Speech by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth at the WDR Europaforum in the Federal Foreign Office, Berlin, on 8 May 2014

08.05.2014 - Speech

-- translation of advance text --

Welcome to the Federal Foreign Office and to the WDR Europaforum! The Europaforum, like the Federal Foreign Office, is truly European. In years past the conference has been held in cities across the continent, in Warsaw, Vienna, Cologne and Frankfurt an der Oder, in Strasbourg, Ljubljana and in Brussels. It is thus a very special pleasure indeed for me to welcome the Forum, and you its guests, to our very own Weltsaal.

The question posed by this year’s heading, “What kind of Europe do we want?” is extremely thought provoking. If you had an empty page and were told to set out your vision of an ideal Europe – what would it be? Would the EU’s form and structures be as complex as they are today? Would it perhaps all work a little more smoothly? Would it perhaps be a bit less bureaucratic?

Given the current crises and the debates they have inspired, many people find it easier to say what kind of Europe they don’t want. But then it’s all too easy to lose sight of what we have gained from European integration, notwithstanding the criticism that may be directed at it, justified or not. The countries of Europe have grown ever closer together in a long series of small steps – most successfully. We can now celebrate more than 60 years of peace and freedom, open borders, the largest single market and one of only three reserve currencies in the world. The EU is respected around the world as a valued partner, be it for its mediation efforts, its help in times of crisis, or as a model for integration.

However, the EU is currently undergoing the worst crisis of its existence, as regards both its internal workings and its foreign policy. Confidence in and approval of the European project of integration have diminished significantly in the past years. The people of Europe rightly expect the European Union to address the criticism and tackle the pressing tasks with confidence. For example, it needs to deal with the appalling levels of youth unemployment in some EU states as well as the demands for greater transparency and democratic participation and a more unified stance in foreign policy.

In this European election year it would be wrong to reduce the question of what kind of Europe we want to a mere choice of “more” or “less” Europe. What we really want is a better Europe! Even if populists and eurosceptics are currently gaining ground across Europe with their simple demands for more control in their national capitals and less in Brussels, we cannot afford to make the issue so simple. No European country can deal with things like climate change, energy supplies, international crises or financial regulation on its own. It is precisely on matters such as these, where nation states literally reach their limits, that the EU can provide genuine added value!

I wish we would finally clearly state what kind of Europe we want, and how life in the EU should be in the future. It is thus greatly to be welcomed that the WDR Europaforum has asked precisely these questions.

No matter how thought provoking it all is, it is a mistake to believe that Europe can be drawn anew on a blank piece of paper, or reduced to the bare necessities. Anyone who wishes to “backtrack” on Europe is recklessly risking the achievements of the European project. Our joint achievements over the past decades encompass far more than just a single market and a single currency. Europe is above all also a union of shared values, a family based on the rule of law, a community built on solidarity.

It is this foundation of shared values and our cohesion and solidarity that have marked the European Union’s actions precisely when dealing with the economic and financial crisis and, right now, the Ukrainian crisis. We must not allow ourselves to be divided, for only together are we in Europe strong!

However, the EU can only live up to these expectations if it is improved yet further. Only if it provides convincing answers to today’s pressing problems will it win the lasting support of its people. In my opinion, there are three key areas in which we can work to continue the European success story in the coming years.

I. We should strengthen the EU’s foreign and security policy.

The latest developments in Ukraine show that we really cannot take it for granted that Europe will remain a peaceful, tolerant and cosmopolitan place. 25 years after the Berlin Wall came down, Europe again faces the question of war or peace, of the continent’s unity or division.

To preserve the European project of peace, the EU member states must act together, in close coordination, both vis-à-vis Russia and when aiding Ukraine on its continued course towards democratic stability. All of us in the EU agree that Russia’s breach of international law is absolutely unacceptable and cannot go unchallenged. The message we must send is clear: the force of law prevails in Europe, not the law of force.

However, the agreed sanctions are certainly not intended to “punish” Russia. The aim is rather to prevent the violence from escalating further and to give diplomacy another chance.

All in all, European foreign policy must be given the structures and substance to lend it greater clout. The events of the past months also give us cause to subject our neighbourhood policy to a critical review. Perhaps we need to take a more flexible approach and offer the countries in our neighbourhood more customised and more creative solutions?

II. We should give greater consideration to the social dimension

In 1973, Willy Brandt said to the European Parliament: “In the early years the time was perhaps not yet ripe for greater emphasis on social objectives reaching beyond national boundaries.” Now, 41 years on, the time is most definitely ripe. And there is still much to be done on the path to a more social Europe!

We need a competitive Europe to survive in the globalised world and to preserve our prosperity. But cohesion within our societies is at least as important. We need an EU that is not just politically and economically strong, but which is also socially just.

Europe thus has to view itself more as a social corrective. We must not permit a return to sound finances to be presented as an alternative to preserving the welfare state.

The first positive reports from the states worst hit by the crisis confirm us in our conviction that structural reforms and consolidation are the right way forward. But this road is long and stony and places heavy demands on the people of Greece, Portugal and Spain. For this reason our response cannot be limited to harsh austerity measures or market liberalisation. For this reason we want to do yet more to promote growth and employment and consolidate Europe’s social foundations.

The most pressing problem is the dramatic rise in youth unemployment. It is through this that the economic and financial crisis has given rise to a serious crisis of confidence. If the young generation comes to think of Europe as the problem and not the solution, we will not only be depriving people of their prospects, but also driving them into the arms of those who ultimately want to dismantle the EU.

III. We should protect basic shared values

The past months have reminded us once again that the European Union is a unique community of shared values which is admired far beyond our external borders. Democracy, the rule of law, cultural and religious diversity, the protection of minorities and freedom of the press and opinion – these are all European trademarks.

Thanks to them, the EU has a tremendous allure and the power to bring about change in its European neighbourhood and beyond. It was calls for political participation, freedom of expression and the rule of law that drove the people to the Maidan and Taksim Square. And it was these values that the people in Central and Eastern European states so longed for 25 years ago.

However, numerous occasions recently have shown that our shared values in Europe are not something we can take for granted; rather, they need to be nurtured and defended day in, day out. We cannot allow even the slightest of doubts in our own credibility to arise. We have to practise these basic values ourselves, without reservation, to ensure that our demands that others adopt them are credible.

We should therefore ensure that our basic values and the rule of law are better protected throughout the European Union. The European Commission has already put forward proposals to this end. Universal, objective and binding standards which make sure that basic values are always observed throughout the EU are indispensable if we are to remain a strong union built on shared values which can withstand all strains.

The founding fathers and mothers of European integration would probably also do some things differently if they were given the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps even Jean Monnet would at times have liked to start afresh, on a blank page. Indeed, he is said to have remarked late in life that if he could start building Europe anew, he would start with culture.

And yet, with European integration, the founders found the right response to the questions of their time. But times change, and so Europe too must keep on questioning itself and changing itself accordingly. Maintaining what has been tried and proven, and growing to meet new challenges has for decades been the EU’s recipe for success. Even if our European construction can seem pretty cumbersome and patchwork, as long as we remember what Europe we want, and where we are heading, then it’s worth all the effort.

I am confident that today’s debates at the WDR Europaforum will help reassure us of the value of European integration and will help us reset our European policy compass in the light of today’s tasks. Mr Buhrow, distinguished guests, I wish you all an exciting day here at the Federal Foreign Office.

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