“A Strong Europe in the World of Today”, speech by Federal Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the European Council on Foreign Affairs

26.06.2017 - Speech

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished colleagues, dear Mark Leonard,

First of all: Happy Birthday! It is a pleasure to welcome you in Berlin for this event which marks the 10th anniversary of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

10 years ago, the ECFR was founded to facilitate and to deepen the strategic discussion amongst Europeans. I congratulate you most warmly for what you have achieved so far.

Your clear focus on the relevant policy debates in the European capitals is your comparative advantage. The strategic decision to settle in European capitals and not become yet another Brussels Think Tank has been proven right by the course of events. The ECFR gathers, channels and challenges the intellectual diversity and creativity of the European nations. The role of member states has become more important over the last decade – for better or worse. The ECFR may take the praise of having scouted this trend very early on.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

So much for praise, now to the problems. The ten successful years of the ECFR coincide with a sequence of European crises that brought the historic project to the brink of collapse. 15 years ago the idea of “ever closer union” seemed to be the only game in town, a process which culminated in the drafting of a European Constitution. But this trend was not only stopped by national referenda, the whole project crumbled under the onslaught of events. The financial crisis evolved into a European sovereign debt crisis and into an existential crisis for the Euro zone; the challenge of the European security order by Russia, civil war and implosion of statehood on Europe´s borders, resulting in a massive refugee crisis; and the rise of populism and nationalism ultimately leading to the Brexit decision continue to threaten the project from within.

2017, which happens to be the year of your 10th anniversary, could be a turning point. Clearly, we are not out of the woods yet, but I think there is some room for optimism. The elections in Austria and the Netherlands proved that the populists are far from taking Europe by storm. In France, the victory of Emmanuel Macron proved to everyone that people on the continent still believe in the EU as a promise for a better future and as force to shape globalization. This is a signal to all of us: We should seize this European moment!

After years of sluggish growth and sometimes painful reforms, the economic situation in practically all 28 Member states is getting better and better. Growth is coming back to Europe, unemployment is going down, investment is picking up.

All in all, we see a strong momentum: Europe is back again. The main challenge is to turn this momentum into a sustainable, positive dynamic for the European Union. A European Union that protects its citizens and their interests and at the same time is capable to defend the common European interests around the globe.

Let me outline three priorities that could turn the positive momentum into a sustainable dynamic: First, we should strengthen Europe internally, doing more on the social and economic front and invest in the economic success of tomorrow. Second, we should strengthen the impact and reach of European Foreign and Security Policy – in our direct neighborhood and beyond. And third, we should defend and further develop Europe´s role in the international order at a time where geopolitical rivalries, thinking in zero sum games and pure bilateralism experience a dangerous renaissance.

My first point: strengthening Europe from within. The social and political cohesion of Europe, its historic promise of prosperity and protection is at the core of the project. Of course, structural reforms and a strengthened competiveness are important prerequisites of success. But in the last five to ten years, we sometimes underestimated how painful some of these measures had been and still are for the social fabric in the most affected countries. If we alienate people in Southern Europe by firmly insisting on austerity measures, even in a situation where one out of two young adults is unemployed, we will less likely be able to maintain broad support for our common cause.

Therefore, the reform of the Eurozone and the development of its governance structures are the most urgent tasks for realizing more social and economic cohesion and to avoid an ever growing divergence of the European economies. I strongly support a joint Franco-German strategy in this regard. France already put forward some ideas, notably about a budget for the Eurozone and a finance minister. I welcome these ideas, which have, apart from the usual suspects, received a positive echo, including in German business circles.

But we should go further: Germany and France both have to lead in the field of a more social Europe, a “Europe that protects” as Emmanuel Macron would put it. Therefore we strive for minimum wages and basic social security systems in all member countries. Our goal is furthermore that for the same work at one place the same wage has to be guaranteed. In addition, we clearly have to continue to support regions and countries which are struggling with high youth unemployment, through European financial means, through targeted investments into infrastructure and digital capacities, through mobility schemes and by a massive effort in qualification.

