“Keeping Europe together” - speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to the WDR Europaforum

12.05.2016 - Speech

Tom Buhrow, Tina Hassel,
Richard Nikolaus Kuehnel,
Members of the German Bundestag,
Excellencies, esteemed colleagues from throughout Europe,
Honoured guests,

I would also like to offer you a warm welcome to the Federal Foreign Office for the 19th WDR Europaforum. I am delighted that you are here today.


Barack Obama has given many outstanding speeches in the past weeks. He delivered one such address to the White House press corps – it was a bona fide satirical tour de force. Whereas the German Federal Government preferred to hold discussions on satire of late, the American President himself weighed in with the satirists – and most successfully, to my mind.

However, the most prominent example in my mind was Obama’s speech here in Germany, in Hanover. In his speech, he called on us Europeans to remind ourselves of what we have achieved. “More than 500 million people speaking 24 languages in 28 countries, 19 with a common currency, in one European Union – remains one of the greatest political and economic achievements of modern times.”

That is what Obama said. And he is right! I mention this quite deliberately at the beginning of my speech to the Europaforum, where everyone today – myself included – will primarily be discussing the crises in Europe.

We must talk about the crises, of course. We must keep Europe together. But we have to know why we are doing this. We must not lose sight of the bigger European picture when in the grip of so many crises.


“Perhaps you need an outsider, somebody who is not European, to remind you of the magnitude of what you have achieved,” said Obama in Hanover.

And such outsiders do not necessarily always have to be the US President!

- They can also be the young people in Tunis who, when I was there on a visit, called out to me: “We want to be allowed to say what we want and live how we want – just like you in”Balad Euroba“; in the ”Land of Europe“ – that is how they saw us!

- Or the people in Mali whom I met with Jean-Marc Ayrault last week. Many of them believe that Europe is synonymous with the hope for peace and social reconciliation, hopes that we are lending our active support.

- Or the porter at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Chisinau. I was there a little while ago, and was just entering the building with my delegation when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a man sitting in the porter’s lodge wearing a tie adorned with gold stars on a blue background. Is there anyone in Berlin, Warsaw or Paris who actually wears an EU tie at work? Well, there must be a few at the WDR Europaforum ...

For me personally, it is perhaps the greatest privilege of my job as Foreign Minister to be able to meet people throughout the world and to take a look at Europe from their perspective. And Europe looks quite different from the outside than it does from the inside. A model for peace and prosperity, freedom and solidarity – this is what inspires people around the world, and this is what is now at stake for us Europeans.


Europe is indeed in a time of crisis.

However, this crisis mode is actually nothing new for us at the Federal Foreign Office. The situation on the Maidan escalated just days after I took office at the end of 2013. A short time later, Russia annexed Crimea contrary to international law. Since then, we have been conducting foreign policy in crisis mode. Ukraine, Gaza, Ebola, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Nagorno‑Karabakh – the crises appear to come thick and fast.

And yet, to my mind, something has changed in recent years. The ”ring of fire“ is tightening. The crises have not only come closer to us, but have now reached the European Union itself.

- This is at its most striking in the form of the refugees seeking shelter in Europe.

- Second, Islamist terror is not only a scourge in the Middle East, but has also struck at the heart of Europe – Brussels and multiple times our friends in Paris.

- Third, we are witnessing a global showdown, a new battle for the international order. In Europe, we are being forced to come to grips with Russia’s return to a confrontational geopolitical mindset. Proxy wars are being waged in the Middle East, and Iran and Saudi Arabia are vying for supremacy in the Muslim world.

- Fourth, all of this is happening while globalisation, digitisation and the sense that boundaries are dissolving are continuing their unstoppable march. For many people in Europe, this smacks more of a threat than a promise – particularly in southern Europe, which is still severely affected by the economic crises.


So this is the concoction of crises that is brewing in Europe. And these crises are giving rise to fear. The sociologist Heinz Bude speaks of ours as a ”society of fear“.

Many concerns are shared by Poles and Germans, and by French and British citizens. It goes without saying that some of these concerns are different or accorded other priorities.

- Fear of terrorism has had a particularly severe impact on France and Belgium.

- The fear of being ”overrun by foreigners“ is spreading particularly in areas where there have been, up until now, only few so-called ”foreigners“, where societies are more homogeneous.

- And fear of our Russian neighbours is greater in Poland and the Baltic states.

It is often history or geography that makes us weight these fears differently. However, it is important that we take all of these subjective threats equally seriously. None of these fears has any greater or lesser right to be heard.


Unfortunately, populists stand ready throughout Europe to make political capital out of fear. There are those who have extremely easy answers at their fingertips – clear stereotypes of the enemy, black and white narratives and ”Us against Them“ interpretations.

I can only warn against pursuing a politics of fear. While fear is an important human reflex, it is an extremely poor political guide.

