Speech by Minister Sigrid Kaag to mark the end of the academic year, College of Europe, Bruges

Working on a more resilient, stronger and united Europe. In this speech the spoken word applies.

Thank you to my friend Rector Mogherini, it is a deep honour.

And also thank you for your kind introduction,

Students, parents, lecturers,

It is an honour to address you on this festive occasion. You young people will soon be entering the European labour market, armed with your Master’s degrees. You’ll be doing so at an important time. A time when the voice and influence of the rising generation – your generation – are sorely needed. When your knowledge, skills, your passion and commitment are sorely needed.

We are living in an era of change. A world of shifting political dynamics, and new power relations. A planet that’s calling us to a halt. A world of artificial intelligence and war on the European continent.
What role will you play in that world?
That question reminds me of when I graduated, decades ago, before you were born. I got my postgraduate degree in 1987 – also a time of great change. But the contrast with today could not be greater.

Nowadays there’s a big labour shortage – back then people were only too happy to find employment – any job really. Yet, at the same time, the European continent was filled with hope and expectation.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the Western world was seized with new optimism. The historian Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the ‘end of history’, arguing that Western liberal democracy was the ultimate and final form of human government. With the United States as a shining example, the only remaining superpower in a unipolar world. Countries would work together to bring about prosperity, well-being and welfare. And capitalism and trade would change the world for the better.

A world view as seen through a specific lens. A world view that very much depends  on where you were born and the rights you derive from that. This was something the Egyptian political economist Samir Amin pointed out at the time.
He warned against Western-centrism or Eurocentrism: whereby the West sought to impose its own model on the rest of the world.

And over time, the West, too, saw more and more cracks appear in its world view. Today, nearly 35 years after I graduated, we are reminded that we cannot take democracy and freedom for granted. And since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February last year, we know we can no longer assume peace and security on our continent will prevail.

A reality that, sadly, many people elsewhere in the world have long been all too familiar with. They live in regions where conflict, poverty and human rights violations have been a fact of life for decades.

We have been forced to recognise that Western liberal democracy is merely one form of polity in a multipolar world, where countries with different norms and values are gaining influence. And although poverty and hunger have declined in recent decades – a trend that, sadly, has been reversed in recent years – Freedom House has for years been reporting a decline in global freedom and the state of democracy.

Putin’s Russia is aggressive and unpredictable. And we condemn that aggression in the strongest possible terms. China’s position is strong. Climate change is already causing a trail of destruction and requires radical transitions to be made at great speed, with for me, ideally, Europe taking the lead.
And the current revolution in the field of artificial intelligence presents opportunities, but also calls for vigilance.

These are far-reaching trends. And individual EU member states have little control over them. This makes Europe and its narrative – as well as the European Union – more relevant than ever. It makes your choice of a career path dedicated to Europe more relevant than ever.

The events of recent years – the current and impending crises we face – contain hard lessons, forcing us to take a good look at ourselves.

European unity was born out of the vision that the most fiercely sovereign European nations could actually let go of their quest for domination. That they could pool their resources and power in order to survive and to finally ensure that future generations would never again be robbed of their future and their prospects. A breathtaking vision, but at times it appeared  naïve, idealistic, impossible.

And yet here we are.

The European Union is in many ways a miracle. A miracle of human ingenuity, of resourcefulness, of dogged persistence. It is just as much the sum of hard-fought compromises as it is the fruit of uncompromising devotion to our shared ideals and values.

This college was founded to encourage those who attend – you – to feel yourselves citizens of Europe. Not by discouraging normal patriotic sentiments, but rather by developing side by side with them the broader conception of a European patriotism. Looking at the European Union as it is today, you may ask: what is not there to like or  love?

This cannot be forced with slogans, PR or speeches. It has to be earned through results, often brokered at the national level by officials and politicians operating from a European perspective. Here is the catch: we don’t always deliver or we have not yet delivered the results we promised.

And the events of recent years have opened our eyes to trends current trends. Our open economies are vulnerable to geopolitical tensions. Can we ensure financial stability and resilience?

The pandemic exposed the vulnerability of our supply chains. How do we address this?

Tackling climate change is more urgent than ever: the latest report by the IPCC could not be more alarming. How do we speed up action on this front?

And a strong Europe requires unity. How can we play a meaningful role on the world stage?

There are no simple answers to these questions. But we need to manage complexity, it is our duty. But in recent years we have also seen how we can act with speed and unity when we have to.

The EU, or ‘Brussels’, comes in for a lot of criticism. But ultimately, this is criticism of ourselves, of the member states. Because we – the member states – are the Union.

