I would like to thank the College of Europe for having me here today to discuss with you. I also would like to thank the European Movement, which is responsible for the selection of the German students here and is a close partner of the Federal Foreign Office in intensifying our communication on European issues.
When I tell you I have been into European politics for 17 years now – I have been a member of the German parliament since 1998 – you might think this guy has to be really frustrated! And yes, it is true, the European Union can be frustrating and exhausting. I have witnessed quite a few crises concerning the EU or its integration process during the past years. Let me just mention the referendum process, the economic and social crisis and this deep crisis of trust and solidarity that keeps going on.
To be honest, sometimes I am fed up with being in crisis mode. But as a politician I cannot allow myself to give up – I’d be in the wrong job if I did. Maybe some of you know the Brother Grimm’s folk tale about the Town Musicians of Bremen, which includes the saying: “Something better than death we can find anywhere.” I would like to change it to: “Something better than the EU you cannot find anywhere.” We should not forget that the EU grew and became stronger after each crisis.
For my work as a committed pro-European I need passion, optimism and inspiration. And this is one of the reasons why I am here today! Discussions in clearly pro-European environments always give me a chance to recharge my batteries. I was told that the campus here in Natolin might be a good place to free yourself other distractions. From time to time this is helpful in order to maintain a clear vision which provides guidance for your everyday work.
Thus, today you will not only get to know the Minister of State for Europe but also the committed European Michael Roth. Putting it like this makes me wonder what it is that actually makes a good European.
The College of Europe is supposed to be a special institution made of good Europeans. Founded in the very early days of European integration, it is the alma mater of a number of past and present leaders of the European Union. But what is even more important, it is the alma mater of committed Europeans. And those are really needed nowadays.
Your College’s mission has always been to provide excellent teaching and research, and – maybe this is even more important – to create something which is often referred to as the “esprit du Collège”. A spirit which is based on a mindset that Europe is the answer to most of today's big challenges.
And there is something very particular about the campus here in Natolin. It is also a symbol of the unification of Europe after the fall of the Wall in 1989. And let me be very clear on one point: I used to live next to the former inner-German border. Back then my world was cut off in one direction, as the border was just 500 metres away. That is why I will never accept walls or fences as future-oriented measures.
I think it is worth looking at all the benefits and advantages we already enjoy as a result of European integration. These include about 70 years of peace and prosperity, 25 years of living in a reunified Europe and then these comfortable benefits like being able to travel freely around Europe, studying wherever you want to and much more. We ought to remind ourselves of that each time we doubt the value of Europe.
We cannot take our common base, our core fundamental values for granted. These values need to be protected day in, day out. We must react swiftly if they come under threat. Otherwise we would lose our credibility when demanding that other partners uphold them.
If you ask me, once the decision has been taken to belong to our club then the classical principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states does not apply.
Looking at this more and more globalised world should make us realise that the nation state as it emerged in the past cannot be the reference when it comes to shaping world politics today.
For me Europe is much more than a paradise for technocrats. And it is simply not true that the EU is designed to spread uniformity or harmonise all 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! This is actually our comparative advantage!
And whether we are talking about Poland, Germany or any other member state, in the global pond, we are all pretty small fish on our own! Each member state is simply more influential when acting through the EU. A common EU position can hardly be ignored. Only if we act together can the EU be a true global player. But how to get there?
I have to admit that it is sometimes difficult and takes a lot of time to reach a compromise among 28 member states with their individual perspectives and historical experiences. Let me tell you, Council meetings in Brussels can be very boring events. But in the end, negotiating in conference rooms to reach a compromise is always the best solution.
This is our common responsibility. Let me give you just one example, which is probably the most emotional just now: it is a human tragedy when refugees, seeking shelter in Europe from wars and terror in their home countries, die right before our eyes. This is not only shameful for Greece, Italy or Hungary just because these are the member states with an external border of the EU. This is also shameful for Germany, Poland or Sweden. It is shameful for Europe, and thus we are all responsible.
What is needed and missing at present is a change of perspective. It is essential that we exchange views and try to understand the positions of our partners. That is why I came to Poland.
I am not only here to share my point of view but also to listen to my Polish partners – and now to listen to your ideas on Europe.
For me the main problem nowadays is that everybody expects solidarity but I am extremely concerned that everybody understands solidarity in a different way. For Poland or the Baltic States solidarity means more security, for Greece or Spain maybe more socio-economic engagement and so on. But actually solidarity means overcoming national interests and accepting the different views of our partners in order to find a common European compromise. Without this understanding of solidarity we will be hard put to get to joint European action.
When it comes to my country we are, on the one hand, faced with very high expectations. Germany is expected to take the lead in Europe – especially in times of crisis. On the other hand, some are afraid of Germany taking a dominant position. But in general it does not matter where I am travelling to – wherever I go we will be asked for more leadership, more support, more visibility.
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 then we’ll only manage this together. A common EU strategy is in our best interest.
What does this mean for specific policies.
It was almost self-evident that I would start with the most urgent issue: migration.
