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Ladies and gentlemen,
The best and most remarkable lessons on Europe are usually the ones I learn in discussions with colleagues who don’t come from Europe. The view from the outside is often clearer than it is from the inside. And with that in mind, I’m particularly pleased to be here today and to speak about the challenges Europe is facing.
There’s no doubt that Brexit is both a wake-up-call and a challenge for the EU. 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 the most essential framework for our actions.
The nature of our future relations will depend on what the UK wants, but also on the vital interests of the EU27. Of course, we want to maintain a close partnership with the UK after Brexit. As the British themselves have also stressed, the UK is leaving the EU, but it is not leaving Europe. We’ll soon know more about what this means in practice.
But how do things look like on our side of the table?
Our top priority is to get the EU back on track. We need a better and stronger European Union. That's the only chance for us to shape globalisation in a more democratic, more social, more sustainable manner. Germany bears a special responsibility. In close partnership with the new French President Emmanuel Macron, we will revitalise the debate on Europe's future with ambitious and forward-looking concepts and ideas.
What we have to do now is find our feet again. We have to show people 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 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 oldfashioned nation states really show their limitations.
In the globalised world of the 21st century, even Germany, though apparently so big, can only realise its interests within and through 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 ability to act and exert influence on the world stage.
It’s becoming clear that we need the EU more than ever. That is why I simply cannot accept the apparently easy solutions that populists and nationalists in many member states want to fool the public into believing. They pose a threat to Europe. We must not allow populists and nationalists to determine our actions. Instead we have to steer the public discourse ourselves.
Nothing is made better by countries going it alone – in fact, many things are made worse. I’m very relieved about the election results in the Netherlands and in France. However, it remains uncertain whether this spells the end of the advance of populists in Europe. In France, 11 million voted for the candidate of the extreme right, while 4 million spoiled their ballot papers in protest against the candidates. I find this deeply troubling.
In these turbulent times, the Commission has put forward for discussion five different scenarios for the future of Europe. I think this move is timely and smart.
They are asking: What kind of Europe do you really want? It’s our turn as member states to address this question now and take this discussion seriously. And the starting point must be the challenges Europe is facing.
The economic situation remains an important challenge for Europe. The economic and social impact of the global financial and economic crisis has not yet been completely overcome. The situation differs from country to country. Portugal is certainly on the right path, and there is hope for further recovery in other places such as Spain or Greece. And at 1.7 percent, the eurozone actually enjoyed stronger growth in 2016 than, for example, the United States. It is particularly good news 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.
Nevertheless, every unemployed young person is one too many. The youth unemployment rate is still over 20 percent in some member states.
Many people are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. The gap between rich and poor has also increased in recent years. Europe is facing the great challenge of living up to the EU’s promise of prosperity once again. Social justice and fairness must therefore become greater priorities in European policymaking.
Yet another challenge is the migration crisis that has had a huge impact here in Germany in particular. It also created divisions with member states – particularly with Central and Eastern Europe.
But initial key steps to strengthen solidarity within the EU have already been taken: the member states intend to do more to help each other through Frontex in a drive 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.
As Ambassadors, you will have followed the developments in European foreign and security policy closely. The EU’s Global Strategy of 2016 provides the political framework. To put it simply, we in Europe believed for too long that our way of life was best defended by the United States; we wanted to stay out of international conflicts.
Those days are over. The United States and NATO remain the enduring cornerstones of the transatlantic community. However, we need to decide for ourselves how to defend our interests and values and to define our tasks in this crisis-ridden world. We ourselves bear full responsibility. You might say that we’re in the process of growing up.
In the meantime, we are confronted with a number of crises in our neighbourhood. As recently as 2002, we believed we could establish a “ring of friends” with the countries around us. Things turned out differently, however, and something more like a “ring of fire” has developed. Just look at Ukraine, Syria and Libya – to some extent, these crises have a direct and highly political impact on Europe, for example through the refugee flows. Europe needs to develop the instruments and willingness to conduct a more active foreign and security policy and to help find lasting solutions to the crises in its neighbourhood.
Admittedly, Asia and the Pacific region seem a long way off for many people in Europe. But this is short-sighted. Security and stability in Asia have a direct impact on Europe and its prosperity.
In the EU’s Global Strategy we thus agreed that we Europeans want to develop a more comprehensive approach to our relations with your countries. This approach will include greater contributions to Asia’s security architecture.
In Germany and Europe we see the enormous potential for developing our trade relations – particularly given that the United States doesn’t want to pursue the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The EU has signed a free-trade agreement with South Korea that works very well. It’s high time we made progress on other free-trade projects, for example with Singapore, Japan or Indonesia. Fortunately, the free-trade talks with Malaysia resumed on 10 March.
We want to move ahead swiftly. The German Government is pushing for negotiating mandates for the European Commission for talks with Australia and New Zealand. We also want to make faster progress with India.
I am aware that we Europeans sometimes stretch our negotiating partners’ patience. European decision-making processes can be very long and complicated. As Minister of State for Europe, no one knows this better than me. But I can assure you that it’s worth the effort. In the end, you have a result that applies in all member states – that means some 500 million people – and is underpinned by the democratic process. That’s no small thing.
And now I look forward to discussing all this with you.