Speech by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the 2024 German Banking Congress

22.04.2024 - Speech

-- Check against delivery --

Two weeks ago, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant became the target of a drone attack.

The plant’s shell remained intact. But the exterior of reactor number six was hit. Did you see that in all of the daily newspapers?

I, honestly, did not. Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is located right on the frontline in Ukraine, on the banks of the Dnipro river. It is where Ukrainian defence forces are facing their Russian attackers.

And now, two years after we woke up in a different world on 24 February 2022, we’re seeing that this just isn’t news any more. It is obviously an everyday occurrence in these “turbulent times”. And I think that pretty much says it all about the times we live in, as we go about our work as policymakers, as you make investments, and as we all live in Europe together. Turbulent times. I think you have chosen a very fitting title for your German Banking Congress.

In times when weaponised drones striking a nuclear reactor 1600 kilometres from Berlin hardly make the news, this heading may even be putting it in cautious and diplomatic terms. Because we all live in times when we have apparently almost become used to this perpetual crisis, to living with perpetual risk.

As we all know, for you in the Association of German Banks, risk analysis is at the core of what you do. In the financial sector, you need to constantly react to current developments, and to the greatest extent possible anticipate those that lie ahead. For us in policymaking, and especially in foreign policy, precisely the same holds true in these turbulent times. Because, on 24 February, we all woke up in a different world.

In recent years, Russia has shown us how it can turn dependencies in our energy relations against us, using them as a geopolitical weapon; we’ve also learned that these dependencies were so great that they posed a threat to our entire national economy. That’s something else we’ve nearly forgotten, even though it’s only a little over a year ago that we actually asked ourselves: will we have enough heat to get through the winter? We’ve had to ask ourselves existential questions, because we’d simply hoped that things would be alright.

We need to make sure this does not happen to us again. And that, I am deeply convinced, is our responsibility as politicians in these turbulent times. Moreover – as you’ve just clearly underscored, and for this I am grateful – it is also your responsibility in the economic sector. Because this is our country, it is our society, and it is our Europe.

That is why, and this is the second thing I like about the heading for this event, I think it’s a good thing that you’ve placed an active verb before “turbulent times”, namely “navigating”. And I think this is precisely what makes all the difference these days. Whether we continue to simply trust that we can drift our way through these developments, or whether we actually navigate ourselves. Whether or not we seize the helm and take command. That is in essence what defines those of us who bear responsibility in this country and in Europe – that we have decided to navigate. Because if we didn’t, that would be negligent.

But this also means that we must take a critical and collective look at ourselves, to find out what mistakes we’ve made in the past. For you, it will be because your risk analyses may have cost businesses a lot of money. For us – and I am speaking here for all politicians in general – it will be because wrong decisions and not heeding respective warnings has not only resulted in substantial diplomatic damage and loss of trust – these things I experienced during my initial months in office, especially in the Baltic – but has also posed an enormous threat to our own security.

Making mistakes is perfectly fine – that’s life, so to speak. Otherwise, you would never dare and try out new things. But making the same mistake twice, that would be a different story. It would no longer be a risk, but rather negligent behaviour. That is why our essential response as the Federal Government, and in particular our response as the Federal Foreign Office as lead ministry, was to conduct a critical – yes, self-critical – examination of our own security and to identify our dependencies, especially in the energy sector.

Consequently, de-risking has been the focus of our economic activities during the past one and a half years. I say de-risking, not decoupling. In the sense of economic diversification, and as the focus of not only our Strategy on China, but also of our National Security Strategy.

At the core of both these strategies – and this is something, Mr Sewing, you and I discussed intensively a year ago – lies the question of how in these times when de-risking and diversification to a large extent involves the dovetailing of political decisions with economic activity and especially with investments, how can we bring the worlds of politics and finance closer together in these turbulent times, so that they can work together even better?

So I want to thank you for inviting me here this evening. Working together more closely of course should not take the form of political interventionism or excessive bureaucratic regulation, as it is sometimes described or derided. Rather, it means creating collective awareness and adopting joint responsibility for these tremendous challenges that not only Germany, but also Europe, is facing, as well as taking smart and strategic decisions and action. In short, navigating together. Because we have seen in recent years what has happened when you remain passive and hope for “change through trade”. We drifted along, while others navigated at cross-purposes to us – ultimately, in the most brutal way imaginable.

And I make this very clear because it’s easy to say “we shouldn’t make the same mistake twice”. But I want to very honestly point out that, in recent months, I’ve been a little irritated when we’ve asked ourselves, “what does de-risking actually mean?” And, for example in our policy on China, we then immediately fell back into old patterns of behaviour. Namely, referring to de-risking as decoupling, or simply brushing aside the need to pursue strategic industrial policy.

