Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the WDR Europa Forum in Berlin

09.05.2007 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Mr Pöttering,
Mr Barroso,
Honourable Members,
Ladies and gentlemen,

What is the idea of Europe? We agree that there is more to it than the day-to-day wrangling about fishing quotas or the liberalization of postal services. Our united Europe is much more than that – otherwise some of the public exasperation it provokes would be inexplicable and we wouldn't have gathered here today for this Europa Forum.

Learning its lesson from two world wars – from our current perspective we could even say European civil wars – Europe has evolved into a continent of freedom and peace, justice and prosperity. That is the really quite incredible success story of European unification since the Treaties of Rome were signed in 1957.

Today we need Europe just as much as we did 50 years ago, if perhaps for different reasons.

Yet the direction and the future tempo of European unification are currently under scrutiny. What kind of Europe do we want? Countries which have been profiting from unification for 50 years will respond very differently from those who have just joined the Union and have been enjoying life in a free nation-state only for a few years.

The British historian Timothy Garton Ash recently bemoaned that “Europe has lost the plot”. He maintains that people in Europe do not know why they have an EU or what it is good for. According to Ash, we urgently need a new narrative.

Timothy Garton Ash may be exaggerating a little, but I believe his conclusions are correct. We need an assurance of who we are and agreement on a common ideal which unites our house of Europe and brings us all together under one roof.

That is why I want to share a core idea which, in my opinion, is an integral component of Europe, and which I believe indicates the direction Europe needs to take towards its common future. I am referring to the common European value of solidarity.

Solidarity between nations played a central role right from the start of European unification. On 9 May 1950, 57 years ago to the day, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Robert Schuman penned in his historic declaration, “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single, general plan. It will be built through concrete achievements, which first create a de facto solidarity.”

This statement is more relevant today than ever before. Europe came into being and will continue to thrive thanks to this very concrete de facto solidarity. That is the reason why we in Europe are gradually developing a common mentality, even though many of us may not be able to explain precisely what it comprises. Solidarity – the conviction that we in Europe are there for one another and that we can depend on one another – is, for me, the key to overcoming the enormous challenges we face in the age of globalization.

Ladies and gentlemen,

None of us are born with a set identity. If Spanish, Portuguese and Irish citizens today regard themselves as Europeans, this is a result of the solidarity that Europe promised to provide. That is a central reason why the opportunities for people in these countries have improved so dramatically over the past decades. Twenty years ago in Andalusia, donkeys still struggled to climb dusty slopes. Nowadays, a whole range of new European, Japanese and American vehicles roll along smooth asphalt roads. Twenty years ago in the Algarve, untreated sewage flowed directly into the sea. Nowadays clean beaches attract throngs of tourists. Twenty years ago in Ireland, young people moved away from their homeland because they had no jobs and no prospects for their lives. European solidarity has now transformed the country into a magnet for employees from all over Europe.

After 1990, it was the people in Eastern Europe who profited from the “de facto solidarity”. After the European idea had reconciled the people of Western Europe, it also helped to overcome permanently the division of the continent. I consider these two achievements together to be the EU's most historically significant success.

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe are catching up with the west of the continent's prosperity in leaps and bounds. Run-down cities are coming back to life and exuding a new charm. In Warsaw, skyscrapers are springing up all over the place. And thanks to the subsidies from Brussels, the EU has even grown quite popular with Polish farmers. If you take a trip to Europe's current Capital of Culture, Sibiu, in Transylvania, you can experience first hand the development potential that even a very young Member State such as Romania has, provided the political leaders make the most of this opportunity.

Incidentally, all this is costing EU citizens less than we might think. Between 2004 and 2006, the “old” EU Member States paid approximately 26 euro per inhabitant to Eastern Europe – that is equivalent to little more than two cinema tickets.

However, solidarity cannot only be measured in export statistics and categories of prosperity. “De facto solidarity” also involves help during times of need. We stand by one another in places where we as Europeans feel threatened. Last summer, when we had to get thousands of Germans out of Lebanon during the war, the French contacted us and took our children, women and men to Cyprus on their ships. In return, we organized temporary accommodation in Beirut and exit routes to Damascus for countless Europeans. At the moment the EU as a whole is working to secure the release of the five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death in Libya. And in recent weeks, the Estonians have sensed that they are not alone in the conflict between little Estonia and big Russia, but that the EU has been mediating in Moscow with the power of 500 million EU citizens behind it and is thus helping to prevent further escalation in bilateral relations.

Several terrorist attacks in Europe have been prevented only because the security forces and intelligence services no longer hold back with the information they have. National borders are now hardly an issue in security policy. We can remember what it was like 15 years ago. At that time, German police officers had to halt at the French border and watch as the bank robber or violent criminal they had been chasing rode off into the sunset.

In recent months the next stage of the process of renewal within the EU has finally acquired new momentum. I hope that this will bring us forward. For example, the European Constitution expressly provides for a duty to render assistance and a solidarity clause in the case of terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

Our next task is to work on a European solution for energy crises. At the spring EU Council we agreed to formulate plans on how, together, we can reduce our vulnerability in the face of energy shortages.

