WDR has a great sense of timing. There are only 70 hours left until the European elections. In the Netherlands and the UK, elections are even being held today. The Europaforum could scarcely be taking place closer to the political action this year – right on the finishing line of the election campaign, so to speak.
The starting gun for this was fired a few weeks ago – by your colleagues on French television. At the beginning of April, France 2 hosted a major election debate. In order to inject momentum into the discussion, the 12 leading candidates had been asked to each bring along an object that they thought symbolised Europe.
The result was quite a collection – a kitchen sieve, handcuffs, a mini Airbus. And two candidates had brought a piece of the Berlin Wall with them.
All of this triggered a somewhat lively debate – to put it very diplomatically. And, ladies and gentlemen, because that’s what I want to see from today’s Europaforum – an open and lively debate – I’ve also got something with me today. Something that, for me, symbolises Europe.
Europe is quite akin to this diamond, to my mind. And just so that you don’t get the wrong idea, I didn’t bring this one from home, but rather we borrowed it. But what I’m interested in isn’t primarily the value of a jewel such as this. The point I want to make is different.
After all, a diamond is nothing more than a carbon compound. And carbon – as we will remember from our chemistry lessons – is extremely versatile. It forms one of the softest materials of all, namely graphite. Or indeed diamonds, the hardest crystals on Earth.
The reason for this is that the carbon atoms form bonds of different strengthens with each other. Very loose ones, or especially tight ones.
External pressure plays a major role in all this. And we are currently feeling more than enough external pressure in Europe as well. After all, the world has changed dramatically over the past few years.
• China has not only become an economic superpower, but is also using its influence to divide the EU.
• Russia is trying to use military force to create political facts – whether in Syria or Ukraine.
• And President Trump’s Administration is turning its back on international agreements such as the Paris Climate Agreement, the nuclear agreement with Iran or, right now, the Arms Trade Treaty.
It isn’t the strength of the law that is gaining ground, but the law of the strong. Major powers may still somehow assert themselves in such a world. But no country in Europe is big enough and influential enough to be able to do that. Global challenges such as climate change, the digital transformation and migration cannot be solved by any of us going it alone.
For us, it’s a bit like it is with diamonds: it’s bonds that make the difference. The closer we stand together, the more resistant and stronger we are when facing all of these challenges.
Exerting influence together or being crushed alone – these are the alternatives facing all European countries today. And this fundamental question is now facing 400 million Europeans who will be heading to the ballot box in the coming days.
For me, the answer to this is simple and clear: we need more Europe, not less, and especially now. For only together, as “Europe United”, will we preserve European values such as freedom, tolerance, justice and social cohesion in this world.
For many of us, these achievements may now be taken for granted. Many people of my generation know no other reality.
But none of this can be taken for granted. And nothing is irreversible. A glance at a world full of crises shows this. And a glance at our European neighbourhood also shows this.
The path of the nationalists and populists inevitably leads to chaos.
• In its mixture of megalomania, degradation of values and contempt for democracy, the self-destruction of the Austrian right-wing populists is only one particularly glaring example of this.
• The all but endless Brexit tug of war we are currently experiencing is another example. Yet another vote is now scheduled to take place in the House of Commons. And we can only recommend to our colleagues in London that they perhaps take a leaf out of the English football clubs’ book instead. They’re so successful in Europe at the moment, not because they prevent goals, but because they score them.
And, ladies and gentlemen, there are more than enough wake-up calls. Wake-up calls that remind us that Sunday is about more than electing a Commission President.
It’s about whether we turn Europe over to the anarchists and those who want to divide and propagate fear. Those who, ultimately, want to destroy Europe.
Or whether those who stand for cohesion, compromise and confidence are in the majority.
Surveys show that support for Europe is at a 35-year high. More than 80 percent of Germans have a pro-European mindset.
If these people go to the polls, then this election will be a vote of confidence for cohesion. A mandate to politicians to strengthen the ties between our countries in order to make this Europe of ours unbreakable.
To this end, we must enable the EU
• to overcome its divisions on the domestic stage,
• to stand up for its interests and values in the world,
• and to guarantee a just life for its citizens.
In a nutshell, we need a strong and sovereign and, above all, social Europe.
It is with these three aspects in mind – strong, sovereign and social – that we should focus all our efforts after the European elections, together with a new Commission, a new Parliament and a new President of the EU Council, whoever that may be.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Europe will be strong when we close the rifts that the financial crisis and the migration debate have opened up. For this, we need a willingness to compromise on all sides, also here in Germany.