We need to live up to our moral duties, live by our fundamental values, to provide protection, refuge and support for those in need. This also includes solidarity among member states.
Putting myself into the shoes of a Pole or Czech, I can see that we have to take account of each country’s economic and social situation.
And Germany as a strong country can and is willing to take more responsibility than others. But we expect a common strategy which is based on the principle of solidarity. And solidarity is always a matter of giving and taking. Every member state should make a contribution according to its population, economic growth and social stability. But a common migration policy needs ambitious EU initiatives as much as strong support from all member states.
What I cannot accept are excuses on cultural, ethnic or religious grounds. Europe is known for being a diverse society where minorities are respected. The European model is a value-based model of an open, tolerant and diverse society: We Europeans are multireligious, multiethnic and multicultural. Let me be very clear: we are bound together not by any given faith but by our common values!
We all know that we cannot shy away from action as the global challenges are longstanding and will not be mastered within a few days or weeks. We have managed during the last few months to get better at the most important task – saving lives! Whatever measures we take, saving lives must always be the highest priority for all of us.
But we need a comprehensive approach and European action. This is not an Italian, Greek or Hungarian crisis – it is clearly a European crisis!
Firstly, I am convinced that in general nobody is leaving his or her home, family and friends voluntarily. At least nobody who thinks they can get back home any time soon, as you can do across this continent. I know that many of you are interested in development cooperation, conflict prevention and conflict resolution. And this is what we need to do: fight the root causes of migration – and not the refugees. We have to work on enabling people to live their lives where they would most probably want to live them – with their families and friends. Civil war, terror, hunger and poverty are making then flee.
Secondly, as for now, it is our duty as a Union of values to ensure that human dignity and our common standards are respected wherever refugees arrive. It is essential that all member states implement the regulations and standards that we have agreed on.
Of course we need solidarity, also in financial terms, with those member states who take on the biggest burden. Even if the current regulations are enforced we will need a fundamental reform of the Common European Asylum Strategy. This should also include a fair distribution of refugees in the EU and a list of safe countries of origin. The Dublin system is obviously not working as it should and needs to be reformed. So far only five member states have taken in more than 75 percent of the migrants. It is a question of European solidarity to agree on a mechanism for fair burden-sharing. The ideas put forward by the European Commission are leading the way and deserve our support. And we need to fight human traffickers who make their money off the misery of other people and are consciously putting the lives of so many people at risk.
I know that for various historical or social reasons this might be more difficult to accept in some member states, but Europe is a continent of immigration and closing our eyes to this fact is not an option. My country has had its own experience of immigration and integration, which has not always been easy. But I am convinced that cultural diversity is not a threat but a chance. It enriches our society in many ways. Thus, Germany has a lot to offer when it comes to best practice or advice and we are ready to take responsibility for a common European solution.
Economic growth, social stability, EMU governance
I know that it is currently difficult to talk about anything apart from the refugee issue. But there is another subject I would like to raise. And to be frank, it’s a another subject that makes me impatient und frustrated.
What I’m talking about is fostering economic growth, fiscal consolidation and social cohesion within the eurozone. I had wished for faster progress. But sometimes progress is only achieved at a snail’s pace.
What we have experienced in the EU in recent years is the toughest economic and social crisis since the founding of the EU. The Bertelsmann foundation has provided hard figures on social division in a recent study: in Scandinavia, poverty is practically not a problem whereas in Romania and Bulgaria it affects more than 40 percent of the population.
Even if we are seeing first signs of recovery, the crisis has left deep scars due to the economic downturn and structural reforms. I know that the countries in Central and Eastern Europe are still dealing with the restructuring of their economies. Then we have the countries which have been hit most severely by the crisis. Doubtlessly fiscal consolidation and structural reforms were needed but they need to go hand in hand with initiatives for growth and employment as well as the protection of the welfare state which is so characteristic for the EU. These elements must not be played off against one another but need to be balanced. We cannot push through further reforms without taking domestic political developments into consideration.
Here too, it is our joint responsibility with the EU institutions and the member states to deliver concrete results when it comes to growth and jobs.
The burden of unemployment and youth unemployment in particular is a burden for all of us. If we do not take action now we run the risk that today’s young people will become a lost generation.
We need investments in schools and universities, in renewable energies and climate protection. Today’s investments are tomorrow’s prosperity. The implementation of the investment initiative is well underway and will finance projects that will contribute to a more social, stable and crisis-resistant Europe. We want to mobilise 315 billion euros of private capital to realise projects with European added value.
Take a look at what we have done in recent months and you will see that we are pushing forward concrete initiatives for growth and social cohesion. We now need bold and determined action to implement them.
Let me be very clear about one misunderstanding that has been around for too long: Germany has never called for an austerity policy in Europe. And that’s not the only misperception that exists in Europe. The southern member states often feel ignored or patronised. And there are other countries like Germany where the public impression seems to be that the taxpayers are footing all the bills. Sometimes it helps to clear up misunderstandings if we just talk with each other and exchange our views.
It has also become evident that the shortcomings of the EMU need to be addressed.
