Renewing the European promise: speech by minister Koenders on the European Union

Speech on the European Union by Mr Bert Koenders, minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Leiden, 30 March 2015.

Check against delivery.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A few weeks ago the third season of House of Cards premiered on TV. Since you are students with more than a passing interest in politics, I’m guessing you put your textbooks aside and sat down to watch.

Let’s zoom in on Frank Underwood. His image is that of a true Machiavellian. In a way, he’s right at home in today’s world. In both fact and fiction, Machiavellism appears to be making a comeback.

After decades of relative peace and stability, geopolitics is back. We have a Russian Machiavelli in the Kremlin, on Europe’s eastern border. And Machiavelli’s spirit seems to be back in Europe too, raising its head in hard bargaining and clashes on Greece’s future in the eurozone, and with it the future of the euro.

But are we right to associate cold, hard power politics with Machiavelli? According to the cliché, Machiavelli is the man who advised rulers to put power before morality.

That image of Machiavelli is open to question. In fact, perhaps we need to see more of the real Machiavelli in Europe. Not the one who said ‘the end justifies the means’, but the one who philosophised about what good governance really means.

Good governance as it has been taught for centuries, but which now has to be applied in an age of globalisation, revolutionary technology and, fortunately, more vocal people. Good governance requires constant renewal of the social and political contract, combined with reform. Good governance brings benefits – at national, European and global level, and in organisations and companies, too. Including the banking world, as we’ve seen in recent days. I’ll say more about Machiavelli later, because in my view he’s back.

He provides a key starting point. Especially in times of economic crisis. In recent years European governments have taken drastic measures to tackle the crisis. Confidence is finally returning, and economic recovery seems to be taking root throughout the eurozone. To achieve results, the EU as a whole needs to show the political will and determination to overcome the crisis. Today it was announced that confidence in the eurozone economy has risen sharply. Optimism has shot up in Italy, Germany and Spain in particular. In the Netherlands, too, confidence has increased. That’s good news.

It is essential for Europe to make a real contribution to growth, jobs, prosperity and security. So instead of abandoning these objectives, we should give further thought to creating a Europe that focuses on these core tasks and achieves effective results. That’s all the more important now that the world around us is changing so radically. Complex, multipolar economic relations offer enormous opportunities to work with Asia and Africa, for example. But there are also significant risks, and the security situation around Europe means that we need to work much more effectively on our common security and defence policy and do our best to seize the opportunities presented by the soft power that makes Europe so attractive to many people. In my view, trust is a watchword in this regard. Because although good progress has been made, the crisis of trust in Europe is not over.

I’m talking about trust among European powers when it comes to each other’s intentions. Trust between EU member states that everyone will stick to the agreements. The business community’s trust in legal certainty in the EU. And the trust of citizens, who want a fair deal from their governments.

So where exactly do we stand?

We have to be honest: there are powerful centrifugal forces at work on our continent. In order to counter them, we need to name them.

In some countries in Southern Europe the economic crisis is still ongoing and resistance is growing. It isn’t directed against Europe itself, but against certain aspects of its anti-crisis approach. There are plenty of good reasons why this approach was necessary and delivers results, but there is also social and political resistance. This issue has flared up fiercely in Greece lately. And although I’m confident it will be solved, the debate on a potential ‘Grexit’ and on geopolitical uncertainty will continue.

In Germany the economy is picking up. When you’re in Germany you realise how responsible it feels for the EU. But even there cracks are starting to appear in public appreciation of the EU. Not because of the strict policy, but precisely because Europe’s financial and economic policy is in danger of being relaxed.

In the UK – a key ally of the Netherlands − Prime Minister David Cameron wants to hold a referendum on the EU. A ‘Brexit’ wouldn’t be good, from our point of view. After all, the Netherlands pushed and fought for British membership. We have a lot in common with the British, and the UK is a key player alongside France and Germany. So we’ll do our utmost to convince the British that it’s also in their interests to stay. But we cannot and will not abandon the fundamental rights and freedoms on which the Union is based.

There is intense debate on Europe in the Netherlands too. Public support is fragile, as shown by the low turnout for the European Parliament elections last year.

The Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) was established to promote unity. But it has also exposed tensions. On the one hand, there are calls for more risk-sharing and the transfer of funds and competences. In other words, for more solidarity. At the same time, those who will have to provide this solidarity are beginning to show resistance. More risk-sharing is controversial, especially if there is no confidence that agreements will be fulfilled.

When Greece raised the issue of war reparations with Germany, 70 years after the Second World War ended, I was reminded of Fawlty Towers – ‘Don’t mention the war!’ It was amusing enough in the TV series, but in the real world such attitudes show a deep lack of understanding that we haven’t seen for decades.

Tensions are rising within some member states too. In France, Marine Le Pen is saying that she wants to destroy the EU. And a dark cloud of anti-Semitism hangs over her party. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán is extolling the virtues of illiberal democracy and saying that he can learn from Putin and Erdogan.

Their message is being strengthened and nourished by every attack by terrorists who are prepared to kill because of a cartoon. It’s not just empty words. Politicians in our own country need extra security, and in other European member states LGBT people and Roma communities are victims of discriminatory measures.

The European Union is currently a volatile asset, with integrationist but also centrifugal forces: both between and within member states.

And those centrifugal forces form a big threat, especially now. Given everything that’s happening outside our continent, European cooperation is vital from the Netherlands’s perspective.

We need to seize the tremendous opportunities for cooperation, with countries in our region and further afield. Creative industry, circular economy, energy-saving technology, effective poverty reduction – there are ample issues demanding a flexible pooling of forces.

But there is also a dark side to this. ‘L’intendance suit,’ as the French say. Centrifugal forces are extremely risky if power politics re-emerges in the global geopolitical arena. I would like to begin with this, before discussing where we stand in terms of European governance.

We’re living in a time where our security is once again under pressure. And where the illusion of a new world order has been punctured once and for all. Around Europe there is a new arc of instability.

On Europe’s eastern flanks Russia is trampling all over the foundations of the modern world order. And on Europe’s southern edge, terrorism and jihadism are not only destabilising Syria and Iraq. They have consequences for our country too. Jihadists are reaching out to young people from our own neighbourhoods, and there is a real risk of attacks.

Although the statistics say that fewer and fewer people are dying in armed conflicts, the world feels unpredictable. The threat seems to be growing. The downside of globalisation is that what happens today in one part of the world can affect people elsewhere in the world tomorrow. The victims of flight MH17 and of the attacks in Paris, Copenhagen and Tunis are silent witnesses to that – in very different ways.

It’s important to realise that the values we take for granted are not self-evident. Nor are they irreversible. Look around you and see how fortunate you are to live here. Our holiday destinations are often further away than the battlegrounds of IS and al Qa’ida, or Ukraine.

The period of relative peace in the EU and beyond represents only a few centimetres on the timeline of history. It is preceded by metres of conflict. History is not repeating itself, but conflict can never be ruled out, not even in Europe.

For a country like the Netherlands, but also countries like German, France and, especially, the UK, the scale of these challenges requires us to work together and strengthen what we have built.

Not to make a giant leap towards political union, or revert to the illusion of the almighty nation state. I’ll say more about that later. But to take a strong and resolute joint approach to foreign policy.

For the protection of our values, for the well-being of all our citizens, for the defence of our freedom and security: if we are to achieve our goals we need to stand up for what we believe in. That’s why I was in Tunis yesterday. To show solidarity in the fight against extremism. Whether it be in Paris, Copenhagen, Peshawar or Tunis. To stand up for our human rights and freedom of expression. We will have to protect these values together, however complicated this may sometimes be.

Relations with Russia show just how important that is. A divided Europe is a weak Europe as far as the Russian Federation is concerned. Of course, it’s essential to respect the Minsk agreements. And that requires an open hand as well as a clenched fist. We must continue putting pressure on the Russian Federation, but also seek political solutions. Russia and the Russians are not our enemy, but we cannot allow the European rules on national sovereignty and the use of force to be unilaterally flouted. The EU’s sanctions and joint diplomatic action have an impact that the Netherlands could never achieve on its own. This is a good example of how you can boost national effectiveness by sharing national powers.

