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Speech by HR/VP Josep Borrell at opening of the Festival d’Europa, Firenze, 5 May 2022

In his speech, HR/VP Borrell makes an analogy between the fate of the Tuscan city states in the 16th century and Europe today. Competition among proud and independent city states led to marvels of the Renaissance. But if you fail to unify when the world around you changes, you risk losing ground. From being masters and subject, you can become an object of other people’s foreign policy. For Europe to survive in a dangerous world, it needs to adapt and unify.

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I am pleased to be here in Florence and to see so many friends. My thoughts go back to the first edition of the Festival d'Europa, conceived by the European University Institute in 2011, when I was its President.

At that time Marco del Panta had taken the initiative to create or this Festival and as President of the EUI, I gave all my support. Dario Nardella, then the deputy mayor, was also doing his part in helping to organise the event.

The first edition of the Festival d'Europa involved the whole city and the highlight was the State of the Union conference. I am happy that the Institute has continued to organise this event, which has grown over the years and always brings the European Union closer to its citizens.

Every year Florence hosts the political and academic leadership of European countries, journalists and opinion leaders, to discuss the role of the Union and its future, in the presence of citizens and civil society.

In my work as Minister and now as High Representative and Vice-President of the Commission, I have often realised how necessary it is to bring the institutions close to the people.

Few people know what the European Union does for its citizens, how it works and what its powers are. An event like the Festival d'Europa and the State of the Union can help to bridge this gap.

Dear friends,

We meet here in the Salone dei Cinquecento. Anybody coming here can only be overwhelmed by the striking splendour of this room, the statues and the brilliant paintings by Giorgio Vasari.

They are magnificent works of art. But they also contain a political message: they depict the fierce battles of Firenze against Siena and Pisa. Each city was trying to excel. To beat the other in terms of economy, art but also in politics and military terms. This was the epicentre of innovation in Europe at the time, marked by hyper competitive rivalry among the Tuscan city states.

For political aficionados like me Firenze is also the city of Machiavelli and Il Principe. The superficial way of reading Machiavelli is to see him as the godfather of the realist school. The ends justifying the means where leaders should do anything to acquire power and keep it.

But it is important to remember the historical context when he wrote his masterpiece. At that time, Italy was divided, with proud, independent, small city-states driving forward the renaissance process, all while fighting each other.

This led to spectacular successes but it also meant that, gradually, big, external powers were beginning to interfere in the affairs of the Italian peninsula: Spain, France, Austria. In short, Italy became the battlefield of others.

We all know that Italy failed to unify precisely when in the rest of Europe you see political modernisation and centralisation, leading eventually to the emergence of nation–states which then go on to shape European and global history.

By failing to unify when the world around them changes, the city-states lose ground. From being master and subject, the city-states inside Italy increasingly become the object of the foreign policy of others, the big powers.

In a way, there is a wider lesson for Europe today. Fast-forward 500 years to the 21st century. We are 27, proud, independent states and the competition among us also helps and makes us stronger.

But like in Machiavelli’s time, there is also a downside. These proud and independent states needs to unify – if we want to be masters of our own future and avoid being an object of other people’s foreign policy.

The states of Europe today are to China, India etc what the Italian city states were vis-à-vis France, Spain and Austria: too small to survive. Yes, we don’t fight each other anymore and this is an enormous success. But in today’s hyper-competitive world, with climate change and the digital revolution, you need scale and size. Otherwise, the world passes you by and the giants decide. That too is the lesson from these magnificent paintings. If we want to survive, we have to unite. Because alone, we are too small to survive in a global world.

Incidentally, this is also what citizens expect and demand from us and their government. They understand very well that if we want to safeguard our interests and values, we need to unify. Consistent majorities in the Eurobarometer have called for a more united and effective EU role in the world.

Europe has to become stronger, also from a military point of view. We have 27 armies an altogether we spend more than four times what Russia spends and the same what China spends, but not with the same outcome. So we have to spend better, in a more coordinated way. Maybe the citizens understand it better than the governments?

If we want to protect European civilisation, we have to unify. Being united is precisely what we have done in responding to the Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Usually we don’t take decisions that quickly or in a united manner. This time was different. We understood we were in danger. We have responded strongly to Russia’s aggression, with diplomacy, sanctions and support for Ukraine, including in the military domain. And we have to continue taking decisions, for example on the 6th package of sanctions, including the phasing out of oil. I hope we will get to an agreement as quickly as possible to end our dependency on Russian energy imports. We have to increase the pressure on Russia and give more support to Ukraine to defend their sovereignty.

We have to develop our strategic autonomy and sovereignty which is the ability to take our own decisions and not be blackmailed by others. We have to build a new security order in Europe to preserve our peace and our civilisation. Europe is the place on earth which has the best combination of political freedom, economic prosperity and social solidarity. This is European civilisation and we have to protect it and doing so has a price: the cost of freedom.

You can see the full speech here:

https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-224625