv or Lviv advocate for Europe is tangible everywhere. That’s why we made it clear, speaking as the EU, that we want Ukraine as a member of our European Union. And I’m convinced that the European Council in December will send out the same message.
We know how much that process will demand of the candidate countries. I think we need to take a moment to consider, here in the safety of Berlin, what that means for a country like Ukraine, a country at war: undertaking this reform process in a situation where need is ubiquitous, where the government can’t say every time, “Now we’ll repair the hospital in this village; let’s put out a twentieth invitation to tender,” or “How do we actually organise the procurement of these generators under general competitive conditions?” – because they’re needed tomorrow, not in several years’ time.
Implementing such an extensive reform process at the same time can, as we know, prove a burden for any state. That’s why it’s so important that we assure Ukraine not only that the end of the journey will bring EU membership but also that we will stand by the country on that journey – particularly with structural assistance, funding and materials.
The same goes for Moldova, which until 24 February 2022 was still drawing 100 percent of its gas imports from Russia and is now freeing itself from dependence on Russia in record time.
It also goes for Georgia, where there are still so many people who believe in the road to the EU and where broad sections of civil society express clear support for EU accession. We will not abandon those people either.
And there’s still the accession process with Turkey. Even though that process is de facto on ice, substantial reforms remain the key point here too.
But we know that accession processes don’t progress as a matter of course. It was 20 years ago that, in Thessaloniki, the EU promised the states of the Western Balkans that the door to the EU was open for them if the conditions for entry were fulfilled. Parents whose daughters and sons were born in Tirana or Skopje 20 years ago must have thought, “And when they’re 18 and start university, they’ll do that in our shared European Union.”
And now they’re 18, 19, 20 years old. To this day, the dreams of those parents and their children are not only unfulfilled; they have even – if we’re perfectly honest – caused frustration and sometimes resignation, which is deliberately exploited by others.
But of course, the geopolitical reasons that now speak for the accession of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia also apply, despite the failures of the last 20 years, to the Western Balkans. We should therefore ask ourselves, “How can we shape the accession process so that whole generations don’t spend their lives in the EU’s waiting room again?”
That's why it’s part of my working proposal that we come away from that approach, so that people in those countries aren’t always made to feel, right up until accession, that it’s all or nothing, black or white. That’s the opposite of what our European Union is about. We should therefore enable people, especially young people, to enjoy the benefits of the EU earlier – before their countries become full members.
Here as elsewhere, apparently small or technical-sounding things can sometimes make a big difference – because they have an impact on people’s everyday reality. For example, students from North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey can study in the European Union with Erasmus grants. That makes the attractiveness of the EU already much more tangible in those countries. And that’s exactly what we want to and should expand, opening up more funds and EU programmes to candidate countries – from research funding to the Erasmus programmes, and particularly the practical matters of everyday life, from EU roaming to simplified visa procedures.
And we should think about ways to integrate candidate countries into the EU incrementally. Why don’t we, for instance, already invite countries that have completed individual accession chapters to Brussels to attend the associated Council meetings as observers?
That way, they’ll be in the room when we’re deciding on our shared future, instead of only being invited once a year to listen to the Commission’s progress reports on their country. If we don’t want our neighbourhood to become a grey area, we need to bring these countries – you – to the table now.
It needs to be clear, however – as we discussed in Albania a few weeks ago – that this incremental integration cannot mean cherry-picking. Here too, there are fundamental issues at stake.
The EU will only work if we stand firm on the substance of our community, on our common fundamental values – if we keep our foundations, our bedrock of values, inviolate. The rule of law and democracy will always remain the rock-solid foundations of our union. That is our strength.
That’s why it’s also important that we tie the disbursement of EU funds more strictly to the fulfilment of rule-of-law standards. We’ll also need to talk, in my view, about reforming the Article 7 procedure to enable us to protect our rule of law and our values more effectively.
We currently have the problem that, though we do launch procedures, it takes a long time – sometimes a very long time – before the consequences make themselves felt. We therefore need to take steps promptly if a member state repeatedly violates our common values.
That’s also the clear message to the candidate countries: there will be no rebates or short cuts in the accession process – least of all in connection with the rule of law. Conversely, of course, this also means that, where progress is made, we must visibly and tangibly reward it.
In view of this difficult task, we shouldn’t set the candidate countries any deadlines by which they ought to have implemented the necessary reforms.
But it’s surely clear that we, the EU, should – by which I mean must – think about where we will be standing by the end of this decade.
And that’s my second point: growing larger doesn’t automatically mean growing stronger. We’ll only achieve that with reforms that strengthen our structures, our foundations, within the EU. It’s good that we’ve now started that reform debate – not only at the European Council but also through initiatives like the Franco-German group of experts on the future of the European Union. Here too, many of the questions we are facing are initially technical in nature.
Ultimately, though, all these issues, all these areas needing recalibration, present us with a very substantial decision: where are we prepared to rethink national caveats in order to make the EU as a whole more capable of action?
I want to raise a few questions at this point that we will be discussing in detail later on.
How can we ensure that our institutions will still work when there are nearly a dozen new member states in the EU?
Clearly – as we in this room and almost throughout Europe actually agree – we can’t just let the European Parliament and Commission get bigger and bigger.
