– Translation of advance text –
Ladies and gentlemen,
Federal Finance Minister,
Vice‑President of the European Parliament,
Fellow members of the Europa‑Union Deutschland,
We all know you should never pass up an opportunity to celebrate. Even though we as firm friends of a united Europe do not necessarily feel like celebrating at the moment. Today we want to do so nonetheless and join in celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Europa‑Union Deutschland.
Your association is therefore a whole decade older than the Treaties of Rome, the 60th anniversary of which we are celebrating this year. You could say you have always been one step ahead of the EU.
That is something I still particularly appreciate about the Europa‑Union: that you constantly keep us as politicians on our toes and drive us forward.
To be quite honest, European integration has undoubtedly seen better years than the one just past. Yet we can’t just bury our heads in the sand, however strongly the wind may currently be blowing in our faces.
These days I'm often invited to talk about topics such as “Europe in crisis” or – even more dramatically – “Europe on the brink”. A competition to outdo one another with various horror scenarios will only lead to mass hysteria and depression.
Of course, it is easier to join those complaining about the Brussels bureaucratic monster and make the EU the scapegoat for every possible failing.
Yet the EU is simply on the receiving end of something which national politics has also experienced to a large extent: contempt. Neither politics in general nor our democracy, let alone the EU, are still considered capable of finding convincing solutions which serve the common good. The distance between voters and those they elect is increasing despite the rise in direct modes of communication. We all bear responsibility for ensuring that Europe can become a success once again. And backing Europe is certainly worthwhile. The good thing is that the majority of Germans still believes that closer cooperation between the EU Member States is needed. That is no doubt also thanks to the Europa‑Union Deutschland.
Convinced Europeans don't simply fall from the sky or grow on trees. Indeed, you can learn to be a European. With your mind, but also with your heart. You, Europa‑Union, discuss and debate on Europe. Europe needs a vibrant civil society with associations and federations like the Europa‑Union as much as it needs air to breathe.
Citizens who roll up their sleeves, get involved and sometimes hold up a mirror to policymakers are much more than an optional extra. They ensure Europe's survival. Thank you!
That is why I want to encourage us all today, despite our reflective mood, to keep our hopes and spirits up. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying we should all wear rose‑coloured spectacles. I don't want to give the impression that everything in the European Union is running smoothly and that we should just let things continue as they are. It is true that the EU is not in good shape at the moment. But at the end of the day it is down to us to join forces to bring Europe back on track.
The EU needs to prove its worth. The issue of refugees and migration, the numerous crises and conflicts in our neighbourhood, the Islamist terrorism at the heart of Europe, the economic and social upheavals particularly in the south of our continent and the forthcoming withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU will undoubtedly be with us well beyond 2017.
70 years of the Europa‑Union Deutschland: Some of you may still remember a time when the idea of a united, peaceful Europe was still far from being something that could be taken for granted.
We Germans in particular cannot be too grateful that courageous Europeans did not lose their faith in this united Europe. Nazi Germany inflicted unimaginable suffering on the entire continent. At that time we were the last people who could expect to be welcomed back into the fold of our neighbours with open arms rather than being excluded. The EU has thus without a doubt proved its worth as a peace project.
During the last few decades it has brought us peace, freedom and prosperity. It is a guarantee for democracy and diversity in practice.
That of course gives us a particular responsibility to keep it intact also in these times of crisis. We have experienced so much solidarity, generosity, openness and friendship. That gives us an obligation to do everything in our power, both intellectually and practically, to save Europe.
The question as to the future of Europe is currently a bona fide one million euro question. Europe is at a crossroads – between being a continent where national egoism rears its head once again and a continent that stands together in a spirit of solidarity and acts in concert politically. When it comes to the road Europe will take in the coming years – nothing is automatic in either direction.
We must never forget that our united Europe was and remains the logical response to the “catastrophe of nationalism”. And now retreating into national shells is suddenly supposed to be the solution to all of our problems?
Whoever rejects Europe has simply not understood globalisation. What populists and others want us to believe is a grand illusion: countries doing their own thing don’t make anything better, but make a lot of things worse. For it is our nation states which reach their limits in the true sense of the word in the era of globalisation.
Globalisation is not a destiny to which we must yield without question. No, globalisation can be shaped – in a social, democratic and sustainable way. Only with and through Europe can we regain our political capability to act. Europe is and remains our life insurance in the turbulent age of globalisation.
So today, let us look ahead and not ponder whether we have a common future in Europe, but what shape this future should take.
Brexit is a serious setback and a wake‑up call for which no blueprint exists. But 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 indispensable framework for our actions.
