Introductory remarks at biannual meeting with EU ambassadors

Introductory remarks by Maxime Verhagen, minister of Foreign Affairs, at luncheon with EU ambassadors, 12 April 2010

At the outset, let me express my deepest sympathy with the Polish people. The Dutch government was greatly shocked and saddened to hear of the tragic plane accident in which the Polish president Lech Kaczynski, the first lady, the Under-Secretary of State Andrzej Kremer and so many other people lost their lives. I know that the people of Europe mourn with the Polish people at these difficult times.

Nevertheless, Ambassador Prat, I would like to thank you for your kind hospitality today. In the three years that I have now been a minister, our biannual luncheons have become a much appreciated tradition.

I would like to discuss several issues with you today. And as always, I'll be happy to answer questions.

Let me begin by saying a few words about the EU’s efforts to clamp down on child labour. As you know, promoting human rights and in particular children’s rights is a priority of me and of this government’s foreign policy. And because our Union is first and foremost a community of values, I believe it should be a priority for the EU as well. The EU should speak out for human rights as an integral part of its common foreign and security policy. I have high hopes that Catherine Ashton will contribute to a more coherent and effective policy in this regard. And the same should be true for the newly established External Action Service. The EU can and should make a positive difference in this world by actively promoting the values that are the foundation of our integration. The German-Danish initiative that my colleagues and I discussed at the last Gymnich meeting on “Speaking with one Voice on Global Values” provided some very useful starting points in this regard, and we agreed to further pursue this.

You will recall that at my initiative, the Council asked the Commission to investigate the possibilities for the EU to increase its efforts to ban child labour. The Commission has issued its report last February. Two conclusions stand out: first, the Commission states that the EU can do more to combat child labour and secondly, the Commission proposes a comprehensive approach, using different instruments including trade measures. To me, these are very encouraging conclusions. I have asked minister Moratinos to discuss this matter at our meeting in June, to which he has agreed. We will aim for a comprehensive package of measures to be adopted as Council conclusions. Such a package should include a sales ban for products that have been made by means of the worst forms of child labour as defined by ILO. I hope I can count on the full support of our EU partners to move this agenda forward.

This brings me to the second issue I would like to discuss with you: the EU’s credibility in a number of areas. I will address the following issues: the need for the EU to act more coherently on the world stage and the role of the External Action Service; the process of EU enlargement, Iran, and economic governance.

Your Excellencies,

The European Union is not yet the geopolitical force it has the potential to be, given its economic weight and moral reach as a community of values. It is in our common interest to ensure that the EU joins the United States as a major player on the international stage. We must aim to turn the emerging G2, in which China is the second global player next to the US, into the G3. Achieving this will help balance the relationship between the great powers, and that includes the Russian Federation. And we ourselves will find it easier to influence global developments that affect our interests.

But this requires that EU member states commit to stronger - joint - external action. The Lisbon Treaty is in place. Now we must make sure that it starts working for us. We must ensure that, next to the existing institutions, notably the Commission, the new institutions or actors demonstrate the added value the Treaty aims for. I refer specifically to the President of the European Council and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy who should indeed become the face of the EU in the wider world. That requires they can indeed speak for all member states, and that when member states speak externally on the same issues, they do so with one and the same voice. Furthermore, Ashton’s own service has a pivotal role to play in this respect. So it must be made a success, there is no other option.

Which leads me to Catherine Ashton’s proposals for the European External Action Service. The Netherlands is strongly in favour of an effective service that can represent the EU’s interests in the world. In general, we are pleased with the High Representative’s proposals as they reflect the guidelines the European Council adopted in October last year. We would however like to have a clearer picture of the Service’s size and its costs before the Council comes to a decision. We would also like to clarify the position of the Commissioner for Development when it comes to the implementation of poverty programmes, such as the European Development Fund and the Development Cooperation Instrument. And we would like to see that the High Representative gets full control over the budget for the EU’s Common Security and Foreign Policy. As early as possible, and to me that means from the outset, the EEAS should also deal with consular tasks. And last but not least: over half of the Service’s staff now comes from the Commission. That is against our previous agreements so we will have to discuss that.

I now turn to the EU’s enlargement process. I have often heard the political cliché that the Dutch are suffering from ‘enlargement fatigue’ or that we are ‘anti enlargement’. But it’s not that simple. I believe -and I am supported by polls from the Euro barometer- that the Dutch are actually quite pro-enlargement. Much more so than many other countries in this room.

And the Dutch are right to support enlargement. We know what we can gain from it. We have an open economy and we benefit greatly from free trade and the internal market. Its extension would further increase these benefits. But enlargement is not only about economics. It’s also about politics. I believe enlargement is probably the most effective tool of foreign policy that the EU has in its tool kit. The re-unification of Europe - which was made possible by the enlargement - is one of the defining historic events of my generation. So, yes: I take offense when I read that I am “anti enlargement”. I support enlargement. But I oppose second rate enlargement. I don’t want enlargement with a discount. Enlarging the EU is a delicate process, for which we have set rules. We have done so with unanimity. Diverging from these rules is bad politics. Not only because the EU loses credibility in the eyes of its own citizens (why should they accept rules, if the EU puts them aside?). But also because going soft on conditionality is not in the interest of the candidate countries. Clear conditions help reform agenda’s. Conditions are necessary to become well functioning and fully adapted member states that are respected by the others. I don’t want second rate members. Of which everybody knows that they can not yet fulfil all the obligations of membership. Like I said: for me the EU is a community of values, as much as a community of interests. We should cherish this.

