Dear members of parliament,
Thank you very much for your kind invitation. I visited your country very often and my last visit was one year ago. But I never had the opportunity to meet members of the parliament in this format. As I am one of your colleagues – I have been member of the Bundestag since 1998 – the exchange of views with other parliamentarians is very valuable and enriching for me.
First of all, let me express my sincere solidarity with the families of the two Dutch citizens, who were injured – one of them seriously – in Münster last week, when a man drove his van into a crowd of people. The doctors do their utmost to save the life of the seriously injured person and I hope he will be soon back in the Netherlands.
Germany and the Netherlands are very close neighbours, partners and friends. Your country is the most important trade partner for Germany in Europe and No. 2 in the world! The wide range of mutual visits and the intensity of our cooperation show how excellent our relationship is.
And least but not last: we are both founding nations of the European Union. In challenging times of Brexit, the rise of populism and international crisis, we are bearing a special responsibility for its future.
We are aware of the particular Dutch situation after Brexit. That is why I ask you to stay in close contact about the challenges that we need to solve together. Bilateral meetings between members of parliament play an important role for improving the political dialogue.
Therefore, I welcome that a new Parliamentary Group (Benelux) is to be formed in Bundestag, which will combine the former German-Dutch and German-Belgian-Luxemburgian groups.
Before we start our discussion, let me make a few remarks about the one billion euro question: the future of the European Union.
The new German government is willing to bring Europe forward, to achieve reforms and to invest in the future of Europe. I know that our European partners had to wait a very long time for the new government. But I am sure that Dutch politicians have a very good understanding for long coalition negotiations.
Speaking of reforms and of the future of Europe, I believe that first of all, we have to face the fact that we Europeans find ourselves in a pretty uncomfortable world today. We witness fragility and armed conflicts in our immediate neighbourhood. We see fundamental changes in the international multilateral order that has long been shaped and preserved by Europe and the United States.
And we see the rise of new actors on the international stage that do no longer share our values and our interests. And at the same time, the importance of European countries is shrinking, in terms of population and in economic terms.
In today’s world, every EU member state – whether it has 10 million or even 80 million inhabitants – is a medium-sized country at best. And what we witness is only the beginning of this international trend.
This makes one thing very clear for me: Our only choice is between having a joint voice in the world or no voice at all. We Europeans need to succeed in uniting ourselves and in shaping our future – or our future will be shaped by others.
I am aware that after all crises, such as the financial and economic crisis and the Brexit vote – many of our citizens were asking themselves what Europe can really do about all this? What can Europe do for me, what is the added-value of Europe? I am sure that this was also the case in the Netherlands.
So for making Europe ready for the future I believe, we need three things:
First: Europe needs unity and cohesion. A divided, fragmented Europe is paralysed and unable to achieve anything for its citizens. Therefore, all Member States need to stand united and focus on our common interests and values.
But unity and cohesion is also necessary between the EU and its citizens. We see growing populism all over Europe: In the European Parliament, in our national parliaments, in European governments. And we see bad turnout in European elections and a growing distance between the EU and its citizens. We need to bridge that gap.
Second: We need a European Union which is really sovereign. By this I mean a Union that is capable of addressing global challenges and shaping its future in the world. The EU’s input is indispensable, if we think of climate change, migration flows or free and fair trade.
Third: Europe has to show what its added value is. We need concrete results, tangible improvement, but also a growing awareness among citizens that we are stronger together. Let me call it a natural European identity, which I think is already growing among young Europeans.
Now, France has brought forward a lot of ideas for reform in the EU and there has been much talk of Germany having to answer France’s call. But we should not be mistaken: None of this can be achieved by one or two member states alone. If we want to shape our future in the EU, we need all member states – big or small, representing the whole range of views and interests.
It is not the size of a country that matters in the EU. What really matters are ideas, creativity and a pro-European commitment. In this respect the smaller countries – like the Netherlands – have a lot to offer! And they are valuable players in our European team.
So I am very glad to also learn from you today, about your Dutch ideas, proposals and visions for the future of Europe. Thank you very much.