Russia is determined to undermine European unity, for example by supporting anti-European parties like the Front National − parties that peddle fear − the same approach being taken in Russia by portraying the West as the enemy. That not only says something about those parties and about Mr Putin, but it also shows that the Kremlin sees our Europe as a threat – an economic, political and above all moral threat.

That’s why we need the UK – particularly now. And that’s why the UK needs the EU. To quote former British prime minister Gordon Brown: ‘British ministers want it both ways: “Russia must be countered by even greater European unity,” they say. “But, by the way, we may be leaving.”’

So we need a strong and effective Europe. And that means more than just speaking more with one voice. More than ever, we need to decide what capabilities we require to play our role in the world. We need to operate in a truly integrated fashion when it comes to diplomacy, defence and development – the well-known 3Ds. Working together in these areas is essential. That’s precisely where Europe’s strength lies. Military action may sometimes be unavoidable, but it must be based on a political strategy.

Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker recently put a cat among the pigeons by proposing a European army. If you ask me, the idea of an EU army doesn’t make much sense.

But it does make sense for the EU to strategically consider how we should continue to shape our common defence policy. It’s also logical to step up our security efforts, making sure our military resources in Europe are properly aligned, at both EU and NATO level. Together we can also respond more effectively to new developments, like hybrid warfare. Here the EU has a wider range of policy options at its disposal than, say, NATO. The EU is the only player that can offer an integrated approach to conflicts.

So let’s do just that. We have military instruments like Battlegroups, which currently resemble that nice sofa that your grandmother still has wrapped in plastic. We have to be willing to use them if this is legitimate under international law and in our foreign policy interests.

But ultimately, there’s more to it than that. The world is putting Europe to the test again, and presenting us with new challenges. If we are to uphold our hard-won achievements, our way of life and our freedoms − if we want to avoid being at the mercy of Moscow and other powers − we must seize this challenge with both hands.

And we should be far more aware of the problems on our southern flanks, where a great transformation is taking place between Mali and Pakistan, full of risks and hybrid threats – for the people in question but also for ourselves. I saw this with my own eyes when I was head of the UN peace operation in Mali.

I don’t believe this means going it alone. My first message to you today is that we need each other. We need Europe. Our power lies in our unity.

But if we are to project strength to the rest of the world, we need mutual trust within Europe.

So we need to think again about what kind of Europe we want. About what kind of Europe we wish to be. About what unites us and how we should organise ourselves.

To me, the time of federalist visions is over. Right now, more European rules and competences are not the answer. Nor is institutional navel-gazing through treaty amendments.

Likewise, false promises of ‘less Europe’ or dismantling structures lack credibility. The perceived romanticism of the past, to which Orbán alludes, is not a solution for tomorrow. Not only because of the complex threat emanating from outside Europe. But also because many people don’t realise how much Europe has become part of our DNA. We experience it on a daily basis: by crossing international borders without a passport, by studying abroad, by doing business and by working at foreign companies that have opened offices here. Our SMEs, with their tremendous job-creating capacity, are increasingly working beyond Europe’s borders.

And through the ingrained belief that war will never again break out in this Europe. This is not a mantra or incantation. It’s not something that’s come about on its own. And it’s not something we can take for granted. It requires maintenance. Especially now that confidence is eroding.

What we need in order to restore confidence is a new, sensible European contract.

A contract by which we restore confidence in governments and institutions through practical, concrete improvements for our people at all levels: national and European. After all, good governance at national level and at European level go hand in hand: they depend on one another. The EU shouldn’t take the place of the member states: the EU needs member states. They are the shoulders on which it stands.

So we need to modernise the European contract at both levels: European and national.

The Netherlands will have the opportunity to contribute to this goal next year, in its special role as President of the Council of the EU. We will focus on ensuring a Union that delivers concrete results. Results on matters that citizens and businesses find important. Matters that make a difference to people’s lives. In other words, we will focus on the essentials.

And that starts with growth and jobs. Europe needs to leave the crisis behind by taking a practical approach to economic recovery, budget consolidation and economic reforms. And by opening up stagnated markets to provide new opportunities for businesses and workers.

In the digital market, opportunities for business people your age are not being seized because 28 different sets of national rules apply and high costs are incurred if they set up a webshop, for example, and want to sell products across the border. So we have to continue our efforts to create a single digital market.

