“European politics in turbulent times”

15.10.2015 - Speech

“European politics in turbulent times” – Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the interparliamentary conference “Towards a progressive Europe” in the German Bundestag

Roland Schmidt,
Dominic Schwickert,
Fellow members of the German Bundestag,
Distinguished guests from around Europe,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Carsten Schneider: you’ve hit the mark with the theme of this conference: “Towards a progressive Europe” – seldom has this been so necessary – and seldom has it been so difficult as it is at the present moment in time!

In the spring and summer, the crisis in Greece kept us on the edge of our seats. Would it be possible to reach an agreement? Would Greece leave the euro? Many people felt that the crisis in Greece was the greatest test Europe had ever faced.

But they didn’t feel that way for long. For only a few weeks later, we’re confronted with an even greater test.

More people around the world have been forced to flee their homes than the United Nations has ever recorded before. And the question as how we here in Europe should deal with those seeking refuge touches on the essence that makes European society what it is – values such as solidarity and humanity.

When a refugee family in my constituency, not far from here in rural Brandenburg, tells me their story: forced to abandon their livelihood in Damascus, the children taken out of school and away from their friends, a dangerous journey to Germany via Turkey, the Western Balkans and Budapest’s Keleti station – a journey entailing the loss of their home, the loss of all their belongings, of fear and risk, of journeys and waiting and yet more journeys – then although this is the individual fate of one family it’s also a European drama! One country cannot resolve this drama on its own. We need a European solution and we need it quickly!

Euro crisis and refugee crisis – two issues which lead us to one conclusion: Europe is at a crossroads. A crossroads between a continent where barriers, fences and national egoisms are restored and a continent which sticks together and takes joint action: further developing monetary union, adopting a genuine European asylum policy and fighting the causes of flight in our neighbourhood. Either we move towards more Europe or we risk the dismantlement of our shared European house.


What does that mean in concrete terms for our policies? – I want to look at the two major trials of strength which I’ve already touched on: monetary union on the one hand, flight and migration on the other.

The debate on Greece of the last few months has left its mark – in Germany and in our European neighbours. This wasn’t just about Greece. Rather, the lesson of the last few months was bigger: there is no way round the further development of monetary union. And we, the progressive forces in Europe, have to remember that the future of the eurozone must not be built on a regulatory framework. The eurozone will never only consist of rules but will always also consist of policies! And for these policies we need European guidelines:

Firstly, the euro is one of the cornerstones of European integration. And we’ve noticed during the last few months how much this integration is shaken when a country’s membership of the euro is called into question. We have to ensure the euro’s irreversibility. In other words, no country should be expelled from the euro against its will. That also means making provisions so that state bankruptcies no longer call into doubt membership of monetary union. We need an insolvency code for states in the eurozone.

Secondly, the single currency means the countries of the eurozone no longer have full sovereignty over their budgetary and economic policies. It is difficult for many to admit this - including national parliamentarians. It’s therefore all the more important that wherever national sovereignty has been lost, we strive to regain European sovereignty. If we don’t want to be ruled by anonymous markets, then our ideas on financial and economic policies have to move closer together. What’s more, we have to coordinate and professionalise our joint structures, for example when it comes to rights of intervention or a joint eurozone budget.

Thirdly, more European rights of intervention are only possible in exchange for more democratic legitimacy! This is about parliamentary control; it’s about a visible parliamentary culture of debate, for instance the European Semester. But it’s also about citizens’ sense of justice. For they only want to transfer greater rights to Europe if they have the feeling that these rights are well placed there. This sense of justice and of good political judgement is crucial, distinguished colleagues, especially for social democracy! Therefore, every step towards further developing monetary union must be accompanied by steps such as the joint taxation of companies and the fight against tax fraud. Finally, we need electoral reform of the European Parliament – including, in my opinion, the introduction of minimum thresholds. I believe that this, too, is a key point if we want to gain greater legitimacy for Europe.


In my view, distinguished colleagues, no issue in Europe has tested good political judgement and a sense of the fair distribution of rights and burdens as much as that of how we treat refugees!

