Speech by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel to the German Bundestag on the UK’s notification of intention to leave the EU

30.03.2017 - Speech

Madam President,

Fellow members of this House,

Yesterday, the British Prime Minister formally notified the European Union of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw. The European Union turned 60 last weekend; I think everyone in this parliament would have wished for a different birthday present. But there’s no point in lamenting it. We respect the UK’s decision.

We should be under no illusions, however. Brexit forces everyone, including the remaining EU member states, to recalculate their onward journey. When the EU’s second-largest economy decides to leave the Union, the rest can’t go on with business as usual and pretend nothing has happened.

As it ever was, it is clear to us that the European Union is and remains the greatest project to advance civilisation of the 20th century, and even now, in the 21st century, there is no other region on the planet where people’s lives can be as free, safe and democratic as they are in the EU.

The promise of the European Union is peace and prosperity for all, and we are currently seeing how fragile peace is in parts of our continent where the EU cannot effectively exercise its peaceful influence. It is of course one of the EU’s most important tasks to finally return to fulfilling the promise of prosperity too. Nothing undermines the legitimacy of European integration more thoroughly than 40% youth unemployment in many of its southern member states.

Europe will only succeed if it remains a project of hope, rather than hopelessness, for the next generation. That is what makes the fight for more growth, more jobs, better pay and greater social security so incredibly important.

Just as it was in Ireland, France and the Netherlands, it was working class areas in particular which voted against Europe in the UK. In Britain as elsewhere, as I say, the middle classes, people on not very high incomes, no longer saw the European Union as offering any help for their future. They voted against EU membership not simply because they had fallen for the stupid propaganda of UKIP and others but because they had lost hope that their situation could improve as a result of Europe.

The Bank of England attests that the growth of real wages in the UK has been weaker over the last ten years than at any time since the middle of the 19th century – the middle of the 19th century! What is more, that relatively weak growth in wages has been coupled with varied and often extremely unfair distribution of real-wage growth within the country. Specifically, at a time when wealth has been accumulating on an already obscene scale in, for example, the City, large swathes of British society have been excluded from the promise of prosperity.

If we want to prevent frustration outweighing hope for their own future among the people of the EU member states, we primarily need to see to it that life, income and social conditions in Europe improve for everyone again.

This is important in my view, because we have more to think about in Europe today than our future relationship with the United Kingdom. People’s faith in the European Union has been damaged not only by Brexit but by the many other crises of the recent past. With the economic difficulties facing Mediterranean countries, the need to deal with refugees, the lack of security and pessimism, the international community seems more fragile than ever.

The European project has hardly ever known such severe antipathy from populists dangling easy solutions who want to reduce or even demolish Europe. The message from Rome at the weekend was therefore more than just good news. It contained a long-awaited confirmation of commitment to a stronger socially minded Europe.

Don’t misunderstand me; I am not naive. I don’t think that message alone changes everything straight away. It is, however, an initial sign that the other 27 member states are ready for a change of paradigm and want to move the internal market from a Europe based purely on competition towards more of a social market economy. There is a long way to go before we get there, but the change of direction has finally started.

There is really great news coming out of Europe too. It’s astonishing: in almost every country of Europe, according to surveys, older people are currently the most likely to find the EU bad. That was different when the European Union was founded. Back then, the older, parental generation – those who had lost their sons and daughters in the war, whose children had died, been murdered or suffered injuries – they knew after the war that they never wanted to live through that again. They didn’t want another generation of parents to lose their children to war. Nowadays, it is the young who are defending Europe. They are standing up more and more determinedly for European cohesion. They want a strong Europe – because they know that, in a completely changing world where Asia, Latin America and Africa are growing while we shrink, they and their children will only have a voice if it is a common European voice. Even Germany, strong though it is, will not be listened to in the world of the future unless our voice is a European voice.

The people demonstrating the strong “Pulse of Europe” in our city squares every Sunday are stronger than all the crude anti-Europeans on the far right and left. I would add that those demonstrators showing the pulse of Europe are our strongest allies.

Great Britain was part of and an important player in this great community for decades. Shared history with us Germans – which has not been easy and often been painful – is a bond. Today, we are partners in a peaceful Europe with common interests and values. Innumerable Germans are studying and working in the UK. Young Brits are living among us, enlivening our cultural scene, running businesses and founding start-ups. I believe we have to ensure that the friendship which has grown between the people of our countries is not jeopardised by the upcoming negotiations in spite of all the Brexit-related disagreements. We have to stay friends. That wish may not always be realistic when it comes to separations at a private level. But I think it summarises well what our objective should be. We should stay friends – maybe apart from when we are on the football pitch.

The Brexit negotiations with the UK, which the European Union will conduct on our behalf, are not going to be easy. I’m sure some of you know the saying that things will get tough before they get easier again. That applies to these talks. They will be difficult at first, before they once again become easier. However wrong the UK’s departure from the EU is, and however much it will do more harm to the United Kingdom than to us in the end, as I believe it will (and there can be no doubt that it will harm us too) – we nonetheless have no interest in conducting the negotiations in such a way as to end up with a completely ruined or hostile relationship.