And the Union has significance in the daily lives of Europeans. The Union can bring about positive change in areas where our impact as a bloc is much greater than as individual states. For example by introducing data-protection laws and setting ambitious climate goals and the list could go on and on.

Next year, elections will once again be held for the European Parliament. A new Commission will be formed, and it will set new priorities. What does the Netherlands think is needed in this decade to make the Union stronger, more resilient and more unified?

A resilient Europe, which can play a meaningful role in the lives of its citizens and in the world, operating from a sound financial and economic foundation. A strong Europe, which can tackle the challenges of today, is ready for the issues of tomorrow and can take its place on the world stage. And a united Europe, which engages in debate about our shared values both internally and externally. Today I’d like to share what I think that means.

First, a resilient Union. That is to say, a Union that can bounce back from adversity. A Union that can develop, improve and learn. Ensuring a well-functioning single market, healthy government finances and a stable financial sector is important to all our citizens. Not as an end in itself, but a means to achieve our goals.

And the well-being of EU citizens is not just about economic prosperity. It also means equal access to affordable medicines, good education for all, a healthy environment and the way in which we coexist, from a perspective of tolerance, mutual respect and of course based on human values. What’s more, financial and economic stability is a source of strength on the world stage.

The European Union can be resilient if it has its affairs in order. The reforms proposed in the Economic Governance Review, and the reforms to the capital markets union and the banking union, will add to the foundations on which we continue to build.

In the current negotiations on the Economic Governance Review, we want to make realistic agreements about how member states can get – and keep – their finances in order. This is important at a time of continuing pressure on public finances: from energy subsidies to rising interest rates, and from assistance for businesses during the pandemic to support for Ukraine. Of course, we want countries both to reduce their debts and carry out reforms – in the interests of their citizens and of being resilient when times are tough. But we do need to allow countries with high levels of debt sufficient time to do this.

By making sound, realistic agreements, we can lay a stable foundation. The single market can then help us achieve well-being, prosperity and innovation, serving as a powerful, peaceful weapon in an economically turbulent world.

We are further strengthening our single market through the capital markets union. This will make it easier for businesses to access funding for investment, and for consumers and asset managers to invest in the EU. This will help finance the transition to a more sustainable and digitalised economy, while at the same time making us more competitive. Many positive and significant steps have already been taken, but there are still a number of major challenges that we want to tackle decisively, such as barriers to mobilising private capital. The Netherlands is working within the EU to achieve this.

We also need to make the European financial sector more robust. The situation of many European banks has improved greatly since the last banking crisis. We now have a European system of banking supervision, and there are many rules to ensure the resilience of our banks. Yet recent events have shown just how quickly things can change in that sector. This makes it all the more important that we continue to review existing rules, reduce risks and complete the banking union.

Agile and resilient economies also require political decisiveness. And we have shown such decisiveness in response to the crises of recent years. The member states have provided the Union with unprecedented financial resources.

The Netherlands therefore believes that the mid-term review of the multiannual financial framework should focus on the best possible use of existing resources. This will enable us to boost the digital and green transitions that are so crucial. Of course, this will need to be achieved within the existing parameters. Special consideration is justified to ensure our continued support for Ukraine. What is more, a new Commission will need to have the courage to debate the political choices that have to be made. That means deciding not simply how much money we spend, but which are the priorities and how we weigh them, to ensure a future-proof Union.

This brings me to my second point: a strong Union. A strong Union is agile in an unpredictable world. A strong Union is innovative and ready to face future challenges, thanks to the firm institutional foundations both within the European institutions and every member state.

Our European economy is a valuable asset in times of fragmentation. When trade came to a standstill during the pandemic, it turned out that we were too dependent on other countries for medicines and other equipment. And the war in Ukraine once again highlighted this danger. When it comes to strategic goods like arms, vaccines and energy, we must be able to stand on our own two feet. Recent events have made that clear. We can and we need to do it.

This is open strategic autonomy. It also means making sacrifices. We need to be honest about that. It doesn’t mean we should turn inward and retreat from the world. But nor should we be naive. We need to be aware that economic ties may conceal other motives. That we cannot view values and trade in isolation.

As I see it, this shouldn’t be about de-globalisation, but about re-globalisation. World trade under specific conditions: more strict, less naive and more attuned to people and planet. That’s important, and not just from a European perspective. We need to give other regions in the world the chance to increase their prosperity through trade.

