Speech by Wopke Hoekstra: Building a secure European future

Speech by Wopke Hoekstra, Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the College of Europe in Bruges, on 20 February 2023. The spoken word applies.

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, dear students,

Thank you very much Rector Mogherini ‒ dear Federica ‒ for your very warm welcome and kind words and of course for your invitation to speak here at the College of Europe.

Frankly speaking, I can’t imagine a better place to discuss the future of our continent.

Not only does this College prepare its students for future careers in the EU – the city of Bruges is itself a hub of European history.

For centuries, this is where Baltic merchants traded with their Mediterranean counterparts, and where Italian banking houses provided loans to German princes. Goods from all over our continent changed hands on these cobblestoned squares.

In a way, you could say that our most successful European story – the common market – started here in Bruges.

The original idea of the six founding members of the common market was to use economic interdependence to protect Europe from future wars.

They created an in my view unparalleled foundation for economic strength.

But this idea was of course founded on the premise of an open and rules-based world.

The world, is now rapidly changing into one of great power competition, armed conflict, and almost constant crisis.

A watershed moment

During the last decade, there were of course already many signs of this new world.

But it was almost one year ago, we experienced a watershed moment.

Russian jets, missiles, tanks, and soldiers crossed the Ukrainian border.

This invasion violated the very foundations on which peace in Europe is built.

We saw the consequences on the streets of Bucha, strewn with the bodies of civilians, brutally executed, with their hands tied behind their backs.

We saw it in Mariupol, where Russian bombardments reduced the schools, houses and hospitals of this once vibrant city basically to silent graveyards.

Ukrainian prosecutors are currently investigating over sixty-nine thousand war crimes perpetrated by Russian forces.

Sixty-nine thousand. That’s hundreds of war crimes every single day, and that number is still rising.

Behind every one of these cases, there are haunting human stories of ordinary people just like ourselves who were forced to endure terrible things.

Volodymyr Cherednichenko, a 26-year old electrician from Bucha, was one of them.

The British journalist Luke Harding wrote about him in his recent book ‘Invasion’.

Volodymyr had taken a photograph of several destroyed Russian tanks.

When Russian soldiers knocked on his door, they found the photo on his phone, and dragged him away.

They beat him, broke his arm and locked him in a basement.

There, they forced him to kneel, and killed him with a shot to the side of the head. 

Harding writes how Volodymyr’s story haunted him long thereafter. He writes (and I quote): ‘I saw him captive and terrified in the dark. His final moments can be imagined. Fear, despair, loneliness, perhaps hope – and then extinction.’

This war is a fight for the survival of the Ukrainian nation, its people, and its freedom.

But Ukraine is not just fighting against a neo-colonial oppressor.

It’s fighting for a better future.

A European future, in which a free, prosperous, and strong Ukraine is at full liberty to choose its own destiny.

In this cause, they need and deserve our full support.

A new reality

Dear friends,

Frankly speaking, even before this war began, we already had an intimidating list of burning issues on our European to-do list. Burning issues that we needed to address to make our Union basically fit for purpose.

Issues like getting a grip on migration. Dealing with climate change. Driving down debt, and investing in innovation. Securing supply chains and creating open strategic autonomy. Safeguarding the fundamental rights and values of our Union: for all European citizens, in all countries, all of the time.

And actually each of these issues has only grown more urgent.

And yet, a broader new reality has dawned on us.

Our European security is under threat. War is back on European soil. But it doesn’t stop with that. Our security is tested and threatened in the physical, the digital, the economic and the geopolitical domain.

These threats, these tests, deserve a much more coherent, pro-active, and forceful answer.

For military security, the answer to me is clear: it’s NATO.

NATO is, and will remain, the cornerstone of our European security.

We are finally making long overdue investments in our militaries, and we need to continue with this.

We are much more serious about safeguarding our Eastern flank, and we need to continue with this.

And with a growing number of EU members also becoming part of NATO, it’s our job to strengthen the Alliance, and to make sure NATO and the EU work hand-in-glove with one another.

But more is needed. The breadth and depth of the threats we face go well beyond the military domain.

So, I am convinced that the EU has to add a much more significant security angle to its whole repertoire.

The way forward to security

Let me offer you four thoughts on the way forward on security.

First, there is no alternative ‒ no alternative ‒ to Ukrainian success on the battlefield.

Of course there is a clear moral imperative to help Ukrainians fight for their freedom.

But this goes hand in hand with a fundamental geopolitical reality: that supporting Ukraine is also about protecting the safety and security of the whole of Europe.

That is why the discussion about keeping our own weapons in stock, rather than supplying them to Ukraine, feels contrived to me.

Because those weapons are needed now to deplete the country that most threatens European security.

But there is something more to it.

In addition to a moral imperative, and a geopolitical showdown, this war has become something else.

It is – in my view – the most important litmus test to our credibility that we as NATO and the EU have faced in decades.

Our determination, our perseverance, our tenacity – or the lack of it – will echo far into the future.

The world is watching. Moscow, Beijing and Teheran in particular.

So we must not allow ourselves to be lured into a false sense of security by all the things we have done, the things we have achieved.

Yes, I agree that we’ve outperformed everyone’s expectations – maybe including our own – with an unprecedented wave of European unity.

But if we do not double down on this, all of the past year’s efforts will have been in vain.

So we have to sustain our efforts – for as long as it takes.

This week marks a sad anniversary of a war. People often ask me when the war will end.

