“Learning from the crisis – prospects of EU reform” - Address by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin on 14 October 2014
Thank you for this opportunity to share my thoughts on Europe with you today. Like you students, I once sat in a lecture hall listening to Prof. Pernice when I was doing my degree. I didn’t do me any harm, either!
To give you a better grasp of my motivation, of the reason why I have been fighting for a united and peaceful Europe as a parliamentarian for 16 years and now as Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office for almost twelve months, let’s jump back to the year 1989. Exactly 25 years ago, I was actually supposed to be studying for my school-leaving exams. My world back then was very different to what it is today. We saw closed‑in views, not wide horizons – as you’d expect on the frontier to East Germany. I grew up in north‑east Hesse, less than a kilometre as the crow flies from what was then the border to the GDR; I was, if you like, one of the eastern‑most “Wessis”. I looked out on walls, fences and self‑firing weapons systems. For a long time, we all found it unimaginable that this reality, quite literally cast in concrete, would ever change.
But things started happening in 1989. When I heard about the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig, the Round Table Talks in Poland and the first few tears in the Iron Curtain at the Austro-Hungarian border, I felt that history was being written in Europe, right now! My exams were suddenly less of a priority. When the Wall finally fell in November 1989, freedom was on the march. Sheer euphoria swept through Germany and blew the winds of change across the whole continent.
Our united Europe is the emancipatory force that turns wishes, dreams and hopes into day‑to‑day reality. Yes, it’s true: in Europe today, we are living our dream of peace, freedom, democracy and prosperity. Yet it is also true that dreams, once realised, tend to quickly become banal and taken for granted in everyday life. Nearly all of us have seen that happen first‑hand. Europe – for many people nowadays, it seems like a couple who have been together for a long time. The high of young love has passed, and the nitty‑gritty of everyday life is taking centre‑stage. The relationship is starting to show the strain; doubts are growing.
But there is another factor threatening to dim Europe’s light on the world stage. The European model has been thrown into tough international competition, up against other socio‑political concepts. We cannot assume that the brand will simply sell itself; it needs to keep on proving its worth day by day. Other brands come along that also promise economic success and security – but, and this is the point, without freedom, democracy and solidarity being part of the deal in the way that is so characteristic of the EU. We need to face that global competition with confidence; we need to maintain and protect our brand.
You asked me to give a lecture that would get people excited about Europe. If I’m honest, I had to stop and think about when I was last properly excited about it myself. I travel around Europe a lot and meet committed Europhiles week after week. There was one particular moment from the last few months that really sticks in my mind, though.
This summer, I had the honour of taking part in the official proclamation of the European University of Flensburg. Poetry slammer Björn Högsdal presented “his” Europe, giving a humorous and heartfelt homage to the wonderful privilege of being able to realise one’s own individual way of life in and by means of Europe.
That was one of those special moments where I felt that Europe can get us excited and touch our hearts – if we let it. That’s something you can’t look up in a textbook; you can only experience it in person. You’ll know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever shared a flat in Lisbon, or gone on a cycling tour around the Baltic, or done a collaborative research project with fellow academics from Finland.
What this Europe of ours sometimes lacks is empathy and passion. We need a lot more of both! Europe is not just a playpen for detail-worshipping technocrats. Europe is not a craze to make everything the same, to spread uniformity and amalgamate differences. On the contrary, Europe is the dream of diversity, the guarantor of our individual ways of life, our life insurance in this turbulent age of globalisation! We ought to remind ourselves of that when we are next in doubt about the point and value of Europe.
I’m not here today to issue a policy statement for the government. This isn’t just the Minister of State talking; this is Michael Roth, citizen of Europe and committed parliamentarian.
We have come together today in the renowned department of European constitutional law. However, I don’t want to launch a legal discussion here. What we need more than anything right now is consensus on political objectives. Where do we actually want the good ship EU to take us? In the crisis years, I missed that clear compass in European policy, as we all too often navigated by the immediate horizon alone.
But that’s not a criticism I would direct only at the politicians. Where, for instance, is the big intellectual debate about the future of Europe? Where are the creative and critical minds from the cultural and academic spheres who could hold up a mirror to Europe and urge us on to fresh achievements? Europe needs to have constant recourse to the big conceptual picture. Instead, in recent years we’ve had mostly nit‑picking and depressing debates about repatriation of powers.
