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Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas regarding the Ambassadors Conference of the French Republic

31.08.2020 - Speech
A man stands at a lectern, in front of a German, French and EU flag
Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas regarding the Ambassadors Conference of the French Republic© Jonathan Sarago / MEAE

My friend Jean-Yves,

Ministers, State Secretaries, Excellencies,

Ambassadors,

Friends,

My friend Jean-Yves,

You could actually have given me a Paris Saint-Germain shirt. After all, their defeat in the Champions League Final was cancelled out by Olympique Lyon’s victory over a German team in the women’s final. It all goes to show that even in football, the Franco German friendship always manages to strike a balance.

What is more, today is yet another great sporting day for France. Yesterday, Julian Alaphilippe won the second stage of the Tour de France. Today, a Frenchman has put on the yellow jersey to start the third stage of the Tour - félicitations!

Jean-Yves,

When you asked me a couple of weeks ago if I would come to your Ambassadors Conference, I didn’t need to think for long and there are several reasons why not.

Firstly, you don’t pass up a friend’s invitation. If you call me, I come – whether to Paris or Brittany. And that works both ways which I am very grateful for. We always talk about the Franco-German friendship. Friendship is a word you shouldn’t use too often. And I don’t. I am very grateful for our personal friendship – and that is anything but a diplomatic nicety. It is about trust and reliability. And that is something you don’t encounter all that often in politics. I am very pleased to have encountered these qualities in you.

To someone like me who grew up on the Franco-German border, relations between our two countries have a special value. I hail from the Saarland. I spent the first decades of my life there – at the very border which caused us to try and kill each other time and again in the centuries that had gone before. In the Saarland, which after the First and Second World Wars last century was passed to and fro between Germany and France. My grandmother lived from 1902 from 1987. She lived her whole life in the same town, the same street and the same house – and yet she had five different passports over the course of her life. The very fact that I stand here today as German Foreign Minister is a coincidence of history. It is a coincidence of history that I am German.

When I started university in Saarbrücken, our professor recommended we visit the war graves in Verdun. He wanted us to understand that people like myself, born in 1966, who have thankfully never experienced war, should not kid ourselves that peace and Franco-German reconciliation is something we can take for granted. What previous generations of politicians in both our countries – just think of the historic image of François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl in Verdun – managed to achieve is something incredibly important to me.

That is why in my country, when talking to my generation who have only known a life where they have everything they want – peace, freedom, the rule of law, democracy – I will never tire of reminding people that none of this is a matter of course. These are not just things to live and enjoy. There are also times when you have to stand up for them.

And to my mind, we are experiencing such times right now. That is why, Jean-Yves, signing the Treaty of Aachen with you, with the Chancellor and the French President, was one of the most wonderful moments of my time as Foreign Minister. And being here today is also a wonderful moment and a great honour for me. Also because I know that it normally falls to the French President to speak at the Ambassadors Conference in Paris. That is something I very much appreciate.

You said in your speech that we are living at a time which is a watershed because the world around us is changing radically.

The United States is increasingly looking at the rest of the world through the lens of rivalry with China. That is not always helpful. In turn, and not just since President Donald Trump took office, the United States’ readiness to continue playing the role of a global force for order is dwindling.

We also know that China is muscling its way into this geopolitical void – and creating facts and using instruments which cannot be ours. Let me just remind you of Hong Kong by way of example.

And countries such as Russia and also Turkey are seizing what they see as an opportunity to yield maximum returns in terms of power politics on a relatively low investment.

The time when we Europeans could sit back and enjoy the peace dividend after the Iron Curtain was torn down is certainly over. This is the watershed and this is the reality we are living.

Jean-Yves, you saw it more clearly than many others – even before the COVID-19 pandemic which further accelerated the upheaval we are experiencing. You told the Ambassadors of the Netherlands in January that the time to make choices has come for Europe. The time “to decide what we want to be, and also what world we want to live in”. I completely agree. And if we don't decide, Europe will become the pawn of others. And we must not let that happen.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Now eight months after you uttered the words, it is clear that the European Union has made its choice. In its most dramatic crisis – with almost 200,000 deaths and an unprecedented economic collapse – the supposedly divided European Union which so many had written off has shown itself and the world the meaning of solidarity.

The decisions we took in July to overcome the crisis represent a paradigm shift. And looking to the development of the European Union and to all to the bickering and complaining in recent years, this is something historic and perhaps even revolutionary. And not just because of the scale of what we decided in the Recovery Fund and in the multiannual financial framework.

Historic, because we are reviving the spirit of Europe’s founders, and Robert Schuman’s much-discussed “de facto solidarity” as the bond that holds Europe together.

Revolutionary – yes, there is perhaps something revolutionary about it – because Europe has finally provided a response to the call Jacques Delors voiced some decades ago, his call to give Europe a soul, a deeper meaning.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This soul is nothing other than European solidarity in action. In this crisis, the people are experiencing it – for example, through European reduced hours compensation or the support being granted to small and medium-sized enterprises all across Europe. I don't want to imagine what people would have done in Europe had we not been able to agree. To my mind, it would not just have harmed the European project but would in fact have put it in existential danger.

