Speech Foreign Minister Bert Koenders at European Movement International
Speech by Foreign Minister Bert Koenders at the Assembly of the European Movement International (The Hague, 27 May 2016).
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This speech is only available in English.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for this invitation to close your conference and for giving me the opportunity to share some thoughts with you on the state of the European Union with the Netherlands at the helm. We hold the Presidency at a challenging time. A time when European cooperation is being severely put to the test. That test started well before our Presidency, and it won’t end when we hand over the baton to Slovakia next month.
It’s also a test for the European Movement. Perhaps even the greatest test since the earliest years of your organisation.
In 1948, the Hague Congress brought together the best and brightest minds in Europe. From the start, your organisation has been a movement in the true sense of the word. It managed to transcend national, political and professional boundaries to advance a common agenda for Europe as a free, peaceful and prosperous continent. Statesmen such as Konrad Adenauer, Winston Churchill and Altiero Spinelli joined forces with economic, social and cultural leaders. From the start, the European Movement has been a catalyst for innovative thinking and bold action. It’s impossible to imagine the Europe we know today without the ideas that your organisation has conceived, nurtured and shared.
Today, Europe is once again in need of the kind of bold and innovative thinking pioneered by your movement. So I hope you will allow me a few provocative remarks. And don’t worry, you’re welcome to shoot back during the discussion – I look forward to a frank and inspiring exchange.
I want to start on a positive note. In his address in Hannover last month, President Obama reminded us that, ‘If you had to choose a moment in time to be born, any time in human history, and you didn't know ahead of time what nationality you were or what gender or what your economic status might be, you'd choose today.’ He’s right. And although President Obama might disagree, I’d add that if you’d had the luxury of picking a continent, you’d probably choose Europe.
Europe, and the European Union in particular, is a place where people can have an education, a job, a house, a future. A place where rich cultural heritage meets cutting-edge design and innovation. A place where we breathe clean air and have access to safe drinking water. And where diversity, minorities and democracy are respected.
If you read the headlines in today’s newspapers, it’s easy to forget these basic truths. Because there’s always some pundit predicting that the end of the Union is near.
Whether it’s the euro, migration or a possible Brexit, you’ll always find someone who is gleefully or anxiously certain that this will be the undoing of European cooperation.
I don’t want to downplay the challenges we’re facing: they’re as big as ever. The Eurozone is still recovering from the deepest slump since the Great Depression, and reframing its architecture. Our societies and economies have difficulty adapting to globalisation. The European Union is faced with a huge influx of people fleeing war and oppression. On the eastern borders, geopolitics is making a comeback, and within the European Union itself, the threat of fragmentation looms. Terrorists are attempting to spread fear and populism is on the rise. Europe is in the process of adapting to a new order.
But just as European cooperation is at the heart of your movement, it needs to be at the heart of the solutions we find. It’s more important than ever that we trust the strength and value of that cooperation. Because no European country can afford to go it alone. And this is why all those doomsayers have always been proven wrong, and will be proven wrong in the future: it’s exactly when the pressure is at its highest that Europe manages to find common solutions. We did it during the euro crisis.
We did it during the crisis in the East. And we did it just a few months ago when we struck a deal with Turkey. The Netherlands Presidency worked hard to make it happen, and now we’re seeing results. A drastic reduction in the numbers of people drowning in the Aegean Sea.
Why, then, is there this widespread lack of confidence in European solutions? Why does fragmentation loom large, as the Bulgarian thinker Ivan Krastev puts it? European cooperation is no longer self-evident. It has to prove itself, every day.
Part of the problem is that too many see European cooperation as an end in itself, rather than as a means to achieve other ends. And here I’m thinking both of our Union’s greatest critics and of its greatest proponents. Krastev rightly warns against treating European cooperation as a project. After all, a project can succeed or fail. You can support it and you can attack it. And the tables can turn: today’s dreams can become tomorrow’s nightmares.
You see something similar with the debate on globalisation – indeed, I believe both globalisation and European integration share some remarkable parallels. They’re both processes, not projects.
Nevertheless, they have both become highly politicised. And they’re both about interdependence. Compared with today, globalisation in the 1980s and early 90s was much less contested. It was presented as a win-win prospect. But that’s no longer a credible promise. So a more pragmatic approach is needed. As our interdependence continues to grow, policymakers are looking for ways to accommodate globalisation while protecting the vulnerable.
It’s no coincidence that the countries with the most open economies, such as the Netherlands, also have the most extensive social safety nets. The politics of equal opportunity and solidarity shapes the willingness to open up and to cushion the risks that accompany openness. And that makes it possible to reap the rewards that openness ultimately brings. You can’t have one without the other.
