Speech by Prime Minister Mark Rutte in Madrid

Speech by Prime Minister Mark Rutte in Madrid on 30 March 2022. 

El que decide es nuestro carácter’: Europe’s response to the new reality.

Presidente Sánchez – Pedro – thank you for your kind words.
Mr Solana, thank you for your introduction. 
Mr Aguilar and your team, thank you for organising this event.
And Mr Falomir, thank you for hosting us today in this beautiful museum. 

Deputy prime minister, ministers, ambassadors, members of parliament, mayor of the city of Madrid, and other members of the board of trustees, 
Ladies and gentlemen,

The acclaimed philosopher from Madrid, José Ortega y Gasset, once said: 
‘It is false to say that we are defined by circumstances. 
On the contrary, circumstances are the dilemma on which we must decide. 
Our character is what decides.’ 

Today, as war rages on our continent, those words of wisdom are more relevant than ever.
Russia’s assault on Ukraine – unacceptable, unjustifiable and brutal – has confronted us with a new reality.

In Europe, our circumstances have changed radically.
We are presented with dilemmas that, for decades, we believed were unthinkable.
And we face an unparalleled test of our character.
The way we respond will decide Europe’s future.

I don’t know about you, but when I wake up each morning, there’s only one question on my mind: what happened in Ukraine last night? 
How are the Ukrainian people holding up?
In their bomb shelters. 
Behind their barricades. 

The disaster that has struck the people of Ukraine is almost beyond comprehension.
The images we see daily fill us with outrage, fear and sorrow.
We’re doing what we can to help.
Offering humanitarian assistance.
Providing shelter for Ukrainians who’ve fled their country.
And giving military aid, to help Ukrainians defend themselves against Russia’s aggression.

And that’s essential.
Because this isn’t only a fight between the Ukrainians and the Russian aggressor.
It’s also a fight for democracy. 
For countries’ right to self-determination. 
Against recolonization.
For peace, freedom and security on our continent.
Things that once seemed so self-evident. 
Certainly to those Europeans who haven’t known conflict or tyranny since the devastation of the Second World War.
For other Europeans, like the people of Spain, the reality of repression and terror is a more recent memory.

None of us wants to return to that time.
We want to move forward.
While Putin, driven by revanchism and revisionism, wants only to turn the clock back.
We cannot allow that in twenty-first century Europe.
The key thing now is that the hostilities must end. 
Peace talks must be serious, not a distraction. 
And let me make one thing very clear: a peace agreement at gunpoint, with the loss of Ukrainian territory and sovereignty, is not the way to get back to normal. Nor will it automatically lead to easing our sanctions.
Some values are just not negotiable. 

We will have to show character.
Our common character.
Our European character.

[Historical ties]
That’s why I’m delighted to be here at the invitation of the Fundación Carlos de Amberes, together with my fellow prime minister Pedro Sánchez. 
Pedro and I have over the years developed a friendship and an excellent working relationship in Europe.
A relationship that goes beyond just good personal ties.
It also reflects the strong ties between Spain and the Netherlands.
Ties that go back a long way, and have a rich history. 

That history is displayed in all its glory here at the Prado Museum.
Home to a truly world-class collection.
Here, paintings show scenes of when the Dutch were part of the mighty Spanish Empire.
A formative period for the country we now call the Netherlands.

Take the masterpiece by Diego Velázquez: La rendición de Breda, or the ‘Surrender of Breda’. 
A painting which depicts a famous episode from the Eighty Years’ War.
On the canvas we see the end of the siege of Breda, with the Spaniards on one side and the Dutch on the other, as the key to the city passes into Spanish hands.

And so, in our shared history, we have been on opposing sides.
There has been conflict. 
We’ve had our differences. 
But there has also been connection, and mutual inspiration.
That’s something we also see here at the Prado.
It’s illustrated perfectly by the museum’s rich collection of works by Hieronymus Bosch.
El Bosco, ‘creator of devils’, was a painter of imaginative, satirical tableaus. 
A consummate innovator.
It’s thanks to Philip the Second of Spain that we can still admire all these paintings today. 
Despite being the ultimate defender of tradition and orthodoxy, it was he who became the largest collector of works by the libertine, El Bosco.
These two men could not have been more different.
And yet, their connection transcended their differences.
A special bond indeed.

This is just one of many fascinating stories from our countries’ shared history.
That bond is also a focus of the important work of the Fundación Carlos de Amberes.
And I want to express my appreciation for that.
Because, today, we are building on the bedrock of our past.
A foundation of mutual recognition, friendship and cooperation.
Between our countries, peoples and cultures.

