Article by Federal Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle marking the German-Netherlands intergovernmental consultations. Published in the Rheinische Post on 23 May 2013.
European integration is rooted in the understanding that democracy and tolerance, human rights and the rule of law are the keys to coexistence in peace, freedom and prosperity.
Europe has always been more than a common market, more than a single currency. Above all else, Europe is a community of shared culture and values. These shared values are the product of thousands of years of shared history. They are the foundation for the European house.
Today Europe is in rough waters. The sovereign debt crisis has increased the centrifugal forces at work on our continent. Many people have lost confidence in the European project. What is particularly alarming is that in various places even our common values are being questioned.
Trust is born of credibility. And we have to be credible above all in preserving the very essence of Europe. We must not tolerate any erosion of our fundamental values. Only if they remain intact and are protected can Europe continue to be an inspiration and example, only then will we still be able to get young people excited about the idea of Europe. A credible set of values is an indispensable prerequisite for a strong foreign policy too.
Protecting our fundamental values is not just a matter of conviction; the EU needs effective instruments to this end. But it has long been clear that a gap is yawning here. The so called infringement proceedings are often too technical or don’t go far enough.
And conversely, although Article 7 of the EU Treaty does allow for the possibility of bringing out the big guns – suspending voting rights, for example – there are virtually insurmountable political hurdles to actually doing so.
At the initiative of Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Germany, the EU Foreign Ministers held a debate on whether and how more effective and more flexible instruments can be created to protect our fundamental values.
In my view, one element of this should be an early warning system which can be set in motion quickly and which as far as possible is immune to considerations of what might be politically opportune. This could be a task for the European Commission, which as guardian of the Treaties also watches over the fundamental values set forth therein.
If there is a real danger to fundamental values, the Commission should be able to put the matter on the agenda in Brussels. Then a solution would have to be found in a dialogue with the relevant member state.
The Foreign Ministers’ discussion showed that the large majority of member states approve the idea of enhanced protection for our fundamental values and expect some impetus from the Commission. And we were all agreed that no country can be disadvantaged because of its size or geography. An amendment to the EU Treaties is not on the table.
We should not get started without delay on working towards a new mechanism. So it is important for the European Commission to take up the ball and put forward concrete proposals. I hope that will happen very soon. The urgently needed reform should not be overloaded by a debate on amending the Treaty and thus postponed until some distant point in the future.
The way in which we manage to work together to keep our fundamental values intact will be indicative of the level of political maturity and mutual trust in Europe. In my view, this project is the absolute priority.