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Our shared future in Europe – speech by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth at the Goethe Institut in Lisbon on 9 March 2015

09.03.2015 - Speech

– translation of advance text –

Thank you very much for inviting me to the Goethe Institut in Lisbon. This is my first visit to Portugal as Germany’s Minister of State for Europe and I have to say, it was about time! By which I don’t mean that Portugal hasn’t been part of my work time and again in the 15 months since I entered office. I regularly meet my Portuguese counterpart Bruno Maçães at sessions of the General Affairs Council in Brussels. We value each other and are in constant discussion. It’s great that today I’ve been able to visit Bruno once again, this time in Portugal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in this wonderful city.

Yet my presence here with you in Lisbon today is far more than simply a first diplomatic visit. Please take my visit as a sign of recognition and solidarity – for Germany is standing firmly at Portugal’s side, especially in the difficult economic and social crisis that the country has been going through in recent years.

Portugal has undertaken a long and difficult journey since the outset of the crisis. With the support of its European partners, but above all through its own great efforts and tireless work, the Government has introduced comprehensive structural reforms. Brimming with ideas, new drivers of growth and export markets have been tapped into, drawing on Portugal and its local economy's particular assets and experience in the sectors of shoemaking, using marine resources or wind energy to name but a few.

Portugal's success story gives us courage. It shows that structural reforms and solid budgetary and economic policy do indeed pay off in the end.

Today we want to talk about our shared future in Europe, and I’m almost tempted to say “finally”! The crisis in Ukraine, the situation in Greece and the suffering of refugees in Europe are all without a doubt, important and pressing topics.

Whilst we’re understandably concentrating on the challenges we’re currently facing, we must never lose sight of our future. European policy should always strive to be more than just reactive crisis management and pure damage control. We must also look at the bigger picture and clarify the long‑term strategic trajectory of European policy, especially now, in those times of crisis.

For in 10, 20 or even 30 years, Europe should still be what is has been to people for decades – a promise of hope for a society which stands for social justice, fairness and solidarity, ensuring lasting peace, freedom and prosperity. We need to reaffirm our shared values. Unfortunately, today they all too often fall by the wayside when we talk about technical details such as lists of reforms, bond purchases, current account balances or budget deficits.

In recent years, the world around us has changed more rapidly and drastically than it has done for decades. Here I’m not only thinking of the severe economic and financial crisis which has shaken Europe to the core. The violent confrontations in Ukraine and the terror attacks in Paris and Copenhagen have shown that in Europe we can by no means take economic and social stability, peace and security for granted.

My vision is a Europe which resumes its role as guarantor of our security, stability and prosperity. That is what I want to champion today. I would therefore like to highlight three points which we need to address if we truly value our shared future in Europe, and they’re three areas in which Portugal, with its unique experience and strengths, can make a constructive contribution.

Firstly, Portugal and Germany are supporting the fresh start within European policy which at long last chart the course to more growth, employment and investment in Europe.

Secondly, in recent years Portugal – similarly to Germany 10 years ago – has experienced for itself the effort and indeed burden that structural reforms and the struggle for sound finances impose on people. It’s well‑known that it’s better to undertake a difficult journey together than alone and that’s exactly why we’re working hard for a Europe of solidarity.

Thirdly, we have to be determined in our efforts to advance economic and social integration within Europe – especially in order to prevent further divergence of the quality of living and working conditions in the individual member states. What we now need in Europe is more convergence – not division within the EU!

Our most important task will be to finally translate the fresh start within European policy into reality. Words must be followed by actions – we have to deliver now.

Allow me to dispel one myth straight away: the assertion that Germany is pressing the EU to stick to a policy of pure austerity is simply false. Last year the European Union initiated a long overdue policy change, also at the initiative of the new Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and many social democrats who hold positions in national governments.

The EU’s new strategic agenda focuses on growth, employment and strengthening social cohesion. The EU is now pursuing a three‑track strategy of structural reforms, investment and budget consolidation. Have a look at the policy of recent months: we’re taking forward concrete initiatives on growth and social cohesion, both in Portugal and elsewhere in Europe.

For it remains true that we need even more investment and growth in the EU to ease labour market tensions and improve social cohesion. In the countries most affected by the crisis we need new jobs, above all for the young generation, so that people once again have prospects for the future. In Portugal, unemployment has fallen slightly over the course of the year and the labour market is generally moving in a positive direction, but with current rates of 13.3% overall unemployment and 33.6% youth unemployment the figures remain much too high.

I’m saying all of this against the background of the worryingly low level of investment in Europe; the economic and financial crisis has put a serious dampener on both private and public investment. In 2013, EU‑wide investment was 15% lower than it had been prior to the crisis.

If we want Europe to remain a world leader in the future, we need to lay the foundations now with targeted investment – by investing in schools and universities so that our children can obtain the qualifications they need, and by investing in renewable energies in order to advance climate protection and to reduce our dependency on imports. For investing means building bridges to a successful future – the investments of today will become the prosperity of tomorrow.

Under the leadership of Jean-Claude Juncker, the new EU Commission has recognised this and has launched an investment offensive which aims to create real European added‑value by focusing on the industries of tomorrow and expanding strategic infrastructure.

I don’t want to hide that some had indeed hoped for more than the Commission has proposed, as did some in Germany too. The EU’s investment plan may not be perfect to the letter and it may not tick every box on everyone’s wishlist, but it’s proof of a determination to lead Europe out of the crisis. That is why, together, we should work to swiftly implement the investment offensive and successfully complete the consultations on a European Fund for Strategic Investments by June 2015.

