Speech by Maxime Verhagen: ‘The Future of the European Union’

Opening speech by Maxime Verhagen, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, at the conference ‘The Future of the European Union’ organised by the Dutch United Nations Student Association (SIB-Leiden), Leiden, 29 November 2007


Mr Van der Vaart, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me here today. I would like to compliment the Leiden chapter of the Dutch United Nations Student Association for organising this conference on the future of the European Union. As you probably know, the French put forward a proposal to establish a ‘committee of wise persons’ to discuss what the Union will be like in 2030. But the future of the European Union is not the exclusive domain of a small group of insiders – it is the business of us all! So I applaud initiatives by citizens, civil society organisations and – in this case – students. Europe’s future depends on public support and conferences like this one help build and maintain that vital support base.

Ladies and gentlemen,

For many of you, the origins of European cooperation are something you read about in your history books at school. But sometimes history mingles with the present. I suspect that most of you, like myself, have been watching the documentary series ‘In Europa’ on Sunday evenings, which is based on the book of the same title by Geert Mak. A story from the first part has stuck in my mind. An elderly man from Germany described how, shortly after the war, the Americans forced residents of the Buchenwald area to visit the concentration camp to confront them with the acts of cruelty and inhumanity that had been committed there. The man in question – a little boy at the time – visited the camp and witnessed the horrific scenes. Like many of the visitors, he wept. One of the prisoners came to him, put a hand on his shoulder and said: ‘Tears are not enough, my boy.’

Europe: a community of values

Tears were not enough. Fortunately, the victims of the war were not the only ones who realised that. In fact, this simple phrase encapsulates the raison d'être of the European project. Because, as you all know, the founding fathers of the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the EU, had a single objective: to prevent confrontation between France and Germany forever. As the grandson of a former Buchenwald prisoner, I can clearly see the value of peace. To achieve lasting peace, the founding fathers of the ECSC came up with a most pragmatic solution: by fostering economic cooperation between the coal and steel industries they created a community with a common interest. The solution was pragmatic, but the underlying motives were moral: to safeguard peace, stability and prosperity, and to strive for equality, justice and solidarity.

And those, ladies and gentlemen, are the motives that continue to drive European cooperation today. The incredible pace at which the European internal market has evolved in the past 50 years sometimes overshadows the fact that the Union is first and foremost a community of values. A community that prizes democracy, legal certainty and respect for human rights. A community marked by economic and social equality, where the well-being and safety of the people come first.

Reform Treaty a big step forward

Now, let’s look ahead to the future of the Union. I’ll start by saying a few words about the Reform Treaty, which the European Council agreed on in October.

The agreement on the new treaty marks a major step forward. The Union will be more effective, more transparent and more democratic. And it will have more permanent public faces: the President of the European Council will have a renewable two-and-a-half year mandate and a High Representative will be r esponsible for EU foreign affairs and security policy across the board. The Commission will downsize and more decisions will be made by qualified majority vote. All these changes will enable a 27-member Union to function effectively. An important issue for the Netherlands is the removal of the original treaty’s constitutional elements. In addition, national parliaments will have more power to influence decision-making, and the accession criteria will be applied more strictly. The Treaty clarifies how the Commission and the member states should approach policy on public services, while at the same time leaving the member states ultimately responsible for how such services are organised. In a number of other areas, such as health and culture, the Union will supplement the action that member states take.

The Reform Treaty provides the ‘overhaul’ that the Union so urgently needed to meet the challenges of the future and to cope with globalisation. Now Europe is ready to move forward and that is good not only for the EU, but also for the Netherlands. Many of the most important issues of our time transcend national borders and cannot be dealt with properly at national level. They require a broader approach and that means starting with a European approach. I am referring to issues like consolidating our competitiveness, guaranteeing security and stability in neighbouring countries, mitigating environmental degradation and climate change, coping with migration and fighting crime and terrorism. We all stand to benefit if the European Union succeeds in operating efficiently and effectively in these areas.

Significance of Reform Treaty for foreign policy

Ladies and gentlemen,

Since most of you are international relations students, I would like to talk about the significance of the Reform Treaty for foreign policy and my vision of Europe’s role in the world.

Back in the 1970s, then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asked: ‘Who do I call if I want to call Europe?’ You have probably heard or read this famous quote before. There is a reason it is cited so often. Kissinger touched a sore spot: at that time no central figure was responsible for representing Europe in world affairs. Finally, over 30 years later, that is about to change. The EU has had a High Representative for Foreign Policy for a while now, but there was also a Commissioner for External Relations. The new treaty combines these positions. The ‘new-style’ High Representative will be responsible for foreign and security policy, which is an intergovernmental matter, and for key areas of Community policy like neighbourhood policy. At the same time he will be responsible for coordinating Community external relations policy across the board, including development and humanitarian aid. The office of the High Representative will have an annual budget of over seven billion euros.