I understand and of course sympathise, like we all do, with in itself the desire for peace.

But make no mistake: we might well be nowhere near the end.

In fact, no one knows, but we may not even be halfway there.

The Soviet Union spent nine years in Afghanistan, and decades occupying Eastern Europe.

Putin is both willing and able to send hundreds of thousands of young, ill-equipped, and poorly trained young men to their graves.

He has done so already, and he might well send yet another hundred thousand, and another, and another, and another.

So we must take these horrifying tactics seriously, and adapt our strategy.

We must become proactive, rather than reactive.

So let’s adopt a more long-term approach to our weapons deliveries.

Let’s ramp up the efforts of our defence industry.

And if necessary let’s help our citizens so that they can pay their gas bills and buy their groceries, throughout the entirety of the war – so that we can all see it through, together.

The logic here is as old as that famous Roman adage: if you want peace, then prepare for war.


Dear friends,

My second thought is to make sure that we are in control of our continent’s cybersecurity.

Let’s face reality: there is a battle going on. An invisible battle, and it is happening right here, right now.

A battle in European cyberspace.

Cyber-attacks are launched against our institutions, our universities, our banks, our hospitals, our infrastructure, our companies and our citizens, literally on a daily basis.

All over Europe. Causing billions of euros in damages per year.

And although the damage is enormous, the outrage is limited.

Given the invisibility of the threat, this is understandable – and yet it is strange.

Because if foreign agents were to show up in Frankfurt and raid the ECB, we would be immediately up in arms, and rightly so.

So we simply must change this.

To meet this challenge, we have to act in a much more coordinated, coherent, and proactive way.

We must as Europeans use all the means available to us.

Therefore, it’s essential for the EU to become a global cyberpower – with a capacity for attribution, deterrence, and if necessary retaliation.

We need to move to a situation in which the cost of attacking any of us are so high, that they in fact become prohibitive.

It needs to be crystal clear that the costs of attacking us are prohibitive.

We should do this by using every economic, financial, political, and offensive cyber capability at our disposal.

The EU and its Member States have an impressive array of options to deal with adversaries in the cyber domain.

Like sanctions, expelling diplomats, and cyber retaliation.

So let us use these with maximum effectiveness, to deter perpetrators, and to ensure that all who attack us do know the price.

Our European strength

Ladies and gentlemen,

My third thought on building a secure European future is that we need to leverage our European strength.

And make no mistake: we are an economic superpower. What we have to do now is create the ability to translate our economic capacity into geopolitical leverage.

That is why the Netherlands is so convinced we need to move to qualified majority voting in the areas of sanctions, human rights, and civilian EU missions. This will dramatically increase our versatility.

That is why we need to further develop a much more effective, powerful, and easy-to-apply anti-coercion instrument at an EU level.

So that whenever a global power tries to force one of us into submission through economic measures, it will feel the full economic power of the Union as a whole.

And that is why we should sail to the next horizon where sanctions are concerned.

I recently spoke to the chief of a renowned intelligence agency from outside the EU, and he said, ‘Your (the European) sanctions are hurting the Russians like hell.’

That’s good news, but at the same time sanctions are being evaded on a massive scale.

We currently have too little capacity in the EU to analyse, coordinate, and promote new sanctions.

So we simply have to step up our efforts.

That’s why I would like us to set up a sanctions headquarters in Brussels.

A place where Member States can pool information and resources on effectiveness and evasion. Where we do much more to fight circumvention by third countries.

This new HQ would establish a watch list of sectors and trade flows with a high circumvention risk. Companies will be obliged to include end-use clauses in their contracts, so that their products don’t end up in the Russian war machine.

And the EU should bring down the full force of its collective economic strength and criminal justice systems on those who assist in sanctions evasion.

By naming, shaming, sanctioning, and prosecuting them.

Fourth and finally. When we look at the world, we see a number of disturbing trends, which all have long-term geopolitical ramifications. International institutions are on the defensive. Democracy and human rights are openly being second-guessed. And as badly as Russia is doing on the battlefield, I have to admit that it is more successful in spreading its false narratives across the globe than I would like.

So, both individual countries and the EU as a whole need to step up diplomatically. We need a more assertive and coordinated diplomacy, a larger global presence, and much, much more intensive cooperation with our friends in the Global South.

We must make a greater effort to reach out, find areas of common interest, and work together in areas like energy, trade, climate change, and strategic raw materials.

In many countries in the Global South, Europe is already one of the largest investors, trading partners, or the largest provider of development aid.

The EU must now learn to strategically coordinate these positions.

Our trade, investment, development cooperation, and foreign and security policies together are – or should be – part of an EU global policy to promote our values and basically defend our interests.

Especially in these times, it is up to us to build strategic partnerships by listening to what other countries actually need, and by working together in areas where we might mutually benefit.

So that what we bring to the table is consistently more attractive than what other countries might be offering.

To make our message resonate, we will invest in stronger relations with Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

Unprecedented times

Ladies and gentlemen, dear students,

Let me conclude. We are living in unprecedented times. And yet, what our people expect from us is as basic as it is justified. Europe’s citizens expect their politicians, their countries, and their Union to protect them. To protect them against the growing threats from beyond our continental borders.

It is up to us to deliver on this.

We have the capacity, and the potential, to do all of these things.

So let’s rise to the occasion, and make our continent truly fit for the future.

Thank you and I wish all of you well.