“Looking back – looking forward – European integration” – speech by Minister of State Michael Roth at the Schwarzkopf Foundation

15.05.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Ladies and gentlemen,

It’s not possible to talk about Europe at the moment without addressing the dramatic developments in Ukraine. For those of us born in the post-war period, war is almost inconceivable. It’s therefore all the more shocking that Europe has again been hit by a conflict of this magnitude.

100 years after the outbreak of the First World War, 75 years after Germany’s invasion of Poland and 25 years after the end of the Cold War, it seemed that this threat had long since been banished.

But now Europe again faces the question of war or peace, of the continent’s unity or division.

When I think of people in Ukraine at this time, then I also remember my own childhood and youth. I grew up in eastern Hesse, right next door to the then border between East and West Germany. I’m a child of the Cold War. There are very many people in this room today who neither remember nor personally experienced the division of Europe.

Until I left school, there were no endless horizons and the freedom to travel was limited. For it wasn’t possible to travel East, where the Wall, fences and fragmentation mines systems were to be found.

That was terrible for our neighbours in the GDR, but also depressing for me and my friends in the West.

We thus rejoiced all the more when the Iron Curtain was finally swept aside in 1989. We were curious about what we would find on the other side of the Wall.

People in my constituency in northern Hesse waited at the border crossings for their neighbours from the former GDR and welcomed them with open arms.

When we think back today to the incredible joy we felt at that time, then we realise that united Europe emerged 25 years ago as a true grassroots movement. That can’t be emphasised often enough, particularly today when so many complain that Europe has developed over the years into a project for an elite divorced from reality. Perhaps we’ll manage together to revive the excited can-do spirit we experienced 25 years ago.

For it was people in the GDR, Poland, Czechoslovakia or in Hungary who – often risking their lives – peacefully struggled to gain something for which no-one had dared hope: a life in democracy and freedom.

Whether during the demonstrations in Leipzig, on Prague’s Wenceslas Square or in the Gdansk shipyards – it was these people who tore down the Iron Curtain and thus courageously took the first step towards the subsequent unification of our continent. There’s no doubt that the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe were due first and foremost to the efforts of many ordinary people!

However, even after this first step had been taken, it was far from certain that this would lead to the establishment of stable democracies. That the fall of Communism would result in a united, democratic Europe was by no means a foregone conclusion. Belarus is sad proof that the end of dictatorship doesn’t necessarily lead to democracy. Sometimes it simply leads from one dictatorship to the next.

However, democracy and the rule of law are what safeguard our liberty, our freedom of press and opinion as well as our political participation.

Thus, anyone who looks back today and assumes that the development towards democracy and the rule of law was a matter of course and that there was more or less no alternative, has underestimated the complexity of politics. This has also been brought home to us quite forcefully once more by the latest developments in our eastern neighbourhood and in the Arab states.

The admittance of the Central and Eastern European states to the European Union on 1 May 2004 marked the end of the East-West divide in Europe. As new EU members, the ten states returned from the periphery to the heart of Europe.

The European Union held out the clear prospect of later EU membership to the young Central and Eastern European states at a very early stage. This accession perspective was an engine for both reform and stability! For with the clear goal of EU membership ahead, the candidate countries embarked on an impressive path of reform which amounted to nothing less than a second revolution. The total restructuring of the economic and social welfare systems, the political system and society is no walk in the park – it places heavy demands on people.

The efforts of politicians and business, and most especially of citizens on the road to the EU were huge. Today, ten years after EU accession, we can say with some self-confidence: the road to reform was difficult and stony. Yet it was worth the effort for most people.

Today we can learn throughout Europe from these experiences of political, economic and social change, as well as of temporary setbacks. This trove of experience can serve as a model and incentive for us when it comes to making the European Union strong enough to withstand crises and ensuring it’s fit for the future.

That applies in particular to the many in the European countries worst hit by the crisis who now feel that they are the greatest losers of the reform and consolidation process.

They have to make sacrifices on a daily basis and accept a decline in the standard of living to which they have become accustomed. While the sacrifices are immediately noticeable, the positive effects usually materialise much later. Structural reforms do need time before they start to have an impact.

It’s precisely this experience of having to wait for the benefits of the reform policy long after these painful sacrifices have been made which people in Central and Eastern European states can pass on to people in the countries hit by crisis today.

Ten years ago, the European Union not only became bigger and stronger but also richer and more diverse due to the eastward enlargement:

Richer in terms of language, culture, ideas, creativity as well as life chances. Eastward enlargement is a unique success story. I could cite a whole series of figures and statistics to illustrate this success.

I could tell you that in 1999 the economic output of the eight Central and Eastern European accession states was less than 40 per cent of the EU average. Since then, these states have caught up in breath-taking fashion and achieved 61 per cent of the overall average in 2013. Poland is a prime example, for its economy continued to grow steadily between 2008 and 2013 despite the economic and financial crisis.

I could also mention Latvia, which adopted the euro at the start of 2014, or Lithuania, which will follow suit on 1 January 2015. Thus, seven of the ten accession countries will be members of the eurozone by next year.

What’s more, in Poland citizens stand more firmly behind the pro-European course than in almost any other member state. The above-average approval rate for European integration of more than 80 per cent is anything but a matter of course at a time when Eurosceptic rhetoric has become fashionable. It’s good news!

And in the old member states, many worries and concerns have – fortunately – proved to be unfounded: job losses, wage dumping or unchecked mass immigration – none of these horror scenarios has materialised. On the contrary, Germany is among the biggest winners of eastward enlargement and the free movement in the European single market.

