Speech Foreign Minister Koenders at the Warsaw University

Speech by Foreign Minister Bert Koenders at the Warsaw University (Poland, 3 October 2016). Check against delivery.

This speech is only available in English.

'The first sentence in any speech is always the hardest.'

That’s why, just now, I borrowed mine from the acclaimed Polish writer, Wisława Szymborska. She started her speech with it twenty years ago when she accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature.

There is another thing in Szymborska’s speech that’s worth highlighting today. She argued that we should attach more value to the following tiny little sentence:

‘I don’t know.’

Just three words - they can start wonderment and curiosity. Through research they can lead to new discoveries and truths. This was the case for another compatriot of yours, Marie Curie, who also won a Nobel Prize.

In fact, she won two.

On this day – at the start of your academic year – in this place – the University of Warsaw – I can’t think of a more fitting call: for wonderment and curiosity, coupled with a challenge: to get down to the serious business of research. To avoid the easy path. The topics on our agenda today will demand all our collective brainpower and creativity.

And so, at the end of my speech, I will close with a question for you all, if I may.

Ladies and gentlemen, students,

The University of Warsaw is a fitting location to talk about Europe today. Not so much because of its outstanding position in international rankings, or its focus on European and international affairs.

But because of its history, which mirrors the eventful past of this great nation Poland.

In this place, people have fought with both the pen and the sword against norms at odds with European values. Norms like ‘might is right’, arbitrary treatment, impunity and oppression.

Founded in 1816 after the Partitions of Poland, and forced on several occasions to close its doors, the University was closely involved in the formulation of great European ideals. Even in a time of resistance, when they were under threat. During World War Two, when the University had to operate in secret. During the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. And after the War, when Poland was ruled from Moscow.

Professor Bronisław Geremek was an illustrious example of those ideals.

From these historical roots, a flourishing seat of learning has grown, and so I am grateful to be here this morning.

Today, the University stands as a symbol of the new, independent Poland. A Poland that has found its place in the EU and NATO. A Poland that has gone from being ‘one of the new ones’, to being ‘one of the big ones’. A Poland that is now a prosperous country and the envy of the region.

For decades now, the Netherlands and Poland have enjoyed a close bond of friendship. In fact, trade between Dutch cities and Gdansk goes back all the way to the Hanseatic League. We are currently the top investor in Poland, with a wide spectrum of economic and trade links. And today, for the 26th time, we are holding the bilateral Utrecht Conference: a perfect symbol of our longstanding friendship.

We haven’t always been on the same side of history. At Waterloo we fought on opposite sides; during World War Two we were allies. We will be forever grateful to Poland for the part its brave soldiers played in liberating the Netherlands and my home country, Arnhem.

And I say also personally I am grateful. I grew up in a village close to Arnhem, where the Poles fought bravely during Operation Market Garden. You probably know the film ‘A bridge too far’, in which I am proud to say I played a minor role as an extra when I was a small boy.

When the Iron Curtain descended, we found ourselves separated once more. And yet, our involvement remained, in all kinds of ways. Like supporting the heroes of the Solidarność movement, for example, who were fighting for the European values that Moscow was denying you.

Their struggle, in my view, was crucial. Not only for Poland. But for all of Europe. As Lech Wałęsa – yet another Polish Nobel-Prize winner! – said:

‘The fall of the Berlin Wall made for nice pictures. But it all started in the [Polish] shipyards.’ I think he was right.

It won’t surprise you to hear me say that Europe is at a turning point in its sixty-year history.

The idea of ‘ever closer union’ is coming at a standstill.

For today’s generations, the post-war narrative of ‘Never again’ is no longer self-evident. What should our new common narrative be? Have we gone from ‘no more war’ to ‘no more roaming’? But that’s hardly the same thing, or is it?

In the current debate, critical and existential questions are being asked. And although some people claim otherwise, there are no easy answers. We certainly won’t find them in ghosts of the past, like nationalism, protectionism and xenophobia.

At a time like this, it’s important to step back and reflect. What’s it really about, this European Union? By listening, analysing and reflecting, we need to move from ‘I don’t know’, back to the essence of Europe, tracing the line all the way forward to the spring of 2017 in Rome, where we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding treaty.

We’ve gone through that process in the Netherlands. And for us, one thing still holds true: European cooperation is not a luxury. It’s a must. We have an open economy and we’re surrounded by larger neighbours. EU membership is our best hope for security and prosperity.

Going it alone isn’t an option. Europe isn’t a matter of faith. It’s a matter of pragmatism, ideals and common sense.

Just look at the map. The Netherlands is a major gateway for transporting goods to the rest of Europe. Research shows that the single market has boosted the prosperity of the Dutch people by eight per cent. That’s an extra month’s salary. Every year.

