Europe and its neighbourhood

Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Timmermans to students and foreign scholars of Leiden University and the Montesquieu Institute

Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to The Hague. I am going to talk about neighbourhood policy, but I won’t go into the technical details. If you have any questions on that, I will be glad to field them, but I want to put it in a more political context. We are living in the middle of this period that the Chinese call ‘interesting times’ and I must say that despite the lack of sleep, the adrenalin that you get in return is something that I’ll probably remember for many years to come.

One of the questions I’m asked almost daily is, ‘Are you Dutch, or are you European? What is European?’ and so on. In the cultural and political context of the Netherlands and other European countries, this is intended as a trick question. Because if you say you’re Dutch, you’re apparently anti-European, but if you say you’re European, you’re apparently one of those cosmopolitan fools who forgets about their home country. That is clearly the intention of the question, but if you think about it in an open way, it is extremely difficult to answer. I am Dutch, undoubtedly so. I have served my country throughout my career. I have never done anything else but serve in public office. But at the same time, when my youngest children are sad and I need to comfort them, I don’t speak Dutch to them, I speak my own regional language to them, because that’s closest to my heart. So does that make me Dutch or a Limburger? Or not? And if you ask me who are my heroes, I will talk about Camus, who’s French, but also Algerian. What does that make me? If we talk about literature, it’s either Greek or it’s Dostoyevsky or it’s Chekhov, or it’s Kafka. What does that make me? If you listen to music, what is music? I was recently at a concert, where Jacques Brel was played. And he is one of my great heroes. At the same time I love to listen to Mozart or Beethoven. Bach is the music I love most. And this applies to almost all Europeans. The beauty of Europe is that you have this amalgamation of so many different currents into a personality, and the idiocy of today is that we are forced to choose where there is no choice.

I want to say this because if you look at the wider European area and Europe’s neighbourhood, these influences back and forth have been maintained through the ages. Although there might be political or national boundaries, there is so much that links us that developing a structured neighbourhood policy is inevitable. This is the psychological – cultural, if you wish – background, but there’s another huge challenge we will be facing in the next generation. I think we’re now seeing tectonic changes in international politics – in the economy, climate change, etc. I think we have difficulty in grasping the dimensions of this development. But I believe this will be Europe’s century. I truly believe that. Because of the structurally higher energy prices, of the climate change challenges, of the fact that probably for a generation credit will be relatively hard to come by or the financial market will be far more heavily regulated. I think this will all lead to a re-regionalisation of the economy. And then, if you compare it at a global level, of all the regions in the world, Europe is in the best starting position. It has a highly educated population, a better position in relation to spending power, a relative lack of social unrest, a relatively good distribution of income and so on. It also has a lot of people, relatively speaking. If you count the EU and its neighbourhood, we’re talking about 750 million people. So I would argue that this will be Europe’s century.

At the same time, for this to happen, several things need to be done, urgently. Things that are extremely difficult, and this brings me to our neighbourhood policy. We want this to be a success. We need to make sure that Europe creates stability, prosperity and optimism in its neighbourhood. That is why the Eastern dimension and the Mediterranean dimension of the EU’s foreign policy will become so crucial in the next decade. Of course we all know that the Union for the Mediterranean was initially started as a way for the French President to keep his election promise and keep Turkey out of the EU. And he saw the Union for the Mediterranean initially as an alternative to EU membership. Now, fortunately, this has evolved into something different. I believe it is in the strategic interests of the EU to have a modern, democratic Turkey as one of its members in future. But we also need to rethink our Mediterranean policy and create more balance between the two sides of the Mediterranean. I think we’re in a good starting position with the Union for the Mediterranean, but it will all depend on success in dealing with specific problems.

I think that one of the more scandalous situations in the Mediterranean today is all those people trying to reach Europe – in horrible conditions, in small boats. Many people drown, many people end up in slavery, many people are misused by criminals and so on. Because there is this huge drive to come to Europe and find prosperity. Now this means we need more solidarity in the EU, because some of our member states in the Mediterranean are targeted first and they face huge problems. Imagine the dimensions of the problem for a small country like Malta. But at the same time we need to do more about the root cause of this problem which is to create opportunities for development in the countries these people flee from – in Sub-Saharan Africa, and also I think in the Maghreb and elsewhere. And this should be a coherent European policy. I think we need to make headway with this, I think it is essential that EU countries start to spend more on development cooperation. A difficult thing to say in this day and age, but we should all stick to our promises that we’d spend at least 0.7 per cent of our GDP. I think this is something we should talk about more within the EU. And migration would be my top priority. But then not just in terms of repression but also in terms of opportunities and development. Secondly, and this also brings me to the Eastern dimension, one of the biggest challenges we face now is to create first of all diversification of energy sources, secondly diminish our dependence on fossil fuels and thirdly create stable markets in the larger region, not just between Russia and the EU. And in that context, I think that the Mediterranean is also a very interesting region. We need to create trans-Mediterranean networks, pipelines, transportation routes, roads, shipping etc. We need to do so urgently. Bringing in the Eastern dimension, we also need to have diversification of the sources of the energy available in the East. We need it. Not just Nord Stream, South Stream or Nabucco.