What kind of a continent will you students be living in in 2030? Let’s try a bit of time travel: my vision is of a Europe where all the member states have adopted a strong shared currency, the euro. It’s a place where we have generated stable growth and employment, leading to prosperity and social security for everyone. By that time, you will already have several years of working life under your belts. You’ll be benefiting from the open borders and a real pan‑European labour market. My hopes are for a Europe with a modern, forward-looking economy. That Europe stands as an example to the world when it comes to protecting the climate and the environment. That Europe takes a cosmopolitan approach and gives immigrants a real chance to integrate. That Europe continues to safeguard democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights at the very highest level. That Europe defends its foreign and security policy interests with one voice on the world stage – with a shared seat on the UN Security Council and a European army.
A lot of that is still a long way off. But it is important for us to set ourselves ambitious goals. Granted, we do have to be careful. Awaken impossible expectations and people will end up disappointed and turn their backs on Europe. The European elections demonstrated that clearly enough, and we should all take them as a wake‑up call.
Here’s one particularly pressing problem, for example. Astronomical levels of unemployment are not something that the EU can fix alone. After all, responsibility for employment and social policy remains with the member states. We therefore always need to see these things as shared objectives – pursued jointly by the EU and its member states, by the different levels of European governance.
To put it plainly, the debate about repatriating powers or giving up sovereignty is a cul‑de‑sac, in my opinion. It goes without saying that the EU shouldn’t control everything down to the smallest detail. However, the term “national sovereignty” is increasingly no more than an illusion in this ever‑more globalised world. It’s a matter of logic: you can’t lose something that you don’t actually have any more. We can’t cling onto powers that we gave up de facto long ago. Some of those calling loudly for “less Europe” don’t seem to have grasped that point.
When it comes to protecting the climate, regulating the financial markets, channelling the flow of international trade or, with a sense of solidarity and respect for human dignity, effectively dealing with floods of refugees – only joint European action will do the trick. These are the global issues where old‑fashioned nation‑states really show their limitations.
The Swedish author Richard Swartz put it like this recently: “There are two categories of states in Europe: the small ones, and those which have not yet understood that they are small. And only together may they become bigger than they actually are.”
In the globalised world of the 21st century, even Germany, though apparently so big, can only realise and defend its interests within and by means of Europe. In the global pond, we’re a pretty small fish on our own! Only a united Europe offers us a chance to play our role in globalisation and regain some of our lost capacity to act and exert an influence on the world stage.
Here’s a current example of somewhere I’d like to see more courage and self‑confidence. Not all the criticism levelled at the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, is unjustified. However, I advocate that we Europeans should be confident in conducting these negotiations with the United States. It’s astonishing to see some of these critics sermonising about the need for strict rules to govern globalisation and then losing their nerve at the first attempt to negotiate precisely those rules with the country that spawned globalisation. How absurd!
The crisis created massive pressure to do something and showed up Europe’s persisting imperfections. Decisions all too often take too long, and a lot of problems require tools that the EU simply doesn’t have. If you want to change that and take political union in Europe to the next level, you find yourself facing a dilemma, because far‑reaching treaty changes currently have not a chance of success.
We therefore need to be smart in exploiting the possibilities inherent in the EU treaties as they stand and be more daring in solving things pragmatically. Ever larger and more heterogeneous, an EU bound by the need for consensus and unanimity is hardly able to do anything. If we don’t want to keep having the pace set by those EU partners least keen on integration, then we are going to need a courageous avant‑garde to take the lead on more and more projects. Let’s not pretend. The EU has had different levels of integration for a long time. Just look at the eurozone or the Schengen area. And for all the talk of an imminent split in the EU, I am convinced that a Europe where some parties push ahead is much better than a Europe where everyone stands still!
Having the courage to tolerate differing levels of integration in no way means rejecting the Community method which has sustained the European Union for decades. We need to be clear that the alternatives here aren’t either differentiated integration or the Community method; the question is whether we want to allow greater flexibility within the bounds of the EU treaties or to depend on intergovernmental solutions. We should remind ourselves what the Community method actually means, fundamentally, namely a readiness – when you get right down to it – to let yourself be swayed by the majority. What the Community method does not mean, however, is that everyone always needs to have the same opinion and be ready to move in the same direction at the same time. With that in mind, I see no insurmountable contradiction between the two policies.