Next, on Iran. An issue of credibility 'par excellence'. For years now, we have pursued a dual-track approach. We have always offered the Iranian regime the option of dialogue, to convince us of the peaceful nature of their nuclear programme. But for years their response has been the same: a refusal to enter into any meaningful dialogue. When our open hand is consistently turned down; when the regime publicly and brazenly defies UN-sanctions and IAEA-obligations; when the regime adds insult to injury by announcing Qom, more enrichment facilities and enrichment up to twenty percent; then we need to live up to the dual-track approach, and implement tougher sanctions against the regime. If we do not, we discredit our own policy, and we discredit our resolve to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. And it sends a broader message to other regimes as well: we bark, but when push comes to shove, we do not bite. I, for one, wish to uphold the credibility of Security Council resolutions and IAEA-obligations. They are a cornerstone of our international security architecture. Even if some international partners are hesitant about imposing new sanctions against this regime, we, the European Union, should not be hesitant. We are a major trading partner for Iran. We have leverage, and we should not be afraid to use it to change Iran's unacceptable behaviour. I fully subscribe to the remarks on this by presidents Obama and Medvedev in Prague, last week. I am happy to note that also China seems to be ready to stick with the double track policy of the E3+3.

And let me use the word 'unacceptable' as well for Iran's abysmal human rights record. In all aspects, repression of the Iranian people is on the rise. That is why I have launched initiatives to curb the regime's options to prevent their citizens from accessing information from the internet, or to communicate freely with each other. Concrete proposals, like a code of conduct for European producers of internet filter technologies, or export bans, are being looked at in Brussels as we speak. I hope I can count on your support to put these proposals into action; sooner, rather than later.

Your Excellencies,

Finally, I’d like to say a few words on what has been happening in the EU over the past few weeks. Nikita Khrushchev once said: “Economics is a subject that does not greatly respect one’s wishes”. I do not usually take communists’ advice to heart. But his observation goes to the heart of the current debate in Europe on economic policy. We had to take, and will have to take, decisions that we didn’t expect or want.

One such decision was the creation of a mechanism to support Greece in case of need. For all my sympathy for Greece and for the Greek people, this was not a step that I had wished for. After all, the basic premise of our Economic and Monetary Union is that each member state takes responsibility, and is held responsible, for its own economic and budgetary policy. However, the situation developed in such a way that we had to take action. And we did. I sincerely hope that the creation of this mechanism will serve to reassure financial markets and that it will not need to be activated.

What does this decision tell us about the credibility of the European Union? From my point of view, two things.

The first one is that we can and will act if our economic and financial stability is at stake. Our response has been both strict and fair. We did come to the rescue, fair enough, but we included strict conditionality to respect the treaty obligations and to reassure our taxpayers.

The second lesson is that to be credible, one has to acknowledge its own shortcomings. We did just that by inviting the IMF to work with us and bring along its valuable expertise in managing sovereign debt crises. This is not a sign of weakness but rather a signal of strength, and I welcome that.

But credibility has a more long term dimension as well. Which brings me to a second decision of the type that Khrushchev warned us for: one that we might not have hoped for, but that we will have to take. We will have to take bold steps to consolidate public finances and to speed up structural reforms. And we will have to strengthen our European policy framework to achieve this. Either we will do this quick and painful, or slow and very painful.

I will not dwell upon the measures needed in individual member states, since they will differ from country to country. You know very well that the main point of discussion in the forthcoming Dutch elections is no longer security, or integration. It is public finances. We will have to reduce government expenditure by more or less 10% on a structural basis. And we have to do that in a way that stimulates, not chokes, economic recovery.

What should be our answer to this challenge at the European level? I think it is twofold.

- Our first priority should be to strengthen the Stability and Growth Pact. It is safe to conclude that the Pact didn’t work as it should have worked. My conclusion is that we need more of it, not less. The main thing I expect from the taskforce that Mr Van Rompuy and the Commission will set up is to produce a stronger Pact. Better and more intrusive monitoring, a stronger role for Eurostat and stronger sanctions in case member states breach their commitments.

- A stronger Stability and Growth Pact is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for an economically powerful Europe. European competitiveness has been eroding for quite some time now. We need to innovate, to lower production costs, to use scarce resources to the minimum. The new Europe 2020-strategy could be an opportunity. But this opportunity will only materialize if we seize it. By taking difficult decisions at home. And by holding each other accountable. The new instruments of the Lisbon treaty, such as the economic policy warnings, should be used fully.

If we take these two steps, there is no need for a semantic debate about European economic government. Responsibility begins at home. Not in big words, but in concrete action. At a European level, we must support each other on this journey. And we must strengthen our common projects, like the Internal Market. This is the best way we can prove Europe’s added value to our citizens, and gain in credibility.

Your Excellencies,

After these introductory remarks from my end, I am now open to your follow-up and additional questions.

Thank you.