Speech by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth at the “Quo vadis Europa?” conference at the University of Göttingen on 18 November 2016

18.11.2016 - Speech

Ladies and gentlemen,

“I have the feeling that you at home are all absorbed by the situation in Europe and have forgotten that any shift, no matter how small, has an impact on the vast system of coordinates of global politics and that one day the reverberations could have fatal consequences for Europe.”

That sounds very topical. However, Adam von Trott wrote this in a letter home from Beijing on 18 June 1938. Even back then he recognised that Europe is a global player. What happens in Europe has an impact on our neighbourhood, indeed on the entire world.

But von Trott also wanted to say that we shouldn’t get lost in the minutiae of Europe’s situation but, rather, we must never lose sight of the big picture.

Especially in these times of crisis, we should remember over and again that whether it be Brexit, the economic and financial crisis in the eurozone, the refugee movements along the Balkan route or in the Mediterranean or the Islamist terrorism in the heart of Europe – we can’t simply barricade ourselves off from developments in our neighbourhood and that our “European” crises have consequences for the rest of the world. We live in a globalised world which is ever more interconnected. Everything is interlinked in some way or other.

The fact is that the European Union has brought us peace, freedom and prosperity during the last few decades. And Europe undoubtedly has what it takes to remain our best life insurance.

Nevertheless, many citizens – indeed many politicians – increasingly call into question Europe and the European Union. They have doubts about the meaning and value of Europe.

Here at this conference, you too are examining the question as to where Europe should head. “Quo vadis Europa?” – that’s the question to which you expect an answer from me today. I openly admit that this is a real million euro question.

But let me try all the same. For Europe is currently at a crossroads between being a continent where barriers and fences are being re-erected and national egoism is rearing its head once again, and a continent that stands together and acts in concert politically. Unfortunately, I have to tell you that when it comes to the road Europe will head along in the coming years – nothing is automatic in either direction.

It is now up to all of us, especially you, to get Europe back on the right track.

It’ll be interesting to see whether on Sunday, when this conference ends, you at least have an interim answer regarding Europe’s future. I certainly want to play my part. I’m happy to do so because this conference is the result of a new working partnership between the University of Göttingen and the Adam von Trott Foundation.

I’ve had ties with the Adam von Trott Foundation for many years. The von Trott family has been living for centuries in Imshausen, a small village in my constituency in northern Hesse.

Adam von Trott had links with Göttingen: he studied law here. However, Göttingen was just one part of his education.

During a stay in Geneva in 1928, the 19-year-old Adam von Trott saw international cooperation being put into practice. His commitment to peace and reconciliation was shaped there.

Von Trott was, as it were, an early prototype of today’s Erasmus students: during his studies abroad, among other places in Oxford, he changed his perspective time and again. He looked at Germany and its role in Europe while in China and the United States. Initially looking from the outside and later from inside Germany itself, he watched National Socialism grow stronger. He spoke of a “terrible disaster”.

While working at the Federal Foreign Office from 1940 to 1944, he rejected the Nazi regime and acted as a clandestine resistance fighter. For Adam von Trott wasn’t one to stand by and watch in silence.

He resisted, he spoke out. He didn’t silently toe the line.

As a supporter and member of the group around Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg, he was arrested and, just a few weeks later, executed following the failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler on 25 July 1944. Adam von Trott lost his life for taking a stand and refusing to go along with the mainstream in that era.

Adam von Trott can thus show us the way forward in our current situation. Fortunately, today we live in a very different world. In 2016, no-one has to pay for their political beliefs with their life, at least not in the EU. Even today, however, it requires considerable courage and steadfastness to stand against the tide of Europe-bashing, a widespread phenomenon.

It’s much easier to join those complaining about the Brussels bureaucratic monster and to make the EU the scapegoat for every possible failing.

Especially now, we need committed Europeans to defend the EU against criticism and the trend towards erosion. We have to admit that no-one is born a committed European in Europe’s democracies. The reasons in favour of a united Europe are no longer automatically clear to anyone nowadays. So what Europe needs now are people who are prepared to roll up their sleeves rather than those who simply go with the flow, people who inspire others rather than those who run everything down. Someone like Adam von Trott would be good for Europe right now.

