Opening speech by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth at the graduation ceremony of the Master of European Studies of the Freie Universität Berlin

18.10.2017 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Professor Meran,
Dear Fellows,

When you began your Master’s Programme courses almost one year ago, times for the European Union were very tough: There was Brexit, the migration issue, the crisis of solidarity, and the rise of populism and nationalism – to mention only a few of the major challenges.

You, however, were courageous enough to embark on a Master’s Programme in European Studies in times of crisis. You demonstrated courage and optimism. And I congratulate you on it!

Being professional optimists and committed Europeans – that is something we truly share. When I tell you that I have been into European politics for 19 years now, you may think this guy must be really frustrated!

And yes, it is true, the European Union can be very frustrating and exhausting. I have witnessed quite a few EU crises during the past years. To be honest, sometimes I am fed up with being in crisis mode. But, as a politician, I cannot allow myself to give up – I’d be in the wrong profession if I did.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today, there seems to be far more reason for optimism in Europe than one year ago when you began your Master’s Programme. Commission President Juncker, as well as French President Macron, have made courageous proposals for a reform of the European Union.

Their ideas have been warmly welcomed, and there is a general willingness to bring the European Union forward. Jean-Claude Juncker has said that we have wind in our sails, and I hope that we all feel at least a little breeze.

And I do hope that the new Federal Government that will come into office in a few weeks or months’ time will support an open, brave and ambitious debate on Europe’s future.

While I share the optimistic outlook on the future of the European Union, there is one trend that continues to worry me. That is the rise of populist and Eurosceptic movements all over Europe. Look at the large number of Eurosceptics in the European Parliament. Look at the AfD, which now has seats in the Bundestag. Look at the Front National in France, with Marine Le Pen making it to the second round of the presidential elections. Or look at the elections in Austria, only three days ago, in which the FPÖ won a large percentage of the vote.

Let us not be mistaken – in many of these cases, the term “Eurosceptic” is a mere euphemism: Too many of these self-proclaimed Eurosceptics do not want to critically evaluate the European Union in order to improve it. They seek to undermine it in order to turn back European integration.

How do we then deal with the rise of populism and Euroscepticism? First of all, let me make it absolutely clear that this is an issue that concerns us all! It is not simply a task for politicians during election season: As long as we believe in the European idea and in a future inside of the European Union, we all must defend this idea against those who want to trifle with it for easy political gain.

I believe in the power of debate. And I believe that a debate about Europe is absolutely vital to defending the European idea against populism and Euroscepticism. We need a debate – one in which the better argument wins, not the easier argument. And I believe that all of us, that all of you, need to participate in this debate.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The European Union is a complex story – as experts, you know it better than anyone. Actually, it takes quite a lot of insight into the EU to be able to explain it in simple terms. But again: You are about to graduate from a first-class programme. Who could be in a better position to go out and make people understand Europe? This is why programmes like yours are vital for all of us. We need people who understand the inner workings of the European Union, but who are also willing to evaluate them critically, with a scientist’s approach. And we need people who are willing to help the EU be better understood. With our minds – and hearts!

Because this is what we need to do if we want to counter populism and Euroscepticism:

We need to go out and talk to people. Actually, what happens too often is what we see here today: professional Europeans talking to other professional Europeans and preaching to the converted. I personally appreciate it – it is always interesting, encouraging and heart-warming.

But this is not where the discussion needs to take place. We need to discuss Europe with those who are of a different opinion. The European Union is not just a project of political elites and technocrats. It has to be a project for everyone, for civil society as a whole.

I want to invite all of you to participate in that discussion! You are well prepared for it. Not only have you benefitted from an excellent curriculum, but you have also had outstanding opportunities to exchange and sharpen your views on Europe.

When I look at your group, I see a great deal of diversity – diversity in age, background and experiences in life. I hear that participants in your programme come from 15 countries, from all professional backgrounds and from different generations. I am certain that this has led to some of the greatest and most controversial discussions on Europe during the last year. And now, I want to invite you to go out and continue that discussion.

I’ve heard that some of you have already done that. Fellows of this programme organised the March for Europe last spring, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome. You are my heroes! You did what is most important: You stood up for Europe. Because all of the information we can provide on Europe, all of the discussions we may have on European policies will amount to nothing if we, as committed Europeans, do not clearly stand up for Europe.

I would like to invite you to do exactly that: stand up for Europe! In fact, what I want to propose to you is a “Deal for Europe”. What do I mean by this?

Well, Europe provides us with so many opportunities – opportunities to travel, study, work or get married throughout Europe. And now, in times when the European idea is coming under increased pressure, when Eurosceptics seem to be leading discussions on Europe, we have to give something back.

We have to give back to Europe – by volunteering our time and getting involved! Every week, invest one hour of your time for Europe. You can organise a demonstration for Europe. You can go out and take the stage at a Pulse of Europe event. You can simply post a tweet or share a story on Europe. It’s as simple as that! Sometimes, it hardly takes a minute, but there are people out there who read what you post, and who watch what you share. You do have influence. Use it for Europe! We need to do it. We cannot let the European narrative be shaped by its harshest critics, especially online. We, the majority of citizens who enjoy all of the opportunities Europe has to offer, must make ourselves seen and heard. We need to make Europe seen and heard!

Ladies and gentlemen,

Because, despite all of the legitimate criticism, we should not forget that Europe is worth it. It has guaranteed peace for more than 70 years among formerly bitter rivals.

However, there is a lot that remains to be done. The citizens of Europe expect the European Union to deliver results – and rightly so. We won’t convince anyone of the value of the European Union if it cannot achieve tangible progress. I believe that we urgently need to address three issues:

  • 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 demonstrate 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 investment in growth, from better education to combating youth unemployment.
  • We need to widen and deepen the Economic and Monetary Union. Once the United Kingdom will have left the EU, the eurozone will account for more than 85 % of the GDP of the entire EU. Therefore, we need common institutions like a Finance Minister and a eurozone Parliament that link up the eurozone and the EU and strengthen democratic legitimacy. We need much more binding coordination of economic, labour market, social and education policies.
  • Most importantly, we have to reinforce the European Common 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 more active foreign and security policy and to help find lasting solutions to the crises in its neighbourhood. We need to be able to decide for ourselves how to defend our interests and values in this crisis-ridden world, in which international norms are being questioned by a number of global players. Neither President Trump nor President Putin nor President Xi Jinping are much interested in conducting dialogue with the European Union unless it stands united and speaks with a single voice. There’s just one answer: Let’s stand united! Let’s speak with one voice!

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today, as you graduate, I ask that you maintain your courage and optimism for Europe. And I invite you to go out, join the discussion on Europe, and share your courageous views. You are at the beginning of your respective professional careers. The European Union will have a much greater influence on your surroundings and on your lives over the next few decades than was the case for previous generations.

Make the most of the wide range of opportunities that Europe has to offer! And, above all, have your say! As young citizens, it’s up to you to help shape the Europe of tomorrow. The task of giving Europe direction is in your hands, and it needs your minds.

But in carrying out this task, don’t take the easy way out by clinging to tired theories and prefabricated opinions. Choose the long and sometimes difficult path and broaden your horizons – not only in theory but also in practice. Form your own opinions on Europe!

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