Madam President of the Commission,
Distinguished colleagues at the European Parliament,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is my pleasure to address the plenary of the European Parliament at the beginning of the German Presidency of the Council of the EU. Like most of you, I too have missed meeting people in person, and talking to them face to face.
This is my first trip abroad since the start of the pandemic, and it is no coincidence that it has brought me to you, to the heart of European democracy. We need the European Parliament now as the European Union seeks to emerge strengthened from this crisis.
The tasks ahead of us are tremendous. They require tremendous exertions. They need parliamentary debate, they need political mediation, they need cultural transposition into our various countries and regions. This is where you are needed. It is thus my special honour to present to you today the priorities of the German Council Presidency.
Five issues are particularly important to me at this time: our fundamental rights, cohesion, climate change, digitalisation and Europe’s responsibility in the world. These five issues are important because we must lastingly transform Europe if we want to protect it and preserve it. For only then will Europe be able to play a sovereign and responsible role of its own in a rapidly changing global order.
We are all aware that my visit today takes place against the backdrop of the greatest test the European Union has ever faced. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has had a serious and unforgiving impact on people in Europe, too. It has claimed more than 100,000 lives in Europe alone. Many people were not even able to say goodbye to their loved ones in their final hours because of the strict quarantine rules. This grief for the departed, the pain left by impossible farewells, will never be forgotten, no matter how hard we work to start again, no matter how dedicated we are to economic recovery. These feelings will remain with us for a long time to come.
Our economy has been struck a heavy blow across Europe. The reverberations continue to shake us. Millions of workers have lost their jobs. Many EU citizens have come to fear for their livelihoods, in addition to fearing for their health and the health of their families. They now all need our joint support.
In order to break chains of infection, temporary restrictions had to be placed on the most elementary fundamental rights. This was a very high price to pay, since generations of Europeans had fought hard to win these fundamental rights. Human rights and civil liberties are the most valuable possessions we have in Europe. They may only be restricted for very good reason and for the shortest time possible. A pandemic must never be used as an excuse to undermine democratic principles.
All European countries have their varying collective memories of their own historic upheavals, of diverse battles for freedom and the rule of law. And yet we are united by precisely this achievement of fundamental rights in Europe. Speaking for myself, as someone who lived 35 years under a system that denied its citizens freedom, the decision to limit these rights during the pandemic was one that I found immensely hard to take.
It is in this historic phase that Germany takes over the Council Presidency. I have great respect for this task, but also a great passion for it. For I trust in Europe. I am a firm believer in Europe – not just as our heritage, but as providing hope and vision for the future.
Europe is not just our destiny, a legacy that has been passed on to us, imposing obligations. Europe is a living entity that we can shape and transform. Europe does not deprive us of any options. In a globalised world, it is Europe that gives us our options in the first place! We will be able to preserve our beliefs and our freedoms with Europe – and not without it.
That is why we now need to be guided more than ever by fundamental rights, and why mutual support and communitarian cohesion are so vital. Europe will only remain Europe if it is guided by these principles in its work to find innovative solutions to the challenges of climate change and digital transformation, and shoulders its responsibility in the world.
These are huge tasks, but I am confident. Just think of the tests and trials that Europe has already survived. Recall for example the failure of the Constitution for Europe 15 years ago, and the economic and financial crises, about which we argued so fiercely. Or think of the refugee flows we saw five years ago. Things have never been easy. Injuries have always been suffered. But even the most bitter crises have helped us to better understand each other’s needs and struggles. We have learned together.
Europe has overcome all these crises because ultimately everyone knew what was indispensable: fundamental rights and cohesion. Human rights and civil liberties, the inviolability of human dignity, free development of the individual’s personal, political and social being, protection from discrimination and disdain, and equality – not just theoretical but lived equality – these form the ethico-political foundation on which Europe is built. These are the rights that everyone is entitled to. They don’t apply more to some people and less to others. They don’t apply to some people all of the time and to others only some of the time. They apply to everyone. Full stop.
That is Europe’s promise. We must live up to this promise by ensuring that citizens really can be free to live according to their religious beliefs, their cultural or political convictions, that they may pursue their own idea of happiness or the good life.
European democracy, like any democracy, thrives on public, critical debate. A democracy in which opposition voices are unwanted, a democracy in which social or cultural and religious diversity are unwanted, is no democracy at all.
The pandemic has shown us all very clearly how precious fundamental rights are, how elementary the freedoms are that they guarantee. Strong institutions monitor the protection of these fundamental rights in the European Union: the European Commission, the European Court of Justice and the European Parliament. Fundamental rights are the first issue close to my heart during this Presidency.
