Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the opening of the Conference on Europe at the Federal Foreign Office

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the opening of the Conference on Europe at the Federal Foreign Office

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the opening of the Conference on Europe at the Federal Foreign Office, © Janine Schmitz/photothek.net

02.03.2020 - Speech

Have you heard of Gadheim?

It’s a small village in Lower Franconia that became rather famous overnight a month ago when it was named as the new geographical centre of the EU on 1 February.

The UK’s withdrawal has changed the EU’s coordinates in many ways – and apparently that also goes for geography. But naturally, geography is just one aspect.

Brexit is the symptom of a development that has been keeping us busy in the EU – but also much further afield – for the past few years.

You all know the keywords:

  • The changing geopolitical situation, with a Russia that is taking a new stance, an increasingly dominant China, and not least, regrettably, a US Administration that can be unpredictable at times.
  • Furthermore, there have been internal challenges in Europe in recent years – the economic and financial crisis and disagreements on migration and the rule of law.

As Liz Mohn already said, all this has boosted nationalists and populists not only in the UK, but all over Europe. These are the people who want to convince us that there are simple national solutions to the very complex problems we face today.

However, the huge global challenges – climate change, migration, globalisation, digital transformation and incidentally epidemics like the coronavirus – all have one thing in common. They know no national borders.

And that’s why retreating into national shells is not the answer. What we need, especially now, is more international cooperation, not less.

As we should not forget on a day like this, that also applies to the current developments at the Greek‑Turkish border. Our first aim should be to support Greece in this difficult situation, as the Commission rightfully announced at the weekend.

With regard to Turkey, we are making clear that we see the burden it is carrying as a result of accommodating what now amount to almost four million refugees. But in a situation like this, we’re not the only ones who must comply with the obligations arising from the relevant agreement. We must also remind the Turkish side to meet its obligations, including and particularly now.

The EU remains willing to play its part in providing humane care for refugees in Idlib, but also in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Our stance here must be absolutely clear. We cannot allow refugees to become geopolitical pawns. Anyone who attempts this should always expect pushback from our side.

However, ladies and gentlemen, crises are only one side of the coin.

All current surveys show that the public’s trust in the European Union has risen again, despite many difficulties and the news confronting us every day.

We are living in an era in which we only ever talk about how everything is getting worse. I recall a day last year, namely 9 November, when I invited all my EU counterparts to Berlin to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ekaterina was also one of my guests. And when I told her that I was glad she was there, she replied that there was no question of her not attending because the fall of the Wall had paved the way for her personal freedom today.

And yes, many things changed for the better in these 30 years. There is no longer an Iron Curtain. The EU has become larger. Sometimes we complain about it being difficult to reach agreement among 27 member states. In some cases, this is a relatively complicated matter. At times, it can be gruelling. But the mere fact that the EU is so large shows how far we have come.

In the final analysis, I believe that Europe is one thing above all, namely humankind’s greatest peace project. And this also holds true at a time when other issues may be dominating public debate.

As someone who was born in 1966 and grew up in West Germany, let me say that everything that makes my life worth living – peace, freedom, the rule of law, relative prosperity – already existed. I didn’t have to fight for any of this. But there are generations who experienced the complete opposite. And that’s why I sometimes think it’s a bit like taking the easy way out when we – I’m speaking for my own generation now, but this also goes for others – simply take all the things that make our lives worth living for granted.

With regard to Europe and the world, we need to realise that the time for taking things for granted is over. We live in an era in which we not only need to put our freedoms and rights into practice, but also to do more to defend them.

And I see it as a good sign that voter turnout for last year’s European Parliament elections was higher than at any other time in the previous 20 years. It is ultimately our responsibility as politicians to live up to this and to ensure that trust is preserved.

We want to continue fostering this interest in the EU. And the best way to do this is to actively involve you as EU citizens in debate on European issues both great and small. Which is why it is eminently sensible that President Macron and the heads of the European Commission, the Council and the European Parliament have made this project a priority.

And so we have invited 75 members of the public from Poland, France and Germany to a workshop on Europe here in Berlin.

I’m very happy to see so many of you here. I’m also very pleased that so many members of parliament took part, experts from Brussels, Strasbourg and the large number of European countries represented here today, whose ideas will certainly enrich our discussion. A very warm welcome to the Federal Foreign Office! It’s great that you’re here!

And a big thank‑you to the Mohn family, who support this through the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

Liz Mohn,

I listened very closely to your speech just now, especially when you mentioned that Bertelsmann is happy that people are reading more again and want to hold a book in their hands. I have two sons aged 18 and 14 and I haven’t quite got that message through to them yet. Maybe you can help me out and we can try to persuade the two of them that it really can be a nice feeling to hold a book in your hands and to have to turn the pages over instead of simply swiping a screen.

So this is a welcome development. In my opinion, books and the feeling of being engrossed in them are still very, very valuable. Reading widens our horizons and encourages people to take a look at themselves and their surroundings. I would be absolutely delighted if this trend grew again in our society.

I heard that there were very lively and also very contentious discussions in the workshop both yesterday and today. And I’m very eager to find out more shortly about what you expect of the Europe of the future.

I would like to mention just three terms that currently define our discussions in Brussels and the talks with my European counterparts.

Ms Mohn already mentioned the first one, namely sovereignty. However, people understand this word in many different ways.

Some people see it as isolationism from the rest of the world. But we see it completely the other way round!

European sovereignty must always mean having a say and ensuring that Europe is heard in a world of increasing great‑power rivalry.

At the Foreign Affairs Council, we regularly experience how individual countries hold up the decision‑making by the other 26 members.