European integration shows much of the same dynamic. We’re finding out that sometimes we need limits. We need boundaries in order to deal with our growing interdependence. People demand it and they are right to do so. True, there might still be some European federalists - perhaps even here in this room today. Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to raise your hands. But I don’t believe a federal Europe presents a realistic project or even a desirable one. This is also a matter of definition: I have no problems with a clear system of definitions of competences at different levels. And the community method can still be relevant, especially for smaller member states. But the European Union as a federal state? That’s not the project we should strive for.
There’s no denying it: right now we’re seeing a lack of trust – a lack of trust in national governments, and a lack of solidarity between countries in Europe. I don’t believe there’s a single reason for that. Let me briefly name two major ones.
• One reason is politics. Or the lack of politics, to be precise. For a long time, European cooperation was about de-politicising highly sensitive issues. For good reason: much of European history shows the damage too much politics can do. But I think the pendulum has swung too far, especially given the challenges we now face. Brussels became too much of a law-making machine – which works fine in good times, but becomes a weakness when crisis hits. A crisis calls for political action, and there are plenty of crises to go around these days.
When people are worried about whether their children will be worse off than they are; when geopolitics knocks at our doors; when terror strikes in European capitals; when migration stirs up fears about identity – well, then a law-making machine doesn’t exactly breed confidence.
• Another reason is quite pragmatic: the European Union has grown from 6 to 28 Member States. That inevitably means more bureaucracy, more tedious negotiations, and less influence for each individual member state. Yes, there’s a very positive side as well: European decisions carry much more weight nowadays, because 28 countries can achieve more than 6. But we should not deny the downsides.
So what’s the answer? The European Union must get used to politics, but I already mentioned we do not need a federation. Instead, we need a European Union that protects and even strengthens governments’ ability to fulfil their duties towards their citizens. A European Union that protects, inspires trust and confidence. The Netherlands Presidency has always emphasised the need for the European Union to ‘be big on big things, and smaller on smaller things’.
The arc of instability, terrorism, migration, the euro: these are the big things for which our citizens expect European solutions. There, more Europe is needed. And slowly but surely we’re finding those solutions.
For example, as a Presidency we’re working hard to get the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy in better shape, by supporting the development of a new Global Strategy. But in other areas, the European Union should take a step back, or at least have modest ambitions. That’s where the Better Regulation agenda comes in, for example.
It may sound like a paradox, but European integration needs boundaries in order to deliver.
The single market and the four freedoms that come with it have brought Europeans liberty, stability and prosperity. So much so that we sometimes risk taking them for granted. But they also require boundaries in the form of safeguards. The internal market should also be a fair market – fairer than it is now, in some important respects. And breaking down internal borders also means that Europe needs secure its external borders. For instance, Schengen can only work if we put collective effort into proper border control, especially for those countries at the periphery. Strengthening these borders is exactly what we’re doing right now, by boosting Frontex and by setting up ‘hot spots’ in Greece and Italy.
The migration issue also shows why the European Union must think and act beyond its borders, entering into partnerships with the countries in the neighbourhood. Not only with Turkey, but also with Lebanon and Jordan. And with African countries, through the Valletta partnership for example. I recently visited several countries in West Africa to agree and sign deals on behalf of the European Union. It’s a perfect example of something that member states can only achieve when they work together. The deals address the root causes of migration. They’ll make remigration possible, and they’ll help us drive people smugglers out of business.
These deals are based on equal partnerships. We don’t tell others what to do. We listen, we negotiate and we reach agreements that serve our mutual interests. The Netherlands, France or Poland could never have achieved the same results on their own – and even if they could, it would have been pointless, because migration affects all members of the Union.
So European cooperation is never an end in itself. It’s always about constructive engineering: finding ways to achieve other ends – and those ends are always changing. We are no longer recovering from the Second World War. The communist threat is over. There is no oil crisis.
But European cooperation has provided answers to all of those challenges in the past, it’s has the answer to many of the challenges we face today, and it will have the answer to the challenges we’ll face tomorrow.
Let me shine a light on a new challenge that European cooperation must address. I briefly mentioned the four freedoms already.
The Netherlands Presidency strongly believes the time has come for Europe to guarantee a fifth freedom: free movement of knowledge, information and data in the digital domain.
The digital age had barely dawned when the Treaty of Rome was signed. Today, we can’t imagine life without digital technologies. But our laws have failed to keep pace with these new advances. And now we’re missing out on the opportunities that the digital domain offers.
Access to scientific information and even raw data is too often limited. Some of our best and brightest minds are now deciding to try their luck elsewhere. Europe can’t afford that. As Stewart Brand said back in the 1960s, ‘Information wants to be free.’ That’s why we need to add free movement of information to the free movement of people, capital, goods and services.
The fifth freedom is about much more than markets. People care about their digital privacy. We should have more control over who has access to our personal data. And internet freedom is a human right. Europe must guarantee access, and prevent governments from blocking people they disagree with. Europe must guarantee freedom of expression – no citizen should fear prosecution for exercising the right to free speech. Offline and online, in Europe and beyond.
