Speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok, at a meeting of EU Ambassadors in the Netherlands

Ladies and gentlemen,

Can we be proud of what Europe has achieved? When we read the newspapers, watch the news or listen to the radio, it sometimes seems to be only trouble and misery.

For the first time, a member state is leaving the Union. Our Union. In its external action, Europe seems divided. Within the Union, among European citizens, feelings of dismay and desengaňo seem destined to dominate. At one time, people believed that the end of the Cold War would mean continued progress and prosperity. Today, young people often find themselves worse off than their parents and with few perspectives for improvement. In southern Europe, a new generation is growing up unemployed. Many are witnessing stagnation and decline, and respond with radical solutions. Such as leaving Europe altogether. In their minds, Europe is to blame for everything that is wrong.

To others, the opposite is true. The European project is under attack and our timid elites are failing to defend it. Public intellectual Bernard Henri-Lévi is touring Europe – he will be speaking in Amsterdam next month – with the message that  the clock stands at two minutes to midnight. He even declared that, after La Barbarie à visage humain, the European house is again on fire.

I think this is somewhat exaggerated. But it is true that we live in times of disruption and reorientation. It’s also true that the European project is facing serious difficulties. Within our borders we have chauvinistic politicians who blame Europe for everything that’s wrong. Who claim everything was better before, or would be better without the EU. And outside the Union, by those who consider Europe weak, or divided and do everything to promote division and exploit weakness.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Both these views make for good headlines, but bad policy. I am a liberal politician, and as such I am a man in the middle. I believe that politicians of mainstream parties have a duty to defend and protect the achievements of the European project. Because there are many.

  • In large parts of Europe, a generation is growing up who have never experienced war. Whose parents have never experienced war. Whose grandparents barely remember the war. And who are across the board better educated, healthier and wealthier than ever before. This is no minor achievement. Nor should we take it for granted.
  • Later this year, it will be 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Young as I was at the time, I still remember it well. One by one the dictatorships fell. And people were freed from the yoke of Communism.

In Romania, Dutch Ambassador Coen Stork was one of the first Western diplomats to congratulate the Romanian people on their newfound freedom. Speaking on the radio next to French Minister Bernard Kouchner, he read a letter from the Netherlands’ Queen Beatrix to the Romanian people. In Romanian he said:

The Dutch government wishes the Romanian people and their new leaders comfort and strength in this testing time, as dawn breaks on a new, free and democratic Romania.

And indeed, a free and democratic Romania arose.

In his book In Europe’s Shadow, the American journalist Robert Kaplan described his travels through Romania over the course of several decades. Kaplan sees the country at its best in 2013:  its people coming together and putting past hatreds behind them. And he compares the experience with seeing Romania at its worst, 24 years earlier, as the country emerged from fifty years of war and fascistic Stalinism.  

Romania’s accession to the European Union was an important step on our long journey towards a brighter future. Hopefully we can continue walking this road together for many years to come.

Which brings me back to the European project. Besides high-minded ideals, it also boasts more practical achievements:

  • The European Union is the world’s biggest single market. Over four hundred and forty million citizens enjoy its freedoms: the free flow of goods, services, people, ideas and capital.
  • The Union is the world’s largest trading bloc. As such, it is exceptionally well placed to defend its commercial interests. It’s also the world’s largest development donor and provider of humanitarian aid.
  • On top of all that, the EU is the world’s largest group of democracies. Its citizens enjoy human rights, stable governance, and respect for the rule of law. These are self-evident to us, but sadly a distant dream to many outside Europe.

We enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms such as freedom of expression, religion, and information; a free press; and an independent judiciary. The protection of the rights of minorities. These are all an essential part of an open and free society.

The original purpose of the European Union was to prevent a new continental war. In this, it succeeded. It did so through economic interdependence. This idealistic goal was achieved through practical economic cooperation. The European project did not begin with high-minded declarations, but with sweat and scrap metal. Most of the time, this worked very well. But somehow, a mismatch between means and ends entered the equation. How could citizens be convinced of the need for Europe? Or, to put in another way, where was Europe’s soul? Its Begeisterung? Its élan? As Jacques Delors once said, you can’t inspire people with growth figures.