The instruments of differentiated integration are grounded in the EU treaties – so they represent not a break with tradition but a deliberate part of policy. The advantage there is that the Community institutions are always involved and it is possible to make use of EU procedures and mechanisms.
Increasingly, we are seeing uncertainty in Europe about how much we can really still rely on one another. While we have demonstrated solidarity in recent years to get through the crisis, the effects of the crisis are being felt very acutely in the individual member states. Removing solidarity leaves the field to populists, nationalists and Europhobes – who undermine the inner cohesion of our society at a fundamental level.
Many members of the public rightly wonder why they should break their backs to pay for a crisis that they didn’t cause while stakeholders on the financial markets bear hardly any of the cost. They also wonder why the EU permits certain member states to gain an unfair competitive edge by means of fiscal and social dumping. It is hard to bear when companies like Google and Apple establish themselves in Ireland and pay hardly any tax there on the business they conduct in Europe! That kind of thing is not compatible with our idea of intra‑European solidarity and social justice.
A recent study by the Bertelsmann Foundation expresses that threat of social division in hard numbers. In Scandinavia, poverty is practically not a problem, whereas in Romania and Bulgaria it affects more than 40% of the population. That’s not what I call equality of opportunity!
The effort of getting over the crisis has left deep scars. Many people – and I see this again and again on my travels – many people feel exhausted and overwhelmed by the reform policies. These personal encounters with those bearing the brunt of the crisis are always a shake‑up. Even when we’re talking in terms of mere numbers, like budget deficits, current‑account imbalances or macroeconomic indicators, it’s always really about people and human destinies.
Yes, we are seeing the first positive signs, and they are encouraging. Many of the member states affected have bravely embarked on the essential structural reform. However, there is still a long and difficult road ahead, especially for the people living in those countries most badly shaken by the crisis. And we can’t just push through further efforts without taking domestic political developments into consideration.
The prevailing impression in Germany is that we are the ones who pay the bills, while the southern member states often feel ignored and patronised. Let’s put this ideologically charged consolidation-or-growth debate behind us. We need structural reform and a return to sound finances, but we also need investment and protection of the welfare state – these elements must not be played off against one another. They do need to be rebalanced, though.
Europe has to see itself as much more of a social corrective. Initiatives for growth have been launched, as have investment programmes and a youth employment initiative. More determination will be needed, however, if we are to see them properly implemented. The fruits of greater social security will in the end include greater stability too.
That’s why we need more binding cooperation on economic, social and fiscal policy, especially in the eurozone. The members of the monetary union now have such close ties that the decisions of one on a matter of tax, economic policy, labour market policy or social policy directly affect all the others.
Alongside this consideration of interdependence, the matter of our common currency’s legitimacy in society is also a driver of fundamental reform. The public will only accept monetary union if it safeguards economic and social stability.
The crisis mercilessly exposed those structural flaws in the eurozone. It is not enough to share the same monetary policy and coordinate budgetary policy. The monetary union needs to make the leap to become a real economic, fiscal and social union. The euro will only be able to continue if the member states coordinate their economic, fiscal and social policy on a more binding basis. And I’m not talking about harmonisation and blind homogenisation here. What we need in the eurozone are, for example, margins for tax rates and minimum standards for the quality of healthcare, pensions, education and care.
The current race to the bottom on taxes is unfair and incompatible with real economic and monetary union. Radical reform of corporate tax cannot be put off any longer. The first step will be to establish a standardised assessment basis for corporate tax; setting a minimum tax rate for businesses will be step two.
When I ask myself what kind of a Europe I want to live in, I don’t want to just content myself with quantitative indicators. We need quality objectives! The target of 75% employment is commendable, but we need these to be jobs people can live on. I also want this to be a Europe where everyone has access to education, childcare, healthcare, infrastructure and social security systems. All of that is rooted in the principle of equality in standards of living – whether you’re in Masuria, Sicily or Scotland.