I don’t want to sugar-coat anything here. The migration crisis, the CETA free trade agreement and the discussions about Brexit have left us facing enormous challenges.

All of these issues have resulted in more and more people losing confidence in the EU and longing to withdraw into their national shells. Unfortunately, the EU is no longer seen by many as an engine for freedom and prosperity but, rather, as a mighty and non-transparent structure which only produces crises and no longer results or solutions.

The EU is thus experiencing to an especially high degree something which national politics in many respects has also attracted: contempt. Politics in general, our democracy and particularly the EU aren’t considered capable of finding solutions which serve the common good. The distance between voters and those they elect is increasing despite the rise in direct modes of communication.

Quo vadis Europa? Let me use four current challenges to outline where we currently stand in Europe and what Europe’s future path could look like.

First of all, Europe has always seen itself as a unique peace project: peace, freedom, security and democracy – through a united Europe. But is that really true? Only the EU and its predecessor organisations have succeeded in bringing about peace following two world wars, fascism and the Holocaust. And have been doing so for seven decades.

The reality outside the EU looked, and indeed remains, very different: in South-Eastern Europe there was a terrible civil war in the 1990s which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people as well as millions of displaced persons and refugees. At present, Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine, is being rocked by military conflict. No, the guns haven’t been silenced in Europe. Only the EU can guarantee what people long for all over the world. Europe is thus only a peace project when it dares to embrace close cooperation, growing communitarisation and coordination of competences.

This European Union continues to have a special obligation to ensure that peace, stability, freedom and democracy prevail throughout Europe. For that very reason, it’s so important to continue to give the countries of the Western Balkans an EU perspective and not to leave Eastern Europe to its own fate. How can we seriously shoulder more responsibility for the Middle East and Africa if we’re at risk of failing on our own continent?

The EU peace project must be transformed into a European peace project. This must be our shared aspiration.

With this pan-European pledge we pay tribute to Adam von Trott’s legacy. However, it remains so difficult especially because a short-term enlargement of the EU to include a number of new states would most likely lead to overextension and disintegration. Rapid accessions certainly won’t solve our problems. However, the EU has to do a lot more – whether in Serbia or the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Ukraine or Moldova.

Second, the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees has generated fears in Europe about being overrun by people from other cultures or a deterioration in the social and economic situation. Many people feel that the EU has failed in this crisis. I don’t believe that’s true. But one thing certainly is true: we still have a lot of work to do among the EU member states to convince them that we need a European migration policy which truly deserves that name.

Initial key steps to enhance solidarity within the EU have already been taken: the member states intend to do more to help each other through Frontex in order to regain control over access at our external borders. One major milestone in this respect is the agreement on the establishment of a European border and coast guard agency. By better protecting our external borders, we’ll create more security for individuals. Open internal borders in Europe can only work on a long-term basis if the EU states effectively safeguard the Schengen area’s external borders. We have to know who’s coming to us: where, when and how.

Cooperation on migration policy with countries of origin and transit has now become an integral part of European foreign and development policy.

Together with France, we’re supporting the EU Commission’s proposal to conclude migration partnerships with third countries outside the EU. For we want to combat the causes of refugee movements, not the refugees. First and foremost, this is about investing in supply flows and security, education and training. This will benefit both refugees and the native populations.

Third, in the last few weeks the EU free trade agreement CETA with Canada has provoked heated debate. The discussions have shown that many people fear change in an ever more globalised world. For many people, TTIP and CETA have degenerated into a symbol of unfettered market radicalism. They fear that the social welfare state will be dismantled, high European standards watered down and that jobs are under threat.

Despite all the – in some cases justified – criticism, we shouldn’t forget that the EU’s common external trade policy is an engine for the European economy which is contributing to growth and employment in Europe. The fact that our global economy is ever more interconnected brings not only risks but, above all, huge opportunities. We owe our economic prosperity and many of our jobs to free trade. In Europe, we’ve thus achieved something without equal in the world: the coupling of economic-ecological progress to a social security system for citizens. Economic progress is most definitely not an end in itself.

