Opening Address by Minister of State Michael Roth at the fourth German-Belgian Conference in the Federal Foreign Office

17.02.2014 - Speech

--- Translation of advance text ---

Distinguished regional premiers from Belgium,
Madam Minister,
Minister of State,
Honoured Members of Parliament,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to welcome you to the fourth German-Belgian Conference, being held today in the Europasaal at the Federal Foreign Office. I am particularly glad to welcome the many guests who have come all the way from Belgium. We’re very pleased to see you here!
We are very much looking forward to welcoming Their Majesties the King and Queen of the Belgians, who have said that they will attend part of this Conference later in the day. My sincere thanks go to the European Movement Germany, which helped organise this event as professionally as ever.

Belgium and Germany have close ties. Many Germans live and work in Belgium – and vice versa. Our border regions are closely interlinked. Tourism, students studying abroad, exchange programmes and, of course, the EU institutions in Brussels all contribute to the close relations between our two countries. But there is a tendency for even good neighbours to know too little about each other. For example, for many Germans, Brussels is primarily the capital of Europe.

But that is only half the truth. Brussels is, of course, also the capital of a multifaceted and pleasant country, which we should remember has produced much more than the Atomium, chocolates and Tintin. We thus have everything to gain from opportunities to talk to each other and learn from each other.

I myself greatly value the open and cordial working relationships I enjoy with my Belgian interlocutors. Their worth was really brought home to me a month ago when I met Foreign Minister Didier Reynders in Brussels. And just last week, I was fortunate enough to meet you, Premier Lambertz, here in Berlin.

In the course of the day, you, the participants at this Conference, will examine the following questions: What kind of Europe would the Belgians and the Germans like to see?

What contributions can Germany and Belgium make to the European project? And above all, how can we, as citizens of federal states, make our experience of federal systems of use to the EU?

The federal structures of our countries – Germany with its Länder, Belgium with its regions and communities and three official languages – give us a special insight into Europe as a place that respects the various national and regional identities and in spite of all the existing differences, ultimately permits joint political action.

Without a doubt, federalism does at times make things somewhat more complicated. Wherever multiple stakeholders in the democratic process are involved in political decisions, democracy takes more time.

Our Belgian friends know that full well. Just think of the time it took them to form a government following the parliamentary elections in 2010. A whole 541 days were needed to form the new six-party coalition. With a twinkle in my eye, I will admit that we in Germany can’t compete with that! The coalition negotiations between the CDU, CSU and the SPD lasted 86 days – the longest such negotiations in German history. And let me tell you – they were hard work. But compared to the marathon negotiations in Belgium in 2010/2011 they were a walk in the park!

In our discussions today on what kind of Europe the Belgians and the Germans would like, we will also have to consider what political level various tasks should be done at in the future – both within our states, and at EU or national level. But of one thing I am convinced: the question is not do we want more or less Europe.

Rather, we should focus on how we can work together to make Europe better. To this end, we don’t have to agree on every little detail at European level. Our goal is a citizen-friendly Europe, in which problems are solved at the level at which they can best be dealt with. The EU should be involved where it can provide genuine additional value for its citizens.

And there is much that Europe can do. Classical nation states are today reaching the limits of their capabilities. Neither the supposedly large Germany nor the somewhat smaller Belgium can master the key challenges of the 21st century on their own. When the task is saving the single currency, regulating the financial markets or protecting the climate, the only route to success is through joint European action! In these key areas we need a strong EU. In other areas, the EU should show more restraint.
President Barroso of the European Commission expressed this idea succinctly in his State of the Union speech in September 2013: “the EU needs to be big on big things and smaller on smaller things”.

Even if this Conference is intended to focus on the future, we should not fail in this anniversary year of 2014 to look back on our shared European history. This year we mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the 75th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland and the 25th anniversary of the peaceful revolution in Central and Eastern Europe. For Germany and Belgium these were important milestones. The First World War left Belgium with deep scars and wounds. Neutral Belgium was ravaged like almost no other country in that war, after German troops suddenly marched onto its territory in August 1914 on their way to France.

The political scientist Herfried Münkler was right when he said in his book on the Great War that the First World War is a compendium of everything that can be done wrong.

And precisely for that reason, we can learn a lot from it. The lesson we draw from two disastrous world wars is that peace is not something to be taken for granted in Europe. The same is true of our basic European values, which have to be nurtured and defended anew each day. The European Union is much more than a single market and a monetary union. The EU is the most successful project for peace and democracy in the world. It was for this that it rightly won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Together we have accomplished much in Europe. As founding members of the EU, Germany and Belgium both know that if we in Europe really want to achieve great things, we will only do so by working together.

The EU should never become a club for the big member states only. For a country’s size is not what really matters in Europe. What matters is the creativity, the strength of the good arguments and ideas, with which a country throws itself into European debates. Sometimes the small countries can be really big, too!

In this respect we have in the past decades always been able to count on Belgium. Paul-Henri Spaak, Leo Tindemans, Herman Van Rompuy and now Elio Di Rupo – Belgian statesmen have always been staunch Europeans.

And we need staunch Europeans who resolutely campaign for a better Europe – a Europe in which solidarity, social cohesion and shared values prevail. In May 2014 we will elect a new EU Parliament, still under the shadow of the ongoing crisis.

It is a crisis with various faces, comprising a debt crisis, a financial market crisis, and a social crisis. Although we’ve already achieved quite a lot through our joint efforts to overcome these wide-ranging problems, much remains to be done. The dramatic crisis of confidence in the EU due to the economic and social upheaval is especially serious. Many citizens no longer see Europe as part of the solution but as part of the problem.

This massive loss of confidence is grist to the mill for eurosceptics and populists. We must not abandon Europe to these forces – for they can only offer crude slogans and no solutions for the pressing problems we face. Making Europe’s added value evident to people remains a major challenge and task for us all. Citizens have to finally regard the EU once more as an organisation which is there to solve problems.

We have to convince the people who have lost faith in Europe’s strengths in the course of the crisis that Europe will not leave them to cope with their concerns and fears on their own.

A better Europe – a Europe of solidarity, social cohesion and shared values – is worth fighting for.

I hope you have some exciting discussions today, and hand over now to Premier Karl-Heinz Lambertz.

Thank you very much.

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