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Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for inviting me to the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. This is my first official trip to Finland since being appointed Minister of State for Europe in December 2013. But my interest for Finland goes back much further. To give you one example: some years ago German society was deeply troubled by the findings of the first Pisa study about our state school system. One delegation after another travelled to Finland to see why you were performing much better than we were.
In 2002 the biggest German news magazine "Der Spiegel" ran the headline: "Learning from the Finnish people means learning to win."
It turned out to be as simple as this: the Finnish school system provides high-quality education for everybody. It ensures equal life opportunities for young people, regardless of family background or financial means. According to the most recent Pisa study, published two weeks ago, Finnish students are also much better at solving practical problems like changing a light bulb or buying a metro ticket than their counterparts from other countries.
Before joining this seminar, I had the chance to have a closer look at a project run by the City of Helsinki that helps previously unemployed young people to improve their skills so that they can successfully complete their education and find a job they like. I was impressed by the dedication of the students and their instructors.
And also by the generous support that the City of Helsinki lent to this project, such as state-of-the-art computers for the participants of the media workshop we visited.
It is also thanks to the Finnish initiative that the fight against youth unemployment was finally put at the top of the European agenda. Together with Austria, Finland was a frontrunner in introducing a youth guarantee scheme to avoid leaving anyone behind. Eventually the EU agreed on a youth initiative, including a youth guarantee. The EU cannot afford to lose a whole generation.
Tackling youth unemployment is a top priority. We must not relax our efforts in this area. But of course there are some other issues we have to resolve.
I would like to share with you my views on Europe and consider what we could do together to make Europe even better by examining three questions:
- Have we learned the right lessons from the crisis, and how can Europe emerge stronger from the crisis?
- What impact does the crisis in Ukraine have on our common foreign and security policy?
- How can Finland and Germany work hand in hand to build a better Europe?
I. Have we learned the right lessons from the crisis, and how can Europe emerge stronger from the crisis?
The EU is gradually recovering from the most severe financial and economic crisis it has experienced so far. We have stood together and our common efforts are finally bearing fruit. The economy is slowly recovering, but the labour markets are not. Unemployment is still unacceptably high in many states. We have to bear in mind that the crisis is not over yet. Much remains to be done. We have to continue down the path of structural reform in Europe. A long and bumpy road still lies ahead of us.
Important steps to strengthen the Economic and Monetary Union have been taken. We have established the European Stability Mechanism. We have adopted an ambitious pact for growth and employment. We have agreed on a fiscal compact.
We have successfully reached a compromise on the banking union, that has been approved by the European Parliament yesterday. Substantial progress has been achieved on making economic coordination in the eurozone more binding.
But our response to the crisis has to be more than just austerity measures or the liberalisation of markets. Instead, we need a comprehensive policy approach: achieving long-term stability, strengthening social cohesion and promoting growth and employment is as important as fiscal discipline. We need a European Union that is politically and economically strong, but at the same time also socially well balanced.
We need to cooperate more closely in the field of labour market policy, taxation and social protection. If we are serious about taking countermeasures early on in an emerging crisis in future, we need to look at more than just fiscal indicators. We also need to analyse employment rates and public investment in education systems.
Another area in which our coordination should be more binding is the Europe 2020 strategy. By 2020 EU member states should achieve an employment rate of 75 percent for both women and men. This strategy allows us, in a broader sense, to focus on labour markets, youth unemployment, pension schemes and public health systems – always taking account of the economic capabilities of each member state. The mid-term review of the Europe 2020 strategy is due in 2015. This could be just the right moment to take a fresh look at the results of our social policies and to see if and where there is further room for improvement.
In these terms, Finland has a lot to offer. During difficult economic times in your own country, you have demonstrated an eagerness for reform instead of turning a blind eye to the underlying problems. You have launched significant measures at the national level to re-balance the state budget, revive the economy and make it fit for the future. But you have also been aware that reform cannot mean a crack-down on the social system.
You have made smart investments in areas that really pave the way for the next generation, investments that are likely to pay off in the future. These are investments in schools and universities, research and development, environmentally friendly technologies, alternative energy production, IT and life sciences, to mention just a few. Investing in people means investing in the future. That is because their knowledge and their skills are the key factors for a prosperous and successful Europe in a globalised world.
A clear message has to be sent to Europe’s citizens: the EU is indeed not part of the problem, but part of the solution for our common challenges. The Union is capable of fostering social cohesion and solidarity instead of tearing societies apart.
Let us be optimistic: Every crisis has been a catalyst for reform and the EU as a political project has emerged stronger from each crisis.
II. What impact does the crisis in Ukraine have on our common foreign and security policy?
The ongoing crisis in and around Ukraine is one of the most pressing issues on the international agenda. The international order has been severely shaken by Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Russia’s actions are absolutely unacceptable and a clear breach of international law. The new situation is a challenge for Europe and the foundations on which it is built.
