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Speech by Michael Roth, Minister of State for Europe on "Europe – Are our expectations too high? Why we should learn to appreciate Europe once more."

03.02.2016 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Ladies and gentlemen,

“If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favourable to him.” These were the words of the Roman philosopher Seneca more than 2000 years ago.

Nowadays, they remind us far too readily of the EU. To speak plainly, the EU is not making a good impression at the moment. On the contrary, not a day goes by without new reports of the appalling state the EU is in.

Talk of the EU drifting apart can be heard everywhere. Some people even think the EU might collapse entirely. The forces pulling us apart are getting ever stronger. Member states are complaining about a lack of team spirit and cohesion. Unilateral national action is becoming ever more common. The very idea of the EU as a community of shared values is being questioned.

It almost seems as if we in Europe have forgotten what our common objectives were.

Or, to put it like Seneca, what we are missing now is a compass to point the way towards calmer waters. Instead, we prefer to sail on without instruments through the fog – from one crisis to the next.

If I were speaking for one of the populist right-wing parties, of which there are sadly far too many in Europe, my work would be simple. I would join the chorus of sceptics and repeat their simplistic slogans. But that’s not how things really work! There are no simple solutions and quick fixes to complicated problems.

And anyway, it’s simply not true that everything in the EU is bad. I am thus particularly glad that the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung has given me this opportunity today in Schwerin to correct this distorted view of Europe.

Let’s just look at the past year. Were there really nothing but crises in the EU? By no means! It might surprise you, but in 2015 Europe did in fact have a few successes.

And these successes should really give us reason to believe that Europe has what it takes to cope with all its current challenges.

What successes am I thinking of? Foreign policy successes, for example. The EU had for years played a key role in the negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme. The successful conclusion of these negotiations last year showed what the EU can achieve as a global player when it speaks with a single voice. The EU also showed great unity of purpose in 2015 as regards Russia and restoring stability in Ukraine – and continues to do so.

At home, too, within the EU, 2015 was not all gloom and doom. Admittedly, the situation in Greece was and remains difficult. But since a third rescue package was agreed on, the country now has a chance to make a sustainable economic recovery and attain social stabilisation within the eurozone. To this end, Greece must finally tackle the necessary structural reforms, even though some of them will be very painful.

In other member states, reforms are starting to pay off. The economic situation in Ireland has improved significantly thanks to the country’s resolute pursuit of reform. Indeed, Ireland was the most vigorously expanding economy in Europe in 2015, boasting a growth rate of 6 percent.

In Spain, things have also taken a turn for the better, with growth of over 3 percent, even if unemployment is still way too high. And for Portugal, 2015 was the second year in a row with moderate growth. If Cyprus is removed from the economic adjustment programme within the next few months, as is planned, then from mid‑2016 Greece will be the only country left within the rescue mechanism.

So you see, not everything is bad in Europe! And it never was! Hence when the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung asks if the expectations placed on Europe are too high, my answer is a resounding “no”. No, our expectations of the EU are not too high!

Europe is not part of the problem. It’s part of the solution. And in the coming months we will have to keep on working hard to ensure that the EU will in the future offer joint solutions to an even greater number of pressing issues that no member state can deal with on its own.

Ladies and gentlemen,

That brings me straight to the refugee question, to which the EU has so far largely failed to provide joint answers. In essence, all of Europe’s current problems have come together in this crisis.

Let’s look first at Germany. It is true that the numbers of people currently seeking refuge in Germany from war, terror and persecution are high.

But we should not forget for a single moment that we are not merely dealing with facts and figures here, but with individual human beings who have experienced horrendous things in their homelands and quite possibly on the way here too. It is an imperative of human kindness to offer safety and liberty to those in need of protection.

Of course we have to do all we can to integrate the refugees who stay here longer into our society and our labour market. But if we are welcoming, we also expect the people who come here to be willing to integrate.

Anyone who wants to stay here long term has to respect our values and laws – with no ifs or buts. It’s not just criminal laws that have to be respected. Basic standards such as gender equality and tolerance of minorities also have to accepted. These values can’t be acquired in a vacuum. They have to be learned, to be seen in action – in kindergartens and at school, in youth groups and sports clubs.

