Speech by Michael Roth, Minister of State for Europe: “Is Europe having a midlife crisis? Thoughts for a new lease of life”

05.12.2018 - Speech
“Is Europe having a midlife crisis? Thoughts for a new lease of life”
“Is Europe having a midlife crisis? Thoughts for a new lease of life”© AA

You have probably experienced this before, or at least heard about it. You’ve been living in a happy, long-term relationship for many years. Your career is going well. Your children are growing up and becoming more independent. Your mortgage is nearly paid off. But suddenly, you start to lose your bearings, and you ask yourself: Was that really it? Or is there something else?

That may be what Europe is going through these days. Because Europe, too, is having a major identity crisis. Now, we are right to ask ourselves – why? Because the united Europe can, after all, be quite proud of the many things it has achieved over the past decades: Peace, freedom and prosperity for many. Unity in diversity. We have open borders and freedom of movement for people from Portugal to Poland, from Finland to Italy. We have the largest single market in the world and one of its three reserve currencies.

So you would think that we should be proud and content. However, despite its past successes, the EU is currently struggling with self-doubt, dissatisfaction and fears about the future. Nationalism and populism threaten to dissolve the European Union from within. So are Europe’s best days already behind it?

As a European who has travelled throughout Europe for more than three decades, I’ve seen this identity crisis unfold in many places – not only in Brussels, but also in Budapest, Rome, Paris, Skopje and Duisburg. We ourselves, I must say, are partly to blame. Because especially when it comes to European policy, the new Federal Government had very big plans. We wanted a new awakening for Europe. But that awakening didn’t last long.

The grand European policy projects may be running out of steam in Berlin and in Brussels. Germany’s response to Emmanuel Macron’s call for engagement was belated, and for many it sounded more like “yes, but ...” than “let’s do this!”

Especially among the young generation that is enthusiastic about Europe, I sense disappointment and dashed hopes. In the past, when I attended European events, it was always an opportunity for me to recharge my batteries. That’s where I found what I really cared about – a true passion for Europe, with big dreams and no prejudices, and the courage and determination it takes to achieve change and reform. But the mood has shifted. Today, I see many sceptical faces, and the questions I hear are more critical than before.

There have been many speeches on Europe in the past weeks and months. And I’m about to deliver another one. However, tonight, I want to share my very personal thoughts with you, without the restrictions that a Minister of State or a political party may impose. I promise that what you hear today will be 100 percent Michael Roth.

Europe is experiencing a midlife crisis. However, this is not a hopeless case that requires psychotherapy. Rather, Europe is in need of some motivational coaching. Imagine for a moment that Europe is a flesh-and-blood person who approaches us and asks for some life advice on what lies ahead. That’s the exercise I would like to do this evening – together with you, Deniz Yücel and Almut Möller. I also want to thank the Schwarzkopf Foundation and the European Movement Germany, the co-hosts of this event.

Europe’s best years are yet to come. If this phase of gruelling critical reflection is followed by one of discovery of purpose and reorientation, then I don’t have to fear for our Europe. I have four pieces of advice to give my old friend Europe:

Firstly, break out of everyday routines – stay fit and active, also in advanced years.

Secondly, widen your horizons – stay in touch with old friends and make new ones.

Thirdly, include your partners – listen to and take each other seriously.

Fourthly, practise what you preach – stay true to yourself and behave with decency towards others.

Breaking out of everyday routines – staying fit and active, also in advanced years.

Proposal: Provide new impetus, with a Europe where some parties push ahead

Ladies and gentlemen,
It’s good to stay fit and active – especially during a life crisis. This clears your mind so that you can find new, creative solutions. However, recently in the EU, strong impetus has been in short supply. Europe has lacked drive and has been lazy, and it has too often preferred to sit down and rest on the couch of consensus and unanimity. Has there been progress? Unfortunately, no. The mantra “use it or lose it” should apply above all to Europe – especially considering that everyone expects it to finally get going and deliver results.

It is not so much the EU institutions that are applying the brakes as it is a number of member states who prefer going it alone over working on joint solutions. “Europe united” is and remains our goal. Because, in the turbulent age of globalisation, in this world full of crises and conflicts, Europe is still our best insurance policy. The issues we are confronted with can be solved – but only with, and never against, Europe!

