Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me begin by welcoming you all this afternoon – the excellent team of organisers from the Progressive Zentrum, our honoured guests from all over Europe –
Welcome to the Federal Foreign Office!
As we know, when your conference takes a long time to plan, you can be very lucky – or you might not. It may be that the subject matter, highly topical during the planning process, is already old hat by the time your event starts. Or the opposite may happen: it could be that when you started organising the thing, no‑one could have predicted how perfect the choice of topic would later prove.
And now, sadly – and I really do mean ‘sadly’ – I think we all agree that there could hardly be a more fitting moment to consider the future of Europe.
Last Thursday, the people of the United Kingdom made a majority decision to leave the European Union. That decision has to be accepted and respected, but it is a bitter day for the EU as a whole.
The task now is to find a swift solution to manage the UK’s departure that all parties find appropriate. We cannot afford to stay in limbo. I expect that the roadmap will be cleared up soon.
But this is not just about Britain; it’s about Europe. In the aftermath of this referendum, we mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking that things in Europe will just carry on as normal for the 28 members minus one.
The European Union is losing not only a member state in Britain but also a wealth of history, tradition and experience. This is at a time when our European project is having to navigate difficult waters. The financial crisis is not yet behind us, and we are facing a refugee crisis to which we have still not found convincing common answers.
As I see it, three things are vital now.
Firstly, we need to take a stand. European unification remains the touchstone of our policy‑making. And there is every reason to be proud of what has been achieved. Under the roof of the European Union, Western and Eastern Europe have been reunited and we are enjoying the longest period of peace our continent has known in modern times. Not only because it says so in the treaties but also because it remains the right thing to do, we politicians have a duty to create the conditions for the nations of Europe to pursue ever closer union.
Secondly, we need to hold Europe together. Germany in particular has a special responsibility to help make sure that the EU remains united. This means listening to one another, tolerating different points of view and, from time to time, arguing about what we should do.
That’s why I not only joined my friend and French opposite number for a meeting of the EU founding members on Saturday but also talked to the Baltic states on Saturday and met the Visegrad group countries in Prague yesterday.
Thirdly, we have to be honest. If we want both objectives – continuation of European integration and maintenance of European unity – then we need to be more flexible. Wanting to pursue further integration more slowly than we do doesn’t make anyone less of a European. At the same time, we want to be able to go ahead in those areas where we believe joint solutions are urgently needed.
What can we do now? Simply calling for more Europe cannot be an adequate answer, and nor can a phase of mere reflection. People’s problems are real, and they look to their politicians with real expectations, so Europe needs to deliver real solutions.
We have to concentrate our common policy‑making strictly on those challenges which can only be met with common European responses.
Together with my French counterpart, I have proposed ways in which we can make European progress in three areas that we feel ought to be Europe’s core tasks:
continuing to develop our common foreign and security policy; developing a real European refugee policy and promoting growth and deepening our economic and monetary union.
Ladies and gentlemen,
What kind of Europe do WE want? That’s the central question you have formulated.
You have already heard some of my ideas and convictions. What I consider particularly important, however, is that we understand that ‘WE’ correctly. We need to be very clear on one thing, especially in the difficult times Europe is going through: Europe is not an anonymous project. This project doesn’t belong to institutions or elites; it belongs to the people of Europe.
The responsibility for building and running Europe lies with politicians. That is truer than ever in times of crisis. But the ongoing process of European integration has to manifest itself in concrete projects that benefit and engage the people. That is the only way to regain the trust Europe has lost.
This dialogue, this readiness to listen and accept differing expectations with regard to Europe, has at times been somewhat left by the wayside in the past.
I am therefore here today primarily to listen to what you have to say, hear your ideas and find out what you, tomorrow’s Europeans, want from tomorrow’s Europe.
All of you dedicated volunteers have already invested lots of time and effort in this project. This event may be called the opening conference, but in reality it follows on from a whole series of preparatory town hall meetings in Athens, Lisbon, Rome, Marseilles and Madrid. At those meetings, you discussed the important topics of social cohesion, sustainable growth, populism, migration and integration.
Let me tell you that your efforts are appreciated – most especially those of the Progressive Zentrum and its European partners, and urge you to keep up the good work. Your outstanding dedication to Europe demonstrates the optimism and courage required to prevent yourselves being dragged down into the current atmosphere of crisis. Now more than ever, Europe needs you – our young Europeans – to spark new fresh ideas.
I have been given a few hints about what we can look forward to today. Ms Theodorou from Greece will share her impressions of migration from the point of a transit country. Ms Coman from Italy and Romania will remind us of the importance of civil liberties for a successful future. I am also excited to hear what Ms Alali from France has to say about diversity and how Ms Manés from Spain sees certain issues of education and a social Europe. She will be followed by Mr Rosa from Portugal, the only man in the line‑up, who will close the day with a talk on social mobility.
I am very much looking forward to engaging in discussion with the five of you later on. Right now, however, I am very excited to hear what is on your minds, what elements of Europe you feel strongly about – and what kind of Europe you want.
Thank you very much.