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Ladies and gentlemen,
There has been much talk about the so-called “spirit of Bratislava” that was felt here during the recent meeting of the European Council in this city. That is why I am pleased to be here today, so that I can discover for myself what this “spirit of Bratislava” is actually about. Hopefully it is nothing frightening, but rather a new form of living together in Europe. Because, in these days, that are marked by crises, we are more than ever in need of cohesion and solidarity.
The European Union is currently not in good shape. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, stated this very clearly during his state of the union speech only a short while ago: The European Union is facing an existential crisis. The Brexit referendum in the UK has contributed to the raising of fundamental questions about the future of the EU.
So, what now, Europe? Do we all sink into depression? Do we issue our own predictions of doom and gloom about the impending collapse of the EU? Recently, I read an essay by the political scientist Jakub Grygiel in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. In it, he supports a break-up of the European Union and praises the return of a Europe composed of nation states as the only way that promises to solve the problems of our continent. What nonsense!
Reading this made me ask myself whether Mr Grygiel and I actually live on the same planet. For me, nothing has changed: The EU is our life insurance in these turbulent times marked by globalisation and crises in our neighbourhood.
That is why I today want to put this in even clearer terms. For us, the EU is non-negotiable. For the Federal Government, the process of European integration is a fundamental guiding principle that we have enshrined in our Basic Law. 70 years of peace, democracy and freedom in the European Union are absolutely not to be taken for granted. This becomes particularly clear to us during times like this, with armed conflicts in our neighbourhood.
Only by staying united can we maintain our formidable strength. Today, we Europeans amount to no more than eight percent of the world’s population; the projection for 2050 is that this figure will drop to only five percent. Not a single European country will then remain among the world’s leading economies. However, in its entirety, the European Union would still be in this group.
If I read the statistics right, then popular support for the EU remains strong in Slovakia, as well. According to recent Eurobarometer survey data, 87 percent of Slovaks particularly value the freedoms of the single European market – including the free movement of persons. Some 78 percent support the euro. And 76 percent are in favour of additional steps to further develop the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy.
If all this is the case, then we must not let ourselves be frustrated. On the contrary, now is the time to roll up our sleeves and fight for a different Europe. The EU must be improved, or to put it another way: we Europeans must become a better team!
Improving Europe. Let me give you four examples of how this can succeed:
First, the EU’s capability to act must be enhanced. By this, I mean that it must be able to address the specific problems and concerns of our citizens. In the eyes of Europeans, Europe must finally again become part of the solution, not part of the problem.
That is precisely where the Bratislava roadmap comes in. This roadmap is part of the declaration that was adopted by the EU27 Heads of State and Government in this city only a few weeks ago. The roadmap contains a long list of projects that are to be tackled over the coming months. So we have committed ourselves to actually implement what we have discussed and agreed. Not at some unspecified time in the future, but right now. Step by step.
Take, for example, the sphere of public safety: Here we want to launch a new system for entry into the EU. This system, named ETIAS, will enable advance checks to be conducted for all visa-exempt travellers. If necessary, they can then also be denied entry.
Or, in the area of national security, where we will enhance our security and defence capabilities, for instance in the domains of cyber defence and satellite communication. Germany is campaigning for the establishment of permanent structured defence cooperation by interested Member States, and we want to specifically examine this option for the spheres of medical care and logistics.
Second, we must improve Europe with regard to migration and protecting our external borders. Since last week, the EU, that is, the Schengen zone, has had its own border protection authority. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency does much more than FRONTEX has done so far. By the year 2020, the Agency will employ 1000 officers and have a budget of 320 million euros, twice as much as the current amount. This will be augmented by a rapid reserve pool of some 1500 national police officers and experts.
But I do want to emphasise that migration policy must not be fully focused on improving the protection of external borders. It is an illusion to think we can barricade ourselves off from the problems affecting other parts of the world by putting up fences and walls. We couldn’t, even if we wanted to. Recent months have demonstrated this in a very clear way. Refugee flows don’t stop at national borders, they keep moving – right up to our doorstep, to the point at which we can no longer ignore them.
And in saying this, I do not want to hide the fact that Germany shares responsibility for the inadequacy of the present-day rules, for example the so-called Dublin Regulation. For a long time, we resisted the idea of protecting our external borders at European level. We also opposed a fair distribution of refugees; for far too long, we shifted responsibility onto Member States along the EU’s external borders.