As much as we may want all EU member states to consistently pull in the same direction, we will not always be able to wait for every last doubt to be dispelled and every critic in the EU to be won over by an idea.

For me, it is also not satisfactory to have European solutions always boil down to the smallest common denominator.

Everything is fine and well with “Europe united”. But what we need now is for a few of us to push ahead, by courageously taking the lead on more and more projects – later, the other partners can be won over when these efforts succeed. If the level of ambition of pan-European solutions remains low, or if they even become impossible, then I prefer a Europe with some parties that push ahead to a Europe where everyone stands still.

No, I am not at all proposing the solidification of a “core Europe”. We should be under no illusions. A multi‑speed Europe is indeed already a reality – just think about the euro area, or about Schengen. Different speeds are not too dramatic, as long as everyone walks in the same direction. The EU treaties contain the respective instruments. What we are seeing is not taboos that are being broken, but rather accepted policy.

Enhanced cooperation does not create a private club. Rather, it remains open and dynamic. Depending on the issue, different constellations of member states can be formed under this procedure. They exist in the east and the west, the north and the south. For nine member states to establish such cooperation – according to the Treaty, this is the minimum number of EU members that need to get involved – we all must become more flexible. We must relearn the value of compromise.

The pacemakers must now truly shift into high gear and rapidly develop joint initiatives that will lead to concrete results. For example, I am upset by the fact that, in recent years, we have not made substantial progress on the introduction of a financial transaction tax.

The euro area in particular must now resolutely lead the way and demonstrate its political operability.

If we are no longer able to reach consensus in the EU on the formation of an “ever closer Union”, then we should agree on an ambitious intermediate goal, namely an “ever closer euro area”.

The Franco-German proposal for a euro area budget is encouraging and gets the ball rolling. But that is not enough. In the long run, the economic and monetary union can only survive if it boldly proceeds down the road to a real social union.

Social inequality has increased dramatically in the wake of the economic and financial crisis. In the heart of the euro area, certain regions have been left behind, and there are pockets of poverty. In southern France and southern Italy, youth unemployment is higher than 40 percent. Within the euro area, more than 19 million people still live in poverty, including 2.2 million in Greece alone.

In recent years, I made a point of travelling to regions where the social situation is particularly dramatic. In Palermo, Thessaloniki, Lisbon and Marseilles, I met young people who are just barely making it, doing unpaid internships and working odd jobs. The welfare state is non-existent, and it is only thanks to family support that they are able to avoid social catastrophe. Yet, along with anger and disappointment, there was cause for optimism. These young people have, thank goodness, not yet given up hope on Europe. On the contrary! That I find encouraging – and motivating.

In these times of looming social division, the EU must make a much greater effort to re-establish social justice. Over the past two decades, with the Lisbon and Europe 2020 Strategies, we have indeed set ambitious goals with a view to creating more growth and employment throughout Europe. Both Strategies, however, were not as effective as they could have been because their practical implementation remained far too vague. For coordinated action to be effective, it must become more binding.

So how do we want the euro area to develop over the next decade? We should set ourselves the goal of correcting the massive social imbalances that exist in the 19 countries in the euro area, with a view to achieving nearly equal living conditions by the year 2030.

A forward-looking Euro 2030 Strategy could aim to achieve a comparable minimum level of social support throughout the euro area – through binding principles, target corridors and minimum standards in the spheres of education and employment, old-age provision, health care and anti-poverty measures. Progress towards these objectives could be monitored by a European social minister who – just like a European finance minister – would be democratically controlled by a “Euro-Parliament” consisting of Members of the European Parliament and national MPs.

As a pacemaker in multi-speed Europe, the euro area has always had a special responsibility for maintaining the stability and cohesion of the entire European Union. What is often not given enough attention in this debate, however, is that all EU member states – with the exception of Denmark and, for the time being, the UK – are required by law to adopt the euro and join the euro area as soon as they meet the convergence criteria. Currently, some non-euro countries are intentionally not meeting these requirements, so that they will be able to freely appreciate or devalue their currency in a crisis.