It’s too easy to take our security, freedom and prosperity for granted. Before European cooperation, this was a continent of war and conflict, of failing democracies and major differences in wealth.

You could cite Poland as an example. But what about Greece, Spain and Portugal? On the 20th anniversary of Portugal’s joining the EU, Manuel Antonio dos Santos, the Portuguese Vice-President of the European Parliament, said, ‘The accession of my country countries was a crucial factor in strengthening the democratic process and institutions, and in breaking with the sovereign, isolationist model that had held it back for so long.’

The same could be said about the process of enlargement that gathered pace after the implosion of the Soviet Union. And the EU still holds a powerful appeal for those countries still on the outside, as shown by the recent membership application by Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In many ways, Poland has had a similar experience to other newer members. It has a lot to thank the EU for, not least for the 77.6 billion euros it has been allocated in Structural Funds for the period from 2014 to 2017. And, for our part, we have enormous respect for what Poland has achieved. Its integration into the EU has brought it prosperity, protection and, above all, a place in the community of European values. A place Poland deserves as much as anyone, given its brave history.

However, as the EU has grown larger and more diverse, it has also grown more difficult to govern. And the compromises this requires can’t always count on popular support. We started the EU with 6 countries. Now we are with 28. That makes the transaction costs higher.

Together, it is our duty to prevent these challenges from leading to disintegration and a ‘pick and choose’ approach to EU membership. European unity must not be reduced to an ‘à la carte’ menu; cherry-pick what you like. A model of cooperation which has recently been introduced as 'flexible solidarity', based on what’s convenient at a given moment, in my view is a recipe for further erosion. That is not in anyone’s interest.

Our Union is not simply a currency or a market. In that regard, the EU treaties are perfectly clear: it is first and foremost a community of values.

Those values are listed in article 2 of the Treaty on European Union: respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men.

These principles are not laid down just because they sound impressive. In recent decades they have been put into practice in our plural and open societies – sometimes in the face of strong opposition. Previous generations have had to fight to achieve them.

And they learned some hard lessons. They concluded that we must put democracy and the rule of law above all else. Because they safeguard the very essence of our freedom: that no one person has the final say.

The rule of law, above all, is politically colour blind.

In this community of values, we are all imperfect.  No one has a monopoly on virtue, and no one has a monopoly on vice. The true power of our democracies is that we can strengthen each other. That we can identify and discuss our shortcomings. That we are prepared to openly debate how key values – like the rule of law – can best be protected in times of change. The independence of the judiciary is essential in this regard, as the European Council has emphasized on many occasions.

Poland’s struggle for sovereignty brought it into the heart of the European Union. It deserves the highest respect for what it has achieved. That’s why I am so happy to be here. Eleven years after accession, it has claimed its place as a self-assured political and economic power. The Polish people have accomplished this because they have been able – in spite of their challenging history – to build on the traditions rooted in one of Europe’s earliest and most enlightened constitutions, dating from 1791.

And today, in 2016, we think it is important to remind us all of the importance of the rule of law as the foundation of democracy. An importance demonstrated so clearly by our two countries’ respective histories.

The rule of law is not merely a hobbyhorse for human rights activists. It is not something you can apply or ignore as you please. The rule of law provides the safeguards and predictability that are crucial not only for the people, but also for the business community, in order to reach their full potential. It is the basis of so many of our other achievements. The foundation on which our societies and investment climate rest.

In other words, fundamental rights and the rule of law act as the safety valve for democracy.

Within our societies we have stress tests on several dossiers; migration, employment, security etc. People increasingly distrust the political class. On all those issues we have a fundamental debate, which is important.

Without fundamental rights, democracy risks becoming the tyranny of the majority.

Without the rule of law, democracy risks becoming a game of winner-takes-all.

In terms of Montesquieu’s three powers, one should never be allowed to overrule the other two. That’s what the safety valve is for: it ensures checks and balances for executive, legislative and judicial power.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The UK’s decision to leave the EU has brought fresh uncertainty to our common project. This is the first time in the 60-year history of European integration that a member state has opted to leave. We will miss the UK – a partner with which we have forged close political, economic and cultural bonds. You know this as well as anyone: there are close to a million Polish nationals living in the UK.

We all regret the UK will leave the EU. When we listened to Prime Minister May yesterday, it made us aware that it is really going to happen. It will take a lot of energy from us all and therefore it is important to cooperate.

A Europe without the UK will have a new centre of gravity. The remaining 27 member states, and the UK, will continue to depend on one another. After all, the global challenges we face are significant. Climate change, the energy transition, the refugee crisis: these are issues that no country can solve alone.