“De facto solidarity” is particularly crucial with respect to the opportunities and challenges of globalization. We are already seeing how upcoming new powers, such as China and India, are increasingly asserting themselves on the world stage. In such an arena, we Europeans can only successfully defend our values and interests by working together, in solidarity. This applies both to our advocacy of human rights and the rule of law, but also of basic social and ecological rights.

If we ask what makes Europe different from, for example, the USA or Asian societies, one aspect soon emerges: Europe stands for the creation of equality of opportunity and participation, as well as solidarity with the weak. It is not just the Common Market that makes our economy so strong. It is rather the alliance between competition and social responsibility that, in our opinion, creates lasting economic and social stability. I know that many people in Europe are afraid they could be among the losers of globalization. And that many of them put the blame for this on the EU in distant Brussels. That's why I call on us all to make it clear that social security and social justice are accorded the same importance in European policies as the Common Market and free competition.

Europe only has a future if we are not prepared to settle for a society in which the weak and poorly qualified are pushed to the margins. Settling for such a society would jeopardize the entire project of European integration. The consequences would be political extremism, a resurgence of the old nation-state mentality and the collapse of our shared values.

I am glad that the discussions on the Services Directive have sparked a broad debate in Europe about the social side of the EU. This debate is difficult, but it was long overdue. Of course there are conflicts of interest between the various EU countries that cannot be conjured away. Nobody can deprive the new Member States of their right to go full steam ahead for growth and progress. Yes, it's true that because of this some jobs moved from Germany to Poland, to Hungary and Romania. And that many workers here in Germany had to forgo their Christmas and holiday bonuses. But this mainly happened before these countries joined the EU in 2004! Now that wages have gone up dramatically in Eastern Europe, too, the first of these companies are returning to Germany. In my opinion, “de facto solidarity” means dealing with such periods of adjustment courageously, as people on both sides of the Iron Curtain had to do following the end of the Cold War. We do not want little islands of prosperity in Europe, but rather the opportunity for each and every one of us to live in freedom and to forge his or her own way to prosperity.

On my travels in other parts of the world I have seen how people and governments are looking with growing curiosity at the path and lifestyle chosen by us Europeans. Indeed, a book on the united Europe, subtitled “The Superpower No-One Talks About”, hit the bestseller lists last year in the USA.

It is precisely the solidarity practised in the EU, both within our societies and between the Member States, that makes us a model in the eyes of many outside our borders. We in Europe are thought of as showing solidarity with the weaker members of society. We are thought of as showing solidarity with future generations, for whom we want to preserve an environment worth living in. We are thought of as showing solidarity in the fight against poverty, starvation and illiteracy in other parts of the world and in working to solve international crises.

The Europe of the future that I envision must understand that the value of solidarity does not end at the borders of the EU. If we take solidarity seriously, we will see that it also implies the assumption of international responsibility. That is why we are, for example, working in the Balkans to help rebuild civil society, why we helped secure democratic presidential elections in the Congo, and why, in spite of all the difficulties, we are still very much active in Afghanistan, be it with soldiers or with large numbers of civilian workers.

Many people in Europe wonder if solidarity will still be possible in an enlarged Union. “De facto solidarity” will only remain possible if we ensure that the EU institutions can function as necessary. At the same time, the EU must be made more democratic and more transparent to the man on the street.

For this reason, the German Government is, as EU Presidency, endeavouring to renew the current treaties. The EU Summit in June will, in this context, be the next test of our mutual solidarity. The European Parliament elections in 2009 must take place in accordance with the rules set out in the new treaties. And I am confident that this can be achieved.

Why do we need the European Constitution, when hardly anybody really knows what's in it? The answer is simple. Because it improves everything we currently dislike about Europe. The Constitution will make the EU more efficient, more transparent and more democratic. It will also help us pursue a common foreign and security policy. And it will make it easier to fight terrorism and crime, and will pave the way for common action in the field of energy policy.

Nevertheless, changes to the draft Constitutional Treaty are inevitable, since we have to produce a document that is acceptable to all 27 Member States. Proposals that involve strengthening subsidiarity have emerged from some national capitals. Subsidiarity means taking political decisions at the lowest possible level. This is a sound principle. Indeed, concerns that the EU is overactive in some areas are something we seek to allay. We should therefore take a good look at these proposals.

People want Europe to work resolutely on the problems that can only be solved in cooperation, such as climate change and energy security.

I would therefore welcome it if climate protection were to be taken on board in a reform of the treaties. I also find the idea of attaching greater weight to solidarity in the field of energy policy a sensible one.

The people also want the EU's social side to have a higher profile. The Constitution contains a number of important improvements. We should seriously consider whether we could agree on objectives that are yet more specific and further-reaching.

The majority of the people in Europe are not against Europe. They want an EU that is efficient and well able to act, which focuses on the essential, an EU that genuinely solves the problems it sets out to address.

This requires “de facto solidarity”, as practised time and again by the founding fathers of the EU. Only if everybody does their bit will we be able to preserve and further develop our European social model. It is not just the people in Europe that expect this of us. People in other parts of the world also need a strong and united Europe that lives up to its responsibilities.

Thank you very much for your attention.

Related content

Top of page