Can we be satisfied with this status quo? We must finally turn this from a losers’ into a winners’ debate, by courageously and decisively moving ahead with euro area reform. We must make catching up with the euro countries that are leading the way a much more attractive option for the seven remaining non-euro countries than trailing behind the pack. In future, membership in the euro area must be a driver of social stability, economic competitiveness and sound national budgets. That would be the best recipe against future crises.

Widening our horizons – keeping old friends and making new ones

Proposal: Europe as a peace and stabilisation project with prospects of accession for the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe

Ladies and gentlemen,
If you want to get over an identity crisis, it helps to have a stable environment. Europe also needs good friends on whom it can count unconditionally in a crisis. Fresh impetus and unforeseen common ground wait on our doorstep. Introversion and isolation tend to be counterproductive. When it comes to our closest neighbours, we need to be more curious and open.

Good neighbourly relations, stability and peace in Europe are anything but a matter of course. A few days ago, I visited Maillé, a small village in western France, where German troops carried out a barbaric massacre on 25 August 1944, brutally slaying 124 people. A woman who was a small child at the time told me how she had only survived by chance. She had quarrelled with her parents that day and run off. Her entire family was wiped out on that day. Her birthday was on the day of the massacre. She has never celebrated it again since then. To this day, she reproaches herself bitterly for surviving while her closest relatives died.

Like Ypres, Verdun, Auschwitz, Stalingrad and Srebrenica, Maillé is one of the many sites of terror in Europe. They remind us where hatred and blind nationalism can lead. Fortunately, conflicts in the EU are no longer decided violently on the battlefield, but instead resolved at the negotiating table. Bitter enemies have become friends and partners who live peacefully and respectfully together and work closely with one another. What a wonderful achievement in the history of civilisation!

But unfortunately, peace, stability, democracy and the rule of law are not practised all over Europe. So far, we have not managed to make the peace project of the EU a truly pan-European peace and stabilisation project.

And I am particularly concerned about our neighbourhood to the east. A brutal war is being fought on European territory right now. Russia is mainly responsible for this. Despite many diplomatic initiatives, people die almost every day at the front in eastern Ukraine. And the current conflict in the Sea of Azov spells out clearly to us once again how fragile the situation in Ukraine is. Meanwhile, Georgia, Armenia and Moldova are characterized by frozen conflicts, which could flare up again at any time.

In the 1990s, we experienced in the Western Balkans what it means when there is no European anchor of stability. At the time, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, displaced or forced to flee as a result of the brutal civil wars because there was no longer any interest in preserving peaceful coexistence between the various ethnic groups, religions and cultures.

The entire region has had concrete prospects of EU accession since the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003. We have constantly reaffirmed these prospects, as the Western Balkans are not Europe’s backyard, but rather the inner courtyard of the house that is Europe. There is certainly still a great deal to do on the path to EU membership. All six Western Balkan countries are grappling, to a greater or lesser extent, with corruption and organised crime, deficits in governance and unresolved regional conflicts. The main reason why this enlargement process is so complex is because we have learned our lesson from the mistakes of the past. That is why the most difficult chapters – democracy, the rule of law and the fight against corruption – are now discussed right at the start of the talks.

The Eastern Partnership countries do not have concrete prospects of EU accession. There may be good reasons for this, but nevertheless we should offer them significantly more than we have done so far, at the very least an “Eastern Partnership plus”. In Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova in particular, a clear majority of the population longs to be part of the EU. However, scepticism and disagreement about this remain high in the EU.

When I speak with young Ukrainians today – five years after the pro-European demonstrations on Maidan Square in Kyiv – I mainly experience their disappointment, dashed hopes and impatience. And to be frank, these young people who long so much to be part of Europe increasingly feel that we have left them in the lurch. I find it very difficult to explain to them why we constantly demand that Ukraine undertakes reforms, but are not willing to make the people of Ukraine an attractive offer ourselves. Why carry out reforms in the first place? Why should they stay in Ukraine?

My main aim is to tell these young people about promising prospects in their home countries. I would like to tell them to stay in their home countries because they are interested in their country and in Europe and to say that they belong with us. How about an Eastern Partnership youth and education office financed and run by the EU? The Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) already provides an innovative format in the Western Balkans.