The next step is to identify suitable projects. In the selection procedure we should make sure that special consideration is given to the need for investment in countries hit particularly hard by the crisis. Here I’m naturally thinking of Portugal, too.

That brings me to my second point, namely the question of how we can breath yet more life into the idea of a Europe of solidarity. Whether we’re talking about promoting growth, employment and social cohesion, more solidarity within Europe or more cooperation in the field of economic and social policy – in all three fields, a small country such as Portugal can help to ensure that there is more social justice, fairness and solidarity in Europe.

You will have noticed that these days solidarity is a frequent topic of conversation in Europe. It is quite rightly said that solidarity is not a one‑way street but rather involves give and take. The controversy over the limits of our solidarity with Greece makes it clear that without trust, solidarity is nothing more than an empty word. Just as much as we need to trust one another and to trust that agreements and treaties will be upheld, we need the certainty that we’ll be there for each other in difficult times. Without this confidence, Europe doesn’t work.

Portugal has upheld the trust of its European partners in recent years. Germany and other EU countries showed solidarity with Portugal during the crisis, and in return, Portugal delivered: your country worked hard to come out of the crisis stronger and undertook reforms which entailed painful costs for many people. Making labour law more flexible, abolishing four public holidays, cutting holiday by three days – these are all small examples of how profoundly the economic and financial crisis has changed people’s lives.

Solidarity means showing understanding for others’ difficulties, regardless of what they may be. In a community of solidarity, everyone vouches for each other. That also means that one may need support today whilst the other does tomorrow. And here we’re not just talking about solidarity with countries which have encountered financial, economic or social difficulties. Our solidarity within Europe is currently needed in very different matters, too.

Here’s a first example: at the moment, our Polish and Baltic friends are seeing their security jeopardised by their big eastern neighbour. Russia is violating international law and supporting separatists who want to divide Ukraine by force. These countries which have their own, tragic experiences of Russian domination are asking for assistance. We’re showing our solidarity within NATO and through our tireless struggle to find a political solution to the conflict in Ukraine.

Another example: other countries are very dependent on Russia for their supply of oil and gas. The possibility of President Putin turning off the tap is no longer an absurd, hypothetical scenario. Energy policy is foreign and security policy too. We’re currently in negotiations with our partners on diversifying our energy supply and expanding supply networks. That's solidarity in action, too.

And one last example of solidarity within Europe: in the South of Europe the dramatic rise in the numbers of refugees is exerting huge pressure on countries such as Italy, Cyprus, Malta or Greece. In the Mediterranean, human tragedies of an unimaginable scale are occurring on a near‑daily basis. The countries, such as Italy, which initially take them in feel that the EU has left them in the lurch. Only five of the 28 member states, one of which is Germany, are taking in a meaningful number of asylum seekers and refugees. Anyone who is serious about humanity and solidarity should agree now on binding regulations and quotas based on individual member states’ size, economic strength and ability to take people in. We could also show solidarity by making joint and coordinated efforts to improve the situation in the countries of origin and transit.

All of this shows that solidarity is no magnanimous gesture made by the supposedly stronger to the supposedly weaker. Whether big or small, strong or weak, in the West or East – we all need each other in Europe. Solidarity is the most important means of binding a colourful and diverse union together. It ensures our survival. For without the willingness to be there for each other through thick and thin, Europe will be hard pushed to succeed in anything at all.

Portugal is on the right track out of crisis thanks to its own efforts as well as the solidarity of its EU partners. However we’re seeing that the fruits of economic recovery are taking a very long time to reach the population. The example of Portugal shows us that many skilled workers are still leaving their home country because they can’t find work. The chronic understaffing of hospitals and the fact that young people often only obtain fixed-term contracts are further examples of the problems Portugal is currently experiencing.

And these problems are certainly not limited to Portugal – a study conducted in September 2014 by the Bertelsmann Foundation on the social situation in Europe concluded that Europe is at risk of being permanently divided into a prosperous North and poor South East if decisive efforts are not made soon to counter this. The authors of the study also noted that some 25% of people in the EU risk being affected by poverty and social exclusion, above all children and young people. The EU Commission comes to a similar conclusion in its latest employment report.

All in all those aren’t exactly rosy prospects, and simply paying lip service to these problems will get us nowhere. Together we must create the framework conditions so that many member states’ process of economic and social recovery, which had such a propitious start, can be successfully continued. We don’t need any individual enclaves of prosperity in the EU. Rather, in the medium term we should aim to guarantee economic prosperity and social security for all citizens of the EU, throughout the continent. To do this, young people need to have prospects for the future in their home countries, so that emigrating is not the only option which they become forced to accept.

Therefore we need – and this is my third point – stronger and more binding economic, social and fiscal cooperation within the EU. 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.

Because, let’s be honest ladies and gentlemen, the crisis mercilessly exposed the structural flaws in the eurozone. It’s 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 in the long run if the member states coordinate their economic, fiscal and social policy on a binding basis.

I would like to be clear that 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.

I’m aware that these technical, institutional issues are certainly matters for connoisseurs, it all sounds somehow unwieldy and hard to grasp. But we need to have more of these discussions than before if we’re to make Europe fit for the future. There is no need to reinvent the wheel here. Quite the opposite, with the European Semester and the Europe 2020 strategy we already have instruments to coordinate economic policy, instruments which we could expand and put to good use to sow the seeds of a real European economic, fiscal and social union.

For we all know that 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.

I’m already looking forward to seeing Portugal provide a great deal of impetus for European policy in the coming months. For in these times of crisis, we can’t have enough people in Europe with a sense of conviction in and responsibility for the EU.

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