Opening statement by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth at the seminar “What is Europe?” at New York University
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Ladies and gentlemen,
“What is Europe?” – the title of your seminar sounds like the million-dollar question to me, or rather the million-euro question! And I am afraid there is not just one answer to this question. If you asked 500 million Europeans what exactly Europe means to them, you would probably get 500 million different answers.
Even for someone like me, who has more than 20 years’ experience in European politics, the answer has evolved over the last couple of years. The European Union is a moving target, and the answer therefore depends on one’s individual perspective and the exact point in time.
If you look at Europe from the inside, many Europeans will probably tell you that the continent is in deep crisis. Nowadays, many people regard Europe more as part of the problem than part of the solution. They are fed up with being in a permanent crisis mode and expect the European Union to deliver results as regards the current challenges – Brexit, macroeconomic imbalances between North and South, high unemployment rates in some parts of the Union and contentious debates about migration.
Yes, it is true that the European Union can be frustrating and exhausting.
But if you look at Europe from the outside, you will probably hear a completely different answer. The famous German filmmaker Wim Wenders once said: “I have seen Europe from Chicago and New York, from Tokyo and Rio, from Australia, from the heart of Africa, the Congo, and from Moscow. I am telling you: in each case, Europe appeared in a different light, but always as paradise, as a dream of mankind, as a stronghold of peace, prosperity and civilization.”
Wim Wenders illustrates a crucial point. Looking at refugees risking their lives to reach Europe, be it from the Middle East, North Africa or other parts of the world, and looking at people fighting for freedom and democracy in Turkey, Ukraine or the Western Balkans shows us how fascinating the EU still is as a community of shared values. These values, namely democracy, freedom, the rule of law, freedom of the press, minority rights etc., are the trademarks of our European model – and their power of attraction reaches far beyond Europe’s borders.
Ladies and gentlemen,
You see, sometimes it helps to change one’s perspective to get a clearer view of the subject itself. That is why I am looking forward to discussing the European Union with you today from a US perspective. I am curious to learn which kind of Europe you perceive – a continent of crisis or a continent of hope?
Before starting this discussion, however, let me focus on what – or rather, who – Europe is for the current US administration. You have probably heard Henry Kissinger’s legendary saying: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” We have come a long way since the 1970s. In addition to the President of the European Commission, the European Union has introduced a full-time President of the European Council and a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Nonetheless, it still depends on the specific policy area whether Washington needs to call Brussels or all 28 national governments.
Two months ago, at the peak of the trade dispute between the US and Europe, President Donald Trump and the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker met in Washington. The fact that President Trump met Jean-Claude Juncker instead of German Chancellor Merkel or French President Macron shows that we have come a long way since Kissinger’s legendary words.
In trade affairs, the US does not deal with individual member states, but rather with the European Union as a whole. Trade with third countries is an exclusive responsibility of the EU. This means that the European Commission has the mandate to negotiate and conclude international trade agreements.
At least with regard to trade, President Trump has Europe’s phone number. But we are not completely there yet. We still need to strengthen the Union in other areas as well – especially in the field of foreign and security policy, where decisions still require unanimity in the Council. I have to admit that it is challenging and time-consuming to reach a compromise among 28 member states, all of which have their own views due to their specific historical experiences.
There is just one answer. We as Europeans must stand united and speak with one voice! In the end, a common EU position can hardly be ignored. As individual nation states, we are all pretty small fish in a big pond. Even a political and economic heavyweight like Germany can only assert and defend its national interests through Europe. Only if we act together can the EU be a global player and make its voice heard in an increasingly tough international arena.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Finally, I want to invite you to travel in time with me. The answer to the question “What is Europe?” may not be clear. Indeed, it is even more difficult to find an answer if we ask ourselves “What will Europe be like in ten or fifteen years? In 2030, what kind of a continent will we Europeans be living in?”
My vision is a Europe where all member states have adopted a strong common currency, the euro. It is a place where we have generated growth and employment, leading to prosperity and security for everyone. In my vision, Europeans will benefit from open borders and a real pan‑European labour market. My hope is for a Europe that leads by example when it comes to protecting the climate and environment; a Europe that takes a cosmopolitan approach and gives migrants a real chance to integrate; a Europe that continues to safeguard democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights at the very highest level; and a Europe that defends its foreign and security policy interests with one voice on the world stage, with a shared seat on the UN Security Council and a European army.
A lot of that is still far away. However, it is important for us to set ourselves ambitious goals. For me personally, despite all the current difficulties and challenges, Europe will remain a unique project of peace, freedom, prosperity and civilization. The European Union is much more than just a playground for technocrats. It is simply not true that it is designed to spread uniformity or harmonise all differences. Quite the opposite – Europe is the dream of diversity, the guarantor of our individual ways of life and our life insurance policy in this turbulent age of globalisation!
This was a lot of food for thought. I am now curious to learn about your ideas and perspectives on Europe because I am here today for this very reason!