This solidarity in action can bridge divides between North and South, East and West, divides created by a lack of solidarity – whether during the financial crisis or dealing with refugees. And this brings something within reach which sounded utterly Utopian just a few months ago: Europe emerging stronger from the crisis than it entered it.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,

This European moment is our shared success. After all, without the courageous Franco-German proposals, I am absolutely convinced that this great feat would have been impossible. And that is why I also came here today to say thank you for France’s support in these early but decisive weeks of our Council Presidency. Merci beaucoup, merci de votre soutien!

But let me add, we must not rest on our laurels!

We need to think about where Europe needs to be in five, ten or 15 years. Our two Presidencies of the Council could serve as the start and end of such a period of reflection, which thanks to the Conference on the Future of Europe can also involve the citizens.

One thing seems crystal clear. We need to translate our newly found solidarity at home into strong cohesion in dealings with the outside world. And this brings me to the second major topic of our Council Presidency: European sovereignty.

In your speech at Prague's Charles University, you defined this sovereignty as enabling Europe to “remain free to make its own choices and free to promote its own values”. That is the whole point. We are not talking about sacrificing national sovereignty to a super-state in Brussels. In a globalised world of competing major powers, ability to act at European level is the very prerequisite for sovereignty at nation-state level.

Thus, this idea does not run contrary to the transatlantic alliance. On the contrary, what we want is a sovereign Europe firmly rooted in the transatlantic partnership. But we need to do much more than in the past. Only if Europe is able to defuse crises on its doorstep itself will Europe remain an attractive alliance partner for the United States.

We talked at length about what capabilities we need to do this last week at our Gymnich meeting in Berlin.

These ideas will be reflected in the new Strategic Compass which will outline Europe’s security policy ambition. Work on this is starting now and is due to be completed during the French Presidency.

At the same time, we are strengthening the crisis response abilities of our partners and neighbours, for example, in the Sahel. The most recent developments in Mali highlight just how great the challenges are here. We still need France and Germany to work side by side here – as the basis for strong European engagement.

We are also making civilian crisis management into a European hallmark. This is why we will soon be opening a European Centre of Excellence for Civilian Crisis Management in Berlin.

This all reflects the unity which was palpable at our meeting last week in Berlin. And, ladies and gentlemen, this unity bears fruit.

In dealings with the leadership in Belarus, we underscored over the last few days that we uphold our values and democratic principles also beyond our own borders. And not just with empty words but with targeted sanctions against those who are oppressing their own people and manipulating elections.

Also when it comes to Turkey, we made very plain at our Gymnich meeting that we will no longer accept the country’s destablising policy in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. European sovereignty protects the sovereignty of all member states, also Greece and Cyprus. But at the same time, as my colleagues in Ankara and Athens said again last week, we can only find our way out of the crisis through dialogue. That is why we are supporting the dialogue process between Josep Borrell and the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. And in our capacity as Presidency, we will do everything in the run-up to the EU summit on 24 September to deescalate the conflict. After all, it has now reached dangerous dimensions.

Furthermore, we will not sit idly by in Europe while China curtails Hong Kong’s freedom. That was important in recent weeks. With the proposal we both presented, we have sent a signal in the EU: by halting arms exports and extending visa and scholarship programmes for opposition groups. After all, we know that only unity on the part of the EU makes Beijing take heed. You recently received the Chinese Foreign Minister and tomorrow he will meet me in Berlin. He will hear the same from me in Berlin as he heard from you in Paris.

Also with a view to Libya, we have brought the different European positions together since the Berlin conference. This is what is behind the joint German-French-Italian proposal to sanction those who flagrantly violate the weapons embargo. And it is with the same unity that we support a ceasefire and a demilitarised zone between the conflicting parties. Here, we are currently seeing positive momentum. We are therefore working to operationalise this as part of the Berlin Process with a view to the temporary and then permanent ceasefire and an end to the oil blockade.

This is not easy, it takes time and there are setbacks. But I take courage from the fact that a strong European foreign policy is possible.

And yet the road to European sovereignty remains long – that, too, is a lesson of the corona crisis. Jean-Yves, you spoke about this yourself. I am thinking, for example, of the shortfalls on crisis preparedness. Or of dependence on countries such as China, India and Pakistan for essential medication, dependence that we need to reduce. This is not shutting the door to free global trade. But the balance between international division of labour and strategic independence is something we need to look at with fresh eyes given what we are currently experiencing. We want to use our Presidency to tackle such strategic issues.

That is why I also support what you said here regarding the health sector. It is an elementary sector in which citizens expect us to find solutions which respect their interests and therefore also the interests of Europe.

And another important point is that we develop something like technological sovereignty in Europe. After all, also when it comes to global shifts in power, such sovereignty seems to me to be essential for survival. This includes securing our data networks but also developing our own storage capacities and cloud computing services. Germany and France have the opportunity to stride forth with confidence here.