In 2019, the Eastern Partnership will celebrate its tenth anniversary. That is a good occasion to look at what has been achieved and to explore together what form a new European Ostpolitik might take. And I suspect that difficult debates may lie ahead of us in the EU, as there is very little willingness to compromise as regards Russia and the issue of enlargement.

However, it is also clear that a new European Ostpolitik cannot bow down to concepts based on geostrategic spheres of influence. Above all, it can never lead to sovereign, independent countries being ground down between their traditional ties to Russia and their European orientation. No one – and that includes Russia – has the right of veto. Turning towards Europe does not automatically mean turning away from Russia. As regards these issues, tact is more important than a pact!

Including partners – listening and taking each other seriously

Proposal: strengthening democracy through dialogue and participation

Ladies and gentlemen,
Crises can make you feel very lonely. The best solutions are not usually found by dealing with problems by yourself, but rather by discussing them with friends and partners who may not always agree with you, but come up with new ideas.

European democracy is unthinkable without open dialogue. For as long as I have been working in the field of European policy, the EU’s aloofness from the public and democratic deficit have been ongoing and much-debated topics. Despite some changes, the EU still struggles with direct participation by the public. In all honesty, though, the public is just as uncomfortable with European policy. In other words, the tricky relationship is on both sides.

As in any relationship, it helps to talk when there are serious problems. And when it comes to Europe, we really need to sit down and talk things through! That’s why we took the daring step of conducting a large Europe-wide experiment this year. In recent months, all Europeans were invited to take part in a broad discussion on the future of Europe. The idea came from an initiative by French President Emmanuel Macron. Twenty-seven EU Member States took part. In Germany alone, more than 100 dialogue events with over 6000 participants took place between May and October 2018.

The aim was to carry out a very comprehensive survey of Europeans’ expectations, concerns and criticism by autumn 2018. But that’s not all. We also said that the findings of the Citizens’ Dialogues could be included in the European Council meeting discussions on 13 and 14 December. The fact that not only are discussions being held all over Europe, but real findings are being collated and forwarded directly to the Heads of State and Government can be an opportunity.

Many people – and I’m one of them! – think this process doesn’t go far enough yet. At the Citizens’ Dialogues, the people I encountered were usually interested in politics, had a university degree and tended to be pro-European. That is not a representative cross-section of our society. And it simply is not enough if we only speak with the “usual suspects” and assure one another of how wonderful Europe is. It is far more difficult to offer concrete opportunities for discussion to those who are not part of the polyglot and cosmopolitan crowd. And the following question is on my mind – how can we reach the hearts and minds of those who have long since withdrawn from social discourse and have hunkered down in their Eurosceptic echo chambers?

That’s why I suggest that we build on our positive experiences with the Citizens’ Dialogues and develop this format into regular Europe forums.

In order to go beyond a purely elitist discourse, we will ensure that a representative selection of participants makes up at least half of future forums. We should expand these events in border regions in particular. Most importantly, the European dialogue process needs to be more binding. Participants need to know what will happen with the findings in the end. That’s why the ideas drawn up by the participants should be discussed in public debates in the future in the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the national parliaments.

If we want the public to feel closer to the EU, we need to get young people more involved. After all, 15 to 24-year-olds are more in favour of the EU than any other age group. At the same time, however, young people’s turnout in European elections is considerably lower than the average. Young Europeans are increasingly uninterested in conventional ways of being politically active. Instead, they tend to get involved more sporadically and with particular topics. We need to deal wisely and prudently with this – for example by reducing the minimum age for European Citizens’ Initiatives from 18 to 16 or making greater use of innovative online dialogue formats.

Young people are often pro-European because it is completely normal for them to travel in Europe, study outside their home country or have a partner in or from another EU country. In contrast, older people tend to follow well-trodden paths and are less frequently called on to try something completely new. And in that context, I would like to suggest that we set up a European volunteer service for active senior citizens. The older generation has so much experience and expertise to offer. All of Europe can benefit from that.

I envisage a retired German teacher from Transylvania teaching German to Roma children in Duisburg or a 60-year-old master locksmith from Berlin handing on her knowledge and skills to a refugee initiative in Andalusia. This would enable all generations to experience Europe beyond their holidays on the continent or what they see on television.