These are very important elements of a stable relationship on the European continent. I say this because the biggest success of European cooperation since the Second World War is this revolutionary idea that you can bring together former enemies and create a situation of mutual interdependence. This takes courage. It takes courage to say I can only be successful if my neighbour is successful or if my neighbour is in trouble I know I’ll be in trouble as well. And on the European continent this is not a given. If you look at Russian foreign policy, I think it is fair to say that based on past experience, which is very painful for Russia, Russian foreign policy is still based on creating stability by being sure that there is a buffer to protect the country from possible interference from abroad. And although I believe this is totally understandable, I do believe that this is something from the past and that we need to try and convince Russia that it is possible to create this mutual interdependence on the European scale. I think that especially in the United States with the present administration, there is still this lingering idea of Russia in Cold War mode. I think there are too many assumptions about Russia today which aren’t justified by the facts but inspired by things we thought we knew in the past. But I also believe there is a misunderstanding about the relationship in terms of who depends on whom. I don’t believe in the premise that if you have energy your customers depend on you and you can choose your customers. It doesn’t work like that, certainly not with natural gas. I think there’s a clear interdependence. I think Russia – and this will become more and more apparent I’m sure in the next couple of years – Russia depends on its customers and on the technology, the networks and the business models we can provide. So I do believe that – specifically in the energy sector – there is a good basis for a relationship which is based on equal partnership, which is also based on the things we need from them, and the things Russia needs from us.

I say this because I think that this is a much more intelligent way of creating interdependence on a European scale than just thinking about what is the exact relationship between this organisation, the European Union, and its neighbours. Our European Treaty is very clear about this. European countries that have the ambition to be members, and also have the capacity to fulfil the requirements, have the right to apply for membership. At the end of the day this is not an automatic thing, it is always a political decision whether you want members or not. But the Treaty is very clear on this – all European countries with the ambition to do so, with the possibility to do so, have the right to apply for membership. We also need to face the fact that in the existing member states, the population is very reluctant to talk about enlargement. Enlargement is perceived in many member states as having gone too far too fast.

Interestingly enough, this is not the case in those member states which either are recent members of the EU or have never actually digested the basic idea of the original nature of cooperation in the European Union. It is interesting to see that countries that are enthusiastic about enlargement, almost regardless of which country, like the UK or Sweden or Denmark or some of the new member states, have a perception of the European Union and cooperation within it which is more in line with any other traditional international organisation rather than this different type of organisation, what you lawyers would call this sui generis type of organisation, this EU. By the way, there is an element of cowardice in calling it sui generis, or of intellectual laziness, because we don’t know what to call the animal, we don’t know how to fit the animal into the skin we have. So let’s call it sui generis. This is a clear challenge for all of you. Give me a better definition and I will be very grateful.

So all these aspects need to be taken into account. The EU will continue to enlarge. The pace will be slower than before. We need to convince the population that it is in their interests, but enlargement will take place specifically with the countries in the Western Balkans. I think the only long-term, lasting solution to the problems in that part of Europe is full integration into Europe and its structures. This is something my government will defend. Talking about other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, those problems are much more difficult. I am convinced that in a country like Ukraine whose leadership has clear ambitions, if we pull too hard on the Western side, we will pull the country apart. And that is not in the interests of Europe as a whole and not in the interests of Ukraine itself and will create another source of tension with the Russian Federation, a country that we build on and need to have a strategic partnership with.

I think that at the end of the day my job, our job as the Dutch government, will be to create a platform in the Netherlands for what in my view is a strategic agenda of first of all enlargement in the Western Balkans, and secondly of creating stable, long-term relationships across the European continent and in the Mediterranean based on mutual, beneficial elements, starting with energy. Water is another element, migration another and perhaps in the longer term measures in the field of combating climate change.

Ladies and gentlemen, these are my initial remarks. Not much about the technicalities. You are the experts and I certainly am not, and I will be happy to watch you field the questions.