They must be bolstered and supplemented by the second principle that makes Europe what it is: cohesion. Europe will only emerge strengthened from this crisis if we are willing, in spite of all our differences, to find joint solutions, and if we are willing to see the world through each other’s eyes and to be understanding of each other’s perspectives. Europe will be stronger than ever after the crisis if we strengthen our community spirit. Nobody will get through this crisis on their own. We are all vulnerable. European solidarity is not just a humane gesture, but a lasting investment. European cohesion is not just a political imperative, but also something that will pay off.
It is also the leitmotif of our Council Presidency: “Together for Europe’s recovery.” Together with the Federal Government, I will devote myself passionately to this task.
But I need you. To protect this community spirit within the EU, we need the European Parliament. For you are the people who generate and communicate the mutual understanding we need to reach compromises. You represent almost 450 million citizens in 27 states. You translate European principles for your constituents. You explain Europe to the people, and thereby mediate between Brussels, Strasbourg and your home regions. You not only communicate in 24 languages. You also live with this diversity of perspectives and experience. Who if not you can explain to the people in Europe what makes other member states tick?
It is for this reason that I ask you, as mediators and communicators of cohesion, for your support in these difficult times. Help us deepen our mutual understanding. Help us strengthen Europe’s cohesion.
The German Presidency’s top priority is to see Europe emerge from the crisis united and stronger. But we don’t merely want to stabilise Europe for the short term. That would be too little. What we want is a Europe that gives grounds for hope. We want a Europe that tackles the tasks at hand courageously and with self-assurance. We want a Europe that is capable of coping with the future, that holds its own in the world in an innovative and sustainable manner. We want a new beginning for Europe.
This resolve was the springboard for the Franco-German initiative of mid-May. Together with French President Emmanuel Macron, I proposed a €500 billion recovery fund for Europe. I am pleased that the European Commission is incorporating many aspects of this Franco-German initiative into its proposal for the Multiannual Financial Framework and the recovery programme. Discussions on this basis are currently ongoing in the European Council under the leadership of Charles Michel.
Our common goal is to reach agreement as quickly as possible. Because the extent of the blow to the economy calls for rapid action. There is no time to lose – only the weakest would suffer. I very much hope that we manage to reach an agreement before the end of the summer. That will require a considerable readiness to compromise from all sides – including you.
The situation is exceptional – in fact, unprecedented in the history of the European Union. That is why Germany has advocated an exceptional and unprecedented exertion, to the tune of €500 billion. What is important now is that we as Europe reach agreement.
I am convinced that the social dimension is just as decisive as the economic one. A socially and economically just Europe is crucial for democratic cohesion. It is the best way to counter all those who seek to weaken our democracies and question all that binds us together.
For that reason, too, we will focus particularly on young people and children during our Presidency. They are the future of Europe, and they are especially hard hit by the crisis. So, among other things, we want to support their development with a European Youth Work Agenda and actively assist them as they embark on working life with an enhanced Youth Guarantee.
We mustn’t be naive. In many member states, the Eurosceptics are just waiting to misuse the crisis for their own ends. We must now show them all exactly what the added value of cooperation within the European Union is. We need to show them that a return to nationalism means not more, but less control, and that only joint action by Europe as a whole can protect and strengthen us.
That is why it is important and right that those regions that have been particularly hard hit by the crisis, and especially the people who live there, can count on our solidarity. This is in our own fundamental interest. At the same time, however, this also means that the exertion needed now for the good of all must not excessively burden only the economically strong member states. Rather, each and every one of us is called on to put ourselves in the other’s position. So bear in mind what individual member states can contribute, and what they cannot – in economic, social and political terms. Today I appeal to you as members of the European Parliament and ask for your support in all these endeavours. I firmly believe that everyone is ready to demonstrate exceptional solidarity in this crisis. Germany certainly is.
Efforts to overcome the pandemic and its repercussions will shape our Council Presidency. At the same time, we must constantly keep an eye on the other major challenges of our age, challenges which have not gone away. These are the third, fourth and fifth issues that will be crucial for Europe.
Firstly, climate change. About half a year ago, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen presented her climate programme to this house. Her remarks to you were compelling as she stressed that Europe needed to act now if our planet were to remain viable. I, too, am convinced that a global solution to climate change will only be possible if Europe plays a pioneering role in climate protection. The European Commission’s strategy for a Green Deal is therefore an important guideline for us. Following it closely during our Presidency, we want to manage the transition to a carbon-neutral economy and society and to a green economy with strong and innovative companies – an economy which will safeguard and strengthen key life resources and Europe’s competitiveness for future generations.
It is important to me in this context that we enshrine Europe’s aim to be climate neutral by 2050 in legislation. And so I welcome the European Commission’s proposal, as an interim step, of reducing emissions to 50 to 55% of 1990 levels by 2030. With this aim in mind, we will support the work on the European Climate Law.
