Ladies and gentlemen,
This is not my first visit to Iceland, but it is my first official one as a Minister of State for Europe. I can assure you, Iceland has many fans in Germany for exports such as its arts, music and literature. But today it is my pleasure to share some views with you on how we can strengthen the EU’s role and what my country could contribute.
I must admit that, being the Minister of State for Europe, I would of course have appreciated the chance to welcome Iceland as a very valuable member of the EU with a long and strong democratic tradition. We regret that this will not happen for now. Iceland and the EU had made quick and far-reaching progress in the accession negotiations. There were still some difficult issues to tackle, of course, but we were optimistic that accession would be possible in the near future.
We know that your government decided it no longer wanted to be considered as a candidate country. And it is for every European country to decide for itself on membership of the EU.
One might come up with the debate in Great Britain and a possible referendum. Well, we want the UK in the EU. And there are also forces in the UK which want this. They will need to commit themselves more in the public debate. Being an optimist, I think people can be convinced by good arguments – and we have them in abundance.
Back to Iceland: There is no doubt that intensive cooperation between the European Union and Iceland will nonetheless continue. Iceland has always been a reliable partner, for Germany and the EU as a whole. Through its participation in the European Economic Area and the Schengen area, Iceland is integrated in the common market.
Still, I would have preferred Iceland as a full member of the EU – I am sure it would have been a benefit for both sides. You are always welcome!
I think every member state has something to offer, something that it excels in and that others should be eager to learn from.
And this is not a question of square kilometres, geographic location, population size or economic strength. It is rather about creativity, ideas and a pro-European commitment to making the EU stronger as a whole.
Small is not only beautiful but might also be very influential in this regard. Just think about Luxemburg.
Even Germany, though apparently so big, can only realise and defend its interests within and through Europe. We are all pretty small fish on our own! It is through the EU that we Europeans can address the challenges of globalisation. Only a united Europe offers us the chance to play our role in globalisation and regain some of our lost capacity to act.
The EU is much more than a practical pragmatic association of European countries for economic reasons. It is not the result of a businesslike calculation of economic or financial advantages and disadvantages. It is a matter of serious long-term engagement. Membership of the EU is grounded in common values and implies a readiness to find common European solutions, even when times are hard and sacrifices are required. It implies a willingness to map out a common European future. And sometimes it is really difficult and takes a lot of time to find a compromise among the member states, but it is worth it. Europe can only work as a team project. You have probably observed the rise of anti-European and populist movements on the continent; we still need to tackle several crises, internal and external. One might therefore ask what makes this Union so attractive.
I am optimistic enough to believe that a crisis can be a catalyst for reform. So far, the EU as a political project has emerged stronger from each crisis it has faced. We have solidarity as a driving force. Of course, solidarity is not a one-way street; it works both ways and as such it makes us stronger as a union.
Germany has been an EU member for more than 60 years – and we have no regrets. We are probably even the country that has benefited the most from European integration. The EU is the framework for our policy in nearly all important fields – be it economic policy, budgetary matters, home affairs or foreign policy. It is our basis for peace, prosperity and economic success and the cornerstone of our external affairs. But, with its fundamental values, it is also something of an individual life insurance policy. This is something that might too easily be taken for granted, but it is what differentiates the EU from many other parts of the world.
Let me start with some words on foreign policy, where we particularly need greater credibility in stabilising our neighbourhood.
Just a few weeks ago, an overcrowded vessel capsized in the Mediterranean, killing more than 900 refugees. Our priority now must be to save lives! Here, we need European answers, for this issue affects all of us, but first and foremost we share a responsibility that derives from humanity and solidarity. At an extraordinary European Council we started to develop concrete policy responses. This was just a starting point. Stabilising transit countries needs a long-term strategy.
We are aware that solving the crisis in Ukraine needs a joint answer. The EU has presented a united stance on Russia. We are indeed speaking with a single voice, and while we are aware that we have different experiences and therefore different perceptions, we still stand together.
At the same time, Russia will remain our neighbour and also a partner on the international stage. Thus, we have to keep communication channels with Russia open and continue to work on our longstanding relations.
The second challenge: the EU’s economy and welfare state
With regard to the economy, for a long time the agenda was dominated by the euro crisis. Signs of economic recovery are visible. Many countries have undergone reform processes and are putting a lot of effort into modernisation. But high unemployment rates and low investment remain serious problems in a number of countries. Youth unemployment is a tragedy! Particularly worrying is the fact that it leaves young people without any prospects and fuels their scepticism about the EU and its ability to solve their problems. Europe has to fully overcome its economic and social crisis.
We are focusing intensively on generating growth and jobs and strengthening social cohesion. One important initiative is the investment plan that the new Commission has launched.
Take a look at the policy of recent months and you will see that we are pushing forward concrete initiatives for growth and social cohesion.
We have had to acknowledge that the crisis has revealed structural weaknesses, particularly in the eurozone. We have a common monetary policy for the 19 euro countries, but each of these 19 countries has its own fiscal, economic, labour market and social policy. This is resulting in growing imbalances within the eurozone.
We do have ambitious common goals in the EU, such as an employment rate of 75 percent for both women and men. Iceland reached this benchmark already some time ago. About 80 percent of all Icelanders between 15 and 64 years of age are gainfully employed. This is a very high level. One important factor is – no doubt – that women work nearly as much as men. It is a reflection of the high degree of gender equality in your country. My compliments: according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2014 of the World Economic Forum, Iceland is No. 1 on gender equality in the world. We are somewhat jealous in Germany, as we find ourselves only at No. 12. We also need to ensure unrestricted access to education, child care, social security systems and public infrastructure in the EU. And we need more social and economic convergence in the eurozone – if not in Europe as a whole. The members of the monetary union enjoy such close ties that decisions on matters of tax, economic policy, labour market policy and social policy directly affect all the others. We need more binding cooperation on economic, social and fiscal policy, especially in the eurozone.
Just a brief word on Greece: We stand in solidarity with Greece. There are treaties and agreements with Greece that we feel duty-bound to respect. Germany has always been a reliable partner to Greece, and as partners in the eurozone we want to continue to be so.
This brings me to the third challenge: upholding our values. Democracy, the rule of law, cultural and religious diversity, protection of minorities and freedom of the press – all these values are our trademarks. The EU is much more than a single market: first and foremost it is a unique community of shared values.
This is particularly attractive from the outside. We should therefore protect it inside the EU to be in a position to demand the same from others. I am sure this is an issue you could contribute a lot to; please consider yourselves invited to do so. I personally fought long and hard to establish a new mechanism to safeguard respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights in the Council of the European Union. From now on we will have regular discussions in which we will take a detailed look at where we stand individually!
Germany’s role in the European Union
Travelling around, I realise that people also have very high expectations of my country. We are the largest member state, and we are expected to be a decisive player.
For me these two aspects are not a contradiction, but rather two sides of the same coin! Negotiations at the European level are about finding solutions which are good for everyone in the EU, regardless of size or duration of membership. This does not mean putting aside German interests. It simply means that a united EU position is in Germany’s best interest.
To arrive at such common positions we have to align our individual viewpoints. Our position is to act as a mediator and to try to work as a kind of “CFO” – Chief Facilitating Officer – for a common EU position that encompasses the interests of the EU as a whole.
I am very much looking forward to our discussion.