Meanwhile, Germany’s position has changed completely – as you will know. This took some time to happen, but we were after all willing to critically reassess and realign our position. Now, we have joined other partners in lobbying for a truly European migration and asylum policy. One that is effective, but above all one that is also humane and based on the principle of solidarity. No decree or regulation must ever call into doubt what lies at the core of the European Union: we are, and will remain, a community of shared values!
Third, I want to address the difficult issue of solidarity. We need to do better in this area, as well. In Europe, we agree that solidarity is a fundamental principle of the Union. In the past, we in the EU – and I mean everyone in the EU – have often made the mistake of applying our own views on solidarity as a standard for judging solidarity in all of Europe. That will not help. Solidarity is an absolute prerequisite, but it must be defined and put in concrete terms in each field, on a case-by-case basis.
Particularly as regards displacement and migration, strong differences of opinion arose between Member States over how we should define solidarity among European countries.
For me, however, one thing is beyond question: We must assure those who flee violence, terrorism and war of our full solidarity. We are under a legal and moral obligation to do so. Don’t you think it is strange that Germany has been criticised in part because we treat refugees in accordance with our shared values – that is, humanely and decently. We will continue to do so, and we won’t apologize to anyone for it.
Germany and other Member States have insisted that solidarity in Europe must include a mechanism for fair distribution of refugees among the Member States. Some, including Slovakia and the other Visegrad states, have opposed such a mechanism. It is their right to do so. However, we must then also talk about what solidarity should look like in this sphere.
I am happy that the informal summit meeting in Bratislava has taken a first step in that direction. We have begun to talk more with one another than about one another. I consider the Visegrad joint statement, in which they say they want to search for other models of solidarity, to be an approach worth discussing. In the end, we all need to find solutions. That is why it will be interesting to talk to the states about what they specifically envision. I am looking forward to concrete proposals. However, it remains true that solidarity is a two-way, not a one-way, street. If everyone forms their own interpretation of what solidarity means, then this may also affect other policy areas, such as regional, agricultural or even cohesion policy. And you will know that Europe has always had to reply on the finding of compromises.
Anyone who thinks that results are achieved in a straightforward manner and preferably without any disagreement has a fairly limited understanding of European 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 difficult issues relating to distribution. However, real negotiations based on national interests – and also on conflicting interests when this is the case – are not a sign of weakness, but a simple necessity. And sometimes even a driver of progress.
Fourth, we must improve in the area of communicating about Europe. It is true that this concerns, for the most part, politicians such as myself. Often, it is still the case that after Council meetings in Brussels, national representatives, when speaking to the press, report the results from a purely national perspective. Europe cannot function that way. We all must also bear in mind what is in the interest of Europe.
We must stop nurturing the cliché of supposedly regulation-hungry Brussels bureaucrats. Let me give you a short example. When the new EU regulation on personal protective equipment was adopted this summer, media outlets across Europe made fun of the Commission, saying it was now also out to standardise our grandmother’s crocheted pot holders. Of course, it was elected Member State representatives in the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament who had adopted the regulation – a regulation that does not even address grandmother’s pot holders.
This example has one thing in common with the many others that I could name: it is how we are harming Europe. If we want to make Europe better, then we must stop acting so irresponsibly. For example, the regulation I just mentioned improves consumer protection and even reduces bureaucracy, because it puts an end to the need to observe 28 different national laws in this sphere. This does not mean that the EU should standardise all regulations, but what we should do is publicly recognise that many regulations agreed in Brussels are, simply put, very good for the internal market.
If we could implement the four projects I have spoken about, then Europe would have taken a great leap forward. Throughout history, the European Union has made headway by tackling its crises. Crises can also be drivers of integration and cohesion. We have jointly accomplished many things that, ten years ago, also from Germany’s perspective, were completely unimaginable. I have mentioned border protection as an example – and there are many others.
This is the path we are on right now. 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!
We will work together with our European partners on this, specifically also with the Slovak Presidency of the Council of the EU, and with the European institutions.
And now, I’m curious: will I discover what this spirit of Bratislava is about? Will it give us new courage and strength for our tasks? I look forward to our discussions.