I am aware that municipal and local councils are currently being stretched to their limits. Without the impressive work being done by countless volunteers the situation would presumably be almost unbearable. I would like to explicitly commend all the people helping the refugees here in Schwerin, too, teaching them German, donating clothes and organising events for them. We can be proud of how our civil society is playing its part in surmounting this crisis.

But our citizens rightly expect Europe to play its part too. Steps have been taken, it is true. But much remains to be done. Let me talk about three areas where work is needed.

Firstly, if we want to noticeably reduce the number of refugees arriving in Europe, there is no alternative to cooperating closely with Europe’s neighbours. I am thinking in particular of Turkey, which has a key role to play in the refugee crisis.

Turkey has not only taken in more than two million refugees itself, it is currently also the most important transit country for refugees on their way to Europe.

The EU has agreed an Action Plan with Turkey. This needs to be implemented fast. We are ready to do our part to provide for the refugees in Turkey, for example by building schools. It is also important for Turkey to secure its sea border and put a stop to the human smugglers’ activities on its coast. There, too, we intend to work together with Turkey.

Secondly, security at the EU’s external borders has to be improved as quickly as possible. We must be able to identify and register without fail all refugees coming to Europe at admission centres in Italy and Greece, for example. The European Commission put forward a number of proposals back in December which have our support. For instance, it suggested broadening the mandate of FRONTEX, the European Borders Agency. FRONTEX could also be given a greater role in the repatriation of refugees.

Thirdly, we finally need a fair system of burden-sharing in Europe. It does not say much for solidarity if a few member states such as Germany, Austria and Sweden continue to take in by far the largest proportion of the refugees. What we need is a mechanism that enables refugees to be distributed fairly on the basis of objective criteria. This presupposes a fundamental overhaul of the Dublin system, which has visibly reached its limits over the past months.

To put it simply, we have no time left to lose. If we don’t get to grips with the refugee crisis now, we risk jeopardising freedom of travel in the Schengen area, causing ourselves major economic loss and possibly even undermining the foundations of our European project. That must be avoided at all costs!

Ladies and gentlemen,

The upcoming referendum in the UK on whether the country will stay in the EU poses another, very different problem for Europe. I have no wish to speculate what it might mean – or already has meant – for the spiralling forces of disintegration within the EU.

The German Government’s position is clear. We want the UK to stay in the EU. The UK is a partner country with which we share many basic values, and which has much to contribute to the EU. I find it very hard to imagine a common European foreign and security policy without the UK!

The British Prime Minister David Cameron communicated his desired reforms to the EU in November, and they are currently being negotiated in Brussels. The outcome must be a package that the UK Government can convincingly put to its electorate for support. But this package must also be acceptable to everyone else. I would thus like to underscore that the Union’s fundamental principles such as freedom of movement and non-discrimination are definitely not up for discussion.

Ultimately it will be up to the people of the UK to decide. It is therefore the job of the political leaders in the UK to convince the UK voters of the good arguments for staying in the EU. It seems obvious to me that the UK’s membership of the EU brings many advantages, and not just to the Brits. All other EU member states will also benefit if the UK stays on board the good ship Europa.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Even if the EU is presently in difficult waters, we must not give up hope and abandon ship.

Courage, solidarity and team spirit are needed now more than ever.

Germany is committed to doing its part to make Europe shipshape and crisis-proof once again. We will in particular push for intelligent compromises at European level.

This will not be easy. One exercise in solidarity is to put ourselves in our partners’ shoes, to see things from their perspectives. From our point of view in Germany the refugee crisis might appear to be the dominant issue, with all being well on the economic front. But in many other EU countries the opposite is true. We have to learn to have a better understanding of such differing perspectives.

Europe is a team game, and success is only possible as a team. We can demand solidarity and team spirit of other member states, but only if we live these values ourselves.

If we take this to heart, we will be able to steer the EU back towards calmer waters. Or, to adopt Seneca’s metaphor, we cannot influence what wind is blowing, but if we in Europe were to agree which direction to steer in, and would then all roll up our sleeves and hoist the sails together – that would in itself be quite something!

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