For the first time in its history, the European Union has the instruments it needs to pursue a coherent, integrated external policy. And this could create major opportunities in the future.

Europe in the world

It has been said that the EU is an economic giant and a political dwarf. Now, however, that description will gradually be relegated to the history books. Obviously, the internal market is the success story of the past 50 years. According to a recent study by the Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, about 10% of GDP in the EU can be attributed to the internal market. What is more, the Union is gaining a reputation as a global standard setter. Europe’s production standards and competition rules are often taken as the basis for the world standard. The GSM standard years ago and, more recently, the Microsoft case demonstrate Europe’s influence in this respect. And this is a victory, because Europe’s rules on product safety and consumer protection are the strictest in the world.

The EU has also made great strides in developing its foreign policy over the past ten years. Consider all the military and civil operations it has conducted around the world – from Africa to Aceh, from the Balkans to the Middle East and Georgia. And an important point is that we have a broad set of instruments at our disposal now. Development assistance, humanitarian aid, and trade have been features of the Community’s external relations for many years. And the neighbourhood policy, political foreign policy and the security and defence policy have all developed since the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992.

When all these elements are brought together in the portfolio of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, for the first time the Union will have what it needs to become a major regional and world player. It is in a better position than ever to conduct a coherent, integrated foreign policy, where both soft power and hard power have a place. Success will depend on the degree of consensus with which the EU operates. But the ability to mount a common approach, using a range of instruments, could well prove to be the EU’s biggest asset in the future.

Human rights in EU context

Ladies and gentlemen,

This varied set of instruments will enhance the EU’s ability to propagate its values beyond its borders. And I think this is very important. A moment ago I said that the EU is, above all, a community of values. I base my own approach to foreign affairs and European policy on a number of guiding values: justice, humanity, respect and solidarity. Earlier this month, I presented the Netherlands’ new human rights strategy. My message is that human rights should be at the centre of foreign policy. All over the world people are denied the most fundamental rights like freedom of expression, freedom of religion and belief, and the right to a fair trial. Every day people are persecuted for the ir political views and religious beliefs. Human rights violations like torture, discrimination and rape as a weapon of war are all too common. As a politician, as Minister of Foreign Affairs and as a human being, I find this completely unacceptable. Human rights are the ground rules of our society; they govern how we live together. And what we want for ourselves, we should strive to achieve for others. In doing so, we are driven by a moral conviction.

But human rights serve a broader interest, too. Companies prefer to invest in countries where legal certainty is assured. In the long run, serious human rights violations lead to instability. Today’s human rights violations are tomorrow’s conflicts. People who are persecuted tend to flee in large numbers. In this global society, problems in other countries have an impact on us. There is a clear connection between what happens in our country or region and the human rights situation in other countries. So it is in our own interest to make sure that human rights are respected all over the world.

I believe it is vital for Europe to pursue a more active external human rights policy. The European Union is an ever more important global player, economically and politically. Together we must ensure that its influence is used to protect and champion human rights. Together we must ensure that all the instruments we have at our disposal in the EU are used effectively and coherently to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law worldwide.

And how do we do that? We put our common foreign and security policy to work for us. We must be more diligent in sounding the alarm when human rights defenders are in jeopardy. We must be more consistent in raising the issue of human rights in our political dialogues. And we must make our voice heard more clearly in multilateral forums. We also need to improve the way we use our Community funds to promote human rights. Human rights should be a key issue in trade with and assistance to non-EU countries. In this respect, I am delighted to tell you that the Netherlands will be taking the initiative to produce more effective EU measures to combat child labour. The first step is a ban on importing products made using the worst forms of child labour.

The problems in the world around us are our problems too. Whether it is the suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Burma, arrests in Pakistan, rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, censorship in Uzbekistan, stonings in Iran, or Mugabe’s reprehensible policies in Zimbabwe, we cannot afford to remain indifferent. We must work to ensure that all people can live lives of dignity.


Ladies and gentlemen,

I will close by returning to today’s theme – the future of the European Union. The Reform Treaty will allow both the EU and the Netherlands to move forward. Now that the institutional debates are behind us, we can fix our gaze on the future and the challenges that lie ahead. One of those challenges is to design a coherent, integrated foreign policy for the EU. A policy that will make the Union a more influential player on the world stage. A policy that is grounded in human rights and guided by the values of humanity, solidarity and respect. A policy that will enable us to help others obtain what we have achieved for Europe – peace, prosperity and justice.

Because tears are still not enough. Let us never forget that.

Thank you.