We need a common European response, and so far we have acted with a remarkable degree of unanimity. Even the written-off Weimar Triangle between Germany, France and Poland has injected new life into the whole Union in this respect as it has not acted alone but always in dialogue with the other member states.
We will not accept a policy that divides and splits Ukraine, or that seeks to spread the action taken in Crimea to the East of Ukraine or other Eastern European partner countries. If Russia were to pursue this course, we would support taking new firm action, including measures in the economic field.
Finland is the EU member state with the longest border with Russia. You have multiple economic, social and cultural ties connecting you with your neighbour. This requires well-functioning and broad-based interaction and cooperation at various levels even in the current exceptional circumstances.
There is no doubt that economic sanctions would hit Russia hardest, but some European states would be hit harder than others. Germany is in a very similar position to Finland. We are ready to bear the consequences of economic sanctions if necessary. But we do not want to abandon the chance of a diplomatic solution to the conflict. We have to keep communication channels with Russia open and work to continue a meaningful dialogue, not only on the issue of Ukraine.
Finland and Germany are part of the Baltic Sea Region with traditional trade and commerce links and high interaction and integration. Thus, we should consider using the established structures of the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS) to build trust and confidence. It is not only about high-level contacts: personal contacts and a well-functioning civil society are key elements in building a stable and secure society and in regional co-operation. Youth exchange remains an important aspect of co-operation in the Baltic Sea Region.
Given the shockingly high approval rates of the Crimean intervention in Russian society and the danger of self-seclusion, we need to continue meaningful activities that send a clear message: Europe is keeping the door open.
III. How can Finland and Germany work hand in hand to build a better Europe?
I have been talking about the need to restore solidarity in the European Union and the importance of continuing the dialogue with Russia for one reason: I do not want a new rift in our continent, with dividing lines going from North to South or East to West. In the 21st century we can simply no longer afford a divided Europe, not politically, not economically, and not socially. That is why I see a growing urgency to co-operate more closely, pool resources and share best practices.
My personal view is that every member state has something to offer, something at which it excels, and that others should be eager to learn from one another.
This has nothing to do with square kilometres, geographic location, population size or economic strength. Rather, it is about the willingness to explore new ways, modernise our societies and thereby tap the full potential of Europe, with all its different cultures and nationalities. I believe that Germany and Finland are simply better off working together.
Finland ranks among the world’s most advanced countries as regards creating a modern, open and citizen-oriented social system, where everybody enjoys the same rights and equal opportunities. Women nowadays want at least to have the same choices as men. That means not being faced with the dilemma of having to choose between family and a professional career.
This is much more accepted in the Nordic countries than in other parts of Europe, including my own country. Building progressive societies could be a common task for us to work on.
We are now seeing how attractive our values are for many people outside the EU. On the other hand I have the impression that within the EU, we sometimes take our values, such as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, too much for granted. We should therefore put more emphasis not only on promoting our values abroad, but also on protecting them at home within the European Union. The EU is much more than just a single market and a monetary union. This factor is incredibly important both for gaining the acceptance of Europe’s citizens for European integration and for our credibility when working together at the international level.
Germany and Finland are already cooperating closely to promote our union of values more actively, and we have jointly initiated a new mechanism to look more closely at the rule of law and our fundamental values.
Europe as a political project must emerge stronger from the crisis than it was before. I am sure that a broad debate on the future of European integration will start after the European elections in May 2014.
But let me be very clear here: We need to stop talking about how to implement reform steps – whether by convening a convention or focusing on a small treaty amendment. First of all we should agree where we would like to go and which goals we want to achieve. But again we must follow one guideline: We need to strengthen the democratic structures in the EU, allowing the Community institutions to play a major role.
I very much believe in the Community method. Summits alone will not solve the problems in the EU. We need to regain the trust of the citizens in the European project.
We must not ignore people’s concerns. Of course, the EU does not have to regulate everything. Many problems can be solved more effectively at the national, regional or local level. But to repatriate everything would be a great mistake. We need to find the right balance. Instead of entering into academic discussions about “more” or “less” Europe, we must focus on how to make Europe “better”.
The EU must be active in those fields where it can benefit its citizens. In an increasingly globalised world the nation states are recognising their limits in more and more areas. Neither Germany nor any other country can cope with the great challenges of the 21st century on its own.
In those fields where we politicians think we need to join forces, we must explain our reasons to the citizens – and vigorously defend our joint approach against the eurosceptics.
Let me close by saying: I am convinced that strengthening solidarity and social cohesion in Europe and taking more global responsibility will make the European Union stronger, both internally and externally. Peace, prosperity and social justice are the trademarks of Europe. These are the values we stand for and for which we are known around the globe. Finland and Germany do not only share these values – we have so much more in common that we simply have to go down this path together. Thank you.