Ladies and gentlemen,
As we are among friends today, I would like to be very frank and open. After last week’s general elections there is a lot of uncertainty about the political future in the UK and what this means for the Brexit negotiations, which officially started last Monday.
The British decision one year ago came as a shock. It was not only the outcome of the referendum or how the government interpreted it that was somewhat irritating, but also the way this vote came about. We heard and read falsehoods and misleading arguments during the campaign, without any political consequences for those who circulated them. Some of them were even rewarded with a government job.
But from a distance, it also seemed that the entire political class could have taken a clearer stand in favour of the EU. I would have wished for more politicians to point out the many mutual benefits of European cooperation.
In my view, Social Democrats need to be committed Europeans. We are traditionally the driving internationalist and European movement. For me, being a progressive means showing the readiness and willingness to shape globalisation. For the EU is definitely still the best answer to the challenges of globalisation.
Of course, it is one thing to say that not everything is perfect in ‘Brussels’. But it seemed impossible for the advocates of the EU to prevail in this campaign: on the one hand EU labour laws were criticised for being over-protective and bureaucratic, while others labelled the same policies neo-liberal and serving only corporate interests.
I believe some of the protest expressed was directed at issues not decided by EU institutions, but by national governments. I can only encourage everyone to stop playing the blame game on Brussels.
I regret the Brexit vote, as does the entire German Government. But we are where we are and of course we respect the British vote as a democratic decision. And of course we will stay close partners even after Brexit has become reality.
Allow me to say a few words on the ongoing withdrawal negotiations. Where do we stand right now? The UK has sent its letter, the EU27 have adopted political guidelines for the exit talks and given the Commission a mandate. Formal negotiations finally started on Monday. A couple of things are important to me here:
First of all, we want constructive negotiations. We want an orderly exit that avoids legal uncertainty. We want a close future partnership. No one wants to “punish” the UK for leaving the EU. But one thing is clear: the unity of the EU27 is our top priority, also with regard to our future relationship with the UK. The negotiations have to be conducted with one voice of the 27, coherently, by the Commission.
Sequence of negotiations: We have very little time to ensure an orderly exit. The clock has been ticking since the end of March. Difficult questions need to be addressed and agreed upon. Of course, future relations are equally important. But they will take more time than the withdrawal agreement, which needs to be in force in March 2019. It may take several years to negotiate a free trade agreement for instance and have it ratified by the national parliaments of all member states.
And you know that we are planning on agreeing on principles for future relations before the exit as well. Talks can start in autumn 2017 or the beginning of 2018, if we make sufficient progress on the main withdrawal questions.
Citizens first: This is a point where both sides are generally in full agreement. Those who have lived, worked and contributed for a long time on the respective other side have a legitimate expectation to be able to carry on their lives as before. Of course, the political will to safeguard this needs to be incorporated into legal texts that address an awful lot of details. And our governments need to be able to put the new policies into practice.
We want to avoid cherry picking. The benefits of a club do not exist without the corresponding commitments. A common market is made by common rules. Otherwise, you have separate markets. Or an entirely unregulated economy – no safety, consumer or environmental protection or legal standards, but plenty of – in this case – harmful competition.
The financial settlement has become an emotional issue in the press, but it could be conducted as a purely rational exercise. The financial divorce concerns matters the UK has committed to and benefited from during its membership. It is not about imposing a fine on the British taxpayer for leaving. We will find a rational settlement. But of course this does involve large budgets and complex issues. Just think of projects financed by the European Investment Bank over decades and the guarantees given for them by the UK and us. And you will understand there is little appetite in the other member states to say they will pay for the costs of Brexit.
We want to deal very responsibly with the situation in Northern Ireland. I believe the British Government has an obligation to help find creative solutions here so as to avoid any harm to the peace process resulting from Brexit. And the solution can not only consist of doing away with EU customs or trade rules.
The attitude of both sides as they go into these negotiations matters a great deal. It is important to understand that we want constructive negotiations and to stay as close as possible. But the UK faces choices, for instance on leaving the customs union and the single market. These are British decisions.
Please do not blame the EU for the complexity. Some of the Brexiteers seem to believe the EU is just a forum where governments meet and that you can just walk away from. But in the 42 years of your membership, the EU has become a community of law that underpins the daily lives of citizens and companies. Some say undoing this means “un-scrambling scrambled eggs”.
We did not want the UK to leave, and it is only natural that our aim is to keep a close partnership, both economically and politically, even if this partnership remains less desirable than joint EU membership. We need continued cooperation in many fields – for instance on trade, internal security, on foreign policy, defence and research. As the UK is leaving the EU, we need to find an arrangement for all of this.
Some EU programmes are already open to third countries who want to contribute. In others, we will find the right balance. Not everything can be the same as before, as if nothing has happened. Just like other agreements with third partners, our future arrangement should not undermine the internal EU legal framework and provide some common standards for consumer protection.
Finally, I would like to say a few words on our bilateral relations and common challenges in the world. The world is too uncertain for any nation-state to stand on its own. The challenges we are facing are global and consequently need global answers.
Our cooperation in NATO remains unchanged. We should also continue to have a common approach towards Russia and Turkey and to drive forward our successful engagement in the Western Balkans along the lines agreed together in the EU and elsewhere. Iran, the Middle East, Yemen, Qatar and Afghanistan – there are many more issues where we need to work to preserve our bilateral as well as the European and international consensus.
The UK and Germany are frontrunners in shaping and implementing climate policies. We should continue our successful cooperation on this and many other global challenges, even if we need to find a new framework for our cooperation.
And last, but not least: the links between our civil societies have never been stronger than today. This is not only thanks to the more than 100,000 British citizens living in Germany and the nearly 300,000 Germans in the UK.
London and Berlin are cultural magnets. Our countries maintain more than 500 town twinnings and around 2,000 school partnerships, which help to deepen mutual understanding and friendship.
We continue to share the same values and interests, the same views on so many global issues. Safeguarding this partnership in times of a readjustment due to Brexit requires particular attention, commitment and investment. But it is an aim that we absolutely share and into which Members of Parliament of our political families should put every effort.
Now I look forward to our discussion!