Speech by minister Ollongren at the State of the Union Conference

Europe in the post-post-cold war era

Today marks joyous occasions, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and of course the 40th birthday of Clingendael – congratulations Monika and all your staff. But I am afraid the world around us does not give much cause for optimism. 

I think it is fair to say that we face the most serious threat to global security in decades. The two most imminent crises: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the situation in the Middle East. 

How do we find ourselves here? In a situation in which amongst Ministers of Defence we sometimes joke that we have become arms traders, brokering deals with industry and other countries to provide Ukraine with the weapons and ammunition it needs. 

Sending our air defence systems to Ukraine to protect civilians and critical energy infrastructure against Russia’s indiscriminate air attacks, aimed only at causing civilian harm.

Training Ukrainian soldiers to master our weapons systems, like the Swedish CV90, the Dutch Alkmaarklasse mine hunters, the American F-16s, for which the Netherlands and Denmark have taken the lead and we will soon open a training centre. 

We train Ukrainians for modern warfare, but the battles they have to fight often remind us of the horrors of the First World War.
The Russian war in Ukraine did not start in 2022, but in 2014. The invasion was more or less announced by the autocrat Vladimir Putin, but we chose to try to reign in and encapsulate Russian aggression with economic relations. For too long, we underestimated the revisionist conviction.

But Putin also underestimated his adversary. President Zelensky and his government refused to leave Kyiv and asked for weapons and support instead. Instead of a three-day lightning campaign, the Russian army managed to get stuck in a 60 kilometer traffic jam on the road to Kyiv. What should have ended in a victory parade, ended in a humiliation of ‘the world’s second strongest army’. 

The Russian army has reached none of its strategic goals of the invasion. If it were not an autocracy, Russia would most likely already have withdrawn and the war would have ended.

Instead, the Russian army has dug itself in behind enormous minefields, making land useless for decades and it has bombed cities into ruins. The offensives it carries out come at a huge cost in Russian lives. Its commanders forcing soldiers forward to certain deaths, leaving their families oblivious of their fate.

Ukraine will prevail. Its leadership is united against the Russian invader and against Russian oppression. Its population is determined not to pass war onto the next generation, but peace. And we, Ukraine’s partners and allies, can and will continue to support their fight. ‘The light will win’, as a Ukrainian soldier said to me last week when I visited Kharkiv and Kyiv – my fourth visit to Ukraine.

The European Union is a peace project. And the peace has been kept within our Union. Wars have been close – such as in the Balkans – but never inside the Union. For countries outside the EU, membership is both a reward for and a guarantor of peace and stability. 

After years of war and nearly two years of full-fledged invasion and destruction, Ukraine and Ukrainians yearn for freedom, economic prosperity and peace – the aspirations of all candidate members.

EU membership, bound by treaty, with rights and obligations, as a confirmation of Ukraine’s future and its place in Europe – geographically and legally.

That long term goal, and NATO membership on the horizon, puts the current questions that face us in perspective. We must continue to support Ukraine, for the Ukrainian population, but also for ourselves and for the ideals and values on which the EU and our societies are built. 

Which brings me to the Middle East.

The terrorist acts by Hamas, as they murdered families in their homes, abducted hundreds and committed crimes that are beyond comprehension, have unleashed an unprecedented spiral of violence in Israel and Gaza. The immediate response by Israel was a justified act of self-defense. Hamas must release the hostages it still holds.

The threat of Hamas to Israel is real. The threat from Hezbollah is perhaps even greater in terms of weaponry.  We do not and will not deny Israel’s right to self-defence. On the contrary, a safe and secure Israel is also my goal and that of our government and our allies. 

A two-state solution, including a viable Palestinian state, is a key requirement for the safety and security of both Israelis and Palestinians. The destruction of Gaza and the mounting Palestinian death toll takes us further away from that goal. Hamas is a terrorist organization that feeds on desperation. It can only be rooted out by restoring hope and that requires a perspective of equality, prosperity and democracy for all. Gazans must not be collectively punished for the crimes of Hamas.

The use of force is rightly limited by international law and that is not an a la carte menu. It is our moral and legal obligation to call on other states to respect it, including the principle of proportionality. The international community is calling, at the very least, for pauses in the fighting to allow humanitarian aid to reach the Gazan population. The Netherlands is working with allies to find alternative routes, for example via sea or air, to bring in much-needed food, fuel, water and medical supplies.

Which brings me back to values and the fact that how we act in the world, must resemble the principles on which we have based our own societies. For otherwise, what are the ideals we say we hold dear, really worth?

And for Europe to be able to defend those values, principles and ideals , it needs to step up its game, both within NATO and within the EU.

We can no longer be dependent on others for our security, we have to re-learn deterrence. The EU cannot be a soft power, without hard power. 

Building on the lessons from Ukraine, we must do more to strengthen Europe’s ability to act.

That means:

  • Long term, structural investments in strengthening our armed forces.
  • Making sure we invest smartly, by buying, maintaining and training together – sourcing European where possible. User groups like we have with Sweden on the CV-90 can help – as long as we actually have the exact same product, which is not always a given as countries choose different set-ups and specifics.
  • I welcome the initiatives by the European Commission and the work by the European Defence Agency to support industry and bring sellers and buyers together, as first good steps. But I think we should be even more ambitious. Too often, the reflex remains to protect national industrial vested interests.
  • Prioritising the defence industry as a key portfolio in the new European Commission.
  • Intensifying cooperation between our armed forces, so they can act together when they need to. The Dutch-German army cooperation can be an example.
  • More European responsibility for security in our own neighbourhood. I visited the EU mission in Bosnia this week, a good example. We also need to get the Rapid Deployment Capacity up and running by 2025.

These are clear goals, logical steps to take. But the reality is, they will require hard work, creativity, political capital and political will. The EU’s role in the world should be a key issue during the upcoming European elections.

As events around us show, the world will not wait while Europe gets itself sorted. We do not have the luxury to focus on one threat.

So we need to prepare for the future, while we also must deal with the present. 

To make sure that the EU can shape the world around it, can continue to bring peace and stability and remain an aspiration and an ideal.

Watch the YouTube video of the Clingendael State of the Union Conference 2023.