In addition to the purely economic advantages, it’s at least equally important that the EU as a whole has the opportunity through agreements like CETA to help shape the rules for tomorrow’s world.

Globalisation is not a destiny to which we must yield without question. No, globalisation can be shaped – in a social, democratic and sustainable way. A forward-looking EU trade policy can help to ensure on a durable basis that standards are improved for everyone – for people both inside and outside the EU. Regrettably, I’ve noticed that this argument is too often missing in the heated debate about free trade agreements, which is often marked by half-truths. However, I expressly recognise that public pressure and criticism have helped improve quite a few aspects. As long as we’re unable to set ambitious internationally binding standards via the WTO, agreements such as CETA are key steps in the right direction.

Fourth, the internal cohesion of the EU has been badly shaken by the vote by the UK electorate to leave the EU. I regret this decision, but I have to accept it: in future, the United Kingdom will go its own way.

Brexit is an important juncture and a wake-up call. But there’s one thing I can guarantee: Brexit certainly doesn’t mean the end of the EU. The remaining 27 member states have made it clear that we stand united: for us the EU continues to provide an essential framework for our actions. With the Bratislava process, the 27 states have shown that they’re looking ahead after the Brexit vote. By the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaties in March 2017, a series of concrete steps are to be drawn up. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound especially bold. However, the EU treaties already give member states the opportunity to move forward with greater determination. This means that greater differentiation is possible. Although I reject the idea of a two-speed Europe, I support an avant-garde, a Europe of countries which can inspire bold action.

What we desperately need now, however, are concrete results which prove the EU’s capability to act.

Neither the calls for a grand venture, that’s to say a major step towards greater integration, nor calls for powers to be repatriated to nation-states, are appropriate at present. What we have to do now is find our feet again. We have to show people, especially in the areas of policy in which they rightly expect more from the EU, that the EU can deliver convincing solutions and results which an individual member state couldn’t achieve on its own.

It goes without saying that the EU shouldn’t control everything down to the smallest detail. However, when it comes to protecting the climate, regulating the financial markets, combating international terrorism or dealing effectively, but most especially humanely and in a spirit of solidarity, with international flows of refugees – the only way to achieve all of this is through joint European action. These are the global issues where old-fashioned nation-states really show their limitations.

In the globalised world of the 21st century, even Germany, though apparently so big, can only realise and defend its interests within and by means of Europe. For in the global pond, we’re a pretty small fish on our own. Only a united Europe offers us a chance to regain some of our lost capacity to act and exert an influence on the world stage. It’ll be interesting to see how people in the UK think about this in a few years’ time.

What Europe’s future will look like isn’t a question only for politicians. We have to conduct the dialogue about Europe’s prospects to a greater extent outside EU headquarters and cordoned-off conference centres in Brussels, Strasbourg or Luxembourg. We have to involve all players and, in this way, renew the basic consensus on European integration.

This conference here in Göttingen, which is spending an entire weekend examining the major challenges facing Europe within and in an international context, is a good example of this.

One thing is especially important to me: we mustn’t allow populists and nationalists to determine our actions. We mustn’t simply react but, rather, we have to try and steer the public discourse ourselves.

In order to do so, we must of course look at the legitimate concerns and fears among the general population. However, we mustn’t give in to the temptation to simply run after the populists and to copy their cheap slogans in a watered down version. That won’t work for, in the end, the original and not the copy always gets elected. Instead, we have to embark on the much more difficult path:

We have to counter the sceptics, critics and oversimplifiers with facts, arguments and by putting our commitment to Europe into practice. We have to explain in a transparent fashion what we’re doing and why we’re not doing something else.