And I see that we then actually run the risk of making some mistakes twice after all.

We must keep asking ourselves this: We have the world’s third-largest economy – so what does that mean for other actors? I experienced this close up while visiting the Philippines earlier this year. I had not even landed when we learned of a press release that had been issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. What does this mean for a country like the Philippines? They were deeply worried, and one of the topics was laser attacks on Philippine fishing boats. At first, this sounds like a matter of minor importance – a fishing boat. But it is a conscious denial of sovereignty, right on the Philippines’ doorstep.

So we experienced somewhat of a role reversal when, after 24 February, I urgently began phoning around the world, under intense pressure, telling people on the other end of the line that a major attack had been perpetrated not only on Ukraine. I told them that this also affects our peaceful order in Europe; we need you now, we need you to step up during the UN vote, and we need your voice at the General Assembly. We need a majority to take a stand against Russia’s war of aggression. For this, every vote counts, no matter whether a country has only a couple of hundred thousand inhabitants, or millions. We achieved a majority of more than 140 countries. But a few times, I heard my interlocutor say: “Where were you when we were talking about the laser attacks?” “Where were you when we said that we, a Gulf state, are being attacked by the Houthis?”

This, too, is part of not making the same mistake twice: We must not wait until the greatest possible escalation occurs to do everything in our power to prevent things from happening. Rather, we need to pay attention to and take seriously the warnings, especially those given to us by partners who share not only our values, but also our interests – territorial integrity, territorial sovereignty, the freedom of navigation. We must not only hear what our partners have to say, but when the case warrants also support them accordingly.

So, to return to what I was talking about, with our Strategy on China and our National Security Strategy we are currently doing our utmost to point out that it is not only our values, but also our interests, that we are talking about here. There is no contradiction in terms between our values and our interests. Because when international law pertaining to the freedom of navigation no longer applies, then maybe one day it will no longer be possible to travel through the Taiwan Strait. However, every second container ship in the world passes through the Taiwan Strait at least once a year. Two-thirds of Germany’s trade volume with East Asia is transported by sea. If this strait were closed, studies show, Germany’s industrial production would drop by 16%.

That is why it is so important and decisive for us, not only the German Government, but, and that is the invitation I always like to extend especially to you as drivers of the German economy, and its financial economy, to make clear that we simply cannot accept a change to the status quo, a one-sided change, because it affects the protection of international shipping routes and our own security as well.

We are currently experiencing a similar situation with regard to the Houthis and the Red Sea. 98% of Germany’s trade with East Asia travels by ship through the Red Sea. We are witnessing the effects of this here at home. I am from Brandenburg, where Tesla has a production facility. The production lines have been slowed down for two weeks now because the Red Sea has been so intensively targeted. Our ports, too, have been affected: a 25% drop in volume.

What this means is that free global trade, and a free market economy, need rules. They need fair rules, and fair competition. And the state needs the international order.

We, as the state, set the framework conditions for economic activity. Nothing less – but also nothing more. This dictum is and remains important to me. Yet the state cannot, and this is key, diversify on its own. If we want to expand our trade relations with Latin America for security policy reasons, or expand our trade relations in Asia and in Africa, then what also matters, ladies and gentlemen, is if your institutes are able to fund the necessary investments by German companies in order to achieve this diversification – or if they classify such investment to be a risk.

That, too, is why cooperation is so important, because it is of course difficult to assess and classify countries and regions that one is not familiar with. This means that, for us, de-risking and diversification also mean engaging in more discussions with each other about new locations for, and decisions relating to, investment. Because the classification of what investments are risky and which ones are not clearly has an impact on our options for diversifying, and thereby also on our own security.

Since in these turbulent times factors relating to location are also factors relating to security, and because finance-related decisions are of strategic importance for our country, it is essential that we engage in discussions here today. And that we do so within the European framework. Because, although it is true that we are the world’s third-largest economy, our economic power is generated by the shared European internal market.

All we need to do is ask ourselves where we would be today if during the current five-year EU legislative term that is now drawing to a close we had not had the EU. If we had not had collective purchasing of vaccines during the pandemic. If after Russia’s attack on Ukraine or during the natural gas crisis 27 states had made their own national plans. We Germans in particular have needed our European neighbours from the very start.

To me, these years, as turbulent as they have been, also brought out many positives. The EU is capable of action in a crisis. In my view, it was more capable of action than it has been in a long time. We have the largest cross-border internal market in the world, and that is precisely what forms the foundation of our prosperity and our security.