My second point: strengthening the impact and reach of European Foreign and Security Policy

The question of European security as re-emerged since Russia´s seizure of Crimea and its interference in Eastern Ukraine, but also with the rise of terrorism and the collapse of states in our neighborhood. The last European Council marked some important progress: the endorsement of the Permanent Structured Cooperation or PESCO is an important step as well as the establishment of the European Defence Fund. Better spending, joint projects and a coordinated development of European defence capabilities will help us to invest more efficiently in security. And the new Military Command and Control Capacity, the European Headquarter for non-executive missions, will speed up our ability to act. Interestingly, while we will certainly miss the British capacities in all matters of security, we reached unity on these decisions remarkably quickly since last summer.

The necessity to act is obvious. We have to tackle the immediate and long term problems of our southern neighborhood. The task is evident to every European citizen due to the refugee crisis. I strongly support a more visible role for the European Union in countries like Libya or in the Sahel region. It is in the European interest not only to fight terrorism by supporting the G5 Sahel, but also by contributing to the development in Niger and Mali. The integrated approach of the European Union, combining civilian with military engagement, is the best way to foster long term stability.

One region that deserves special attention is the Western Balkans - a region that stands like no other for the development of a common foreign and security policy of the European Union. The geopolitical landscape of the Western Balkan region is changing rapidly: social instability and ethnocentric nationalism is threatening the fruits of European engagement and investment of the last 15 years. Organized crime and corruption are destroying the social fabric from within and external actors like Russia, China and Turkey strengthen their footprint in the region.

I am convinced that we Europeans have to deepen our engagement in the Western Balkans. With the so called Berlin Process we work on common projects in infrastructure, energy and investment. We strongly support the idea to do even more, be it in the field of digitalization, in education or in people to people contacts.

My third point concerns Europe’s role in the international order. The European Union with its very special political DNA is a counter model to unilateralism, to authoritarianism and transactionalism. It is the most successful project of supranational cooperation and shared sovereignty in human history, ending centuries of rivalry and violent conflict among its members. Therefore I am convinced that the EU by the virtue of its existence and its success is a major contributor to a rules-based international order, including a system of free and fair international trade, of effective climate protection and a strong partnership between the industrialized and the developing world.

This order is challenged by emerging players, I need not list the examples to this distinguished audience. But it is also less rigorously defended by its former main contributor, to say the least. This makes our task even bigger. It falls upon us to convince the United States, our strong partner in the past, to remain in this business together with us. Some messages from Washington are troubling to our European ears: international politics being described as a Darwinist-like “competition for advantage”. Putting into question free trade by abandoning TTP and harming global cooperation by leaving the Paris Agreement on climate change are wrong, and we have to stay strong and united to counteract the rippling effects that decisions like these have – not only on climate and trade in the narrow sense, but on the world order in general. The EU is close to finalizing a Free Trade Agreement with Japan, and I hope others will follow soon. We fully support the European Commission to forge ahead on this path with full steam. I hope that we will finish a lot of free trade agreements that are in front of us.

Only united will the European voice be heard in the 21st century. Only united will we be strong enough to make a qualitative difference in the political management of globalization. What we lose in terms of demographic and economic weight in the coming decades should be compensated by our joint commitment to make the European project a success, at home and in the international arena.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

the ECFR proved to be wise in setting up offices in European capitals ten years ago. Now you move some major operations to Berlin, strengthening your presence in the German capital. Also thanks to your activities, Berlin is becoming more and more a vibrant hub of intellectual debate on international affairs and security policy.

Thank you for your work, for your commitment and for your engagement for Europe and the European Union. We need your advice and your creativity to keep the momentum this year and the following years ahead and to sustain the positive dynamic that we all feel in and for Europe.

Thank you very much for your attention.

I am looking forward to our discussion.

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