Mr President, fellow members of this House, ladies and gentlemen,
Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union commences on 1 July. This is a task that both I and the entire Federal Government are very much looking forward to, since Europe needs us just as we need Europe – not only as a historical legacy that has been given to us but as a project leading us into the future. Europe is not simply something that we possess. It is something that we can and must shape. Europe is an open, dynamic order of peace and freedom that we can and must continuously improve.
Europe lay in tatters when it was created – destroyed, fragmented and divided after the disastrous war of extermination and the Shoah, that betrayal of all civilised values caused by the National Socialist reign of tyranny, by Germany. And yet the founding fathers and mothers managed, rather than forgetting and denying the deep mistrust, the bitter experiences of war and forced displacement, to accept them and to turn them into a peaceful and democratic Europe. With their absolute will for reconciliation, they created from the ruins of the hostile nation states a European community. Starting from an economic community, members undertook to abolish border controls and to guarantee freedom and justice. This was the lesson from the terrible war, namely that nationalist and racist madness must never again exclude and dehumanise individual persons or groups in Europe; that the political, cultural and religious diversity of people in Europe was not only to be respected but protected.
As the European Union we have grown. The European Union has not only expanded but also grown deeper. Europe has not simply got bigger; with each summit, each negotiation, each conflict, each debate, it has also gained substance and – this, too, despite incredible difficulty at times – mutual understanding.
This has also enabled us to overcome many crises – the rejection of the European constitution prior to Germany’s last Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2007, the financial crisis and the European sovereign debt crisis that shook us from 2008, and more recently the major migration flows in 2015. All this was in truth not always easy. There were some bitter conflicts and injuries. There were also repeated misunderstandings and errors of judgement. But they never led to the break-up or rejection of Europe. And as paradox as it may seem, a setback such as the UK’s departure from the European Union has also failed to change this. On the contrary, even this decision, which clearly none of us wanted, has in the end simply resulted in us 27 member states of the European Union being led even more strongly than ever by the knowledge that we can only succeed as a community in upholding our European values and interests and holding our own in the world. This is an enormous achievement of everyone in the European Union.
Perhaps, ladies and gentlemen, Europe is suffering from the fact that we, the proponents of Europe, fail to voice frequently enough what we can be proud of. Perhaps Europe is also suffering from the fact that we have taken it for granted for too long, that we have left it too much to our opponents to talk about Europe – instead of us, who firmly believe in Europe, making it the core of the political discussion. This naturally includes criticism and impatience, which Europe needs just as much as imagination and solidarity.
I would therefore like also to speak here from my own personal experience: As a German, as someone who spent the first 35 years of their life in the GDR, Europe with its democratic commitment to freedom and equality continues to fill me with deep gratitude and with the obligation to devote my entire energy to furthering this commitment, as Europe will not be the Europe we wish for if we passively take it for granted. Europe will only grow and flourish if we commit all our strength to it and develop a sense of ambition of all that can be achieved with Europe.
We are taking on this responsibility at a time when the European Union is facing the greatest challenge of its history. And it is for this reason that Germany’s Presidency in the midst of the pandemic is such a major challenge for the Federal Government. We need on the one hand to deal with the consequences of the crisis, but at the same time also to make Europe more resilient and sustainable.
The crisis we are currently experiencing is completely different from everything we have witnessed since the founding of Europe. The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting everyone, undeserved and unprepared, in Germany, Europe and throughout the world. In Europe alone it has claimed more than 100,000 lives. A few weeks of economic lockdown have sufficed to put at risk many things that we have built up over the years. Self-evident civil liberties were temporarily restricted. This was a very high price and a difficult one for all those involved in these decisions, including myself.
The critical voices raised about the restrictions placed on fundamental rights were important. A democratic society in which nobody responded when fundamental rights were infringed would not be democratic. But there have been and are special circumstances in which I considered these measures to be not only right but indispensable and I continue to consider many, such as maintaining a minimum distance of one and a half metres and wearing mouth and nose protection in public places, as indispensable.
For we must not forget, esteemed colleagues, that the virus has not gone. It remains with us as long as there is no vaccine and no medicine, as we are experiencing every day. But we must also concede that the pandemic has revealed how fragile the European project still is. The initial responses, including our own, were of a more national than European nature. However plausible some of the reasons might have been, this was fundamentally not the right approach.
Because a global pandemic calls for joint international action and mutual support. I am pleased that the European Commission under President Ursula von der Leyen has acted so swiftly and prudently and repeatedly called on us to reach joint agreements.
The pandemic has also made clear to us Europe’s dependence on third countries for the production of medicines and protective equipment. Shortcomings in the procurement, stockpiling and distribution of medical equipment have been revealed. And yes, differences in the economic situation and budgetary position in the EU member states have also been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Furthermore, although the pandemic has affected all of us, we have not all been affected equally. The medical and economic consequences of the crisis are serving to deepen the inequalities in the European Union. The pandemic shows us that our Europe is vulnerable. And this is why I am firmly convinced that cohesion and solidarity in Europe have never been as important as today.
No country can weather this crisis isolated and alone. It can only be overcome if we act with each other and for each other. It must now be our common goal to master the crisis jointly, sustainably and with a view to the future and this is precisely what the guiding principle of our Presidency is to be. I firmly believe that, in view of the pandemic, commitment to the European Union is not only necessary from a political and human perspective, but that passionately championing a Europe based on solidarity will also prove more sustainable economically than anything else.
