Speech by Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok at EU ambassadors meeting
Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you today. I’d like to express my special thanks to the Finnish ambassador, Paivi Kaukoranta, for hosting this lunch.
I have become something of a regular visitor to Finland recently. Last year I had the honour of speaking at the Finnish ambassador’s conference. And to Finland last winter with my family. I’ve visited Helsinki several times since then. Most recently two weeks ago for the Gymnich meeting.
Once again, I felt very welcome. As Jean-Claude Juncker so aptly said during a recent visit to Finland: ‘It is true that Finland often has the coldest climate in Europe – but it always has the warmest hospitality.’
That warm hospitality is one of the reasons I decided to go on holiday to Finland last winter. Alongside the wide range of outdoor activities it offers – and the fact that it’s the world’s happiest country. Who wouldn’t want to go?
And one more thing I appreciate about the Finns – before you all suspect that the Finnish tourist board is paying me to say these things – is the Finnish principle of ‘talkoot’. This is – if I understand it correctly – when people ‘work together, collectively, for a specific good’.
Or maybe I should use the definition offered by one of your country’s former presidents, Tarja Halonen, who explained ‘talkoot’ by saying, ‘We live in a cold, harsh and remote place. Every person has to work hard for themselves. But that is not always enough. You have to help your neighbours.’
Doesn’t this same principle of ‘talkoot’ apply to the EU? To us?
After all, even though we all have to work hard to defend our countries’ interests – which sometimes makes the EU feel like a cold and harsh place – we also have to work collectively. So we can continue to be free. So we can continue to stay safe. And so we can remain prosperous.
We have to help our neighbours, so they, in return, can help us. Otherwise none of us will make it. None of us will have the means and the capacity to face our common challenges. So none of us will prosper.
I would like to use this meeting to make a plea, to turn ‘talkoot’ from a Finnish principle into a shared one. An EU principle.
To remind us that we need to keep our union strong. That we need to stay united.
Especially now, as the balance of power and the initiative in the world are shifting.
I’m thinking of Russia, and of countries like China, which are becoming increasingly assertive.
And Iran, which we need to prevent from obtaining nuclear weapons, by preserving and fully implementing the nuclear deal.
I’m thinking of tensions in the Persian Gulf that need to be de-escalated. And of maritime security and the importance of freedom of navigation, which should be upheld.
What’s more, the multilateral world order we have built up since the Second World War is coming under increasing pressure.
The US has withdrawn from a number of international agreements and institutions.
And around the world, respect for universal values, in areas like human rights, is no longer a given.
Not to mention the challenges we face on a global scale, which you of course know a lot about. Climate change, migration and the disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.
That’s the world we live in now. That’s today’s reality.
But we mustn’t forget that the main goal of EU cooperation – after two devastating world wars within 30 years – was to safeguard our freedom and sovereignty.
And we mustn’t forget that the EU is the world’s second-biggest economy. With a GDP of 18 trillion dollars.
Neither should we forget that the EU is one of the best places to live and work in the world. That we are the leading donor of development aid and humanitarian assistance. And that our norms and standards have a global impact.
Or to quote US Professor Anu Bradford in her 2012 article ‘The Brussels Effect’:
‘Few Americans are aware that EU regulations determine the makeup they apply in the morning, the cereal they eat for breakfast, the software they use on their computer, and the privacy settings they adjust on their Facebook page. And that’s just before 8:30 AM.’
In other words, because access to the European market is in such great demand, companies around the world copy our common rules, so they can reach our 450 million consumers.
Businesses want to trade here.
People want to come here.
And that’s one of the reasons why I deeply regret Brexit.
I believe it’s bad for the UK, bad for the EU and bad for the Netherlands. But we must respect the British people’s decision.
Whatever the outcome, there will be pain. For all of us. So our focus now must be on minimising it.
A no-deal Brexit will never be our choice, but we are prepared for it. My preferred outcome – and in my opinion the best solution for everyone – is the deal that is currently on the table.
If this proposed agreement is unacceptable to the UK, then it is up to the UK to present alternative proposals. The EU is ready to discuss concrete proposals that are compatible with the Withdrawal Agreement.
As for us, the remaining 27 member states, it is vital that we do not lose sight of our ambitious European project. And that we stay united.
In other words: that we put the principle of ‘talkoot’ to work.
But how can we do that? How can we stay true to ‘talkoot’ and renew our commitment to European solidarity, in a responsible way?
I believe that, first, we need to establish a modern and coherent transparency policy. Because the accessibility and availability of information are the common currency of democracy.
That doesn’t mean we should lose sight of the importance – and sometimes the necessity – of deliberating behind closed doors.
But we need proactive transparency to bolster trust in European procedures and decisions. So we can create an effective Union. I know this is a priority for the Finnish EU Presidency, and it is a priority that the Netherlands fully supports.
A Union that is accountable and enjoys the trust of its citizens.
Second, we need a strong, competent Commission. One that can launch new ideas on a European scale: on migration, on climate change, on security.