I know that this is a rather sensitive topic for all of you coming from countries which aren’t yet part of the eurozone. I can understand that Poland and others are concerned about a split in the EU when it comes to differentiated integration.
Let me make clear that I do not understand differentiated integration as rejecting the Community method. The question is whether we want to allow greater flexibility within the bounds of the treaties or to depend on intergovernmental solutions. The latter were maybe a solution when we had to engage in acute crisis management. We should remind ourselves what the Community method really means: to be ready to let yourself be swayed by the majority. It does not mean that everybody needs to have the same opinion and be ready to move in the same direction at the same time. With the possibilities of differentiated integration inherent in the treaties, the Community institutions would always be aboard.
For the eurozone I am actually convinced that there is a need to go ahead – even if I put my Polish or Swedish shoes on.
Whether you are a member of the eurozone or not – it cannot be in your interest to have to deal with a weak eurozone with sluggish economic growth. I am convinced that the others are more likely to follow if we are successful and appealing.
Of course this has to be done in a transparent and inclusive manner but it has to be done. Furthermore, there are several comprehensive instruments which are not only valid for the eurozone but for the EU as a whole such as the Europe 2020 Strategy or the European Semester. These instruments should also be linked with each other for better reliability.
These are already some important first short-term steps. The monetary union needs to become a real economic, fiscal and social union. We had to acknowledge that the crisis has revealed structural weaknesses, particularly in the eurozone. We have a common monetary policy for the 19 eurozone member states, but each of these 19 countries has its own fiscal, economic, labour market and social policy. The result is growing imbalances within the eurozone.
The Euro needs a binding coordination of economic, fiscal and social policy. I am not talking about harmonisation or making everything the same. But we could for example, agree upon margins for tax rates and minimum standards for the equality of healthcare, pensions, education and care. The proposals put forward by our German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and his French colleague Macron are also progressive ideas to provide fresh impetus for convergence by for example establishing a fiscal capacity.
I would like to turn now to the external dimension of the EU. The international order is increasingly coming under pressure. Looking at the developments around us in Ukraine, the rise of ISIS, Syria and the steps backward being taken in Northern Africa, crisis seems to be the new normal in our globalised world.
In very general terms, despite all our different histories and perceptions we have to send a clear signal of strength and determination. We will only address the current challenges if we speak with one single voice. Luckily we managed to do so when it comes to Ukraine.
With the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine, Russia has openly damaged the security architecture in Europe. The European Union – despite all the different experiences and perceptions – has made it clear in a common strategy that Russia’s foreign policy, seeking to redraw borders in Europe by the use of force, has no place in the 21st century. It was a challenge to the unity of the EU and we stood and still stand together. This is also a joint responsibility for our neighbourhood.
Concerning our relations with Russia: we are not cutting our channels of communication with Russia. Quite the opposite – we need to keep the channels of communication open. Whether one likes it or not, Russia will remain a neighbour and partner.
What the EU is missing in its CFSP quite often is visibility. The visibility of our action is as vital as the unity of our action. We have managed to put the EU on a new footing. The Treaty of Lisbon provides a new framework. One key step was the creation of a High Representative as a kind of “Foreign Minister of the EU”.
And the European Union has clearly gained visibility during the last months, for example in the nuclear talks with Iran, the fruitful Pristina-Belgrade Dialogue and the process initiated by Foreign Minister Steinmeier and his British counterpart to bring Bosnia and Herzegovina closer to the EU, to name just a few areas in which the EU’s profile has been raised.
No national action can work on its own. That is why actions need to be embedded in a European strategy – no matter if they originate in Berlin, Paris, Warsaw or Bratislava.
There is an easy blame game which our national capitals have got used to playing: all the good things come from Berlin, Warsaw or Stockholm, all the bad ones come from Brussels. Or look at the last few weeks when member states accused the EU institutions of failure when it was their own responsibility to act. It is not just up to the others who work in Brussels, we are all responsible for a united Europe! That is often forgotten.
Additionally, calls for joint European action have increased. I cannot think of any big policy areas where the EU is expected to do less. Everything we are discussing means more European action. And I think that is right, since none of us is going to solve any of the problems on our own. But to make Europe work the support, political will and commitment of the member states is indispensable.
I hope that with the current pressure the crisis may prove to be a reality check that makes us realise how connected we actually are. It has become obvious how much it matters which “national” measures are being taken in various policy fields, which government is elected, but also what the citizens think. The latter might be the decisive element as we need a lively civil society to spread the European spirit.
You are in the middle of your studies and still at the beginning of your professional careers. The European Union will have a much greater influence on your environment and your life over the next few decades than it did for previous generations.
You will start assuming responsibility very soon after completing your studies. And who knows, there are several former German students at the Federal Foreign Office – luckily for me.
But what could be more important than the institutional view you come to represent is your ability to put yourselves in other people’s shoes, to see things from their point of view. The College is probably And you will probably a good place to do do.
So my advice for you is to make the most of the wide range of opportunities! 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 you to apply your minds.