Focusing on the essentials means becoming independent of energy suppliers that trample on democracy and human rights. We will do so by ensuring that the single energy market operates efficiently, working together and preventing countries from being played off against one another. This is not about creating complex bureaucracies in Europe, but about ensuring that the energy market works efficiently. Again, we’re talking about a smart combination of nation state and Europe.

As far as the environment is concerned, it’s five minutes to midnight. That’s why the climate negotiations in Paris must succeed. But to ensure we achieve Europe’s climate objectives in Paris, national measures are needed, set out in energy agreements and in a mix suited to our country.

We need to work every day anew to restore confidence. By making sure that the voice of the people is much better heard within the Union. Making sure that the Union cares about its people. Making sure that the free movement of workers and services is preserved, while taking firm action against exploitation and unfair competition, in the construction or transport industries, for instance. That is an EU that not only works for the market and the money, but above all puts its people first.

But more is needed. The member states themselves will need to roll up their sleeves to win back trust. Whether they’re from Greece or Groningen, people want many of the same things. We need to get beyond the crude, black-and-white North-South divide. It only serves to undermine the debate and undermine trust. And that brings me back to Machiavelli.

If he were here today, what would he advise us to do? First, he would be astonished by what he saw. Italy a single, unified country; Europe a single political constellation. The man who counselled princes and monarchs would see a Europe changed beyond all recognition in the past 600 years. But the questions that Machiavelli posed are still relevant today.

Because the problem he wrestled with was anything but simple. It wasn’t Frank Underwood’s thirst for power in House of Cards. That’s only the stereotype.

Anyone who studies Machiavelli closely will discover that his true concern was good governance. He believed that people could best live free, prosperous, virtuous lives in a well-ordered state. That was the essence: prosperity and freedom. In the chaotic political landscape of fifteenth-century Italy, Machiavelli posed the question: ‘What must a prince do to preserve the well-ordered state?’

Reflecting on the best form of state and government is as old as Europe itself. The question was first raised in Greece, and then in Italy a few centuries later. It was then posed in England and France; in the Netherlands and in Poland. This question is the thread that runs through Europe’s history, like the realisation that good governance is the foundation of prosperity, peace and security. This was Machiavelli’s frame of reference, and this is what his inquiry is really about. Now let’s look at modern-day Europe from that perspective.

In 2015, too, an essential part of the European promise is, in my view, precisely that: good governance. In 2015, too, public institutions – especially at national level – are the key to a fair and prosperous society.

Every study shows that there is a direct link between the effectiveness of government and a country’s competitiveness. An equitable justice system and effective anti-corruption measures prevent arbitrariness and ensure everyone gets a fair chance. Good education gives you the opportunity to fulfil your potential. Social embedding engenders trust and certainty.

Democratic government and a free press allow the best ideas to flourish and prevent a small group from calling all the shots. Fair tax enforcement ensures that everyone contributes. Neutral and independent hiring practices in government ensure that public services are provided by the people with the right qualifications – not the people with the right friends.

Well-functioning institutions are the key to trust. The public’s trust that they are getting a fair deal. Entrepreneurs’ trust that their investments will pay off. And trust that national rules will be enforced.

The same goes for trust within the member states. Studies show that the best way to encourage citizens to pay their taxes is to both step up enforcement and build trust: trust that everyone is paying, that everyone is paying their fair share and that public funds are being well spent.

But this applies to trust between the member states, too. In the words of Rene Cuperus, a columnist for the Volkskrant newspaper: there can be no international solidarity without national solidarity and without national trust. Where there is no trust, you can’t expect solidarity. It is no simple matter to ask citizens who have made great sacrifices to finance emergency loans when they have no faith that the money will be spent wisely.

It goes without saying that we must show solidarity with other member states, but solidarity is not charity. It goes hand in hand with solidity. It’s a 28-way street. EMU can work only if we are certain that all parties, great and small, are complying with the agreements we’ve made and if institutions improve.

Just read the European Commission’s country-specific recommendations. There are still countries where the independence and quality of the judiciary are not always guaranteed.

In many European countries, people say that corruption has increased rather than diminished in recent years. Research shows that in 20 of the 28 EU member states, the public has higher expectations of the EU than of their own national government.

