Opening remarks to the annual German Ambassadors’ Conference
Lieber Heiko, liebe Botschafter, dear ambassadors, dear colleagues,
Many thanks for the invitation to speak at this German Ambassador’s conference.
It is a pity I have to do this from a studio in the basement of Berlaymont building in Brussels, and that we cannot engage in person.
Germany is about to hold the presidencies of the UN Security Council in June and the Council of the EU, starting in July.
And believe me expectations are high. We count on Germany and its diplomatic service to rise to the occasion.
I remember well – I was then President of the European Parliament – how a previous German EU Presidency, back in 2007, helped Europe to find a political agreement on how to move forward, after the rejection of the Constitution in the French and Dutch referendums. The result is called the Lisbon treaty, but Germany played a big role in it.
Since then, we Europeans had the financial crisis, the euro crisis –as the consequence of the first – and then the migration crisis. Three crises in twelve years is too much for a fragile Union.
But now Europe faces another crisis, a much bigger one, an existential one.
And yet again we count on you to guide Europe through this crisis and make sure that we come out of it stronger.
The proposals by Chancellor Merkel and President Macron for the recovery are bold and I think that’s what Europe needs.
The pandemic is having asymmetric effects across the eurozone. The fiscal capacity of states varies enormously. It’s a symmetric crisis in its origin, but a very asymmetric crisis in its consequences.
So we need to invest in common solutions and practice real solidarity. Based on grants and to invest in the economy of the future, on green revolution and digitalisation.
This type of Franco-German initiative is more necessary than ever. Without it, nothing serious is possible in Europe. The Franco-German is absolutely necessary, more than ever.
But at the same time, a Franco-German agreement is not sufficient. We need to bring the whole of Europe together.
Frankly speaking, this is hard. I knew this before taking office. B,ut in these six months I directly experienced it myself.
It’s difficult, it’s hard, because there are big divides among Member States on many issues.
We lack a common strategic culture. And the willingness to compromise is less than it should be.
So that is a big task for you as Presidency. To bridge divides. To bring people together. To invest in unity.
Allow me to briefly state how dramatically our world is changing.
Perhaps the best way is to see COVID-19 as the great accelerator of history. It strengthens trends that were already present before.
First, we live in a leaderless world where Asia will be increasingly important - in economic, security and technological terms. Analysts have long talked about the end of an American-led system and the arrival of an Asian century. This is now happening in front of our eyes.
If the 21st century turns out to be an Asian century, as the 20th was an American one, the pandemic may well be remembered as the turning point of this process.
Demand for multilateral cooperation has never been greater. But supply is falling behind. This is the first major crisis in decades where the US is not leading the international response. Maybe they don’t care, but everywhere we look we see increasing rivalries, especially between the US and China.
The pressure to choose sides is growing. As EU, we should follow our own interests and values and avoid being instrumentalised by one or the other.
US-China rivalry is also having a major, often paralysing effect on the multilateral system: in the UN Security Council, the G20, the WHO and elsewhere, there are many more disagreements and vetoes and fewer agreements.
Second, the world is becoming more digital, but also more state-driven. The key questions will be: who will control the digital networks? And who will set the rules and standards?
Third, our globalisation model is under pressure. We need a more strategic approach to managing vulnerabilities and dependencies.
And last, the world risks becoming less free, less prosperous, more unequal, more fragmented. You diplomats will have a lot work!
Democracy and respect for human rights – our political model – are contested. Some are not shy in exploiting these dynamics. In the digital domain and elsewhere, there is a real battle of narratives going on.
We see all these trends playing out in our immediate neighbourhood.
Beginning with the Western Balkans where we must sustain our commitment to bring the region into the EU.
Handling relations with Turkey, in all their complexities, will be a big priority in the coming months.
Libya is the test of EU credibility, right at our doorstep. We have seen the absurd situation of fighters wearing masks to protect themselves against COVID, while exchanging fire with machine guns.
Germany has done excellent work in the framework of the Berlin Process for Libya – showing leadership while at the same time “thinking European”, associating the EU and all Member States in the process. This is a model for how European foreign policy can and should be built.
We continue to work towards a ceasefire, knowing how difficult this is. We have launched Operation Irini to help enforce the UN arms embargo – even if not everybody is happy with that - but all Member States need to invest in the effort.
Further south, African countries are especially vulnerable to the impact of the pandemic; UN Secretary-General Guteress was warning us about this some days ago. This is doubly true for the Sahel, where challenges converge, including climate change and extremism.
To the east, we must support Ukraine and strengthen ties with all Eastern Partners for sure.
But we also need a frank discussion on how to handle a Russia that feels emboldened to challenge important common European security interests. We need to have a selective engagement with Russia on the issues that matter to us. This is not contradictory with being firm. We need a smart balance between firmness and sanctions with Russia with a careful attempt at engagement in selective areas.
We should remember that in energy there is mutual dependency, which I don’t have to remember you of, in Germany. We need to buy gas, but they need to sell. So let’s invest in reaching a better understanding among us where each of us comes from and how we can build trust to move forward together.
China is getting more powerful and assertive and its rise is impressive and triggers respect, but also many questions and fears. As you know, it is fashionable to say that we are reaching a Thucydides moment. Let’s hope not!
I have said it: our relations must be based on trust, transparency and reciprocity. This is not always the case today. We only have a chance if we deal with China with collective discipline. And we hope that the Leipzig EU-China Summit scheduled in autumn will be very important in this regard. Also on that, we rely on you.
We need a more robust strategy for China, which also requires better relations with the rest of democratic Asia. That’s why we must invest more in working with India, Japan, South Korea et cetera.
To face all these challenges we need to build a real common strategic culture. We do not have it yet and this weakens our action. The need to act as a Team Europe, or as ‘Europe United’, as my friend Heiko has called it, is greater than ever.
But our ambitions are only credible if we back them with a sense of shared ownership and responsibility among Member States. There seems to be less trust and common ground among us, right when we need it most.
Too often, we are unable to reach a consensus because Member States cling to their national viewpoints instead of understanding that there is a broader common interest. Reaching no compromise at all hurts everyone.
An EU response – even if it is imperfect in the eyes of some Member States – is often better than a deafening silence.
We also need the resources to be effective.
If you want an EU foreign policy that gets results, we all need to invest in it. Politically, but also financially.
We count on Germany to play its full role as Presidency to help reach an ambitious result for the recovery, the next European budget and a wider re-launch of our European project.
Dear Heiko, dear friends,
Let me underline: this is a crucial moment. We have a tremendous amount of work to do during your Presidency.
My main message is: this is not a moment to think or act small. But a moment for investing in an ambitious Europe.
You know, the EU 70 years ago was a project to solve intra-European problems, mainly peace and reconciliation. And that’s done. Now it has to address the outside world, to safeguard what we call our European civilization or model. The best combination of political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion.
Germany’s role and commitment have been a cornerstone of European integration, so we count on Germany to play its full role, and I very much hope to be able to travel to Berlin soon when Germany has started their Presidency.
Thank you very much for your attention.