According to a study carried out by the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry, a total of one million jobs have even been created or secured by eastward enlargement.

However, if we are to assess the situation honestly, we cannot simply ignore problems and difficulties despite all the good news. For there are problems. When, for example, the independence of the judiciary is openly questioned in individual countries, the freedom of press is under threat or if efforts to fight corruption and organised crime are not sufficient, we cannot simply look the other way. Let me be quite frank: there were, or still are, developments in Bulgaria, Hungary or Romania which I find worrying. Likewise, Italy under Silvio Berlusconi came in for criticism. The Agency for Fundamental Rights even told us Germans that

we have to do much more to combat anti-Semitism in our country. We all have to make an effort.

For Europe is not just a single market and a monetary union. Above all, it is a unique community of shared values. We have to practise these basic values ourselves, without reservation, to ensure that our demands that others adopt them are credible.

In these matters, we expect our partner countries to halt adverse developments and take the necessary corrective measures. We have to insist on this even though it’s sometimes difficult to make such demands on friends. Given our own history, we know that Germany shoulders a special responsibility here. That’s why our partners in Central and Eastern Europe, who have committed themselves to a Europe of fundamental values, can be certain of our full support for the reform course they’ve embarked upon.

The transforming power of the enlargement policy has changed Europe as a whole for the better. We should remember this when we talk about the weaknesses in European foreign policy, which are so often pointed out. The European Union has had a lasting impact on an entire continent – and the enlargement policy was the most effective foreign policy instrument at its disposal. The enlargement transformed the EEC with its six founding member states and around 200 million inhabitants into a grouping of currently 28 members with an overall population of 500 million.

Despite all the successes, the EU enlargement policy cannot be taken for granted. In the last few years, a certain enlargement fatigue has spread through many parts of Europe.

Particularly in times of economic and financial crisis, many ask themselves whether the EU shouldn’t solve its own problems before it admits new members. A Europe which is to remain open cannot ignore the fears and concerns of its population. Policies need acceptance and legitimation. In order to preserve the success of the enlargement policy, the European Union must, in my view, consider the following points:

The EU has to stand by its commitments and pledges to countries seeking membership. That applies in particular to the states of the Western Balkans.

The EU has to pursue an enlargement policy with clear, strict and fair accession criteria. In contrast to the past, no more political concessions can be made when a country joins the EU in future. The strict accession criteria must be complied with in full before a country can accede.

However, the European Union also has to do its homework, for we have to keep on reforming the Union and its institutions in order to be able to admit new members and remain effective.

The EU must ensure that its citizens agree with the enlargement process through greater transparency and improved communication. Accession negotiations are not a technical process for experts but, rather, a political project for the whole of society. That’s a task which we politicians haven’t tackled sufficiently to date.

In this connection, allow me to say a few words about Turkey – especially to those who are now demanding that the EU should break off the accession negotiations in the light of recent developments. There’s no doubt that Turkey doesn’t fulfil the accession criteria at present.

Nevertheless, it would be absolutely counter-productive to place the accession negotiations with Turkey on hold. In the end, stopping the talks won’t help anyone. Rather, we should continue to use the accession talks as a tool to foster political and social change in Turkey. We therefore now have to focus on justice, fundamental rights and the fight against corruption. 

The EU’s capacity and readiness to admit new members leads me to the European Neighbourhood Policy, the ENP. It was created in 2004, in the context of the major eastward enlargement. The EU wanted to foster stability in its neighbourhood and draw neighbouring countries closer to the EU – without granting them a direct prospect of accession.

Ukraine is currently highlighting in an unprecedented fashion that the EU needs to rethink its answers. We have 16 partners in Eastern Europe, North Africa and in the Middle East who are very different and cannot all, or don’t all want to, move towards the European Union.

We have to critically review our neighbourhood policy in the light of that. Shouldn’t we become more flexible here and offer countries in our neighbourhood tailor-made and creative solutions? That could also apply to financial support instruments, which we should be able to steer at shorter notice than has been the case so far. Further-reaching offers could be made to more advanced partners such as, for example, free trade agreements or the creation of a common economic space. In this, the question of the interconnectivity and compatibility with other economic areas always has to be considered.

For this is not about marking out spheres of influence but about ensuring that cooperation with other partners continues to be possible. In the concrete case of Ukraine, that means: Ukraine will always be a bridge between the EU and Russia, for it’s too close to Russia and too close to the EU to choose between them.

Europe has to better pool its efforts: we need closer and more effective cooperation between the EU Commission and the European External Action Service than we have today. This year, the appointment of a new Commission and a new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy provide a good opportunity for change.

The revamping of the neighbourhood policy will be one of the key tasks for German foreign policy in the coming years.

Germany has already put forward proposals in conjunction with France and Poland. Particularly the experiences of our Polish friends can be used to resolve the Ukraine crisis. France, on the other hand, can play a prominent role in the Mediterranean region.

The enlargement of the European Union remains a success story. It has profoundly changed, strengthened and enriched Europe and the European Union. However, a glance at Europe’s neighbourhood to the east and south also shows that the key tasks facing European foreign policy will lie here in the coming years. Especially in view of our concerns given recent developments in Ukraine, we have to actively shape the future of Europe’s neighbourhood. No matter in which direction I look, I believe that the crucial factor remains what Willy Brandt started decades ago: change through rapprochement. A common future can only succeed if we cooperate, move closer together and don’t work against each other. The British historian Timothy Garton Ash said only recently that today Europe needs a Willy Brandt who can translate a policy of small steps into larger inspiring words.

Perhaps there is someone here today who can follow in his footsteps. That would be something!

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