Where China is concerned, our approach remains the same: to be open where possible, and to protect ourselves where necessary. The EU views China as a ‘systemic rival’. That means maintaining our dialogue on security and human rights, remaining vigilant and continuing our engagement.

China is also a competitor. In recent decades, it has secured an increasingly important economic position in global supply chains. This creates risks for European competitiveness, as well as potentially undesirable dependencies. 

And China is a partner. We need China, but China also needs us. We have to be able to build on each other’s expertise, especially when it comes to the climate and energy transition. That is a global responsibility.

So let us also approach China with self-assurance. The same self-assurance we can derive from our position as one of the world’s biggest export markets.

When talking of China, we often speak of the Global South. I’d like to make a particular plea to actually encourage all of you to actively engage with the Global South.

We need to engage with the Global South to foster stability, investment, partnerships and solidarity. This was a strong message at the recent Summit for a New Global Financing Pact, an initiative of President Macron and Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley. The Global South is being hit hardest by the impact of climate change. We need to acknowledge the concerns of the Global South and must jointly deliver on solutions. We need to collectively support developing countries in the green transition. And collectively find ways of adapting the multilateral financial system so we can mobilise the necessary funding.

After all, climate action is possible only if we all put our shoulders to the wheel. We’re not on track to meet either the Sustainable Development Goals or the 1.5 degree Paris goal. And we won’t catch up unless we act in concert. We need to speed up and intensify our efforts. Anyone who claims we’ve already done enough or that is only focusing on domestic issues is not telling the true story. There’s only one planet and one humanity, so it’s our duty to back up our ambition with effective action. The Global South and humanity will not be served by empty promises and delay.

Together we’re working to create a future where clean energy, biodiversity and sustainable consumption are the norm, so we can halt climate change. And the European Commission is taking an active role. As finance minister I focus on the crucial role of the financial sector – which needs to lead the way, in tandem with the authorities. I am also do this together with the minister of Finance of Indonesia, we co-chair a global coalition of ministers of finance for climate action.

The vast bulk of the necessary investment will have to come from the private sector. Banks, pension funds and insurers will have a critical role – it’s they who decide how and where money flows. So they can have a big impact by encouraging polluting industries to become sustainable or by ceasing to finance them. I call on them to contribute to the SDGs and bring their balance sheets into line with the 1.5 degree scenario and the government’s ambitions.

A strong Europe is prepared for the future: for geo-economic shifts, for climate change and for tech innovation. In that respect, the Union has a good track record – it has shown the boldness to invest in future technologies. But also to regulate where technologies transcend borders. At present, artificial intelligence is advancing at a speed that is outpacing most of us.

Your master’s theses surely weren’t written using ChatGPT – and nor was this speech. But how can we tell what is fake and what is real? And what value do we attach to authenticity, to human thought, to creativity? Disinformation and cyberattacks are influencing public debate.

AI has great potential, but it needs to be held in check by robust frameworks. We must be alert to its social and economic impact. Which jobs will disappear. Let’s take action in time. Let’s not allow AI to be something that happens to us, but something that we steer in the right direction. We can set a global, digital standard. It’s fantastic that the European Commission has taken up this challenge by proposing the AI Act. Because this too is an issue that needs to be regulated at EU level.

Finally, the Union will also become stronger if we remain open to new member states that share our values and meet the conditions for accession. The Netherlands supports the prospect of countries in the Western Balkans joining the EU, along with the new candidate countries Ukraine, Moldova and – potentially – Georgia.

In the long run, it is essential for prosperity and stability that the rule of law is respected and functions well in countries in that region. By properly preparing candidates for accession, we can ensure that the Union not only grows in size, it also grows in relevance and in strength.

At the same time, the Union’s institutions need to be able to cope with a larger Union. Isn’t it time to scrutinise the European Commission’s tasks and responsibilities? Should the Commission simply propose legislation, or should it also have a role in supervising its implementation? If the EU expands to 35 or more member states, I believe that the Commission must be given a stronger role – as in the case of the single market and competition – so that legislation is applied and implemented uniformly throughout the Union. The next Commission needs develop a stance on this matter. Until now, efforts to grapple with the issue have too often faltered.

A resilient and strong Union can only function from a position of unity. Not 100-per-cent unity – there’s no such thing. Our strength also lies in our diversity, perspective, culture, experiences. But a diversity underpinned by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which gives European citizens the right to equality and solidarity, a fair trial, freedom of movement and other important protections.

