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Ladies and gentleman,
Thank you for the invitation! It is a pleasure to be with you here in Budapest today to look at a topic that is of great importance for the EU – both for its own cohesion and for its credibility in the eyes of the public.
Why is it so important to talk about strengthening democracy and open societies today? Why do we need a fresh look at the way we protect our shared values in the EU – such as democracy, the rule of law, the protection of ethnic and sexual minorities, freedom of the media and our individual liberties?
2014 is a year that brings back painful and joyful memories of events which have an impact on the shape of the European Union as it is today. Both the painful and the joyful memories show why we should never take these achievements for granted.
The European integration process was in part a consequence of the catastrophes of the 20th century: the outbreak of the First World War 100 years ago and the outbreak of the Second World War 75 years ago. Nazi Germany’s aggression sought the systematic eradication of Europe’s Jews. European integration was meant not only to embed Germany in order to prevent any future aggression but also to promote fundamental values, individual freedom and prosperity. That represented hope for all European citizens – or almost all! The Eastern and Central European states were not able to join this process from the beginning but had to wait until the Iron Curtain, which divided the continent for decades, was finally torn down.
What a great moment, when citizens in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere brought down their Communist governments! And I can assure you, as Germany’s Minister of State for Europe, I am still very grateful to Hungary and its citizens for being such a support at that time. Of course, courageous political leaders like Gyula Horn and Miklós Németh were needed, but it was the ordinary members of the public and their longing for democracy and freedom which provided the driving force. Their courage, hope and optimism spread out across the continent.
My own world back then was very different to what it is today. I looked out on walls, fences and self-firing weapons systems as I grew up just a few meters from the inner-German border. But things started happening in 1989.
The EU enlargement that followed has been a success story! That was probably the best thing the EU could have done to encourage transformation. And transformation is a bumpy road.
Looking at our neighbourhood and beyond today, we are seeing again that people are willing to pay a very high price to make that change happen and join our community. It’s true: Europe’s values have not lost their appeal – a glance around our neighbourhood is enough to illustrate this. The EU 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. But looking at us, it seems to me that we have grown so used to all the benefits that European integration has brought us that we only ever get annoyed by it, by its perceived shortcomings. When pictures of Ukrainians with EU flags were broadcast, it seemed like we were surprised to be considered so attractive.
We should be neither surprised nor proud but willing to accept that we have to meet high expectations. The crisis in our neighbourhood and beyond, along with the financial and economic crisis, has brought times of great uncertainty. We cannot afford this uncertainty if we want the EU to remain capable of acting as a global player, capable of acting as a safeguard democracy and economic and social stability, capable of being a role model to other parts of the world. We need to set a good example by living up to our ideals at home. 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. This is and should stay our advantage.
As I see it, there are four main challenges we need to tackle in order to strengthen democracy within the EU:
1. The EU is not just a Single Market or a Monetary Union; it is first and foremost a union of values. Defending and strengthening our values is crucial and starts at home. The past few years have shown how helpless the EU still is when fundamental values come under threat in its own member states. If we want to remain credible as a community of values, we have to speak up and take action whenever there is a breach of fundamental values. Democracy, the rule of law, cultural and religious diversity, the protection of minorities and freedom of the press – these values are all trademarks of the EU; they bind us Europeans together.
And let me be very clear here: the classic principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states does not apply in the EU. On the contrary, to my mind we in fact have a duty to talk openly and frankly among friends. We are too close for something that happens in one member state not to affect the others. If blame falls on one of us, it falls on us all. It will not be just one country being criticised for a breach of fundamental values – we all will all be asked why we did not react!
We must live up to these basic values ourselves, without reservation, if we are to demand the same from others. At long last, we need universal, objective and binding standards and a political process to ensure that our fundamental values are consistently upheld. And this applies equally to all member states. I do not want to remain silent about the fact that there are concerns about some developments here in Hungary, but, at the same time, I want to underline that I could also name others. Anti-Semitism, homophobia and antiziganism are problems elsewhere, in Germany too.