But take note – this isn’t just about other countries. No one country has a monopoly on virtue.

In the Netherlands, too, our system of banking supervision failed to stop financial institutions from taking irresponsible risks. We too had problems with our social housing associations. And for years Dutch Rail bought their trains from Ireland in order to pay less corporation tax.

I would like for us to use the crisis to improve the quality of our public institutions – not to beat each other into the ground, but to take the conversation to the next level and maintain the European promise through renewal. Because in that sense what the protesting citizens of Europe want from their governments and what member states want is the same: improve your governance.

This calls for fundamental change and change hurts. But political pain is not an excuse for vacillation.

I am calling for an agenda aimed at effective and democratic public administration: a European Agenda for Better Governance.

I would like to see all the EU member states begin working together in a structured way to bring their quality of governance to a higher plane.

By agreeing on a higher standard. And then giving each other the support that is needed. By learning from each other in very practical ways. And at times holding each other to account and offering one another encouragement. And sometimes, when agreements aren’t met, imposing consequences for non-compliance.

It is precisely in the area of governance that we must do more to hold each other accountable. Countries that wanted to accede to the EU were required to comply with the famous Copenhagen criteria for membership, but in reality they still need close guidance and monitoring after accession.

According to the EU’s biennial report on anti-corruption measures, corruption in all the European countries put together costs an estimated 120 billion euros each year. If that is true, in a time of crisis we must address this problem – by discussing it thoroughly and identifying how we can support each other and hold each other to account.

Employees and businesses have to cope with unclear and inconsistent rules every day. We must step up our efforts to enhance the internal market and ensure that the rules are the same for everyone. A Dutch architect should be able to work in his profession in Germany without having to overcome unnecessary obstacles. To achieve this, EU law needs to be tightened up and the member states need to implement the rules better.

As Lodewijk Asscher said: we have to combat unfair competition in the labour market and exploitation in the construction and transport industries – and this is only possible if labour inspectorates in all the member states function properly. This is why the Netherlands supports the introduction of a platform to prevent and deter undeclared work that would enable national inspectorates to work together and exchange information. We are already working bilaterally with inspection agencies in other member states to make our enforcement efforts more effective.

We need to guarantee the independence of the courts, not only for the sake of our citizens and entrepreneurs but also because the EU is a union of values. The Netherlands was able to put strengthening the rule of law on the European agenda, and this has yielded results. The new annual dialogue between governments on developments in the rule of law will start this autumn. The European Commission is going to keep a watchful eye on situations where there is potential for rule of law infringements and call member states to account. Developments in Hungary, for example, are being monitored closely.

But here, too, primary responsibility rests with the member states. For this reason it is important for us to hold each other accountable, share our experiences and continue to exert pressure on each other. So, why don’t we put all of the fine reports issued by the Council of Europe, the Agency for Fundamental Rights and NGOs on the agenda of the European Council so that we can discuss them and make agreements at EU level regarding lessons learned and following up recommendations.

We have already concluded an ambitious climate and energy agreement and we are continuing to build the common European energy market to allow energy to flow freely. But the market will only work if there is effective and efficient supervision ensuring that we achieve the EU targets. To effect real change all the relevant parties need to be involved, just as the Netherlands did when it concluded a broadly supported energy agreement. The upcoming global climate conference in Paris will succeed only if we have our national policy and implementation processes in order.

Another example is insolvency law. Now, I know this isn’t the sexiest topic. In fact it’s highly technical, but in my work at the World Bank I saw how important it can be. Businesses, investors and individuals need to know that the rules are applied objectively and efficiently so that debts can be settled fairly and recovered quickly. Entrepreneurs need to know that they can to take a risk and still carry on. We can make a real difference if we address this issue by making rules and the institutions concerned more efficient and reliable, at national level, but also by holding each other accountable within the EU and sharing information about effective systems and practices.

But ultimately it is governance as a whole that matters most: from good budgets to an independent and efficient legal system, from antitrust enforcement to independent statistics agencies, from banking supervision to strong ombudsmen.

To make improvements, we don’t necessarily need new instruments and we certainly don’t need to give the EU new competences. Europe’s strength lies in its diversity. We shouldn’t be looking for a one-size-fits-all solution. However, we must agree on goals and have the ability to evaluate each other in qualitative terms. Then we need identify and review the existing EU instruments and mechanisms in a structured manner, use them to full advantage, simplify certain aspects and, if necessary, seek out new instruments.