But tackling this issue will require bold decisions – from all of us. That might even mean for a country like mine, Germany, to say, “We’re prepared to do without a Commissioner for a while.” And we know, of course, that such a thought is even harder for small states in particular than it is for us.
That’s why we want to make sure it would not entail giving up their say within the Commission. Another model could be that we divide up larger Commission portfolios among two or more member states, so that they could fulfil one brief jointly.
But we should also define responsibilities and powers more clearly. That’s another thing that the current situation, this time of crisis, has spotlit like a burning lens.
Take the field that connects us all as foreign ministers: our Common Foreign and Security Policy. We have the High Representative and a European External Action Service that wields vast expertise, with a network of over 140 representations around the world.
But do we really use that potential in a joined-up way, as Europeans? Shouldn’t we work on better dovetailing the interplay between the EEAS and the Commission?
When we, for example, set up a programme like Global Gateway, an enormous infrastructure programme – and not just an infrastructure programme, in my view, but an incredibly important geopolitical tool – when we set up that programme to expand and thereby intensify our partnerships in Africa, Latin America and Asia, then the decisions on projects for it should be taken with geopolitical considerations in mind.
This means that we can’t have 500 different flagship projects and that we instead need geopolitical focus, to use our strength in the world jointly. For that, we need the expertise of the EEAS with its close connections in our partner countries – and we need the technical know-how and instruments of the Commission with regard to economic portfolios and infrastructure projects.
The key is therefore not in which office or in which DG the project list is drawn up.
The key is that projects should be decided on strategically, geostrategically.
I know it’s a political minefield, but I also want to raise this question. If we don’t venture into the minefield, whom are we leaving to go there instead? And I think we know to whom we would be leaving the field: specifically to those who don’t share our values.
And that’s why we must confront those difficult questions about internal structures. After all, is it really helpful if foreign partners, when such geostrategic issues arise, don’t know whether they should invite the President of the Commission, the President of the Council of the High Representative to discuss their relations with the EU?
So we need to ask ourselves on this point, too, how we can achieve clear external-affairs remits in the EU – namely with one face and one voice.
I’m aware there can be no pithy answers here, as these are questions that go right to the heart of things. But I’m convinced they are questions we ought to confront, for in the end, it will benefit us all.
The same applies in respect of our decision-making processes. We are seeing decisions becoming ever more difficult in areas where the principle of unanimity still holds, because individual states obstruct them, over-using their vetoes – sometimes with no regard to the subject matter or the facts – at the expense of unity.
And it’s simple political mathematics that, in an EU with 36 vetoes, the risk of obstruction will at some point become ungovernable. We should therefore take decisions by qualified majority in more areas – from financial issues to external affairs.
And yes, we have talked about this intensively: that will mean countries being outvoted – including Germany, including each of our countries.
I am aware, following many conversations, that for smaller states with less voting weight than us, this naturally has another level of significance – and that the prospect is therefore more difficult for them than it is for us.
But that’s precisely why we must and should talk about how everyone can not only express their point of view but also be seen.
How do we build a compromise here, too, that alleviates the justified concerns of smaller states?
I believe we are making good progress on this, working in small groups and through expert discussions – such as in our group of friends, in which we and ten other EU countries are working on this instrument to alleviate those concerns and to be capable of swift action and decisions in external affairs as elsewhere.
One of those ideas is for member states afraid of being overruled on their core interests to be given the possibility of raising a yellow card to allow for further negotiation and search for compromise.
And red cards, i.e. vetoes, should only count in a very limited number of exceptional cases.
What we need, in my view, is a change of mindset. Even if member states don’t agree 100 percent with all elements of a decision – as is the case nearly all the time in real life – they should be able to say, “We also benefit from the EU as a whole remaining capable of action.”
In the end, every answer to the question requires a compromise that it will take work to find. And that’s why we’re here today: to tackle that hard task, to think about our next steps.
For candidate countries, there has been a clear reform roadmap for years, with processes, methodologies and reporting obligations.
For the EU-internal reforms, there’s no roadmap yet. We should change that now and develop just such a roadmap for our EU reforms under the Belgian Presidency.
To that end, we should identify specific priorities for the reforms that we want to undertake in the coming years, as for the accession process.
The timeframe could comprise the next legislative term of the European Parliament. The European Parliament should of course be closely involved in that process, alongside the Commission.
We will thus be laying the groundwork that will ready the EU for enlargement, with pragmatic solutions. I am aware that this will be difficult and will take a lot of time and, in an exhausted world, entail further collective exhaustion.
But varied though these different reform issues are, one principle applies to them all: this is not about giving up sovereignty. On the contrary – it’s about making an investment that will ultimately pay off for everyone.
The more each member state invests, the more we will jointly gain. That’s the sovereignty dividend of the European Union.
And looking at the geopolitical situation, that’s exactly what we now need: a sovereign European Union that makes each member state stronger; a union that’s stronger than the sum of its parts; that has its own voice in the new power struggle and can, jointly, defend its citizens’ interests; that guarantees freedom and prosperity in Europe for the generations to come – an EU that, in this geopolitical world, is not just larger but, above all, stronger.