I will add that, for the German Government, it is clear that the most important condition in the Brexit negotiations is that they must protect the interests of the citizens of the 27 remaining member states, the member states’ cohesion as well as economic, social and political interests, and the interests of the EU institutions. There will be no British rebate on any of that.

A lot of detailed work is going to be required. Nevertheless, we should go into the Brexit process with self-confidence and ensure that it does no harm to the 27 remaining member states.

We need clear guidelines to ensure this. As I see it, there are four things we need to consider.

Firstly, we will always have a special relationship with the United Kingdom, not least because of the significance of our collaboration on foreign affairs, on combating crime and terrorism, on research and development and particularly on security concerns.

Secondly, Brexit has generated a great sense of uncertainty not only for our economy but primarily for the more than 3 million EU citizens living in the UK, including 300,000 Germans. We will therefore have to see to it early on that Brexit, as far as possible, does not leave them disadvantaged. That is why EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has rightly made his motto, “Citizens first!” Important though economic relations are, the first priority must be to safeguard the legal status and interests of European citizens in Britain.

We also need to safeguard the funding of EU programmes, such as the European Social Fund and Commission President Juncker’s investment plan. We expect the UK to keep the commitments it has made on that score.

Thirdly, it is clear that partnership outside the EU, such as the UK is seeking, must necessary be less than EU membership.

A free trade agreement, however extensive and innovative it may be, is perforce less trade-friendly than the unencumbered internal market. As we have kept reiterating, the internal market is not an à-la-carte menu; its four freedoms are indivisible, and the free movement of people, which makes Europe what it is, is part of that. London understands that.

Fourthly, our British partners must realise that the closer our partnership is to be, the more shared rules we will need. This means common standards not only for competition, benefits and workers’ rights but also for other areas such as the environment and data protection.

What happens next, ladies and gentlemen? To start with, we need to establish the parameters of the negotiations. We will do that with the guidelines from the European Council. And incidentally, the Brexit process is an EU-only affair. The subsequent process to negotiate the future relationship will centre around a mixed agreement, which will require ratification from the German Bundestag and Bundesrat.

Nonetheless, in my view, although we are not directly involved in the Brexit negotiations, we certainly do have an interest – as I said yesterday in committee – in cooperating closely with one another, in keeping you informed at all times and in coming to you whenever you deem it necessary. Even though it may not, as I say, be directly related to the mixed agreement, I feel it is appropriate to keep the Bundestag as closely involved in these negotiations as possible.

The 27 will now agree on a negotiating mandate and presumably begin the actual negotiations at the end of May. They will start with the key issues of the UK’s departure and then, based on what Brexit is going to look like, talk about the future agreement with the UK.

We need to pick up the ideas we discussed in Rome, take them further and put them into practice. We don’t need more Europe in all areas, but we do need a better and more socially minded Europe in many: a Europe that delivers on its promise of prosperity and its promise of peace, secure borders and protection for its people; a Europe where everyone can play their part according to their abilities; a Europe of solidarity and collaboration; a Europe where we don’t have a few big countries speaking for everyone else but where we all have the same worth and treat one another as equals, and a Europe that acts jointly and doesn’t let itself be split up by others.

To be frank, my greatest worry is that this splitting up of Europe has already begun. I find it flattering when China, the United States and Russia keep wanting to negotiate with Germany – but there is a danger in it too. It is a trap we mustn’t fall into. We need to make it clear at all times that yes, we are happy to talk, and we have a duty to foster stability and a responsibility to Europe, but it is ultimately not enough to talk to Germany; everyone here is worth the same. Europe has far more small countries than large ones.

We therefore don’t want to give anyone the impression that they are being sidelined. As important as the Franco-German tandem is, it is ultimately not enough. The smaller member states in particular need to know that we see them as equal partners, on an equal footing, and that we want to ensure that everyone around the world deals with Europe, not just with parts of Europe. I believe that this is extremely important.

Let me say one last thing. This Europe is perhaps going to take a little courage, no doubt about that. A few weeks ago, I was in the Clock Room at the French Foreign Ministry, where Robert Schuman held his famous speech. I stood there and thought, “My God, what brave men and women they must have been!” So soon after the end of the Second World War – and it was very soon afterwards – they invited Germany to sit at the table of Europe’s civilised nations: the country that had pillaged and murdered its way through Europe. I do not think that the people of Luxembourg, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy or anywhere else responded with nothing but approval and applause when their political leaders said, “Come on, let’s invite the Germans.” I think there was a lot of criticism. But they had the courage to go ahead with the plan all the same.

I believe we need to have courage today as well, though I suspect it won’t take as much courage as the politicians needed back in the day. When we see what is possible and we know where we want to go, then I think we will be able to tap into the requisite courage – and then we will not need to fear that Europe is in any danger.

Thank you very much.

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