Also when it comes to developing 5G technology, we Europeans must not be drawn into dependencies which endanger our industrial base, our security or data protection for European citizens. We live in a digital world in which two poles are becoming increasingly pronounced. Silicon Valley is one of them. That is the American model which, let’s make no bones about it, focuses exclusively on maximising profit. The second model, the second digital pole, is emerging in China, in Beijing. Digital possibilities are used there to repress. Neither of these models can serve as a model for Europe. As Jean-Yves mentioned, we need a third path for technological sovereignty. Those who wield power over data, today and in the future, also wield power over countries. That is why digital sovereignty is so important – because the digital transformation is shifting spheres of influence. And if we do not manage to position ourselves and our third way between the profit-maximising and the repressive models – then we are heading for major difficulties in the years to come.

And while we are talking about sovereignty, we also need something akin to economic sovereignty. The shared internal market is our greatest asset here. And yet Europe remains susceptible, for example, to US sanctions whether connected to the conflict regarding the nuclear agreement with Iran or Nord Stream 2.

Those who want decisions on European energy, foreign and trade policy to be taken here in Europe, also need to think about strengthening the euro as a lead currency through European payment channels such as INSTEX and ultimately perhaps also about a euro-denominated European bank. That this is now happening in Brussels, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere is a major step in the right direction.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In view of all this, one thing is especially important to me. I am a firm believer in more European sovereignty. I stand ready to conduct awkward debates in Germany head on. But I want to emphasise that European sovereignty does not mean “Europe First”. European sovereignty is a cooperative brand of sovereignty.

Just as the European Union stems from the idea that a community is more than the sum of its parts, on the world stage there is no way for us to bypass more international cooperation. After all, the major challenges of the 21st century – pandemics, climate change, digital transformation, migration – have one thing in common. They know no limits, no national borders. And that is why we need cross-border solutions, international solutions.

This is the principle that makes multilateralism the cornerstone of our European foreign policy. And, looking at it from the other perspective, Europe itself needs to do more to become a cornerstone of the multilateral system.

Lasting damage has been done by the United States’ withdrawal from international organisations and treaties, but also by the behaviour of China and Russia in multilateral organisations.

That is why in the corona crisis it was also the European Union which mobilised billions for the search for a vaccine with donor conferences and new alliances. We supported the WHO as others turned their back on it. Just think about it, leaving the WHO in a pandemic is like throwing the pilot out the window as a plane flies through the air. And it was the Alliance for Multilateralism launched by France and Germany, our shared project, Jean-Yves, in which more than 60 states have now agreed that medication to treat the virus and a future vaccine need to be global public goods.

This shows me not just how much Europe is needed around the world, but also how much a united Europe can achieve in the world.

And this “Europe United”, ladies and gentlemen, needs a Franco-German heart. The European Recovery Fund, progress on European foreign policy, the Alliance for Multilateralism – all this would have been impossible without Franco-German cooperation, without France and Germany standing shoulder to shoulder.

At the same time, I would like to deal with two misunderstandings which some countries have about our cooperation.

Firstly, the Franco-German motor does not just work when it purrs along. On the contrary! This motor is nothing but a compromise machine powered by striking a balance between different positions – which we have had and will continue to have. It is obvious that this creates friction. But this is the only way to create solutions which others in Europe can support.

The second misunderstanding is to see Franco-German as the absolute standard. Yes, Franco-German compromises are a sine qua non for progress in Europe. Here there can be no doubt. But they are not enough on their own! That is something else I have seen in recent weeks. And that is why Jean-Yves and myself are working harder than ever to involve other countries more. On the one hand, people have high expectations of us but on the other we sense the fear of being left behind.

That is why it was good to talk about a shared European policy on Russia in Berlin last week. The angle on Moscow is of course different looking from Warsaw or Tallinn compared to Lisbon or Rome. We need to take this into account. On the one hand, we need constructive relations with Moscow. After all, Europe is not going to become safer working without or against Moscow – that is something we need to be realistic about in Europe. On the other hand, we say quite clearly that dark clouds overshadow our relations. Sanctions will be upheld as long as the situation that triggered them does not change. And of course we expect Russia to do more than to date to shed light on the Navalny case.

Brexit of course also plays a role in our deliberations on European foreign policy. After all, no matter how much we hope for close cooperation with the UK on foreign and security policy, the importance of the E3 will not remain the same if we don’t link this policy back to Brussels.

Conversely, this means that countries such as Italy, Spain and Poland will have to shoulder greater responsibility for shaping European foreign policy. And groups such as the Visegrad states, the Baltic countries, the Mediterranean countries or the Netherlands and the Nordics take their place in what Josep Borrell calls “Team Europe”.

And this brings me to you and your job, Ambassadors, who rally for this team spirit day in day out. I know there are often days when it isn’t easy. And yet we have proven in the past that this team spirit can prevail. That is why you must not tire of flying the flag, as representatives of France, as partners in the Franco-German tandem, when French and German diplomats around the world share information or draw up joint reports – and as those who feed in the views of their host countries and carve out compromise.

You, Ambassadors, you are the ones who breathe life into “Team Europe”.

The goal is European sovereignty.

European solidarity is the bedrock.

Merci beaucoup!

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