But making the public more “European” is not the only important thing. We politicians could also benefit from taking a critical look at our routines and working methods. I for one do that. We could also throw open the doors and windows in Brussels and finally let in some fresh air and new ideas. How about that? The Council of the European Union could leave the rather depressing Justus Lipsius building and the windowless back rooms of European democracy and hold its meetings in public. These meetings could take place as often as possible in universities, companies or community centres.

Practise what you preach – stay true to yourself and behave with decency towards others.

Proposal: Strengthen the rule of law and gender equality in Europe

Ladies and gentlemen,
Let’s turn to my fourth recommendation for Europe. If you’re stuck in a midlife crisis you have probably come off the track and are no longer following your inner compass. To regain your equilibrium, it is helpful to focus on your values and principles. They form a bond with other like-minded individuals and help you behave with decency towards others.

Within the EU, too, some member states are at risk of waving their moral compass goodbye. At the moment, the most heated debate in the EU is about the very values that have made us so strong over the past six decades: democracy, the rule of law, cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, freedom of the press and of opinion, the protection of minorities and gender equality – shared values at the heart of our European identity.

The EU really is much more than just an internal market. It is above all a community of shared values, a family grounded in the rule of law, a unique democracy project! Yet the survival of our fundamental values is not a given. They have to be preserved and protected day in, day out.

In some EU member states changes are afoot to which we cannot turn a blind eye. I am thinking for example of Poland, Hungary, and now Romania as well. If democracy is openly questioned, if basic rule-of-law principles such as independence of the judiciary and press freedom are chipped away at or hollowed out, the very foundation of our peaceful and rules-based existence in Europe is put in jeopardy.

As a result, the question of whether these values and principles are respected in a given country is not a purely domestic issue. It is an issue that concerns us all! We therefore have to work together to ensure that our values are consistently upheld and we must respond resolutely if they come under threat.

The EU institutions have at long last taken an unmistakable stance on rule-of-law violations by individual states. In December 2017, the Commission launched the procedure envisaged by Article 7(1) of the Treaty on European Union with respect to Poland, which could ultimately lead to the suspension of Poland’s voting rights in the Council.

This September, the European Parliament adopted a report calling for Article 7(1) proceedings against Hungary. And just recently, the European Court of Justice ordered the Polish Government to reinstate the Supreme Court judges forced to retire by a recent piece of legislation. That was a victory for the rule of law!

Nevertheless, people still ask me if the existing measures are not something of a blunderbuss. It is true that the EU’s tool kit has no practicable mechanism larger than a legalistic toothpick (traditional infringement proceedings) but smaller than a political hand grenade (Article 7 proceedings).

And it is obvious that it is far harder in practice to take action against countries violating the principles of democracy than it is to punish those running up excessive debt.

How we treat our basic values has become a dangerously divisive issue within the EU, between East and West. I have heard it said repeatedly that Western EU countries – including Germany – use the rule of law as cover to put pressure on other states. And then there are those who accuse us of double standards, of putting our values above those of our Central and Eastern European partners.

I don’t understand these arguments. Taking our union of shared values seriously is not a matter of power politics, but of adhering to principles! I would come to the same conclusions and express just the same criticism if we were talking about developments in France, Sweden or Germany. Personally, I at least will endeavour to ensure that our shared values forge a bond between us, rather than driving a wedge between us.

That’s why I would like to suggest that all EU states submit to a regular rule-of-law review – as an equal among peers. This would be a kind of rule-of-law check-up based on the Universal Periodic Review conducted by the United Nations Human Rights Council. In other words, not only the usual suspects would be reviewed, but all countries would take their turn facing the scrutiny of the others. Should rule-of-law deficits be identified, the member state concerned would have to report the year after on the specific steps it had taken to correct them.

However, we should also think about the rule of law as part of the forthcoming negotiations on the multiannual financial framework. I endorse the European Commission’s proposal that the disbursement of EU funds should in future be dependent on adherence to rule-of-law principles. But that does not go far enough. In addition we need instruments that can strengthen our community of values before deficiencies appear.

I therefore propose that a fund for fundamental European values be established as part of the EU budget. This could be used to support non-governmental and civil-society organisations wherever democracy and the rule of law are at particular risk.