EU cooperation is based on an open and free society. Sadly, recent years has shown that this can’t be taken for granted anywhere. Certainly not in Ukraine, of course, where men, women and children have been caught up in a war they never wanted. Nor in Hungary or Poland, where the rule of law, media freedom and equal rights are under pressure. Not even in the Netherlands, where – according to a recent report by the General Intelligence and Security Service – an small group of citizens adherent to extremist views reject the rule of law and contend, and this is more a citation, that the Dutch government is part of a global malicious elite seeking to control their lives. They adhere to conspiracy theories. And this is not only a matter that is happening in the Netherlands alone.

In his latest novel, Alcibiades, Dutch author Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer describes the decline of Athens’ first democracy. He writes: ‘History rarely repeats itself in a blatant manner, but when the events are over, it often turns out to have performed an old play behind new masks and in updated costumes.’ It is a warning not to regard democracy as set in stone. It basically says don’t take it for granted. Democracies have come and gone. If more and more EU citizens reject democracy, we must not just shrug it off because we can’t imagine any other form of government. Democracy is not something we can afford to be complacent about.

At the same time, I do not want to sound unduly pessimistic. Most Europeans are critical of their government, their political parties and the EU – and rightly so – but cherish life in an open, democratic society. We have seen, though, what can happen in the world when a strongman gets his way.

Collectively standing up for our values therefore means taking action against Putin, who is violating the territorial integrity and human rights of Ukrainians in the most horrific way. We are taking important steps in the military sphere. European states are working together more often and more closely to procure military equipment and support Ukraine in other ways. This is an example of the political will to act when we need to.

NATO remains the cornerstone of our defence policy. This means that we will aim towards defence expenditure of two per cent of GDP, as previously agreed. And that we will have to stand on our own two feet more than in the past. For too long, we relied on America – our big brother across the Atlantic – to stand up for our values. But we owe it to the US as a trusted ally to put our house in order.

If we are to reflect our values internationally through our words and deeds, it is important that we speak with one voice outside the Union. So it’s high time we abolished individual member states’ veto power on foreign policy. Values that we proclaim to the world must also be respected at home. And EU funding needs to be spent properly, so it’s good that the rule-of-law mechanism is functioning effectively.

Achieving unity in Europe and projecting unity to the world means we have to apply standards and show resolve. If we openly champion the principles of the rule of law both within and outside the Union, we will promote confidence in our institutions. And – even more importantly – boost citizens’ confidence that the Union is there for them.

Declining confidence – in the government, in science, in institutions – is a trend we’re seeing across the whole Union. How should we deal with that? How do we ensure that we escape the fate of Alcibiades, and of Athens? There is no easy answer. But I believe it is important to be aware of differences. To understand that the European Union does not mean the same to students of the College of Europe in Bruges as it does for families in the Romanian countryside who see their talented sons and daughters leave for Western Europe – and sometimes get little in return. The Union might belong to us all, but it means different things to all as well. The challenge – as hard as it is, with nearly 450 million EU citizens – is to continue listening to and engaging with as many people as possible.

Empathising with others – what does that mean to you? Even with people whose lives are far removed from your own. I hope that you can keep that in mind when you start working for ‘Europe’.

My graduation coincided with a major watershed in Western history. The fall of the Berlin Wall, marking the end of the Cold War. We do not yet know how 2023 will go down in history. Not as a time of détente, that’s for sure. A terrible, destructive war rumbles on. Superpower rivalry is back. Globalisation and free trade are under pressure. Protectionism and fragmentation are on the rise.

But after decades of open world trade, this is not the time to haul up the drawbridge. This is also a time for optimism about the European Union: about our values, about the resilience of our economies and about our unity when there is a lot at stake. A time for new generations – young people like yourselves – working actively for more democracy, for climate action, for equal rights.

College of Europe students,

It’s up to you. I hope that you are ready to work to help the world move forward. But above all I advise you to do work you enjoy the most. Listen to people’s advice, but make your own choices. I know from personal experience that what others think is sensible is not necessarily what’s going to make you happy. So follow your own path. Do that, and you will be headed toward a bright future.

Esteemed guests,

Every academic year, the College of Europe elects a ‘patron of promotion’. This year it was David Sassoli, former President of the European Parliament, who died much too young. Sassoli once remarked: ‘Europe still has a lot to say if we – and you – will say it together.’

What do you have to say? What story do you want to tell, what role do you want to play in the world? The European Union has a strong narrative that many people identify with. A narrative of democracy against dictatorship, of freedom against oppression, of tolerance against intolerance, of sustainability against pollution. But it only works if we continue to extend an open mind, genuine curiosity and ultimately, always respect.