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Thank you very much for inviting me to open this ECFR annual meeting, which will take place today and tomorrow. These are extraordinary times - this digital format leaves us in no doubt about that. We would very much have liked to have welcomed you to Berlin. After all, for the ECFR it would almost have been like coming home, back to the roots. For it was founded just a few metres from here, in the Federal Foreign Office Weltsaal, in 2007. At that time, my predecessor, now Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was looking back on Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU just a few months before.
Then, too, there was talk of crisis and a new start, following two negative referenda in France and the Netherlands and the struggle to adopt the Treaty of Lisbon. And yet the debates at that time, which centred on a European Foreign Minister or new approaches in the area of security and defence policy, seem to belong to an almost idyllic past – at least compared to the Herculean task that Europe faces at the beginning of this Council Presidency.
To date, more than 100,000 Europeans have lost their lives as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The consequences of the emergency braking in the economy will occupy us for years to come. And quite possibly the test of our societies still awaits us. Whoever assumes the Council Presidency in times like these needs to be aware that high expectations will be placed on them. That is especially true of Germany, as the most highly populated member state, the largest economy and a country at the heart of the EU, which owes this Europe so much of its political and economic success.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We do not just want to live up to these expectations. We want to use this unprecedented crisis to set in motion unprecedented changes in the European Union.
And these changes centre on two words that describe the entire programme of the German Presidency in a nutshell: solidarity and sovereignty. These are two sides of the same coin. For only if Europe stands united internally in a spirit of solidarity and grows closer together will it be able to defend its values and interests abroad. That was the case even before the pandemic. But it applies all the more in the post- COVID-19 world – in which the American-Chinese rift continues to deepen and instability is increasing throughout the world.
First, though, solidarity. I don’t think I need to use many words to describe what a revolutionary progress is contained in the recent Franco-German proposals. Revolutionary not only in terms of the financial scale of the recovery programme and the willingness to use the EU budget to mobilise common funds for future investment. Olaf Scholz rightly spoke of Europe’s “Hamiltonian moment”.
But revolutionary also because it allows us to overcome the errors of the past. Whether the euro and financial crisis or the confrontations surrounding migration and displacement – all these have deepened the divides between our countries. And that danger exists this time, too, if each country attempts simply to save their own skin, thereby further exacerbating economic and fiscal inequalities.
It is all the more important that from the outset we anchor our national measures in a European recovery programme. And that is why agreement on this and on a future budget for the next seven years will be the top priority of our Presidency.
Europe’s prosperity in the coming decades hinges on this. And that is why it cannot focus simply on “reconstruction”. What is more, any form of reconstruction is doomed to failure if Europe does not simultaneously become greener, more social, more digital and more innovative.
The future budget needs to reflect this. And when we speak of solidarity and cohesion, it goes without saying that we also need to ensure that these funds are allocated according to rule-of-law criteria. And there’s another point that I consider important: We must not measure Europe’s strength in this crisis solely in terms of corporate profits or booming stock markets. This time, Europe’s solidarity should be tangible for all citizens. With the SURE programme, we therefore want to provide all Europeans with security in the form of reduced hours compensation benefit. And we want to go even further in this area – for instance, by introducing unemployment reinsurance and a common framework for a minimum wage.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We would be squandering a historic opportunity were we to fail to use this new era in European policy to consolidate our union permanently. The next crisis cannot and will not be permitted to bring with it the renewed threat of collapse. And so it is perhaps a good thing that the virus has ruthlessly laid bare the existing shortcomings in EU capabilities. The fact that the EU can at most make recommendations when faced with a transnational pandemic is hard to explain. Our digital infrastructure was overwhelmed by the involuntary surge in digital activity caused by the crisis.
And we’ve been talking about Europe’s role in crisis prevention and civil emergency preparedness for years, without making much real progress. We intend to change all that. By means of improved coordination and – where necessary – also by amending the treaties. Tunnel vision won’t help us – and it won’t help the Germans either. Of course, we are not proposing the creation of a European super state. What we are proposing is to keep Europe functioning in a world in which the global balance is shifting rapidly – away from Europe. And in which things like digital innovation are vital for survival.
This brings me to the term “European sovereignty”.
It was debated again in Brussels just last week. And I understand the worries expressed by the critics, their concerns about losing sovereignty or even about isolating European from American security. But that is not what’s meant. European sovereignty, as I understand it, means that Europe can act independently and decide to pool its resources in areas where the individual states have long since lost their ability to shape globalisation to the major powers. The fact that Europe now imports almost 90% of all medicines the WHO considers essential from China or India illustrates where action is needed. Or just think of 5G, storage and information technologies, logistics, energy and the natural resource sector.
The first step must therefore be an unsparing analysis of our strategic dependencies, be they technological, security-, trade- or monetary-related. Let’s look at transatlantic relations, by way of example. It will also be our task as EU Council Presidency to ensure that Europe is prepared for the outcome of the US elections and has drawn up a constructive agenda with which we can approach a new Biden administration or a second Trump administration.
Regardless of who wins the elections in November, though, we will have to think about how to better contain the conflicts in Europe’s vicinity, even without the US. For that reason, too, we want to finalise work on the European Peace Facility and establish a European Centre of Excellence for Civilian Crisis Management here in Berlin during our Presidency.
It is also indispensable for Europe to speak with a single voice to China! This is all the more important now, given the need to investigate the pandemic and the increasingly robust action taken by China in Hong Kong and its neighbourhood. For this reason, too, we should reschedule the EU-China Summit as soon as possible. Josep Borrell recently talked of Team Europe when describing his goal of truly interlinking European and national policy on foreign, economic, environmental, development and security matters. He has our full backing in this endeavour.
For there is another task that will fall to us: The full force of the crisis will be felt by the poorer regions of the world. These regions will need help from Europe, a great deal of help. And if we democracies do not provide it, others will do at a price that will in the long-term be significantly higher for us.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It was thus extremely fortunate - and no coincidence - that we have been working so closely with the ECFR on the concept of European sovereignty.
Thank you very much for your input! This brings me back to the ECFR, which since its inception in 2007 has made it a priority to create a European public space for European issues. We want to lend fresh impetus to this endeavour, too, during our Presidency by means of citizens’ conferences and work- shops, but also by innovative means, such as the art project we commissioned from Ólafur Elíasson. The aim is participation closer exchange between civil society and policymakers. The COVID-19 pandemic showed us, in an almost existential fashion, how important this is. Not least when the defence of our European achievements, our Europe United is at stake. No matter what opportunities there are for the European Union to emerge strengthened from this crisis, we should never forget that Europe’s enemies have not vanished. They are only so quiet now because their ideologies have no answers to the pressing issues in this crisis. After all, this shows that populists are clearly not essential workers. But they will try to use this crisis, too, as they have done in the past. They will criticise us for our solidarity, without understanding that they are thereby undermining our sovereignty. But they won’t have a chance if we show them that Europe is more than a collection of quarrelling, egoistical nation states. If we stand up credibly for our values, such as the rule of law and democracy and if we breathe life into two concepts: solidarity and sovereignty. If we succeed in these goals, this crisis can become Europe’s moment in time.
Thank you very much.