In these difficult times, that’s something we need more than ever.
So that we can join together on the basis of our shared values, and build our European future.

[Spain and the Netherlands in Europe]
Spain and the Netherlands are close partners in that endeavour. 
Both countries are firmly rooted in Europe, but have a broad outlook on the wider world. 
We may not agree on everything, but when it comes to the crucial issues we’re on the same page.
We are leaders on European climate ambitions, for example. 
And we’re pushing others to succeed too.
We’re working to bolster the single market and boost competitiveness.
And we’re receiving refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine.

We’re joining hands and working together.
We’re striving for a strong Europe. 
And together, we’re communicating that message.

[Towards a resilient Europe – Non-paper on open strategic autonomy]
In the spring of 2021, Prime Minister Sánchez and I presented our common vision ‘on strategic autonomy while preserving an open economy’. 
We made concrete proposals in a range of areas.
The paper was prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the vulnerabilities in Europe that it highlighted.
Our dependencies in strategic sectors, for example. 
And our inability to take autonomous decisions as a strong, global player. 
That needed to change. 
It still needs to change.

We wrote that the goal of strategic autonomy must be ‘to guarantee the EU’s security, and sustainable and inclusive growth, to preserve its values and way of life, and to ensure that peace and international stability prevail.’
Back then, those words may have sounded quite abstract, but recent events have made them all-too concrete. 
’Security’ and ‘peace’ in Europe, ‘international stability’: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has threatened it all. 
Since the 24th of February, we have lived in a different reality. 
Before our eyes, a geopolitical earthquake has struck.
We’ve had a rude awakening.

Now it’s time to build a stronger, more resilient Europe. 
A Europe that can defend its way of life.
A Europe that’s both autonomous and outward-looking.
As we said in our paper: ‘the European Union must be a global player (…) built on principles of multilateralism.’
Not ‘independent’, but ‘interdependent’. 
Seeking cooperation with our other global partners. 
Above all, with our NATO Allies.
Especially at a time like this.

Spain understands this better than anyone.
It provides impressive contributions to NATO and EU missions.
In geographical terms, it may not be at the heart of Europe. 
But it is at the centre of the world.
With close links to North Africa.
And by nature, it has a firm transatlantic orientation.
With enormous influence in – and on – the Americas.

With its global perspective, Spain could see that the world’s geopolitical plates have shifted. 
And now the whole of Europe sees it too.
We see the increasing assertiveness of new world powers and authoritarian regimes.
The tough competition – sometimes even confrontation – with those regimes in other parts of the globe, such as Latin America and Africa.
We also see the world’s political, economic and military resources becoming ever more interwoven.
For example in the fight for influence in strategic economic sectors of European countries.

We cannot deny that the principles of power are gaining the upper hand over the power of principles.
That constructive multilateral cooperation is under pressure.
That Europe needs to face facts.
And formulate a powerful response.

We’ve found that response in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
United, decisive and determined.
We’ve made a stand, both within the EU and together with our transatlantic NATO Allies.
We’ve stuck to our response, and amplified it, as the weeks have passed. 
Europe can do this. 
Take action when necessary.
Stand firm in times of crisis.

And today’s threats are not going away.
So we must do more.
We must look to the longer term.
Build a stronger Union. 
And an even more powerful NATO.
Because these two organisations protect us. 
They make us stronger and more stable.
They are essential for a free and secure Europe.

So our task is to fortify these institutions.  
We face a number of challenges.
And I’d like to summarise them in three key points. 
First: Economically, the EU needs to reach peak fitness.
Second: Europe must rapidly decrease its energy dependency.
And third: Europe has a major role to play in a stronger NATO Alliance.

[Stronger EU economies]
Let me start with our European economies.
Our combined economic power is enormous.
Together, we are among the world’s three biggest economies. 
We are the world’s biggest internal market and its biggest trading bloc.
That gives us leverage and influence.
And it may be our most powerful weapon in the international arena.

Take sanctions, for example.
We’ve seen how hard the Russian regime has been hit by our sanctions package.
And the longer Russia’s aggression continues, the tougher those sanctions will become.
By applying the full weight of our economic power, the EU is dealing the Russian war machine a blow it will feel for a very long time.
Hopefully this will have the desired effect: de-escalation and a return to peace in Europe.

But economic clout comes at a cost.
In order to land hard economic blows, we must be able to withstand them, too.
And for that, we must ensure our economies indeed reach peak fitness.

That’s not the case at the moment.
Economic growth all over Europe is sluggish, and our debt burden all over Europe is too high.    
This means we need to combine smart investments with structural reforms.
To make our economies fundamentally stronger and more resilient.