Here, we return to the navigation metaphor – and to an active foreign trade and investment policy. Because this competitiveness of the European Union will of course not appear out of thin air. As for areas we fail to attend to – others will come and fill those gaps. We have quite clearly seen this happen in various sectors. In my opinion, that’s what may happen if we don’t take urgent action, especially on future technologies such as AI, as well as in many other areas.

This is why I believe that especially in these turbulent times, when populists are trying to pit people against each other, including in Europe, we must push for more Europe. For economic, but especially for security policy reasons, we need to enhance Europe’s competitiveness.

Here, too, the glass is actually half full. In Germany alone, some 6600 AI start-ups have already been established. This technology is of the most fundamental strategic importance. It is changing and will change our world – and indeed it has already changed it. The bad news is that more than half of the start-ups in the European Union say they do not receive enough funding here. In the US, venture capital totalling 30 billion dollars is being invested in AI – whereas, in the EU, this figure is not even 4 billion. It must be said that we do possess the necessary capital. However, nearly 300 billion euro of it are invested abroad every year, with most of it going to the US.

So, in Europe, we have the people, we have the know-how, and we have the companies – but we don’t have at our disposal the investment capital, although it is potentially available. So the ultimate question, the one you will continue discussing tomorrow, is: How can we make this all work?

Because these times are so turbulent, I will permit myself, also as Foreign Minister, to briefly mention some keywords that might be helpful for tomorrow’s debate. Our European internal market has obviously not reached its final form, especially since the capital market is still so fragmented. In this regard, we are still 27 small financial state actors, in which companies often have an easier time raising private capital in the United States and, vice versa, in which investors from Europe have an easier time making capital investments in the US. That, too, is rather absurd – when companies leave the EU because they are investing their capital in the US, and then also decide to produce there.

This means that the EU simply cannot live up to its full potential when it comes to funding the most basic investments in our future. Take, for example, our tremendous challenge – and prior to 24 February we would have said the greatest challenge of our time – of funding Europe’s green transition by the year 2050. This is estimated to require 1.5 trillion euro in annual investment. That is three times the Federal Government’s budget. We can’t do that on our own.

So what is supposedly purely a financial market policy issue indeed becomes a fundamental geostrategic one. Only through an actual Capital Markets Union will we as the EU remain on the cutting edge and keep up with the competition in areas that will shape the future, such as the green transition, growing our defensive capabilities – like it or not, this, too, has become part of the agenda – and Artificial Intelligence. That is the only way Europe will remain capable of action in the geopolitical and geostrategic sphere.

To me, this means that, especially in this European election campaign – where some on the far right want to blow up the European Union and others are saying “with public opinion noticeably shifting to the right, let’s stay put and stay quiet” – we must take the helm and navigate. We must make clear what course we want to steer. Passionately and with verve, we must campaign for more Europe, for a stronger and more cohesive single market and, related to this, also for a Capital Markets Union.

To do this, and that will certainly also be discussed here, we must for example make progress on private investment products, making sure they function across borders. And as regards harmonising the supervision of capital markets. The question must be: Who will adapt to whom? We must look at what kind of bureaucracy is needed. Because, without rules, we would also not have a functioning internal market. Of course, excessive regulation that stifles the market must be avoided.

And above all we must take a look at the procedures that regulate corporate bankruptcies, so that these, too, are brought into greater alignment.

These are major challenges. Naturally, 27 member states are prone to having 27 opinions. But if we as Europeans express no opinion at all, then investments will be made in the US or, if we are unlucky, in other regions that are not only our competitors but also our systemic rivals.

This means that if we want to make progress in this regard, we will need more Europe. We need genuine European competitiveness that establishes true security capacity in this day and age. At the same time, what good does the best possible Capital Markets Union in the EU do us if the foundation of the internal market that undergirds the European Union, namely the rule of law, freedom and democracy, is undermined? I am very grateful that you have issued such a clear statement in these turbulent times.

Because, during European elections, those hostile to democracy and to Europe are running for office throughout Europe, and they are consciously counting on online trolls making their influence felt from the outside. They are provided with content from outside, too. Because, as we saw during the last attack, they can send out 100,000 tweets in 1.3 seconds. And they can then portray this as being people’s general sentiment. The only way we can counter this external support for antidemocratic actors is by us democrats standing as one. You mentioned this earlier: in these turbulent times, we as citizens, as a society and as democrats must take a common stand against nationalist, isolationist rhetoric, against right-wing populism, and against those hostile to democracy who want to sow division in our society and in Europe.

Because a free and democratic Europe is the essential foundation for our peace, our prosperity and our security. It is up to all of us to defend and protect this Europe.

In the European elections, and indeed every single day.


Top of page