We think this has to stop. For that reason, we are talking with High Representative Josep Borrell about how we can gradually overcome this way of conducting politics of the lowest common denominator.

But to my mind, it is even more important that we Europeans do not allow ourselves to be divided or overruled by countries such as China or Russia or for that matter, as is unfortunately the case these days, in trade issues by the US.

That is exactly what we hope to help achieve during our EU Presidency in the second half of the year, for example by holding an EU‑China summit and adopting a clear and agreed stance in our dealings with Moscow or Washington.

Something else is becoming very clear as regards China and the US, namely that sovereignty can no longer be defined purely in terms of foreign or security policy.

In the digital age, Europe also needs digital sovereignty. And this challenge affects us all.

In conjunction with 5G transmission power, artificial intelligence will create profound economic, social and personal change in our lives, ranging from the way we travel to daily life, such as shopping or consulting a doctor.

But algorithms can only be as intelligent as the data fed into them. This means that machines will only learn the values that are particularly dear to us Europeans if we teach them these values.

To achieve this, we need technological progress and skills. And if we’re honest, Europe isn’t really up to speed in that regard.

We currently face the threat of the digital world splitting into two parts.

  • On the one hand, we have Silicon Valley, which focuses more on the tech giants’ profits than on our values.
  • And on the other, we have the Chinese model, which is becoming ever more important and powerful, but is also highly repressive and uses digital technology to monitor its own people.

I don’t think either model is ideal. Europe would be well advised to pursue its own third way here.

Now in particular, when populists and extremists are attacking our democracy, we cannot allow control over technology or how we deal with criminal online content to lie solely with the big tech firms or foreign governments.

  • That’s why we want to do our utmost to support the Commission in launching important parts of its digital strategy during our EU Presidency in the second half of the year.
  • And that’s also why we want to ensure that technology, research and digital transformation are prioritised over other earlier key issues in the multiannual financial framework that is currently the topic of so much debate. There will also be disagreements about this, but we cannot avoid them.

In the final analysis, something very different is at stake. We want to transfer our European values to the digital age. And to be honest, when I look at the world, I ask myself who else will do this if we don’t.

The General Data Protection Regulation, which was so controversial at first, has now actually become a role model for many people in the world. And when it comes to digital transformation, Europe can show that it is possible both to protect civic rights and to make sovereign decisions as a tech leader.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,

This interpretation of sovereignty is closely linked to the second term we are discussing in Europe, namely the ability to act.

At the Munich Security Conference two weeks ago, everyone was talking about “westlessness”, the West’s apparent retreat from a leadership role in the world. And although I don’t agree with dividing the world up into East, West, North or South, there is a dangerous gap in our neighbourhood in particular in this regard.

We just need to think about the conflicts surrounding our continent in Ukraine, Syria, the Middle East, Libya and the Sahel. The US is increasingly withdrawing from its former role as global policeman and thus becoming less active in the world. And others are taking advantage of that, Russia, for example, or Turkey and Iran – none of which always share our values or interests.

And what about Europe?

In my opinion, we Europeans cannot stand by and watch this development. Too much is at stake.

Our own stability and security depend on our neighbours’ stability – and our neighbourhood may be larger than some people believed in the past. That’s why it is right that the new Commission wants to be a “geopolitical Commission”.

Libya will be the first litmus test. After months of groundwork, Europeans are finally singing from the same song sheet. Unfortunately, this was not the case in the past. Here in Berlin and at a Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Munich, we succeeded in paving the way towards a peace process that has already been far too long in the making. And naturally, Europe must also be willing to continue supporting this process, for example by monitoring the arms embargo now endorsed by parties that permanently violated it in recent weeks.

As in many other fields, the prerequisite is a clear political strategy, without which any military action will remain ineffective. Europe will only be able to act if we make use of all the instruments in our foreign policy toolbox – from crisis prevention, arms control and humanitarian assistance to stabilisation, training and the deployment of security forces. And we will also play a part here during our EU Presidency, for example by opening a European centre of excellence for civilian crisis management here in Berlin, where we will work with our European partner countries to ensure that we do not only show up when the shooting has already started.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The third and last term I would like to mention for discussion is “values”.

And when I talk about European values, I would like to start by saying today, the day when talks on our future relationship with the UK begin in Brussels, that the UK has left the EU, but we still share the same values.

So it’s right that we offer the British the closest possible partnership:

  • a free trade area without customs
  • and close cooperation on foreign policy and security issues

But the prerequisite for this is that the UK does not circumvent European standards or weaken EU structures. We certainly will not engage in a race to the bottom in terms of environmental standards or the rights of employees and consumers.

And there is another important point. When we talk about European values, we need to ensure that these values are not gradually eroded.

To that end, one very concrete objective of our Presidency is to get together for the first time to talk about how the rule of law is faring in each of our countries, but without pointing the finger at one another.

If there are shortcomings in Poland or Hungary – and there are particular processes for that – this is something we need to discuss. But there is no point simply criticising others the whole time. That will only achieve one thing, namely that governments will shut themselves off and Europe will become more divided.

Instead, our aim must be to support one another in order to resolve shortcomings and prevent them from arising in the future. And that is what we want to do in cooperation with the EU member states.

Ladies and gentlemen,

At the end of the day, freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights are what define the EU. They are what keep us together. That is the actual centre of the EU, regardless of where its geographical centre may be. And this must never change.

As long as we take this to heart, I will not fear for the future of the EU. I look forward to having the chance to discuss all this with you now.

Thank you very much.


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