“Progress equals pain plus reflection”, Ray Dalio once said when asked about his success in business.
I know it’s kind of risky to open my remarks here by quoting the former boss of the largest hedge fund in the world. But in this global crisis without precedent, his words somehow ring true.
As we speak, people around the globe are feeling pain:
- Because they have lost someone they loved,
- Because they fear for their health,
- Or simply because they don’t know how to pay their bills.
We owe them hope through progress. And that calls for what we are doing here today: reflecting on what needs to change.
So thank you very much for this opportunity to share some thoughts with you.
In a few days, Germany will assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union – at a time that couldn’t be more challenging.
Only a few weeks ago, Jacques Delors called the lack of solidarity “a deadly danger for the European Union”. Many others echoed his concerns.
That was before Germany and France made bold proposals for a true European recovery plan that were then taken up by the European Commission.
Our progressive message was finally heard: Europe cannot save its way out of a crisis of this magnitude.
For Germany and our European family, this is a revolutionary paradigm shift towards financial solidarity.
It is one that Olaf Scholz referred to as Europe’s potential “Hamilton moment”.
And, indeed, this is our moment to make sure that the European Union is never called into question again. That’s my first message to you today.
Setting up the recovery plan and a budget for Europe’s future will be the make-or-break point on our way out of this crisis. And, therefore, it will be the number-one priority of our Presidency.
We want Europe to emerge stronger from this pandemic.
But the strength I’m talking about will not only be measured in corporate value or rising stocks.
This time, we have to put European citizens at the heart of our efforts. This time, Europe’s citizens must feel European solidarity.
That’s my second message today.
For the first time in history, all Europeans will be protected by short-time working benefits under the SURE programme. Hubertus Heil will probably talk about this later on.
But we want to go even further:
- with a common framework for minimum wages,
- a European unemployment re-insurance scheme,
- and more accountability in global supply chains.
The calculation is easy: recovery will fail if we don’t make Europe greener, more sustainable, more social, more resilient and more innovative at the same time.
And we will make sure that these priorities are reflected in the next budget.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The paradigm shift towards greater European solidarity must also lead to the institutional strengthening of our union – this is my third message.
Not everyone in Europe will be easily convinced by that.
But who if not Germany – the country at the heart of this continent, the country that owes so much of its political and economic success to Europe – must try to convince the sceptics?
And let me be clear when I state that our goal is not the creation of a European super-state.
But the shortfalls in joint action that this crisis has laid bare – in critical areas such as healthcare, the digital transformation, crisis prevention and civil protection – were too severe to ignore.
If fixing them requires better coordination – or in some areas possibly treaty changes – we must not be afraid to make this step.
Ladies and gentlemen,
European integration is never an end in itself. It is the only way to win back the political influence that we as individual nations have long since lost.
That’s my fourth message – also to those who still question the concept of European sovereignty.
We should not fight about words. At the end of the day, we share the same goal. In a world of rival great powers, Europe must be able to defend its interests and values.
The future of our liberal democracies depends on this.
This means reviewing existing shortfalls and dependencies – whether they are technological, financial or related to trade or security.
- The United States will not automatically engage in the crises on our doorstep – no matter who wins the elections in November. But do European capabilities and instruments already reflect that? I have my doubts, which is why it is so important that we make progress on the European Peace Facility.
- Isn’t it essential to speak with one voice when China’s ambition collides with European interests?
- And how can we expect to see change from actors with whom we have difficult relations if Europe doesn’t bring its collective influence to the table?
We have an interest in engaging with Russia – not only as a more constructive force in our neighborhood, but also on issues like climate change.
We have an interest in continuing our cooperation with Turkey on migration.
And we have an interest in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Finding European responses to these challenges will be a key goal for our Presidency – and for our friends from Portugal and Slovenia who will be following in our footsteps.
None of this will be easy.
However, as progressives, we know that progress means taking risks.
So, here is my fifth and final message: let us be brave as we chart our course out of this crisis.
Those who oppose our idea of “Europe United” have not disappeared. The Salvinis, Le Pens and Gaulands of this world fell silent because their political ideologies provide no answers in a crisis. And the pandemic made it obvious that nationalistic policies pose a deadly danger to each and every citizen.
But make no mistake: the nationalists and populists will make every effort to seize back control of the narrative. They will try to attack our solidarity and use old stereotypes to divide us. We have already seen signs of this.
This is where we need a strong European civil society.
We will therefore use our Presidency to create a pan-European space for debate – together with partners such as the Progressive Centre, academics, activists and artists from all over Europe.
Their voices must also feed into the Conference on the Future of Europe, which should start as soon as the pandemic allows.
How the European Union should look in 2030 and beyond cannot be answered without its citizens.
Ladies and gentlemen,
For me, the COVID-19 pandemic is living proof that civil society can lead us to the best answers. Our close cooperation with everyone from major scientists to professionals who we suddenly realised were essential was a profound example.
It was also a genuine exercise in democracy.
One that bound us together.
One that the world should not forget.
Thank you very much, and stay healthy!