But, paradoxically, at this moment, European citizens in various places are reaching for the emergency brake.

The reasons for this have been debated at length. But let me make one thing clear: the problems people are experiencing are real. The effects of globalization, the fear of terrorism, the loss of control over one’s trusted surroundings. People feel these threats keenly.

But they were not caused only by the European Union. They wouldn’t simply disappear if we abolished the EU. In fact, leaving or abolishing the EU would probably only make us less effective in tackling them. So it would be wrong to blame the Union for all our problems, as some do all too easily these days. Europe-bashing seems to be the latest trend.

Now, more than ever, we should be exploring how the Union can better protect its citizens from these threats. Because if there’s one criticism of European cooperation that’s justified, it’s the failure to find enough concrete solutions for current problems. The EU has attracted widespread blame for this, not least in various referenda, such as we saw yesterday in Hungary. Some of it is justified, but some is absolutely not. After all, the EU has produced so many tangible benefits, and continues to do so. Take freedom of movement, via an excellent motorway network that stretches from East to West and North to South. Isn’t travelling in Europe now a world away from how it was 60 years ago?

Europe needs to find visible, concrete results for concrete problems. You don’t directly need grand visions. In fact, I’d like to see us put a moratorium on grand visions and get down to work instead.

I see the current crisis as a chance to step up our efforts on that concrete agenda.

A better Europe doesn’t mean ‘more Europe’ or a ‘faster Europe’. It means a Europe that lives up to its promises.  A Europe that holds itself and its member states to the standards and rules we’ve agreed. A Europe that builds a system to protect, perform and act more effectively, in line with its own rules and principles.

I’m not talking here about roaming. I’m talking about the big issues of our time. Above all, the three core themes that Europeans are most worried about: migration, security and the single market.

Areas in which we need real solutions, not an anti-EU debate.

First, the single market helps us maximize the potential of the European economy, create more jobs and increase our resilience to economic shocks. We must work towards sustainable, inclusive growth and completion of the single market. A fair single market, which the Decent Work Agenda will help us achieve. Here we have a debate between Poland and the Netherlands, on the Posting of Workers Directive. But as we have strong ties, I am convinced that we can overcome our differences.

Second, it is clear for every citizen in every country that internal and external security are directly linked. If we do not export stability, we will import instability. In recent years this has been made painfully clear to the people of Europe. Member states need to work together more closely in the fight against terrorism. And beyond the European Union we need to take collective action.

The arc of instability around Europe has a direct influence on our societies. Solidarity must apply to our Eastern partners’ security. That’s why I welcome the decision at the NATO Summit in Warsaw to send military units to the Baltic States and Poland. Not to wage war, but to prevent it. And the Dutch government has decided to contribute. We also participate in NATO exercises and we support the Baltic Air-Policing mission.

Third, as we grapple with the migration crisis, responsibility and solidarity must go hand in hand. We need to strengthen our external borders, tackle the root causes of migration, and make clear agreements with countries of origin and transit. We must also support Greece and Italy. They are on our borders, on the front line, so to speak.

I am glad to see that the pace of the resettlement program is picking up. We all need to shoulder our responsibility here. Taking a selective approach kills cooperation. The concept of ‘flexible solidarity’ is a slippery slope. Eventually it leads to erosion, and that can never be in either of our countries’ interest. Because solidarity is like freedom: you either have it, or you don’t.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today I am joined by a delegation of officials who are here to talk about these and other issues with their Polish colleagues.  What struck me from meetings yesterday evening is that we have 90% in common and only 10% differences of opinion.

This annual Utrecht Conference is a fine tradition, which began in the 1990s as a way to support Poland in its ambition to join the European Union.

Today the Conference offers a great opportunity to enhance our understanding of each other’s viewpoints and find common ground. But perhaps, in the spirit of Ms Szymborska’s Nobel Prize speech, we will also hear the words ‘I don’t know’. So that together we can search for the best solutions to the challenges we face.

But let’s not forget where we are today: at the University of Warsaw. So I also want to hear what you do know. I want to make use of your brainpower today. I’ve explained what the Netherlands believes is most important for Europe’s future: promoting strong institutions in our member states, ensuring open borders and defending our values, even if it means challenging each other when necessary. We believe in a Europe that’s big on the big things and small on the small things. A Europe that offers concrete solutions, that stands not just for itself.

I’d like to close with a question for us to think about together in the coming weeks and months. If we had to create a single picture – a single image – of the Europe of the future, what would it look like? It must be an image that represents us all, an image that will appeal to our children and our children’s children. After all, they say a picture is worth a thousand words. And with that, let me stop talking and thank you for your kind attention.