We have homework to do in Germany too – we’re far from the top when it comes to educational opportunities! Access to further education still depends not only on one’s own ability but also very heavily on how deep one’s parents’ pockets are. And there are other areas in which there is certainly room for improvement in Germany. Here I’m thinking for example of the fight against the low-wage sector and precarious employment conditions, or of yet more investment in infrastructure, nurseries, schools and universities. This would advance not only Germany but Europe too.
Just as social cohesion is part of Europe’s promise of hope, our shared European values make us stronger here in our own country. Democracy, the rule of law, cultural and religious diversity, the protection of minorities and freedom of the press and opinion – these values are all trademarks of the EU, they bind us Europeans together. Perhaps over the course of the crisis we didn’t emphasise clearly enough that the EU is much more than a single market, that above all Europe is a unique community of shared values.
And it was these values that people in the GDR and in Central and Eastern European states so longed for 25 years ago. Even today, Europe’s values have not lost their appeal – a look at our neighbourhood is enough to prove this. The European Union flag is flying on the Maidan in Kyiv because people there believe in Europe’s values. Refugees from Africa are putting their lives at risk because they hope to be safe from persecution and enjoy a life in dignity in Europe.
Yet it is not a given that these values will survive in Europe, they need to be preserved and protected day in, day out. The classic principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states does not apply in the EU. On the contrary, in my mind we in fact have a duty to intervene! We must work together to ensure that our values are consistently upheld and we must react swiftly if they come under threat. For in such situations our credibility is also at stake. We must live up to these basic values ourselves, without reservation, so that we are in a position to demand the same of others. At long last, we need universal, objective and binding standards and a political process to ensure that our fundamental values are consistently upheld. These are vital for a strong union of shared values which is able to ride out storms.
If there is any truth in the saying that the quality of a free and democratic state based on the rule of law can also be measured by how it treats its weakest members, then here in Europe we must finally come up with a joint response to the issue of how to deal with migrants in a manner which is dignified and based on solidarity. The current influx of refugees is the result of dramatic developments which have taken place in our immediate neighbourhood. We cannot solve the problems in refugees’ countries of origin – civil war, hunger, poverty, a lack of opportunities – with asylum law. Neither can we do so with more boats patrolling the Mediterranean or by reinstating border controls.
For much too long we have closed our eyes to the fact that Europe is a continent of immigration. The time has come for us to radically rethink our European asylum and refugee policy, the Dublin System is out of date. We need at last to devise a distribution scheme based on the principle of solidarity, one which regulates the admittance of refugees in EU member states based on their respective size, economic strength and capacity to do so. The implementation by all EU member states of the agreed Europe-wide regulations and humanitarian standards on asylum and refugee policy is a prerequisite to this. And of course refugee policy is also part of foreign and development policy – here we need to seek solutions with the countries of origin and transit.
It is not just up to the others who work in Brussels, we are all responsible for a united Europe! This is often forgotten. It is much easier to pass the buck when one isn’t prepared to assume responsibility for decisions. Politicians, too, have a tendency to make the EU either a scapegoat or a fig-leaf. Berlin, Paris or Warsaw take credit for the positive whilst EU bureaucracy and Brussels are blamed for the negative – despite the fact that the national governments almost always have a hand in decisions made in Brussels. That is why it is so important for trust to be restored between the EU and its member states and between the EU institutions and national parliaments. The Community method specifically involves everyone taking on joint responsibility for Europe.
I am passionate about a strong, animated parliamentarianism! Parliaments need to hold open debates in order to gain acceptance and ensure consistent democratic legitimacy for European policy decisions.
Germany has a tradition of advocating a strengthening of the European Parliament. European democracy is inconceivable without the European Parliament, and that is why the European Parliament deserves to gain the right of initiative within the legislative process. Alongside a strong European Parliament, however, we also need confident and pro-active national parliaments. As far as I can see, there is no parliament in Europe which is strong enough to safeguard the democratic legitimacy of European policy decisions alone. As long as guarantees and rescue packages are first and foremost funded by national tax revenue, parliamentary legitimacy cannot come from the European Parliament alone. Just as currently too few members of the European Parliament are aware of the pressure at the national level to justify our solidarity with Europe, sometimes too few members of national parliaments are aware of the European ramifications of their (lack of) action.