Specifically, I would like to propose that we make the allocation of resources more dependent on performance. The EU has experience in this respect: in 2013, for example, Bosnia’s accession funding was cut because the country had failed to comply with an important judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. Let’s turn that critical eye we usually reserve for non-EU countries inward for a change. After all, there are examples of situations in which the EU doesn’t provide funding definitively before determining that the goals of the project have been achieved. In 2014, a performance reserve was incorporated into the Cohesion Fund. This idea could be implemented in other programmes.

What’s more, the European Commission shouldn’t be solely responsible for putting this into practice. The European Parliament can play a role in encouraging improvements, as should the Commission, European agencies and independent organisations such as the OECD, the anti-fraud office OLAF, the Council of Europe and the Fundamental Rights Agency. And national parliaments should address this too by putting good governance on the agenda of the joint meetings of national parliaments (COSAC). And by agreeing that they will all discuss the European reports on anti-corruption measures and the EU Justice Scoreboard in the national parliamentary setting. These matters should be raised in the national arena first and then discussed at European level.

Once again, this is not just about other countries. It’s also about the Netherlands. We have reassessed a number of issues in the Netherlands – for example, our mortgage interest relief – because our international partners called us to account. I know this has been controversial, but in my view it’s a good thing.

But these are the details. What we need above all is to recognise that there is a crisis of trust and change our perspective. A single market and a currency union demand top-quality governance.

Wouldn’t it be great if in ten years’ time every EU member state was in the top 40 of Transparency International’s list of least corrupt countries? And in the top 40 of the OECD competitiveness index? In fact, it would be even better is if this was the norm.

This brings us back to where I began. The discussions within the European Union largely reflect a discussion within the individual member states. When internal affairs are not in order, it isn’t possible to act as one. Without national solidarity and solid government, the EU cannot function and grow internally. And without European solidarity and solidity, the EU cannot be effective beyond its borders. This is hindering us in our efforts to stop IS and defend against Russian aggression.

I will leave you with the following thoughts.

I have tried to convey that this is a time of deep differences. So it is a good to recall why we are actually doing what we’re doing. This is not a crude power struggle between North and South. It is not just about the ceilings of 3% for budget deficits and 60% for public debt. It is about more than saving and restructuring banks. And it is about more than strengthening the eurozone, as essential as that is.

Europe is not only an economic bloc and a political alliance. It is also a ‘soft power’ in the best sense: a continent that derives its credibility from the power of its ideas and the inspiration of its values.

Europe’s promise is one of peace and security, of diversity and respect for minorities, of democracy and the rule of law.

It is also a promise of a unique social philosophy which focuses on fairness as well as economic gain. And in which prosperity goes hand in hand with equal opportunities for all.

A society where we can all prosper, because our five hundred million citizens are seen as five hundred million engines of economic growth, and everyone has an opportunity to participate in our democracy and our economy.

A continent where the air and water are cleaner than in many other places in the world because we combat environmental pollution.

Ours is the continent where what really matters is not where you’re born, but your ability and your will to succeed. That is the European promise. That’s why Ukrainians have died cloaked in a blue flag with yellow stars. That’s why thousands of North Africans risk their lives in rickety boats to reach our shores.

The crisis inside and outside Europe offers an opportunity. Let’s seize it – not to deepen divisions or abolish the European promise, but to thoroughly renew that promise.

To achieve this, we need to act together. Together, because this is the idea that binds us all, from Puerto del Sol in Madrid to the Maagdenhuis in Amsterdam.

And that is my message to your generation too. For your grandparents, Europe meant peace. For your parents, it meant prosperity. And now it’s up to you to define what Europe means for you.

So I urge you not to stand on the sidelines, but to help renew the European promise.

In fifty years, you will probably look back on this crisis. When you do, will you be asking yourselves: did we allow the continent to drift apart or was this the moment when the people of Europe rose to the occasion and ensured that their unique social model would endure deep into the 21st century?

As politicians, it is up to us to answer that question, but it is also up to you.

Thank you.