The time at which we take over this Presidency of the Council could scarcely be more challenging. This is not only because of the large number of issues on which negotiations have been continuing for years in the European Union without results – from financial to migration issues – but also because the COVID‑19 pandemic has truly confronted united Europe with its greatest test yet – politically, economically and not least in terms of general confidence in Europe’s ability to act.
According to a recent poll, the majority of people throughout the EU regard the responses of the European Union to the coronavirus crisis as inadequate. That, however, has less to do with people not being favourably disposed to the European Union. On the contrary, the majority, according to a study, want more integration, more cooperation and also more Europe. For our Presidency that must constitute a twofold mandate: we must remedy the mistakes and omissions of the past that have become all too evident during the crisis – and in spite of all the difficulties, we still have a chance to do that – and at the same time we must make the choices which will lead us towards a sustainable future.
The key lies in two terms that rather sum up our Presidency programme: solidarity and sovereignty. Only if Europe preserves its internal solidarity – as we have seen in the past few weeks and months – and grows even closer together will it gain in impact and be able to act as a sovereign player on the global stage. We simply have to acknowledge that we are living in the age of a new superpower rivalry involving the United States, Russia and China, and in this scenario there is no single country in Europe that can act alone to secure acceptance of its values and interests. We can only do that as Europeans, and so this will be a leitmotif of our Council Presidency over the next six months.
Ladies and gentlemen, the euro crisis, the financial crisis and the argument over refugees and migration have deepened the rifts between our countries in the EU in recent years, partly because of a lack of solidarity, and we must not repeat that mistake. This is why Germany and France have presented bold proposals for a genuine European recovery plan to pull us out of this crisis.
Yet that is only the start. What will be decisive at the end of the day is the answer to the question whether we will ultimately manage, not only through this plan, to make Europe more sustainable, more social, more resilient and more innovative. It is about economic recovery and rescuing jobs, it is about climate action and strengthening our healthcare systems, and it is about removing bottlenecks – in the supply of medicinal products, for example – without standing free trade on its head.
Agreement on the multiannual financial framework and on the recovery instrument will therefore be the acid test on our way out of the crisis, and that is precisely why, for the time being, it will be the top priority of our Presidency. Our future and the future of Europe depend on it.
We intend to put the concerns of the EU’s citizens at the heart of our efforts. For the first time ever, people throughout the EU will receive a support benefit, like our short‑time working allowance, under the SURE initiative. And we intend to go further, with a European framework for national minimum wages, a European unemployment reinsurance scheme and a stricter accountability requirement in global supply chains.
As if that were not enough, we also intend to conclude, by the end of the year, the complex and difficult negotiations with the United Kingdom on our future relationship. That will be one of the main duties of this Presidency. In this case too, the cohesion of the member states will be crucial. But already at this stage we have to make it abundantly clear that London must first tell us clearly – and there is something of a déjà vu in all of this – whether it still wants to be closely attached to the European Union in the future. And there are serious doubts about that at the moment, at least in view of the way the negotiations are being conducted – if they can even be called ‘negotiations’. At the end of the day, it depends on the common rules and standards on which we can still reach agreement. That is what we want, and we shall work hard to do it.
Cohesion and solidarity, ladies and gentlemen, are also vital when it comes to reforming the Common European Asylum System, another subject that has occupied us far too long already in the European Union without the emergence of a solution. And so our message to the foot-draggers is this: European solidarity is not measured in euros and budgets alone; European solidarity is also needed when dealing with refugees and migration. And we shall be insisting on that over the next six months too.
Something else is inextricably linked to solidarity, namely the ability to stand up for European values and interests in the context of increasingly fierce superpower rivalry. This is what I referred to before as European sovereignty. The pandemic has mercilessly exposed our strategic dependence in every direction. And to bring about changes in this situation is the second major aim of our Presidency.
In our dealings with China, all 27 member states need to close ranks. On the current developments in connection with the new Hong Kong security law, let me say that this shows us just how important it is to respond as the whole European Union. China must keep the promises it has made to the international community and preserve the rights and freedoms of the citizens of Hong Kong.
We, as the European Union, will call on it to do so.
Ladies and gentlemen, the fact is that such expectations will only be heeded – and this will be the essential point, not only in the next six months – if we address them to countries like China in unison. And we will work on that. This is why we want the postponed EU‑China summit to be held as soon as possible and why we intend to develop a coherent EU policy on China in the lead‑up.
The US elections in November also coincide with our Presidency. We intend to ensure that Europe can then approach the new Administration, whatever form it may take, with a clear strategic agenda for the transatlantic partnership. And let me say something else, ladies and gentlemen, because I know that one or two of you will be hoping for a particular outcome in these elections: I am firmly convinced that changes in the transatlantic relationship will not depend on who wins the presidential elections. The transatlantic relationship, in fact, has changed in recent years – not just over the past four years, by the way, if you look carefully. We need a strategy to deal with that too. And it does not depend primarily on who will be sitting in the White House next year.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Western Balkans are part of our immediate neighbourhood. They, too, will have to be on our agenda, because we want to create the prospect of a European future for them. These countries want a European perspective.
Ladies and gentlemen, every crisis has its own language. The euro crisis and the financial crisis have left us with words like ‘Troika’ and ‘rescue package’. In the refugee crisis we had ‘transit zones’ and, here in Germany, ‘AnkER centres’. I hope that more will remain from the coronavirus crisis than ‘social distancing’ and ‘face masks’. So let us work together over the next few months to ensure that solidarity and sovereignty outlive this crisis and equip us for everything that is yet to come.
Thank you very much.