With the Bratislava process, the 27 states have shown that they are looking ahead after the Brexit vote. By the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaties in March 2017, a series of concrete steps is to be drawn up.
That will lay the foundation for greater cohesion and solidarity.
And there are even more glimmers of hope. Here, in the Friedrichstadtkirche, we are in a unique place which can show us that although taking in refugees challenges us and requires effort from both sides, it can succeed. What would Berlin be without the Huguenots, Protestants who had to leave France because of their faith and who found a new home in the Prussian capital in the 17th and 18th centuries?
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. And why can’t we finally regard the consensus on establishing a common European Border and Coast Guard Agency as a milestone? Or are you aware of any other permanent multinational external border protection agency? I’m not!
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.
The implementation of the agreement with Turkey is working, despite the problems in our bilateral relations and with the EU. But we have not managed to communicate this properly. The agreement is a major humanitarian act on the part of the EU, for through it we are helping refugees in Turkey. I therefore don’t understand why it is being described as a “dirty deal”.
We can’t yet be happy with the reform of the Common European Asylum System. We want to have made decisive progress on this by March. That also goes for the solidarity mechanisms between the EU Member States.
Germany, too, took its time to be convinced of the need for a fundamental reform of the asylum system. But we were ultimately willing to critically reassess and realign our position.
I have already spoken of the EU as a force for peace. Cooperation on foreign and security policy is very clearly viewed as a major benefit by its citizens. There’s a reason why even in eurosceptical Britain it is one of the policy areas with the largest level of acceptance.
That’s not surprising. After all, the reality around us isn’t as peaceful as our own. That is why, from a global perspective, the EU is also a place of longing:
the guarantee that the dreams of people in our European neighbourhood and throughout the world can become a reality.
The EU peace project must be transformed into a pan‑European peace project. This must be our shared aspiration. That is the only way we can seriously assume greater responsibility for peace, stability and democracy throughout the world.
In recent months we have found common ground in several areas – I am thinking of the Global Strategy, for example, or the most recent European consensus on more security and defence.
The situation in the areas of business and social affairs is variable. Portugal, for example, is going in the right direction, but in other places, too, such as Spain and even Greece, there is hope of further economic recuperation. In December the Heads of State and Government approved the extension of the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI).
It is especially pleasing to see that the number of young unemployed Europeans below the age of 25 has fallen by 1.4 million since the introduction of the Youth Employment Initiative. Nonetheless, the younger generation continues to be hugely affected by unemployment in some Member States.
Europe needs to become a concrete source of hope once again also for this young generation. That, too, is a hallmark of Europe: the promise of prosperity for many and not just a privileged few.
We need sustainable economic growth, more social cohesion, more economic and social convergence in Europe. We need to invest more in research and training to create professional opportunities for everyone and ensure that we do not leave our potential untapped. By so doing we will gradually complete the economic and monetary union. Only in this way can we restore confidence in the EU as a common area of prosperity and social stability.
And then there is something else, which cannot be illustrated with statistics, but which has to be lived out anew each day.
Only recently I had on my desk the book by the Dutch writer Pieter Steinz: “Made in Europe: de kunst die ons continent bindt”. And the cover text appropriately stated: “The book that Europe needs right now: a declaration of love for our common culture”. And I would add: a declaration of love for our shared values.
Democracy, the rule of law, tolerance towards minorities of all kinds, freedom of the press and freedom of opinion are all hallmarks of Europe. It is these very values that strengthen us at our core and bond us together. Our joint achievements in Europe over the past decades encompass far more than just a single market and a single currency. Europe is first and foremost a union of shared values, characterised by cultural, religious and ethnic diversity. That may be hard work on occasions.
But mainly it enriches us and makes us strong in a globalised world. It is this diversity that sparks ideas, inspires creativity and generates new momentum.
That is why I am particularly delighted that the documenta this year is being held not only in my home city of Kassel, in northern Hesse, but also for the first time in Athens. “Learning from Athens” also convinced us at the Federal Foreign Office.
And that is precisely what it is worth fighting for – along the lines of Ovid’s motto: “Happy are those who dare courageously to defend what they love.” Notwithstanding all crises at the heart of the EU and in our direct neighbourhood – we need a Europe that is able to appeal to the minds and hearts of its citizens.
From a logical perspective the European Union is an attractive project if it is able to master the challenges lying ahead and to find answers to the urgent problems confronting our continent. If it succeeds in that, there are enough rational arguments for Europe.
But Europe also has to be a matter of the heart. And if our hearts are to beat for Europe, we need solidarity, courage, a spark of optimism and sometimes a sprinkling of emotion and passion. Yes, and we also need networks such as the Europa‑Union Deutschland. You have made an outstanding contribution to Europe. For that, I thank you.