Despite this, we must not ignore populism or shrug it off with pompous gestures, but must see it as an indicator. Wherever populism is on the rise, there are underlying fears to which the political establishment has arguably not yet found an adequate response. And all of these fears that I have mentioned have, as I see it, one thing in common: the fear of a loss of control. Whether the fear of unbridled migration; or the fear of corporate domination and of third-party interests, which is currently making inroads, at times somewhat hysterically, in the TTIP debate; or the fear – just think of the Panama Papers – that capitalism is infinitely mobile and that the political establishment simply cannot keep up with the necessary regulations. All of these share the fear of a loss of control. The only question is how we should respond.


At the top of the populists’ repertoire of responses – and increasing numbers of people are helping themselves to this remedy – is a return to nationalism. Pull up the drawbridge, shut them out, keep ourselves to ourselves. And the proponents of a return to nationalism quickly find the evildoer in Brussels.

Yet the truth of the matter is this: democracy always entails surrendering a measure of your own sovereignty in order to be able to act together – whether this means ceding power to the local mayor, the national capital or to Brussels. Democracy is always about the willingness not only to have one’s own interests at heart, and about the capacity to balance interests and to compromise. Above all, democracy is a question of relying on others – and that is never compatible with the ideology of fear peddled by the AfD and others.

The more interconnected this world is and the more serious its crises, the more we must be able to rely on partners beyond our national borders – and no other region of the world has practised this for as long, and as successfully, as the European Union. If there is any region in the world at all that is equipped to deal with the loss of control through globalisation, then it is us. It is therefore not only naive, but also wholly wrong to lead people to believe that it is possible to address problems such as terrorist threats, the crises in our neighbourhood or migration management with national responses. I hope that the British people voting in the referendum on 23 June also sense this. At the end of the day, a lack of control will befall them who set their hope in national isolation rather than in European solutions.


To my mind, the upshot of this analysis is a clear mandate for our European policy. We must prove ourselves worthy. We must show that we can bring the crises under control by standing together, and not by drifting apart. This is why I said at the beginning of this year that we must keep together now. The forces of disintegration are enormous. I would even go so far as to say that if the European Union is still around in a year’s time, in the form we know it today, that will be a big achievement!


That might sound a bit defensive for some friends of Europe. But it is not. If we keep the European Union together through the crisis, then when we emerge on the other side the EU won’t be the same as it was before, it will be stronger!

Throughout history, the European Union has moved forwards from its crises. We are on this path once again today, and I cannot rule out the possibility that we will need to become even more ambitious as this year wears on.

Consider the refugee crisis, for example: six months ago, the discussion was still one that threatened to degenerate into an ”everyone against everyone else“ scenario. Some wanted to make it a German problem. Others wanted to abandon Greece and the south to their fate. Despite this, we have – step by step – found common solutions, such as marine rescue operations, improving border security, the EU-Turkey agreement and support for Greece. And so the result of this has been not only far fewer arrivals – the daily average in Greece was only 64 at the end of April – but also the introduction of a genuine common coastguard and border agency, a necessity that we overlooked in the early days of the Schengen Agreement.


As a politician dealing in the realm of foreign policy, I would say that real negotiations of national interests – and also conflicting interests when these arise – are not a sign of weakness, but a simple necessity and sometimes even a driver of progress. In Europe, we have reached a point at which burdens and costs must be distributed among our countries.

We need to do this better in a number of areas than in the past two years. But there are also areas where we are already getting it right. During the euro crises, for example, we Europeans have set up a fund that is able to raise more financial means than the whole of the IMF in order to keep our currency together. We Europeans have established the world’s first cross-border financial supervisory body. I could go on.

Anyone who thinks that such progress is achieved in a straightforward manner and preferably without any disagreement has a fairly limited understanding of politics. On the contrary, we will need to have even more arguments in the future because we, here in Europe, are increasingly being confronted with issues relating to distribution.

And this is why we need forums for debate such the long-standing WDR Forum. And we need a culture of debate. This will help the intrinsic virtues of foreign policy to come to the fore of European policy once again. This is about listening, about inclusion. European foreign policy requires initiative, but initiative requires inclusion. Wherever we display initiative – with France in the Ukraine crisis, with the UK in the Balkans, with Italy in Libya – we always seek, and find, the confirmation and support of the union of 28 nations. But it is also important once again to work to maintain bilateral relations, even within the EU, particularly when new governments enter office that think differently on certain issues – such as in Greece last year, or in Poland just now. Bilateral policy is, to my mind, a question of talking to and not about each other.


”It seems that Europe must always find itself in a situation of grave danger before deciding to do what is necessary to keep it alive.“

This is not a quote from a think-tank analysis hot off the presses, but was penned by author Peter Bamm in the year 1961, and in a text that bears the title ”On the Coasts of Light – Variations on a Theme of the Aegean“. I hope that we decide to do this once more today. This will depend on what happens on the Aegean coast, but also on our friends on the other side of the English Channel.

Thank you.

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