I am optimistic about the European Union.
That statement would have been pretty daring and controversial even a few months ago.
But over the last few months of our Council Presidency, the EU has shown unity and a capacity to act that many did not expect:
The Recovery Fund and the political agreement on the EU budget in July stand for unprecedented solidarity.
And I am confident that we will also find a solution on the outstanding issues before the end of the year. After all, the rule of law should not divide us, but unite us as Europeans.
In debates like these, Europe proves time and again that it is an engine running on disagreement – but producing compromise.
I am also optimistic because in the past months we have witnessed something that pessimists told us would never exist. There is a European Public Sphere.
The European elections last year saw the highest voter turnout since 1994. The largest increase was recorded among younger people and first-time voters.
This year, the virus has focused trans-European communication on a single topic. We looked across borders and compared different strategies to deal with the pandemic. French and Italian COVID patients were treated in German hospitals while Hungarian doctors helped out in Czech clinics.
At the same time, of course, national public spheres continue to exist. And the response to the pandemic was mainly driven by national governments.
But that should not come as a surprise. Unity does not mean uniformity. Europe’s strength lies in our diverse local, regional and national identities. They will never dissolve into a “European super public sphere” – and nobody wants that.
But we can and must foster greater debate and exchange between Europeans.
A first and essential step is language – one of the last closed toll bars in Europe. Why not start lifting this bar with digital language learning platforms or the use of translation tools powered by artificial intelligence?
Secondly, European debates need open space instead of exclusive clubs and bubbles. We need to reach out to those who have different ideas about Europe.
It was with this in mind that we supported the “Europe talks” initiative by Zeit Online, as an essential part of our Council Presidency.
Olafur Eliasson’s “Earth Speakr” built on that idea as well.
And I am looking forward to the Conference on the Future of Europe. To create an idea of Europe in 10 or 20 years, we must gather the wishes of all Europeans from all countries and all walks of life today.
And, finally, we should communicate more confidently about Europe and the values at its heart. Solidarity, democracy and the rule of law are fundamental to European integration. And cooperation remains the only solution to the challenges that all our countries face:
the rise of populism, climate change and, of course, the pandemic.
I was impressed by the discussion I had with some of you about these issues a few weeks ago. Your fresh ideas and progressive thoughts are needed for building our common European future.
So, keep thinking outside the box! And above all, let’s stay optimistic!