An effective, smoothly functioning Common European Asylum System, for instance, is essential in order to return to a smoothly functioning Schengen area. This must be our common goal.
We need to commit to climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest. And support our greenhouse gas reduction targets with strong policies for all sectors.
And when it comes to security and external relations, I want the new European Commission to use its instruments to the fullest, to achieve the EU’s external objectives. So our goals on limiting irregular migration, respecting readmission agreements, observing human rights and promoting trade are more coherently linked.
These are all major challenges for all EU countries.
Third, we need economic reform. Because a Europe that’s strong economically, is a Europe that’s strong geopolitically.
And our economic strength lies first and foremost in our solid economic foundations.
That means a Union whose member states have their financial houses in order. Member states that can pay their own way and that stick to the agreed rules of the Stability and Growth Pact.
It also means a Union whose member states actually implement reforms and are prepared to take action:
• Action to create a Union that completes the single market, in particular the digital single market.
• Action to remove any remaining barriers and put businesses and consumers at the centre of policymaking.
• Action to prioritise uniform implementation and enforcement of EU rules by member states. Because businesses need transparency and clarity too.
• And action to explore ways of giving the European Commission enforcement powers when the playing field is no longer level.
So we should consider adapting the competition framework, to prevent businesses from third countries that benefit from direct or indirect state aid distorting competition. And ensure that the Commission plays an independent role.
These are all difficult decisions that we need to be prepared to take.
A fourth way we can renew our commitment to European solidarity is by showing the world the EU is effective in taking external action.
We need united external action to be effective on the world stage.
The EU-China summit in April this year, for instance, clearly showed that we are capable of standing united. That we are able to speak with one voice.
This is the kind of unity we need. Only through unity can the EU exercise leverage as a world power. And we should not shy away from using that leverage.
In this connection, I want to reaffirm the importance of – and the need for – an EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime. This would allow us to combat human rights violations and abuses around the world.
So we can combat the human trafficker who is smuggling children, exposing them to sexual abuse and exploitation.
So we can combat the prison officers who systematically torture members of religious minorities.
So we can stand up for individual human rights defenders and critical journalists who are being silenced in an attempt to instil fear and force compliance.
Bringing those responsible to justice is our ultimate goal. But in these times – when human rights are increasingly under pressure – we need a multifaceted approach.
An EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime would be an extra tool in our EU external human rights toolbox.
It would allow us to respond more effectively to human rights violations and abuses.
At the last Gymnich meeting we started this discussion and made good progress. But we all need to be on board to make it happen.
Finally, there’s one more point of particular importance to me: a thoroughly modernised EU budget.
The new Multiannual Financial Framework should focus on tomorrow’s priorities, where a European approach has clear added value.
But it should also be financially sustainable and distribute the burden fairly. This is especially necessary in response to Brexit, which unfortunately already involves a substantial cost to our economies.
A smaller EU implies a smaller MFF. And I firmly believe this is possible. Obviously, the strongest shoulders should bear the heaviest burden, but the disproportionate increase in the Dutch EU contribution under the Commission’s MFF proposal is not acceptable.
With a budget of 1 per cent of EU GNI – its current level – we can achieve better results and modernise the budget, without any need for additional contributions. But to do that, we need to be ambitious about reforms and make critical choices. We need more ambition and less tradition!
How can we achieve this? By spending less on traditional policy areas like cohesion and agriculture, we can focus more on issues like research and innovation, migration, climate and security.
At the same time, a modern budget needs to have stronger conditionalities. So that we can safeguard effective spending and set the right incentives to achieve our policy objectives.
For instance, to promote economic convergence, the budget should be linked more closely to the European Semester and national reforms.
There also needs to be a clear connection to the European Agenda on Migration. And I strongly support the Commission’s proposal to protect the budget against rule of law shortfalls in member states, by way of proper checks and balances.
On this last point, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte made a crucial statement to the Bertelsmann Stiftung in Berlin last year:
‘Erode the rule of law and you erode the single market. Erode the single market and you erode the Union.’
That’s why it’s vital for countries to respect our common values and implement policies that we’ve agreed on.
The Netherlands is proposing a financially sustainable, fair and future-oriented budget that allows the EU to meet its most pressing challenges. With enough flexibility to respond to unforeseen developments and changing circumstances.
The Dutch government is fully committed to agreeing an MFF deal along these lines and making a fair and proportionate contribution.
In short, ladies and gentlemen, I believe we need a modern and coherent transparency policy, economic reform, a strong, competent Commission, effective external action, and a modern Multiannual Financial Framework.
One with a strong link to structural reforms in member states, and to the European Agenda on Migration. And a budget that addresses rule of law shortfalls in member states.
Because only if we improve, modernise and maintain our European project, will we achieve our overarching goal: a free, safe and prosperous home for our citizens.
So let’s work together. Let’s put the principle of ‘talkoot’ to work. To ensure the success of our common European project today and in the future.