What’s the point, for example, of insisting on a fixed distribution key for refugees and migrants if we see that this tears Europe apart?
European solidarity can take different forms. It goes without saying that a country cannot refuse to admit any refugees at all. But what’s wrong with a flexible system in which some do more in the area of border management, others in taking refugees, and yet others in helping countries of origin and transit?
Strength also requires that we respect and abide by our shared values in daily life. There can be no half-hearted compromises on this score.
Freedom, democracy, the rule of law – that’s what keeps the EU together at the end of the day. It is on this that our credibility in the world depends, if we require others to espouse these values as well.
Anyone who benefits from the EU must know that there aren’t just rights, but also obligations. It is therefore right that Brussels should make this very clear to governments such as that of Viktor Orbán in Hungary.
We must also talk about the rule of law in the negotiations on the EU’s next financial framework. And we have already put in place a mechanism under which we, as member states, will subject the state of our rule of law to peer review. The fact that all countries are involved in this shows one thing, namely that the rule of law mustn’t be a source of division in the EU. Rather, this is what holds us together as a community of law.
The second point concerns sovereignty. Europe will only be genuinely sovereign when it can truly assert its values and interests in the age of “America first”, “Russia first” or “China first”.
The current discussions about the nuclear agreement with Iran show how difficult this is.
The US strategy of exerting maximum pressure makes it extremely difficult for us and other parties to this agreement to safeguard the economic benefits that Iran expected. And yet it is important, together with our partners, to continue to work on this – in spite of all the adversities. After all, this agreement is the best way to block Iran’s path to nuclear weapons, and also to avoid a widespread conflict in the region that would be highly dangerous, far beyond this region, and one that would stretch as far as Europe.
The example of Iran also shows us that a sovereign Europe must translate its clout as an economic and trading power into geopolitical influence to an even greater degree.
We have managed to do this in the area of data protection, despite all of the discussions on this. Thanks to clear European rules, we have set benchmarks around the world for the protection of personal data on the internet. This is a major issue for the future, also for democracy.
And in the area of trade, too, we Europeans can enforce high standards in areas such as environmental protection and workers’ rights if we act together, but only then. Our free trade agreements with Japan and Canada are exceptionally good examples of this.
The key here is to speak with one voice. This applies to foreign policy especially.
All too often, the need for unanimity in the Foreign Affairs Council means that the slowest dictate the pace. I think it’s time we put a stop to this – if the EU intends to become capable of pursuing foreign policy, and if we want to negotiate with the US or China as equal partners and make progress on climate policy, disarmament issues and human rights.
And while we’re on the subject of climate policy, if France, our closest partner in Europe, comes up with ambitious proposals here, then Germany cannot put the brakes on this.
On the contrary, we Europeans must work together to pick up the pace – especially when others turn their backs on their commitments. We owe this to future generations.
Ladies and gentlemen,
My third and final point concerns a social Europe based on the principle of solidarity. The rise of the populists and nationalists also has something to do with the fact that we have, in recent years, talked too much about free flows of goods, about bank bailouts and large corporations. We have talked too little about unlimited employee rights, co-determination and equal rights, as well as employment and training opportunities.
If we want to arouse new emotions for Europe, Europe’s citizens must sense that it is people and not the market that are the focus of our common action.
• We must therefore ensure at long last that large international companies pay taxes on their profits here too, instead of shifting them to tax havens.
• We need to achieve a convergence of minimum wages through a common European framework in order to stop social dumping, which also exists in Europe.
• And we need not only a union for banks and the capital market, but also a genuine European social union in which social security and co-determination go hand in hand with economic growth.
At the end of the day, social cohesion is the most effective way to protect Europe from nationalists and populists.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Only one thing is still more effective, namely turning out and voting on Sunday and ensuring that Europe gets your vote – a vote that gives Europe a voice.
Let’s not repeat the mistake too many Britons made when they stayed at home for the Brexit vote.
It’s up to us at the end of the day. I don’t think that there are too few of us, but that we are sometimes just too quiet.
And therefore, ladies and gentlemen, let’s make this coming Sunday a vote to remember,
• a vote for a strong Europe that doesn’t regress to narrow-minded national interests,
• a vote for a sovereign Europe that speaks up for freedom, democracy and justice in the world,
• and also a vote for a social Europe that doesn’t divide people, but which brings them together with all of their worries and needs that they are currently facing.
Such a Europe is a diamond in every imaginable way!