Nevertheless, being a close friend of Hungary and having worked on our relations in various capacities over many years, I cannot hide my concern at the developments in Hungary. A constitution has been passed without any broad debate, the media seem to be under a lot of pressure, as does the judiciary, and being active at a non-governmental level does not seem to be always an easy task. Each of these alone already goes against my personal understanding of democracy and open society. But taken in sum, these actions put our common framework of values under strain. I am not liberal in an economic sense, but when it comes to human rights and human dignity and their individual and universal significance, I could not be more liberal. Rising doubts about the European Convention on Human Rights and discussions about how to suspend the decisions of the European Court for Human Rights at a national level, as we are seeing in the UK, are outrageous. You see, this is definitely not about turning a blind eye to some member states and blaming the others.
But I do admit that we have probably been too indulgent in the past. We said nothing about developments in Italy under Berlusconi, for example, for many years. Still, this mistake should not prevent us from being frank and open in the present and the future. We should rather learn our lesson from past mistakes. Furthermore, I am convinced that isolation does not help. That is why Art. 7 of the Treaty on European Union is not the right answer. Article 7 involves depriving a member state of voting rights for breaching our fundamental values. This is such a tough measure that it would probably impede any solution-oriented dialogue. I would like us all to avoid any isolation and work together on common answers in a constructive manner. That is exactly what I am here for.
But let me first get back to those four challenges for strengthening democracy. Here’s the second:
2. The European elections have been a wake-up call. Eurosceptic and populist parties are gaining influence in the European Parliament. In Germany a clear pro-European attitude used to be a unifying factor across the political spectrum. This has changed with the rise of the Alternative for Germany party. Restoring confidence will take a lot. The Community method was undermined in the aftermath of the crisis, as certain decisions needed to be taken by governments overnight. This makes it all the more important now to get back to the Community method. The Community method specifically involves everyone taking joint responsibility for Europe. Furthermore, strengthening the European Parliament as well as the national parliaments is the right answer to the so-called democratic deficit. Parliaments need to hold open debates in order to gain acceptance and ensure consistent democratic legitimacy for European policy decisions.
3. Thirdly, and let me be very clear here, the fight against tremendously high youth unemployment is not only an economic matter but also affects the stability of political systems and societies. Europe cannot afford to leave a whole generation behind, a generation which sees the EU not as part of the solution but as part of the problem. Europe has to see itself as much more of a social corrective. Initiatives for growth have been launched, as have investment programs and a youth employment initiative. The fruits of greater social security will in the end include greater stability of democracies and open societies too.
4. Fourthly, our democratic systems are based on the principle that there are always majorities and minorities. As a politician, I am used to dealing with decisions taken by a majority even if I was part of the minority. However, political decisions do need to be inclusive if they are to be accepted by the minority. This requires not only effective opposition but also public debate. What happened in Germany after the last election might serve as an example: the Grand Coalition gained a vast majority in the parliament, but particular rights were given to the opposition. This means that the opposition is still capable of being part of debates and processes. A large majority means a huge responsibility. The strength of our democracies can in part be measured by the way we deal with minorities, with the opposition, with the more vulnerable in our societies in general. You see, the inclusiveness I am talking about goes beyond parliamentary procedures. It needs active and vibrant civil society which is able to articulate different views and interests. Our future here in Europe will in large part be decided in our market places, in our schools, in our universities and above all in our hearts and minds.
Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to deliver a speech at the Berlin Humboldt-University in front of German students and I can just repeat what I said there: 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. The task of giving Europe direction is in your hands and needs your minds. Your attitudes, dear students, will be crucial in determining whether we allow backward-looking and resentful debates to predominate or are prepared to confidently take Europe’s future into our own hands. Europe is the dream of diversity, the guarantor of our individual ways of life, our life insurance in this turbulent age of globalisation!
I am convinced that by strengthening solidarity and social cohesion in Europe, by defending our values and by taking more responsibility in our neighbourhood, we will make the EU stronger. We should allow ourselves to learn from one another. That way, Europe as a political and social project will emerge from the crisis stronger than it was before.