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Ladies and gentlemen,
This is the second time I have attended a meeting of the German-Slovak Reflection Group. I remember well our open and fruitful discussions at the meeting in Bratislava in October last year.
It is a pleasure for me to exchange views with you, Ivan Korčok, today at what is already the 6th meeting in this successful format. The fact that we are able to discuss all questions related to the future of Europe in a spirit of trust at such a critical juncture, when the political landscape is being remoulded, is proof of the outstanding quality of relations between our nations.
There is no doubt that Brexit is both a wake-up call and a challenge for the EU. But I am sure that Brexit 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 will remain our common future, committed to peace, solidarity, democracy, the rule of law, freedom and security.
As regards future relations between UK as a third country and the EU27, both sides are aiming for a close partnership. This is in our mutual interest. But the terms and conditions have yet to be negotiated. The arrangement must not undermine the legal framework of the EU or our internal cohesion as 27, and it must contain a balance of rights and obligations. We will soon know more about what the UK position will actually be.
Also with a view to our future as 27, we need to make the case for Europe to our citizens and again underline the value of European integration. 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. This is what the heads of state and government have committed to in the Bratislava agenda and upon the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome in March.
A strong European Union is the only chance for us to shape globalisation on the basis of our common values. Even Germany, though apparently so strong and competitive, can only make its voice heard on the global stage and have its interests protected with the help of a common European approach - for in the global pond, we are a pretty small fish on our own. Protecting the climate, regulating the financial markets, combating international terrorism and effectively managing international flows of refugees in a spirit of solidarity – these are global issues where nation states alone can no longer succeed on their own.
That is why I 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 because they question the precious heritage of freedom, openness and the rule of law. In this context let me say how relieved I was to see how the elections turned out in the Netherlands and France.
However, it remains uncertain whether this spells the end of the populists’ advance in Europe or whether we have only gained some time.
In these turbulent times, the Commission has put forward for discussion five different scenarios for the future of Europe, asking us what kind of Europe we really want. It is our turn as member states to address this question now.
All EU partners have to maintain a close dialogue when addressing this issue. Therefore I really welcome today’s opportunity for discussion. The contributions of the Visegrád countries play a role in all debates, and I want to take this opportunity to thank the Government of Slovakia for its constructive efforts especially during the EU Council Presidency.
The challenges Europe is facing must be the starting point of all discussions.
The economic and social impact of the global financial crisis has not yet been completely overcome. But 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, the youth unemployment rate is still over 20 percent in some member states.
Social justice must become the top priority in European policymaking. We have succeeded in creating a common market and in removing internal borders. But people who have lost their jobs or have been affected by budget cuts as a result of the financial and economic crisis in their member states worry about social decline. Europe is facing the great challenge of living up to the EU’s promise of prosperity once again.
We must show Europe’s real value in social terms as well. For this we need a joint effort by member states and the European Union in various fields, from a minimum income to social safety nets, from tax justice to more investments for growth, from better education to combating youth unemployment.
Another challenge is migration. Initial key steps to strengthen solidarity within the EU have already been taken: member states intend to do more to help each other through Frontex in order to regain control over our external borders. Open internal borders in Europe can only work if we effectively safeguard the Schengen area’s external borders. One major milestone in this respect is the agreement on the establishment of a European border and coast guard agency. But we must also keep the issue of burden-sharing on the agenda. We ask for solidarity based on our community of values.
Greece and Italy are coping with huge challenges caused by migration towards the EU as a whole. This was the case already before the crisis in Syria. Greece and Italy do not deserve to be left alone with that burden!
Yet another challenge concerns the further development of the European foreign and security policy. The crises in Ukraine, Syria and Libya have had a huge impact on Europe, for example through the refugee flows. Europe needs to develop the willingness and the instruments to conduct a more active foreign and security policy and to help find lasting solutions to the crises in its neighbourhood. To put it simply, we have relied too long mainly on the United States for our broader security. Those days are over. NATO remains the enduring cornerstone of the transatlantic community. However, we need to decide for ourselves how to defend our interests and values in this crisis-ridden world where international norms are being questioned by a number of international actors.
At the anniversary summit in Rome the EU member states reinforced their commitment to a better and stronger European Union, while at the same time leaving room for manoeuvre in terms of the degree and speed of cooperation in individual policy fields. Different speeds of integration do not mean that anyone should be left behind or excluded. But those who want to cooperate more closely to solve common problems should have the instruments to do so, provided their cooperation remains open for anyone who would like to join later.
I very much welcome the current debate on Europe’s future. A pluralist democracy means that contradictions and complexity are inherent in society. It means that society tolerates differences and takes diversity as enrichment. It means that compromise and dialogue are perceived as strength, not weakness.
We should also enhance dialogue with people in our countries. To this end, we in Germany have established discussion fora and encouraged town hall debates. I think that this open dialogue is the lifeblood of our democracy!
The European Union is the indispensable framework which regulates relations among the European states peacefully and in the interest of all. We should defend these achievements, and redouble our efforts to confront the current anti-globalisation tendencies and anti-European sentiment. By “we” I mean elected representatives and decision-makers, but also “ordinary citizens” as well.
I believe that if we manage to keep the European Union together, it will emerge as a stronger Union once again!