Another major challenge, and the fourth issue of particular importance to us during our Presidency, is the digital transformation. Like climate change mitigation, it requires us to sustainably change the way we live and do business. This makes many people scared – scared of losing all that is familiar, and scared at the speed of change. Understandably.
But let me say this quite clearly: the commitment to digitalisation, like the commitment to climate change mitigation, does not mean abandoning all that we have built up and thus risking the jobs of millions of Europeans. On the contrary: this is a necessary transformation of our society which will bring greater protection and sustainability in the long term. Because the past few weeks and months have once again highlighted Europe’s digital dependence on third countries. Many of us have seen this beyond any doubt in our day-to-day digital communication, in relation to either technology or services. It is important that Europe become digitally sovereign. We want to make progress, particularly in key areas such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, but also in the development of a trustworthy and secure digital infrastructure.
Protecting our democracies effectively from cyber threats and disinformation campaigns is also vital. Because a democracy needs a public arena in which knowledge and information can be shared and where people can enter into discussion and agree on how they want to live. Right now we see how the pandemic cannot be tackled with lies and disinformation, or with hatred and hate speech. Fact-denying populism is being shown its limits. Truth and transparency are needed in a democracy. That is what characterises Europe, and that is what Germany will champion during its Presidency of the Council of the EU.
The fifth issue is Europe’s responsibility in a globalised world. A glance at the map will show that Europe is surrounded on its external borders not only by the United Kingdom and the Western Balkans but also by countries including Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. At the same time, we are living in an age of global upheaval, when the patterns of power are shifting and Europe, even though many member states are part of the transatlantic alliance, is fending more for itself.
We can and must decide for ourselves what Europe wants to be in this rapidly changing global order. Whether we are serious about Europe and whether we want a Europe that retains its freedom and its identity even in the age of globalisation are more important questions now than ever. A situation like this calls for a strong European Foreign and Security Policy.
The United Kingdom is and will remain an important partner in this context. Shaping our future partnership will occupy us a great deal over the next six months. Progress in the negotiations has been – to put it mildly – modest. We have agreed with the United Kingdom that we will speed up the negotiations so as to reach an agreement before the end of the autumn, which would then have to be ratified by the end of the year. I will continue to work for a good solution. But we should also make plans in case no agreement is reached after all.
During our Presidency, we should do our utmost to make progress in three other areas of foreign policy as well: firstly, the accession conference at least with North Macedonia, perhaps Albania too – an important step towards giving the countries of the Western Balkans a prospect of EU accession – and, secondly, our relations with our neighbouring continent Africa and the African Union, which we want to intensify for the future at an EU-Africa Summit. This will still include issues relating to cooperation on migration. There are more displaced persons than ever before. That is why we bear a special responsibility to move forward on asylum and migration policy, an issue so crucial for Europe. This question requires much political sensitivity, but we must not look away; rather, we have to face up to this humanitarian and political task together.
Thirdly, and not least of all, we will be addressing our strategic relations with China, which are characterised by close trade links but equally by very different approaches to social policy, particularly respect for human rights and the rule of law. Even if the EU-China Summit unfortunately cannot take place in September, we want to continue the open dialogue with China.
During our Presidency of the Council of the EU, we also intend to continue our deliberations on whether or not we want to retain the principle of unanimity in matters of foreign and security policy and what lessons Europe can learn from the corona crisis, for example with thoughts on how Europe’s sovereignty in the health sector could be strengthened. We should conduct this debate at a Conference on the Future of Europe, which was proposed by the European Commission last year and for which you developed many ideas with your resolutions. I would urge that such a Conference concentrate on just a few issues, promising concrete results and bringing citizens from and in different member states together for discussions. I have already talked about this today with the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli.
Mr President, Madam President of the Commission, ladies and gentlemen, do we want Europe? Then we need what I have spoken about today. Then we need fundamental rights and cohesion. Then we need answers to climate change and digitalisation. Then we need Europe’s responsibility in the world. Then we need to make Europe greener, more digital and thus more innovative and more competitive. Because Europe should be regarded internationally as an advocate of an order of justice, of innovation and sustainability. That is the vision for Europe.
Allow me to conclude with a personal remark. I am a music lover. And so I am delighted that a very special anniversary falls during our Council Presidency. In December 2020, Ludwig van Beethoven, composer of the European anthem, would have been 250 years old. His 9th Symphony overwhelms me again and again, even after all this time. Every time I listen to it, I discover something new in the music that impresses and moves me – and it’s the same with Europe. Europe can be rediscovered again and again. And it still impresses me.
So permit me to end today with the hope that the message of this music, the spirit of brotherhood and harmony, may guide us in Europe. What could be a more fitting message than that this Europe is capable of great things if we support each other and stand together?
Thank you very much.