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Ladies and gentlemen,
It is great to be here at the first meeting of the Romanian-German Forum in Bucharest, on what is in fact my first visit to Romania! Although I knew that Romania was famous for its hospitality, I must say that I am deeply impressed by the warm welcome I have received here today. Earlier this day, I had the opportunity to meet with President Iohannis, Prime Minister Cioloş, Foreign Minister Comănescu and State Secretary Ciamba in a very open and friendly atmosphere.
But the excellent relations between our countries are much more than the result of regular governmental meetings. They are based on a foundation of close interpersonal connections, thanks in part to the very active German minority in Romania. This group has influenced important aspects of the country’s history and culture and is held in high regard in Romania. And it certainly contributes to the positive image that Germany enjoys in Romania.
The close connections also include the over 400,000 Romanian citizens who live and work in Germany. It may come as a surprise to some of you to hear that Romanians form the thirdlargest group of EU citizens in Germany. These daily contacts between Romanians and Germans show how harmonious and valuable coexistence can be in Europe.
Even if the links between Germany and Romania are so strong, be this on the level of politics or civil society, we must not allow ourselves to be lulled into a sense of false security. We should not take the closeness and intensity of our relations for granted.
On the contrary: we need to constantly make an effort and engage in close dialogue in order to maintain good relations. Bilateral relations are like flowers, they need to be watered and nurtured in order to grow.
And that’s why I came to Bucharest today.
The foundation of the Romanian-German Forum is incontestable proof of the willingness of both sides to strengthen our dialogue and cooperation.
It is a great pleasure and honour for me to exchange views on the future of our common Europe with you at this Romanian-German Forum.
Ladies and gentlemen,
"Common solutions for new European challenges" – the title of today’s event shows that our two countries find themselves confronted with many common challenges, on which we have to work together as partners. Only so will we find solutions.
I am well aware that I am coming to Bucharest at a time when Romania is in a period of political transition.
In Germany we see that this Government is very determined to present Romania as a partner country that seeks to foster domestic stability and is willing to play an active role in addressing our common challenges in Europe.
We respect and welcome this very much!
From our many talks with our Romanian partners since the start of the year, we have gained the impression that the Government is serious about modernising the country and implementing reforms. The European Commission’s Report on Progress in Romania under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, which was published a few days ago, highlighted significant progress. It also showed where further work is needed.
In Germany, we have been following these efforts to implement reforms very closely. The German Government stands ready to provide support where desired and where possible. We have a great interest in a stable Romania, in a country strengthened by internal modernisation that is able to play an even greater role in the European process.
At a time when the concept of Europe is increasingly being called into question, we need Romania as a proEuropean force.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Allow me to speak frankly. I am very worried about our Europe. The EU has rarely had to fight fires on as many fronts as it does today. The challenges include both internal and external ones: the refugee issue, the forthcoming referendum in the UK, and the deep scars left in many member states by the financial, social and economic crisis.
But they also include shared security policy challenges, some of which are right on our doorstep, if we think of Ukraine, or Syria, or the terrible impact of international terrorism, such as the attacks in Paris or Istanbul. No country will be able to deal with these challenges on its own. We will only be successful if we find common European solutions.
It is clear that Germany, as the biggest member state with a strong economy, bears special responsibility for Europe. This is not a matter of choice or wishful thinking, but simply a reality. We are willing to play a leading role in Europe. But this doesn’t mean that we will engage in any arrogant finger-pointing. Instead we want to lead by example - by practising solidarity and team spirit.
There is no shortage of common challenges, that’s for sure. And there is no doubt that the refugee issue is the most pressing task at the moment. I am aware that some EU countries are more affected by the flow of refugees than others. But we should never forget that we are not merely talking about facts and figures. Each number represents a human tragedy, a person who had to leave his or her home and who may have experienced horrendous suffering on the journey to Europe. We cannot turn our backs on these people. But we must also honestly admit to ourselves that there is no simple formula that will solve all the problems.
The European Commission has presented various proposals to resolve the refugee issue. Our overall concept must include various components. We need to improve the protection of our external borders by strengthening Frontex. Romania is setting a good example in this respect.
It is vital that the hotspots in Italy and Greece work well so that all arriving refugees can be registered and identified properly. This is the only way that we will be able to maintain the Schengen system of open borders in the long term.
Apart from fundamentally reforming the Common European Asylum System, we need to adopt a fair and permanent solidarity mechanism to distribute refugees. Each member state has to play its part here, and I am pleased that the Romanian Government has signaled its solidarity by taking part voluntarily in the distribution of refugees.
Last but not least, we need to tackle the reasons why people flee.
This includes addressing the causes of conflict and human rights violations in the countries of origin in a more strategic and focused manner. Above all, we need a new diplomatic push on the conflict in Syria.
But let’s not delude ourselves here. This is a process that will take quite some time. Until we achieve lasting success in this area, Europe will remain a place of refuge for people in need of protection.
Ladies and gentlemen,
As a committed European, I stand up for our common project. But obviously I’m not blind to the fact that populists and eurosceptics are currently proving popular with their simple slogans. They want more control in their national capitals and less in Brussels. I don’t agree. We don’t need less Europe, or even more Europe. What we need is a better Europe!
This might also be acceptable for the citizens in the UK who will probably decide this summer whether or not they want to remain in the EU. Our position is clear.
We want the UK to remain in the EU as a dedicated partner. But the decision is entirely up to the UK. The country must define for itself what relationship it wants to have with the EU.
We are willing to conduct constructive talks on this. The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has made an ambitious proposal which is now under consideration by all member states. The outcome must be a package that the UK Government can put to its electorate. But this package must also be acceptable to everyone else. I, too, do not believe the EU should decide on everything down to the smallest detail – but the Union’s fundamental principles are definitely not up for discussion.
Ladies and gentlemen,
If you ask me, team spirit and solidarity are always the best solution, the best means of surmounting the challenges we face.
But at the moment many Europeans are asking themselves whether Europe has lost its sense of solidarity in the face of the crisis, whether we can still rely on each other.
During the last months we have realised that there are different perspectives and expectations with respect to solidarity in Europe – depending on countries’ individual problems, experiences and challenges.
Let me give you a few examples. States like Greece, Portugal and Cyprus are suffering from insufficient growth and high unemployment. These countries justly expect European support in order to overcome their economic and social crises.
In contrast, member states in Central and Eastern Europe, like the Baltic States, worry about their security and about their energy supplies after Russia’s attack on Ukraines' sovereignty and territorial integrity. They expect European solidarity on security and energy issues.
Other countries like Greece and Italy, as well as Germany, Austria and Sweden, are confronted with the influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa who are fleeing civil war, hunger and poverty at home. Those countries expect assistance in order to cope with the challenges of migration.
All these examples show that we all live in mutual dependence. At some time or other, certain member states will need more assistance than others. No single EU member state – not even Germany – is able to master these challenges alone. Only joint European action will do the trick.
This does not mean that we always have to agree on each and every issue. On the contrary, discussions on controversial topics help us to understand our partners’ perspectives and to grow as a team.
However, when we talk about being a team, we also have to act like team players. Solidarity is not just a theoretical construct – it must be lived in concrete terms. Unfortunately, during the last months this has not always been the case.
But I am convinced that in the long run "going European" is always better than "going solo". And I am glad that Romania and Germany are going this way together.