Today, the search for inspiration has led to excesses on both sides. There are those who dream that nation states will disappear. They believe this is essential for a powerful Europe. Others abhor this idea, and dream of dismantling Europe altogether, in order to spark the renaissance of the once-glorious nation state. Again, I think that both sides are mistaken. Both fundamentally misunderstand the European identity. Europe’s identity, in essence, can be found in the beauty of its diversity. We are not and cannot be a continent that thrives on mass merger and the elimination of national differences. Throughout history we have been defined by the fierce competition created by the pressure cooker of so many states bound together on a small continent. This competition has driven scientific discovery, economic growth, and, sadly, also wars. The European Union has allowed us to maintain the intensity of that competition, and channel it into peaceful purposes. Our diversity is a strength, not a weakness. Strong nation states are not an impediment for Europe; they are an essential condition for its success. Europe is only as strong as the sum of its member states. Alone, these states are now too small to compete successfully on a global stage.

But under the European umbrella, even smaller states can thrive in a world of enormous trading blocs and shifting geopolitical power structures.

The journalist Thomas Ribi wrote an enlightening article on this subject in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. He rejects the idea that nation states automatically lead to nationalism. Nationalism is something that bitter experience has taught us to associate with hatred and xenophobia. There can be no doubt these phenomena still exist today and we should continue to fight them.

Ribi refers to French philosopher Ernest Renan, who says that nations are formed on a voluntary basis by individuals with a common past. A nation is not created by speaking the same language or belonging to the same ethnic group. Instead, Renan argues it is about:

« avoir fait de grandes choses ensemble, vouloir en faire encore dans l'avenir ».

It is the desire, in other words, to be part of a larger whole. And to build a common future.

Thomas Ribi rejects the idea that the end of the nation state is a necessary condition for the idea of Europe. Nation states are the best means and scale for controlling power, one of the central ideas of liberal democracy:

“Wir müssen sie stärken. Und wir müssen sie verteidigen: gegen alle, die sie im Namen der vagen Vision eines starken Europa schleifen wollen – aber auch gegen Anhänger, die den Begriff «Nation» missbrauchen, als Feigenblatt für einen rücksichtslosen Nationalismus. Europa ist so stark, wie seine Staaten es sind.”

In other words: strong nation states are the alpha and omega of a well-functioning Europe.

And European integration was a necessary instrument for these very nation states to survive in a postwar Europe, as Alan Milward convincingly states in his still relevant thesis The European rescue of the nation state.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Two weeks ago, an article was published in the Financial Times. In it, I argued for a less political Commission. Why did I do that?

As I’ve said, I believe nation states are the bedrock of Europe. Nation states with strong economies, that have their finances in order. Well-functioning democracies with fundamental freedoms and respect for human rights. We need a strong, competent Commission, which is able to initiate new ideas on a European scale: on migration, on climate change, on security. The current Commission of Mr Juncker and Mr Timmermans has done laudable work.

But what we don’t need is a political Commission. We need to change the way Europe works in order to fulfil the EU’s core promise: to provide peace, prosperity and protection. The Commission is the engine of the European legislative process. As guardian of the treaties, it must safeguard compliance with the rules.

A Commission that prides itself on being political risks to undermine its own objectivity. Its effectiveness. Its transparency. 

Let me briefly mention a couple of points of particular importance to me:

  • We should complete the EU’s toolbox to deal with new threats. I’m thinking especially about EU sanction regimes in the areas of cyberattacks and human rights violations. We saw this work well in the latter case, when we targeted the cynical and immoral business model of human traffickers in Libya by imposing sanctions on them. This is what I have in mind in the future: targeting individual offenders for horrible human rights violations or blatant cyberattacks.