The COVID recovery fund provides the perfect opportunity. 
After all, its purpose is to help the EU emerge from the pandemic greener, more competitive and more resilient to shocks. 
This financial support goes hand in hand with necessary reforms.
A winning combination.
Just look at all the smart investments and reforms going on across Europe right now, particularly in Spain.
I’m really optimistic about this.
For the Netherlands, too, it provides an incentive to take the required action.

And we could use the same mechanism in our fiscal rules. 
In other words, we could give countries more time to reduce their debt if they make reforms that strengthen their economies.
Coupled with strict supervision by the European Commission, so that countries stick to the agreements they make.
This will make our economies stronger and more competitive.
And it won’t merely generate more jobs and prosperity. 
It will also maximise the EU’s international influence.

[Reducing Europe’s energy dependency]
We can only maximise our influence, however, if we are not overly dependent on others.
Especially in crucial areas like energy.
Energy prices were already high. 
But now they’re skyrocketing, due to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
This is hitting people and companies hard. 
And we will do all we can at national and EU level to cushion the impact.

It’s only now that we want to stop sourcing gas from Russia, that we truly realise how vulnerable our dependence on Russian supplies makes us.
We have to change this. 
As quickly as possible.
That’s the second point I’d like to make today.

But let’s be clear. We won’t achieve this overnight. 
We have to be realistic.
What we can do now is switch to other suppliers, and to alternative sources, including nuclear energy.
Given the need to rapidly reduce our use of fossil fuels, the Netherlands recently opted for new investment in nuclear energy.

The long-term solution lies in the transition to our own sustainable supply of green energy. Here, Spain is leading the way.
That means going all-out to increase the share of renewable sources in our energy mix as soon as possible. 
Sources like solar, wind and hydrogen.

At the same time, we need to make sure our energy grids and markets are better aligned. 
For example, it must be our strategic goal to connect the Iberian Peninsula to the EU’s energy market. 
So that Spanish solar energy can power our lights in the Netherlands.
And Dutch wind energy from the North Sea can provide electricity to Spain.

Making our energy supply more sustainable is a win-win-win investment: advancing our climate goals, generating new technologies and jobs, and bolstering the EU’s geopolitical position.

Of course, we won’t achieve that strong geopolitical position with political and economic resources alone.
As Russia’s aggression has shown, we must also have a military response at the ready.
And that means a strong NATO.
Our transatlantic Alliance is the cornerstone of our European security.

We have long relied on the US as a powerful Ally.
But we – the European Allies – now need to contribute more ourselves.
And that’s my third point today.
We need to invest more in our defence.
To increase our deterrence capability.
And to equip our armed forces to deal with new threats.

This sense of urgency is now translating into action.
Across Europe.
Germany is investing an enormous amount in its armed forces.
That’s not merely a big financial step. 
It’s a big psychological step, too. 
One with real significance for all of Europe.
In the Netherlands we’ve agreed a 25 per cent rise in defence spending.
And we’re now looking at what else is needed, given the dramatic changes in Europe’s security situation.

But above all, we need stronger military cooperation. 
Both among the European Allies, and among the European Allies and the North-American Allies.
An issue on which Spain and the Netherlands are working jointly.
This year Spain is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its historic decision to join NATO. 
In late June, your country is hosting the NATO Summit, here in Madrid. 
Perhaps the most important NATO Summit in many years.
And thanks largely to the foresight and preparations of the Spanish government, there will be a special focus on EU-NATO cooperation. 

That’s crucial. 
Because improving the partnership between these two vital organisations is one of the most important steps we can take in response to the new threats we face.
So we as European Allies can contribute more within NATO.
To strengthen the Alliance as a whole.
To show the world: our Alliance is stronger than ever. 

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a matter of pure necessity and of our common will.
To keep Europe secure and free, we need a strong EU, and a powerful NATO.
So we can defend ourselves and our way of life.
So we can stand up for our norms and values.
For democracy and the rule of law.
Shoulder to shoulder with our European family in Ukraine.

To that end, we must face up to our current situation.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, history has arrived at a point of uncertainty.
We don’t know where this aggression will end.
We don’t know what impact it will have on our continent.
But we do know that we’re now living in a new reality.
And that it’s up to us to find the right response.

Clearly, Ortega y Gasset was right.
It isn’t our circumstances that define who we are, but our character. 
‘Our character is what decides.’ 
That is the reality.
That is the challenge we face as Europeans.

It’s time for us to show character.
It’s time for us, together, to rise to the occasion.
We can, we must and we will.  

Thank you.