They are wafer-thin and often smaller than a postage stamp. They are pre-installed in our mobile phones, cars, coffee machines and many other items. They bundle information, but they are also precise indicators of global economic trends and geopolitical conflicts. Many of you will likely have guessed what I am referring to. I am speaking about semiconductor chips.
And I mention them because current supply bottlenecks for semiconductors clearly demonstrate how global interconnection brings with it vulnerability. This is what we have seen – and had to learn – in recent months in many different ways, not only regarding semiconductors. The grand geopolitical scheme of things is having an ever greater impact on corporate activity all around the world. Recently, for example, production lines were temporarily halted at the Ford plant in Saarlouis – which is the region I am from – and not just for a couple of days, but for several weeks. This happened because the pandemic and sanctions dating from the Trump era had interrupted the supply chains for semiconductors.
That said, ladies and gentlemen, our response to this cannot be decoupling or protectionism. Unfortunately, some are using the crisis as an excuse, especially in this regard.
As an export-oriented country and an open European Union, we are particularly in need of open and resilient markets that protect jobs and keep creating new ones. Our response can therefore only be more international cooperation, not less.
I see four key international policy areas in which we must now make readjustments:
First, now is the time to stand more firmly alongside the United States on economic and trade policy. That is how we can make the pledge to “build back better” a reality on both sides of the Atlantic – which would also be fully in line with President Biden’s concept of a “foreign policy for the middle class”.
We should finally put ongoing disputes, of which unfortunately there are some, behind us. We are now making progress in some areas: the moratorium on punitive tariffs from the Airbus-Boeing dispute, the EU decision against responding in kind to the measures in the dispute over steel and aluminium tariffs, and the suspension of sanctions against the operator of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline are positive signals.
Last Saturday’s historic agreement at the meeting of G7 finance ministers on a global minimum tax rate on businesses of 15 percent, as well as on a digital services tax, is a further sign of our joint efforts. In this way, we will hopefully put an end to the global race to the bottom in corporate taxation.
And there are more good ideas for future transatlantic cooperation projects:
These range from joint efforts in export control and investment due diligence to an association agreement for the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation to a transatlantic agreement in the spheres of artificial intelligence and quantum computing. This also includes the EU proposal for an EU‑US Trade and Technology Council and the possibility this entails of developing common standards for technology firms. And we are doing our utmost to achieve substantial progress on all these issues at the upcoming EU‑US Summit on 15 June.
Second, Joe Biden’s “America is back” is an opportunity to finally return to assuming joint multilateral responsibility in a day and age when this is more sorely needed than ever. Only by defending the rules-based international order, open societies and free trade against those who call them into question can we keep our economic model internationally relevant.
In a system in which tasks are distributed worldwide, this also means clearly calling out any rule violations and market distortions, as well as sticking to one’s principles. It is completely unacceptable, after all, for boycott pressure to be put on German companies in China because they are meeting their human rights due diligence obligations.
Anyone who wants to prevent such behaviour in good time must not look away when civil society comes under pressure, international law is flaunted and human rights are violated. Here, too, we need coordinated transatlantic policy vis-à-vis Moscow, Beijing or Minsk – a policy that will not hesitate to impose sanctions in response to particularly grave violations. I am grateful to German corporations for their whole-hearted support in this regard.
Yes, ultimately this will also require us to reduce our economic dependencies and broaden our business activities, above all with regard to the Indo-Pacific. We are therefore in the European Union helping to draw up an Indo-Pacific strategy, after we adopted national policy guidelines for this region here in Germany last year. Their aim is to strengthen the entire range of our relations with this highly dynamic region. The EU’s free trade agenda and the EU-Asia connectivity strategy make very significant contributions in this regard.
A third aspect is trade policy. Here, I think, we have come to a fork in the road. Because if we do not successfully interlink free trade with high social and environmental standards, then support for free trade agreements, and globalisation in general, will continue to dwindle in our society. This would be a most dangerous development, both for our country and for us in Europe.
Therefore, we must continue our efforts to strengthen the European Union’s ability to take political geo-economic action. The key phrase we are focused on here is “open strategic autonomy”, which ties together openness, sustainability and enforceability.
This of course involves reducing dependencies in strategic areas, like we are already doing, for example, with the European industrial strategy and the BATTERY 2030+ research initiative. Above all, we need partnerships with industry and science, with a view to achieving the digital and green transition. The EU is already engaged on this in the spheres of semiconductors and battery cells. And I look forward to Valdis Dombrovskis telling us more about this later on.
And now, I would like to come to my last point – one that actually combines everything I have addressed so far: only a sovereign European Union is a strong and attractive international partner.
Only a sovereign EU can harness its own strength on the world stage and shape a crisis-proof future. At a time when technological advantage has become a decisive power resource, this means above all that we in Europe must have key technologies of our own at our disposal and also develop them. We are prepared to keep increasing our investments for this purpose – for example, to drive forward the digital transformation, not least with regard to the EU’s recovery plan.
We also need a better set of regulations to protect precisely these key technologies, which we have already initiated with the new IT Security Act and the amendment of the Foreign Trade and Payments Ordinance.
Also, we must do what we can to support those who are driving innovation in our country. This applies especially to German small and medium-sized enterprises.
Looking abroad, we see time and again how our SMEs lose out when competing for large bids. Despite a superior quality German bid, competing large consortiums are selected, because they offer, or claim to offer, single-source services. To rectify this, we should develop joint solutions with a view to creating platforms and cooperation projects involving large corporations, SMEs and start‑ups.
Because – like you recently said in a podcast, Ms Braun – the power to innovate must come from within our own companies. What we can do, however, is support them by creating the right framework conditions.
Nowhere has this become more evident than in the fight against the pandemic:
Without the power of corporate innovation and engagement, we will not be able to face down this crisis. And the fact that we can today say that there is light at the end of the tunnel is in part also due to those very qualities. We have together provided swift support to countries that have been particularly hard hit by the COVID‑19 pandemic – most recently to India, in the form of therapeutics, ventilators and an oxygen plant.
No other economic area has exported more vaccines than the European Union, although others attempt to dispute this fact. At the same time, “Team Europe” is one of the most important financial donors to the vaccine platform COVAX. Through it, more than 77 million doses could be delivered so far to 127 countries. Only when we achieve secure and affordable vaccine production processes worldwide and ensure fair global access to such vaccines can we return to a level-headed discussion of intellectual property rights.
You, Ms Bendiek, recently summed up the secret to success in the Handelsblatt newspaper when you wrote: “If you can do innovation, you can deal with crises.”
Ladies and gentlemen,
In recent months we, too, have demonstrated, despite incessant predictions of failure, that we are very much able to deal with crises – especially considering that, thanks to Joe Biden, the United States is again by our side as a committed multilateralist. Now, we must implement the tremendous recovery programmes along with our new rules and projects in such a way that in the process we build the sustainable and climate-neutral economic model that we will need in the future. A model that truly lives up to the motto “build back better”.
Thank you very much!