A “Europe of parliaments” can only be successful if national parliaments and the European Parliament pull in the same direction. In his speech to Humboldt-Universität in May 2000, Joschka Fischer spoke out in favour of a second chamber comprised of delegates from national parliaments. I am not convinced by his suggestion. It would be better if members of the European Parliament and national parliaments jointly took on parliamentary responsibility – in particular with regard to the division of competencies between the member states and the EU. The Parliament in Brussels and those in the member states are not opponents, but partners working on an equal footing.
Yet, there’s another thing, too, that needs to change. Up to now, national parliaments have been saying what they want the EU not to regulate – it would be much better vice versa! In subsidiarity checks national parliaments issue yellow cards if the European Commission exceeds its remit. We have yet to go far enough in giving national parliaments a constructive, formative role of their own. National parliaments are not the legislators of European secondary law. Yet perhaps a possibility would be to give them the right to suggest that the EU Commission launches a legislative proposal – in a similar fashion to the instrument of the European Citizens’ Initiative. Getting involved is certainly better than just standing on the sidelines!
And it is precisely because I want to make you enthusiastic about Europe that I cannot avoid expecting a lot of you. For me, Europe is still about people’s attitudes.
The future of Europe does not only depend on places where budget consolidation and structural reforms are at the top of the agenda. In Germany, we must make sure that we do not all too thoughtlessly place all responsibility for shaping Europe on those who are currently going through severe crises. Our future here in Europe will in large part be decided on our market places, in our schools, our universities and above all in our hearts and minds. Your attitudes, dear students, will be crucial in determining whether we allow backward-looking and resentful debates to predominate or whether we are prepared to confidently take Europe’s future into our hands.
In a country in which 80 percent of people want a united Europe and two thirds say that they think Europe’s future will be positive, I am not prepared to allow myself to withdraw or be persuaded that the Germans are eurosceptic.
Indeed, in recent years we have shown solidarity towards countries in Europe who were unable to resolve their problems alone. However, there are some in Germany who consider solidarity to be nothing more than a gift to be generously handed out every now and again, whilst the fact that solidarity is always a two-way street from which the strong also benefit is overlooked.
In Europe no crisis concerns only the others, we only have shared crises! No other country has benefited from the single market, the monetary union and open borders as much as Germany has in recent decades. As an export-oriented country, however, this is also our Achilles heel. Why is it still so difficult to show solidarity towards others? Could some be right when they say that at the end of the day, Germany always pays for others’ mistakes? When it comes down to it, we benefit from every euro which we pay into the EU budget or euro rescue package – this can’t even be quantified. It would be good if we could finally be rid of the myth of the German paymaster.
Things become highly dangerous when the impression takes root amongst our partners that we have no concern for what is going on around us. I know that this impression is often wrong if we think about how actively Germany contributes. Yet in politics perceptions can sometimes be just as real as facts.
Given that Germany is the biggest member state, our European partners are right to expect that we take on more responsibility for leadership in the EU and in the world – especially in times of crisis. At the same time though, our neighbours are closely following whether Germany is throwing its economic and political weight around too much.
Germany surely has an important role to play, but we are only at the top of our game when working in a team. We Germans are known for being good team players, pulling together with other European ‘stars’ such as France, Italy, Poland and Sweden. If in Europe we really want to achieve great things and stabilise our neighbourhood then we’ll only manage this together. The EU must never become a club for the big member states only. A country’s size is not what matters in Europe. What counts is the creativity and ideas with which a country throws itself into European debates.
And thus I would like to commend one thing to you in particular: you are in the middle of your studies and still at the beginning of your professional career. The European Union will have a much greater influence on your surroundings and your life over the next few decades than was the case for previous generations.
Make the most of the wide range of opportunities that Europe offers you! And above all, have your say! As young citizens it is up to you to help shape the Europe of tomorrow and of the future. The task of giving Europe direction is in your hands and needs your minds.
But in carrying out this task, don’t take the easy way out in the form of tired theories and prefabricated opinions. Choose the long and sometimes difficult path and broaden your horizons, not only in theory but in practice. Form your own opinion of Europe!
I hope that today I have given you some food for thought which can help you make a start. And so that at least this one question doesn’t go unanswered: I did manage to obtain my school-leaving exams in the end! And my journey took me from the frontier to East Germany right into a united Europe.