Speech by Minister Ben Knapen at the EU Heads of Mission (HoMs) meeting

Speech Ben Knapen, Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the EU Heads of Mission (HoMs) at the Hilton Hotel in The Hague, 28 October 2021

Your Excellencies,

It’s a pleasure to be here, and to have the opportunity to speak with you all in person.
Ambassador Štiglic, thank you for hosting this session.

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Slovenia several times in my life, and have always been struck by its beauty: the mountains in Triglav National Park, the sea, and of course your charming capital, Ljubljana.

In spite of the difficult pandemic-related circumstances, your country’s organisation of the EU Presidency has been efficient and effective.

Today’s lunch is an excellent example of this, as well as a pleasant opportunity to catch up with colleagues.

This is important, because what is the European Union, if not the outcome of a constant conversation?

Maintaining this conversation allows us to move closer together, and to speak frankly – as friends do. After all, it’s far better to see each other in person than to tag each other on Twitter.

Our meeting here in The Hague is part of a long historical dialogue. A dialogue that officially started in 1951, when six European states gathered in Paris to sign the treaty that established the European Coal and Steel Community.

Incidentally, 1951 was also the year I was born.

So I have always lived in a Europe where states cooperate, integrate, and grow closer together.

My children don’t recognise the Europe my parents grew up in.

When my parents were young, it was common for states to go to war in order to change a border, and crossing those borders was difficult and time-consuming. For my children, on the other hand, the idea that Germany could go to war with France is unimaginable. Between my parents and my children the obvious became the unimaginable.

It’s been a long time coming.

The historian Orlando Figes writes that Europeans first started thinking of Europe as a common cultural space in the 19th century, when railways made rapid cultural and economic exchanges possible.

Suddenly, new music composed in Italy could quickly be heard all over Europe.

French novels were translated and read in every capital and people from different countries started regularly meeting each other at conferences and holiday resorts.

Figes quotes Nietzsche, who wrote that international trade and cultural exchange might create a new type of citizens: ‘good Europeans’.

People who are at home across the continent, who speak each other’s languages and appreciate each other’s culture. People with open minds, who share a ‘European spirit’. They were Nietzsche’s answer to the destructive impulses of nationalism, which he called the ‘sickness of the century’.

Unfortunately, for quite some time, the sickness was stronger than the cure.

Trains also transported soldiers.

Nationalism, racism, and hatred unleashed war on our continent; not once, but twice. Out of that history of nationalism and conflict, we created a great project of cooperation and convergence.

Out of the Europe of our parents, we built a new Europe for our children.

And they understand Europe.

As they ‘interrail’ across the continent for holidays or Erasmus scholarships, they come remarkably close to Nietzsche’s ideal. They show how we overcame a century of sickness and learned what it means to be good Europeans.

Today I want to talk about three transitions: the transition to a climate-neutral world, the geostrategic transition, and the digital transition.

Together, they constitute a common agenda and unite us in a common realisation: that if we fail to act now, we will regret it later.

Fortunately, there is a lot of popular support for action.

Starting with the transition to a climate-neutral world.

The national Citizens’ Dialogues – part of the Future of Europe Conference – show that climate change is the most important issue for 71 percent of Dutch citizens. A strong majority of our people want the EU to become a global leader in the fight against climate change.

Next week, the world will gather in Glasgow at COP26 to discuss how to prevent a climate crisis.

Six years after the historic Paris Agreement, 196 world leaders will present their national plans. Together, these must lead to a net-zero economy.

This will be a truly historic meeting.

At the risk of sounding dramatic, I truly believe that we are the last generation that can still prevent an irreversible climate change of more than 1.5 degrees. Sadly, we have already wasted countless opportunities.

We can no longer afford inaction.
Our citizens won’t allow it.

They expect governments to act, and they expect the EU to take a leading role. With an ambitious Green Deal, the Union can do just that. It’s an opportunity to transform our economies.

We have the resources, and we will benefit from leading the transition. By developing technology the rest of the world needs, and creating new business models for our industry.

If we take the necessary steps at home, we can show the rest of the world what needs to be done.

We must lead by example, and show our commitment.

We must stand united, and stick by our promise: climate neutrality by 2050 and reduce net emissions by at least 55% by 2030.