What’s the right way to deal with this issue? It’s clear that a small group of countries, including Germany, can’t shoulder the bulk of burden of the refugee flows on their own. That’s not acceptable. That has nothing to do with solidarity. However, it’s equally important that we don’t use a moral cudgel against each other or exchange accusations – that has never been helpful in European politics and it wouldn’t be right in this case for not every country is in as good a position economically as Germany. That brings us back to the first issue, the euro crisis: in the last few years, the German economy has developed favourably but in many countries – in Spain, Portugal and most especially Greece – the standard of living is lower than it was before the crisis. It goes without saying that it’s not so easy for people there to say “We can do it” and we Germans are aware of that!

Pointing at others will achieve nothing. I suggest that we return to the essence of what is important to all Europeans. That is and will remain the historic European peace project. This peace project is based on two pillars which were indeed revolutionary in the light of our bloody history: open borders on the one hand, and a shared understanding of fundamental rights on the other. These fundamental rights include taking in those in need of refuge and treating them humanely.

Both pillars, my friends, are under pressure and we have to defend both. In my view, this will require action in three areas:

Firstly, the provision of humane protection – no matter which EU country refugees arrive in. That means harmonised procedures, institutions and standards! Today’s European Asylum Support Office (EASO) can form the nucleus of a genuine European asylum authority which oversees and enforces joint standards. And it also means providing especially affected countries with special support, for example Greece, which I will be visiting soon. Some of this support will go to the establishment of hotspots. Finally, it also means a fair distribution. We’ve succeeded in managing some things in an ad hoc manner, but we also need a long-term system with fair and binding quotas – otherwise the core value of asylum will cease to be a shared core value. That would represent the unravelling of Europe I’ve been talking about!

Secondly, we have to restore order to our external borders. Equipping FRONTEX will contribute to this but we can’t afford taboos when it comes to deciding whether we need something like a European border protection authority in the medium term. We will have to step up our cooperation with Turkey. The Commission’s plan of action provides a good basis and we hope that we can continue to work on this with Ankara, despite the turbulent times.

However, I want to add one thing: this is not only about defending our borders. After all, the European Union has been operating the world’s largest sea rescue mission since this spring! I know that people are still dying on overcrowded traffickers’ boats but I want to remind you that men and women on European ships have already saved thousands of lives – that, too, should be acknowledged!

Thirdly, and I’m in my element here as Foreign Minister: we have to attach a completely new importance to cooperation with countries of origin. And by this I don’t primarily mean our debates on development cooperation. That can’t be our main focus because only a fraction of people are currently coming to us on economic grounds. Rather, we have to provide opportunities for those fleeing violence, wars and failing state structures to stay in their home regions. However, the UN humanitarian agencies are drastically underfunded in these very regions. The World Food Programme had to cut the food aid for each refugee to 13.50 dollars per month – per month! – in July. That is a humanitarian scandal. What’s more, we shouldn’t be surprised if even more people now leave the camps and set off for Europe. Two weeks ago at the UN General Assembly, I therefore called together the key industrialised countries and the Gulf states. Together we succeeded in bringing about further commitments to the tune of 1.8 billion dollars, more than 100 million of which came from Germany. That was an important step, which will hopefully be followed by others!

Primarily, however, our foreign policy efforts must, of course, be targeted at the causes of flight and displacement, at political solutions in the disastrous conflicts in the arc of crisis from Libya to Afghanistan. The slaughter in Syria is already in its fifth year and still knows no end. And the diplomatic progress which many hoped would be achieved at the UN General Assembly in New York didn’t materialise. On the contrary, Russia’s military intervention hasn’t made a solution any easier. We need Russia – but not Moscow’s military mission. What we need is Moscow’s political commitment to Syria’s transformation. We need constructive channels of communication between Russia and the US and, above all, we need to get the regional players around the negotiating table. I’ll be discussing these issues on my trip to Tehran, Riyadh and then Amman, which begins tomorrow.


Friends, “Towards a progressive Europe” – that’s not just a nice-sounding conference title. Rather, it’s vital that social democrats demonstrate that this is their goal when it comes to monetary union or the refugee crisis. Either we resolve our problems together in Europe or we resolve them badly or not at all! Europe is at a crossroads – yes, that’s true. But the good thing is that we can choose the right way forward.

Thank you very much.

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