Dear State Secretary Fraser,
Right Honourable Members of Parliament,
Dear colleagues and friends,
It is my honour and pleasure to welcome you to this year’s Königswinter Conference. Let me first of all congratulate the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft on the 65th anniversary of this event and thank everybody for the important contribution the conference makes to German-British relations and our friendship.
In its 65 years the conference has witnessed quite a few ups and downs on the European fever curve. These days, after the British elections, it looks like the oscillation amplitude is growing yet again: With its decision to hold a referendum on EU membership the British government has induced a completely new dynamism in the question of the United Kingdom’s affiliation with the EU.
The German position on this question could not be clearer and it comes from our hearts and minds: We want you to stay in. The UK is a central and much valued partner. Germany and Britain have always shared many goals in European politics, including the one of making the EU better, not least where reducing bureaucracy and increasing competitiveness are concerned. Many of our joint interests we have inscribed together into the EU’s strategic agenda and we want that to continue. Without the UK the EU – and also Germany for that sake – would be much poorer in political, economic and cultural terms. We will therefore – together with the other 26 Member States of the European Union - try our best at engaging this new dynamism constructively and help in finding a solution which respects the needs of everyone in the EU, including the UK. We want you to remain in the club.
I would happily end my speech at this point and let you have your dinner were things only that easy!
Negotiating the conditions which are essential for the UK for having a successful referendum might become a very difficult process. It will involve all 28 member states, the European Commission and the European Parliament. What might be difficult to stomach for the UK might be dear to another Member State. This process will take some time and effort. But more than anything else it is up to the UK itself whether it will turn out a success or not.
What I mean is that the biggest risk is not a lack of common interest, but a flawed assessment of what is achievable and realistic. We will listen to the UK very carefully - but the UK should also listen carefully. Of course Germany will go to great lengths to support London, even help London – but it cannot go to any lengths. Allow me make two principal points on Germany’s view on European integration to illustrate this.
The first is on protecting the EU’s integrity and its fundamental principles. For many years now the European Union has become the heart piece of German democracy, security, prosperity and freedom. European integration has been our second chance after the horrors of the Nazi regime. The EU has indeed become part of our very identity and protecting the EU’s achievements have become a raison d’état. The basic principle that the interest of one Member State can never outweigh the interest of all other Member States is the clue to peace and stability in Europe - that's how we see it. It is our understanding that a “European Union à la carte” would disturb this balance and curb the Union’s strength – maybe even more than continuing in a smaller but punchier Union.
Secondly, we all have to acknowledge, that negotiating the UK’s EU-membership is not a bilateral process between Britain and Germany. As much as we want Britain to stay in the Union Germany alone will not be able to deliver the solution and will not be able to deliver the EU. I understand that expectations from all sides regarding Berlin’s general role in the EU are very high. We do take this as a compliment and we don’t want to make ourselves smaller than we are. But when it comes to drafting the future design of the EU, all 28 Member States as well as the European Commission and the European Parliament have to be involved.
What is important now is to reach a common understanding of what is at stake and how to go about the situation. As a start, London should spell out as clearly as possible what the government believes is needed for a positive vote by the British people. The next step would be comprehensive consultations on all sides, including on the process of negotiation. We should then be able to engage in constructive talks. The result should be a package with which the British government can confidently face the referendum and the other governments can confidently face their electorates.
In this process, I believe it is crucial to make sure that throughout this process we keep a positive tone. We should not indulge in producing long lists of all possible flaws of the EU. The British comprehensive review on the EU legislation, a piece of work for which I applaud you, has proven that things are not so bad after all. In the end, we share the same goal: A European Union that works for every member state and everyone and we should be able to hammer out a constructive vision of that together.
One thing is sure: All the European countries have to face a great number of challenges together. A quick look at the programme of tomorrow’s panels illustrates this very well: How do we deal with the refugee situation around the Mediterranean? How do we deal with climate change? Can we have a material impact on the Sunni/Shia conflicts? Are we losing Turkey? How do we engage with China and India?
I don’t want to pre-empt tomorrow’s discussions but I am quite sure that all three panels will come to agree on at least one thing: None of us in Europe can face challenges of this magnitude alone and without the others. Germany believes that the European Union is neither perfect nor without need for improvement. But I’m convinced: The Union will remain much stronger with the UK as its member, and the UK will continue to be much stronger as a member of the EU. None of us will walk back into future Königswinter conferences being asked who lost the UK and who lost the EU.
Thank you very much.