The fifth freedom can deliver tangible results for European citizens. It can be proof of how European cooperation works: not as an end in itself, but as a means to achieve greater prosperity and freedom.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I promised to be provocative, and that’s what I’m going to do right now.
Let me pose an uncomfortable question that we should all try to answer: Given that European cooperation has so much going for it, how is it possible that the anti-Europe movement seems to have more momentum than the pro-Europe movement?
I know the situation differs from country to country, but why are the supporters of European cooperation so quiet? For decades they held centre stage, but not anymore. In fact, I wonder whether some have left the stage altogether. Is it because the media don’t find their message interesting? Is it because some are too timid to speak out? Either way, it’s now time to step up and engage with the European public.
The Netherlands Presidency has worked hard to bring European decision-making closer to European citizens. We’ve advocated a European Union that focuses on the essentials and connects with its citizens.
People need to be able to trust the European Union if it is to gain their support. Right now people often see a black box with complex decision-making processes, elected representatives they don’t know and faceless technocrats who haven’t been elected.
When it comes to transparency, Europe has the most to gain from making more data available. But simply making it available is not enough; we can also organise and explain information better. And make that information more comprehensible.
This is why, in January, I challenged European citizens to ‘shine a light on the black box of Brussels’. By using open data to create apps, giving better insight into the decision-making process in Brussels.
But we didn’t stop there: we also held a series of Diplomatic Hackathons, or ‘DiploHacks’, all around Europe.
In Athens, Tirana, Budapest, Bucharest, Bratislava, Prague, Stockholm, Vienna and Brussels, our embassies provided a platform for young innovators to build apps that make the EU more open. And, as a capstone, we’re organising a Transparency Camp in June.
This ‘unconference’ will focus on open data, new technologies and policies that make the EU work for people, foster open government and help the public grasp the workings of the various EU institutions.
That’s just a sample of what we’re doing to bring the European Union closer to citizens, and vice versa. We’re also supporting Urban Initiatives – tonight I’ll be attending the European City-Makers Conference. But we can’t do all this alone. And we can’t do it on a top-down basis. We need individuals and organisations with their own networks in civil society and their own connections across Europe.
And, most importantly, we need people who are passionate about our Union to help make the positive message heard. To help give European cooperation a face, and to help make sure the benefits of that cooperation are felt. In short, we need the European Movement and your commitment to a strong and united Europe.
The way to do this is to leave the rooms in which we talk to each other – much as we all like to talk! – and actively reach out. Disseminating information, explaining policies and talking with established organisations no longer seems enough: we need to reach a broader public.
This is why the European Movement is such an essential organisation. You have played a central role in the construction of Europe. Each one of you is a committed member of this movement and an active organiser. Most importantly, all of you have various other roles as well. You may be former politicians, employees of large companies, or university professors. And you may be active in your own communities as a parent, friend or neighbour.
I urge you all: don’t limit your passion for Europe to venues like this one, where we talk only to each other. We are already supporters – we don’t need convincing.
Talk to those who think differently, expand your views and inspire the rest. Point out where European cooperation has had and still has a positive impact on our lives. Think of ways to connect. Because Europe is not an abstract thing. We are Europe. And we must be its champions.
I saw a great example of an initiative by the European Movement, called ‘Reclaim Europe’. It challenged young Europeans to come up with ideas to connect better across Europe. I’d love to see more initiatives like this one.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Make no mistake: the referendum on a possible Brexit constitutes a European event of the first political order, even before its outcome is known. Its ripples have already spread across the continent. Populist and nationalist parties are feeding on frustration and fear and stir up hatred for free trade, the European Union, but also immigrants.
In the end the debate is not just about how the United Kingdom relates to the European Union, it’s about how each and every member state relates to European cooperation. It’s about how, together, we protect our citizens from geopolitical and economic threats. It’s about how to ensure the freedoms we believe in and enjoy.
The debate will not end when the polling stations close; we’re only witnessing the beginning. Ivan Krastev rightly warns us that it’s the centre, not the periphery, where disintegration starts. Let’s bear that in mind.
Let’s be warned, but let’s not be disheartened – I don’t want to risk sounding like one of those pundits of doom I mentioned at the beginning. So I want to end on a hopeful note and with a call to action.
Back in 1948, a generation of leaders gathered to look to the future of Europe, and eventually created the European Movement. Their recent past was far darker than anything we’ve experienced, and the challenges facing Europe were huge. A tool was needed to kickstart a massive economic recovery and bring peace to a continent ravaged by war. The European Union has become that tool, and with it we have overcome major obstacles.
I am confident that, with the strong foundations we have, we can overcome the challenges facing us now. We must not forget what we have already achieved. We must not doubt that we can take effective action. The fundamentals of the European Union are strong. It holds enormous appeal and authority, extending far beyond its borders. Many people are ready to risk their lives to become part of it. For them the European dream is real. Let’s ensure that those already living here start feeling it too. I’m counting on you.