How we in the EU treat our values also has an impact on our credibility. Only if we uphold them in full within our community can we credibly demand that other countries respect them too, other countries such as Turkey, where democracy and the rule of law are currently suffering severe setbacks.

However, we should never make the mistake of equating an entire country with its government. Merkel is not Germany – and Erdogan is not Turkey. Governments come and go, but the people remain. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, “It’s civil society, stupid!” It’s civil society that is so vital if we want to strengthen basic values.

This we owe not only to those who campaign courageously in Turkey for freedom, human rights, and an open and pluralistic society, but also to the three million or so people of Turkish descent in Germany. We mustn’t alienate them, but equally we have to make it clear that our basic values are non-negotiable!

I look forward to discussing this issue in more depth with Deniz Yücel.

Ladies and gentlemen,
We can also learn with each other and from each other as regards gender equality. You see before you a committed feminist! Making Europe and indeed politics as a whole more vibrant, diverse and yes, even more feminine, is a particular priority of mine.

I have tried to contribute to this in my own modest way by joining the #JamaisSansElles movement. For months now I have only attended events in which women are properly involved.

But small steps like this are not enough. Sweden is a pioneer and my number one role model when it comes to gender equality. In 2014, under the Government led by the Social Democrats, Sweden was the first country in the world to propound a feminist foreign policy that sought to strengthen women’s rights, their representation and resources around the world. A few weeks ago, Foreign Minister Margot Wallström launched a handbook on feminist foreign policy, from which other countries could learn.

And so could we in the EU! The time is ripe for a feminist European policy! Equality between men and women is one of the European Union’s fundamental values, as enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union and in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. However, in spite of the considerable progress we have made on the European equality project, I still feel there is room for improvement.

Equality needs to be considered first of all in connection with the budget. If we spend more money on agriculture or infrastructure, for example, men will tend to benefit, since they are traditionally over-represented in these sectors. And if we cut spending on local transport, this will tend to affect women more than men. It is unfortunately still women on the whole who take care of the kids, who work part-time, and who thus rely on a functioning local transport network.

But things do not have to be this way – thanks to gender budgeting. The concept may sound complicated, but it is in fact very simple. It means we would undertake to examine every item of expenditure to identify its target group, who will benefit, and how gender neutral it is. Budgets would be systematically analysed and adjusted. At EU level, this has so far only been agreed in the form of a non-binding recommendation.

I advocate making gender budgeting obligatory for the entire EU budget and for the awarding of subsidies. That would also bring about structural change!

However, we shouldn’t only be looking at rights and resources, but also at representation. No self-respecting state can operate without a reasonable number of women in its decision-making bodies – and the same applies to the European Union. However, women are still significantly under-represented in the European Parliament and on the European Commission. For an organisation such as the EU, which claims to be a global frontrunner in the field of gender equality and gender equity, this is disappointing.

Three simple steps could help smash the glass ceiling that prevents women reaching the top, in the EU as elsewhere. Firstly, we in Germany could at long last adopt a law on parity of representation, after 100 years of women’s suffrage, which requires all political parties to allocate places on their party lists fairly to men and women. Secondly, we, the German Government, could lead by example and commit ourselves to nominating a woman to serve as Germany’s member on the Commission next year. And thirdly, the members of the newly elected European Parliament should let the Commission President and the Heads of State and Government know that they will not approve any Commission which does not comprise at least 50% women!

As you can see, change can be so easy. That’s why I say no excuses any more! We have the means in our own hands to lead Europe out of this crisis.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Now it is crucial to practise what we preach in Budapest and Duisburg, in Maillé and Zagreb, and here at this basecamp in Berlin: to go out and vote, to strengthen democracy. Don’t complain – campaign! The European Parliament elections in May 2019 will be a litmus test of our ability to stop the aggressive advance of nationalism and populism.

We are in the driving seat when it comes to leading Europe out of this identity crisis. That’s the positive side of a midlife crisis. You leave the trodden path, you try new things, but you remain true to yourself whilst experiencing a sense of new departure. And it is precisely this sense of new departure that lies dormant in Europe. Let’s sound the wake up call!


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