Rather than singling out countries, we should target individual wrongdoers. I know this will not always be easy. Agreeing on complex issues like attribution with 27 member states can be difficult. But complexity can never be an excuse for lack of action.

  • New threats require new responses by the new Commission.

As we all know, later this year we will have a new Parliament, a new Commission and a new Strategic Agenda. In this time of global uncertainty and disruption, we cannot afford to be naive. Europe must be able to protect its core interests, both economically and politically. To do so, we have to be a modern and competitive Europe. Not a Europe that protects obsolete industries.

I am also talking here about the lack of a level playing field in the WTO, protectionism, and involuntary knowledge transfer. And the protection of vital European infrastructure: ports, airports, universities.

  • Not being naïve also means remaining realistic. Most of the time, the member states of the European Union manage to agree. And while this is no minor achievement in and of itself, it rarely makes headlines. I can compare it with Dutch politics, where four very different political parties have to agree on all kinds of political issues. Reaching consensus is not news. But disagreement is.

And the same is true for the EU. Recently, we’ve seen a number of important issues where EU-unity has not yet been achieved. [the INF Treaty, Venezuela, the Arab League]. While I regret this, I should also like to warn against over-dramatising the problem. There can be legitimate reasons for a particular member state to take a divergent view. On important issues, consensus is not a luxury. It is vital that we reach decisions that we can all defend and champion. But it’s also important that we all have our emergency brakes. And that we don’t overemphasise a lack of unity or give too much credence to displays of disunity. If we do, the perception becomes reality. There’s no need to deliberately weaken our Union.

  • In recent years, a lot of energy has been devoted to internal matters. The new budget. Fiscal responsibility. The painful divorce with one of the bigger member states. This was understandable and justified.
  • But given the level, size, and intensity of challenges outside the Union, it’s essential for us to be more active on external matters. A Union united in its external diplomacy will be a formidable force on the global stage.

So what it comes down to is this: in spite of all the differences that arise between EU member states, it has proven difficult to play us off against each other. The Brits were not able to divide us during the Brexit negotiations, the Trump administration was faced with a united EU front when it came to trade, and the same is true for Russia on sanctions and energy. In all these cases, there is more that unites us than divides us.

Because, at the end of the day, Europe works, and our Union is more resilient and robust than many realize. Or give it credit for. This is, I believe, because the EU member states have a common interest in protecting and strengthening their prosperity and their values.

As we’ve seen, the Americans and Chinese do not shy away from using trade and investment as a means of power and influence. And in this context, the importance of European cooperation will only increase. If each member state acts alone, we won’t stand a chance. On our own, we are fragile vis-à-vis the US, China, and Russia. But with a common market and over 440 million citizens, the EU is a significant bloc of influence. A bloc other actors cannot afford to ignore. 

As recent events have shown, the costs of leaving the EU – economically, socially and politically, but above all for citizens – are unacceptably high. I think the dynamics of Brexit have made this clear to everyone, even the most critical voices and member states. Those still arguing for a Frexit or a Nexit, claiming there will only be benefits and no costs, live in a fantasy world. They are dangerous demagogues with no real interest in the fate of the people they claim to protect and represent.

In his book The People vs. Democracy, Yascha Mounk describes a new generation of authoritarian leaders in old democracies. Leaders who self-identify with ‘the people’, and portray critical voices or principled dissidents as ‘traitors’. Many of today’s biggest democracies face this phenomenon – to different degrees.

For this reason, I believe politicians from mainstream parties, both from the centre-left and the centre-right, have a duty to defend our democracy. Our European cooperation. The European way of life. Democracy seems old, established and self-evident, but in fact, it is not. The ideals of democracy are radical. They should be defended. The European project of close cooperation between sovereign states is radical. And it should be defended. It is the basis of our current civilization.

Can we be proud of Europe? I think we can. Proud of its achievements. Its uniqueness. Its originality. Proud because it has succeeded despite setbacks. But most of all: because Europe is not some distant bureaucracy or anonymous Moloch. Europe is us. And we are Europe.   

Thank you.