The second transition I would like to talk about is geostrategic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of global trade and health systems. The fall of Kabul has demonstrated our dependency on others for protecting our citizens and our interests. And soaring gas prices invite us to rethink how much we depend on others for our vital interests.

Together, global challenges like these can form a perfect storm.

If such a storm is raging out in the world, none of us can withstand it alone. We need a safe haven to shelter us from the strongest winds, while also providing us with a base from which we can venture out into the world.

This is why my country strongly supports the idea of open strategic autonomy. We need an open economy based on rules – though at the same time we should not be naïve about unwanted dependencies.

The EU is a global economic power, which sets standards worldwide.

That is why I support President Von Der Leyen’s call for a European Chips Act.

Europe needs to strengthen its semiconductor industry to maintain technological sovereignty.

Europe should not be the world’s playing field, where Russia, China, and the US call the shots.

Instead, we should be a geopolitical player in our own right. Not by building a European army outside of NATO, but by working together to enhance our capacities.

Because a strong alliance stands to benefit from a stronger Europe.

The third transition I want to discuss is digital.

It would be an understatement to say that we are witnessing enormous changes in this area.
Digitalisation, artificial intelligence and quantum computers will profoundly change the way we live and work.

Here too, the EU must act now if we want to shape our own future.

Europe has become increasingly dependent on technological products that are produced in places where privacy and cybersecurity aren’t always guaranteed in the way we prefer.
To improve our standing, we must build better infrastructure, set better standards, and encourage our companies to seize new opportunities.

At the same time, we must ensure that European citizens’ rights are protected, and that they can acquire the digital skills they need in the new economy. No one should be left behind, as we need everyone’s trust and involvement to make the digital transition succeed.

The Commission’s digital strategy offers a good foundation for doing this.

Your Excellencies,

These three transitions have one thing in common: we need to act on them now, or we will regret it later.

To do this effectively, we need the EU.

None of us are able to shape the future on our own; but if we act together, we can truly make an impact.

That is why I believe in a strong, ambitious, and inclusive Union.

Strong, so it can protect the interests of its more than 445 million citizens.

Ambitious, so it can look beyond those direct interests, and  improve both the continent and the world for future generations.

Inclusive, so that all citizens feel they can make clear what their interests are, and how the Union can best represent them.

To do this effectively, we need to set our standards as high as we can realistically set them.
If we want to become a green, autonomous, and digital economy, we need to do it together – leaving no region behind.

Finally, if the European Union is to be a haven in a volatile world, it is crucial that its foundations are rock-solid.

That is why my country strongly supports legal integrity and the rule of law. We believe that rules are rules, and that they apply to everyone. You may have some personal experience with this as well, since we ask all diplomats to pay their parking tickets.

I don’t doubt – or mind – that this is a great source of jokes about the Dutch, but it comes from a deeply ingrained notion that rules are important.

This is also how we look at the rule of law in the Union: it protects us all from outside challenges, but it only works if we all do our part and accept the agreements.

I want to stress that we are not against any particular country, but we do strongly believe that everyone who has voluntarily accepted the rules should also follow them.

Citizens should be able to rely on independent judges to defend their fundamental rights.
Companies should have the certainty that their investments are safe, because the same rules and regulations apply everywhere.
Member states must respect fundamental rights, as well as the courts that guard over them.

This is a precondition for our citizens’ trust.

Your Excellencies,

We are gathered here as colleagues and friends, so please allow me to speak frankly.

When it comes to the rule of law, there is always room for improvement. This includes my own country, as a new report by the Venice Commission shows.

But recent developments across Europe go way beyond what we might reasonably call ‘room for improvement’.

Fundamental rights are non-negotiable.

It would be an understatement to say that these things worry me. Because they threaten the very idea of our Union; the foundations on which it is built, and the future to which it aspires.

To return, briefly, to the idea of a ‘good European’; I am reminded of a remark by Angela Merkel.

She wondered aloud what a good European was, and answered her own question by saying that it is someone who ‘respects the European treaties and relevant national laws’.

I wholeheartedly agree.

If we want to address the climate, geostrategic, and digital transitions, we all need to do our part, respect the rules, and present a united front.

We are still the most social, free, and wealthy bloc on earth.

This is a fact, but it is not a given. Our citizens expect us to deliver results.
So it’s important that we do just that.

There’s much to be done, and little time to do it in.