What needs to be done? Let me set out two proposals:

First, the controversy about refugee policy revealed that there is no longer a consensus on our European social model. Nationalists advocate homogeneous societies and fuel fears of being overrun by people from different cultures and of loss of identity. That’s not just a violation of the EU treaties. For anyone who has looked at Europe’s history knows that we’ve always been a continent of migration and immigration. Europe’s societies are values-based. And each and every individual is bound by these values. The EU is far from being an economic construct free of any obligations. We are a community founded on shared values.

And we are open to different cultures, ethnicities and religions. Admittedly, that’s demanding, but it’s also enormously enriching. Anyone who wants a diverse and colourful Europe must highlight these values time and again and seek consensus on them.

Second, the growing nationalism also feeds on the resentment of those opposed to modernisation – all over Europe. For them, for instance, equal rights for women or the recognition of sexual minorities and their equality go far too far. They feel increasingly alien in their own countries. I’ve never read so much nonsense and crazy rubbish as I have recently. No matter how absurd a conspiracy theory is, it attracts attention in the social networks. At the same time, people claim that their freedom of opinion is being excessively restricted by supposed political correctness.

Let me make it clear: I’m proud of the social progress in Europe. There’s nothing to relativise here or even turn back.

However, arrogance and disdain won’t get us anywhere. It’s easy to become indignant about angry white men. It’s more difficult to talk to them. That’s the background I come from. People who increasingly feel that their own culture is disappearing, who fear they’re in danger of losing their place in society and their jobs due to globalisation, need someone to listen to them not only in the AfD or the Front Nationale but also, indeed foremost, in social democratic and progressive parties. Let me state categorically that racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia were and always will be completely unacceptable. Spelling this out is part of my understanding of a culture of dialogue in which clear opinions are expressed but without arrogance.

At political level, of course, a clear commitment also means honestly naming the failures – but also the successes – of the EU. Politicians in particular should take this to heart. Unfortunately, it’s still often the case that successes are celebrated as national successes while failures and problems are blamed on Brussels. That has to stop.

Even if it sounds trivial, the best way to counter Europe fatigue is still to experience Europe. That’s why we have to enable the greatest possible number of young people to see Europe first-hand, regardless of their parents’ financial means. This is exactly what the life of Adam von Trott shows us: how important it is to gather one’s own experiences and to see things from a different perspective now and again.

In Geneva, he saw how a multilateral framework for international relations can foster peace.

During his periods of study in Britain, he wasn’t only able to look at Germany from the outside but also to get to know committed young Britons. The political pragmatism of the British and the goals of the labour movement had a lasting impact on his views.

Adam von Trott showed us the way. He became a committed European as a young man. Europe’s future lies in the hands and minds of its young people. They, too, have to experience Europe first-hand. It will be very difficult to convince young people of Europe’s value merely by pointing out the horrors of its past.

What Europe has been lacking time and again is empathy and passion. We need a lot more of both. Yes, it’s true that in the EU today, we are living our dream of peace, freedom, democracy and prosperity on a daily basis. Yet it’s also true that dreams, once realised, tend to quickly become banal and taken for granted in everyday life.

Nearly all of us have seen that happen first-hand. Europe: for many people nowadays, it seems like a couple who have been together for a long time. The high of young love has passed, and the nitty-gritty of everyday life is taking centre-stage. The relationship is starting to show the strain; doubts are growing.

But Europe isn’t just a playpen for detail-worshipping technocrats. Europe isn’t a craze to make everything the same, to spread uniformity and amalgamate differences. On the contrary, Europe is the dream of diversity, the guarantor of our individual ways of life, our life insurance in this turbulent age of globalisation. We ought to remind ourselves of that when we’re next in doubt about the point and value of Europe.

I said at the start of my speech that what Europe needs now are people who are prepared to roll up their sleeves rather than those who simply go with the flow, people who inspire others rather than those who run everything down. Someone like Adam von Trott would be good for Europe right now. That’s why I think it’s great that the University of Göttingen and the Adam von Trott Foundation are working together so closely. For we all know that the future needs us to remember the past. And we can learn a lot by remembering Adam von Trott and, indeed, derive strength for future tasks.

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