And a strong Europe naturally depends on a strong Germany. The Federal Government is doing everything in its power to ensure this remains the case by resolutely combating the consequences of the pandemic, and thanks to you and the swift and decisive action of the German Bundestag we have been able to implement support packages that are already starting to have an impact now.
And we are not leaving it at that but have put forward an economic stimulus and future technologies package worth 130 billion euro that we are also currently discussing in parliament. But at the same time we should not forget that our national measures will only really be successful if the other member states of the EU are also strong and our national activity is flanked by European activity.
To put it quite clearly once again: the pandemic and the economic collapse brought about by it are the greatest challenge in the history of Europe. How Europe copes with these challenges compared with other regions of the world will determine the prosperity of Europe’s citizens and Europe’s role in the world.
But the task is even bigger than this; in fact, it is a double task. For we are living at a time in which, completely leaving aside the pandemic, our way of life and how we run our economy is undergoing a major upheaval that is being driven by two developments – climate change, which we need to counter with a low-carbon and in future a CO2-neutral way of living, and the digital transformation, which is rapidly and fundamentally changing how we work and live together.
And for this reason the response to the economic and social consequences of the pandemic can not be a return to conventional ways of working and running the economy but must instead strengthen and accelerate the transition to a new way of doing these things.
Whether we have creative and competitive businesses and sustainably secure jobs after the pandemic will depend on this. And we know that others in the world are not sitting still but are acting in a very decisive and robust manner.
It is with this in mind that in mid-May I jointly proposed a fund worth 500 billion euro with France’s President Emmanuel Macron for Europe’s economic recovery. It is intended to strengthen the new EU Financial Framework as it gets underway and above all to support those regions of Europe most severely affected by the pandemic by investing in their future sustainability.
I very much welcome the fact that, together with its proposal for the next Multiannual Financial Framework, the European Commission has put forward a plan for economic recovery that includes a large number of aspects of the Franco-German initiative. The current figures serve as proof of the dramatic decline in economic activity and economic strength in Europe, which is why we now need to act swiftly and decisively.
I will therefore be doing all I can to ensure that we reach an agreement as soon as possible within the European Council on both the Multiannual Financial Framework and the Recovery Fund. The initial situation is anything but simple. But it is my hope that all member states now act in a spirit of compromise in view of this unprecedented situation.
The best thing would be for us to reach an agreement before the summer break. We would then negotiate in our Presidency of the Council with the European Parliament and the national parliaments would have until the end of the year to ratify the Own Resources Decision. This would allow both the Multiannual Financial Framework and the European recovery plan, which incidentally belong together, to take effect at the start of 2021 for the benefit of Europe.
When the European Council convenes via video conference tomorrow, we are firstly just planning an initial exchange, after which the President of the European Council will hold intensive consultations. However, we will not be able to make any decisions until the European Council meets in person.
The European recovery plan relates explicitly to the pandemic and is targeted and temporary. The European Commission will be authorised on a one-off basis to contract loans on the market on behalf of the European Union and to use these to provide crisis-related aid. We have said from the outset that this must take place on a secure legal basis that requires unanimity within the Council and respects the budgetary laws of the national parliaments. I therefore welcome the proposal of the European Commission to anchor this exceptional measure and its restriction in the Own Resources Decision that must then be ratified by all member states.
This fund is an urgent need of the hour in order to facilitate a sustained economic recovery of all affected regions and areas in Europe. This is the only way we can secure convergence, competitiveness and cohesion in Europe in the long term.
We must not allow the pandemic to cause the economic prospects of the EU member states to drift apart and thereby weaken the shared single market, one of Europe’s core elements. And we will resolutely counter the threat of a deep split dividing Europe permanently. We may not be naive: antidemocratic forces and radical, authoritarian movements are more than ready to seize economic crises in order to misuse them politically.
- This appears to have touched a nerve with someone, esteemed colleagues. -
They are simply waiting for the moment to fuel social anxieties and promulgate uncertainties. Supporting sustainable development in all regions of Europe is also a political instrument against populists and radicals.
Ladies and gentlemen, the expectations placed on Germany’s Presidency are high and we need to be aware of this. It is for this reason that we have set out our priorities more precisely due to the pandemic but while also keeping a close eye on the other major challenges of our time. I would like to take the opportunity to cite three areas today.
The first is climate protection and the transition to a climate-neutral economy entailed by this. Because both climate change and the digital transformation are bringing radical and far-reaching changes to our way of running the economy, working and living, we have – based on last year’s climate resolutions – clearly focused in both our national future technologies package and the European Recovery Fund on promoting environmentally sustainable growth and the advancement of digital technology. The strategy put forward by the European Commission for a Green Deal offers essential guidance precisely for the recovery of the European economy and a major opportunity above all for European businesses with strong innovation capacity.
With a view to Europe’s sustainability and the future of generations to come, we will also continue intensively the deliberations concerning a European climate protection law with the aim of achieving a joint stance of the member states. Our goal, which we have greatly striven for, is to be able to set out in a legally enforceable manner Europe’s climate neutrality by 2050 and accordingly also adjust the targets for 2030.
Secondly, we wish to promote the digitalisation of our economy and society. In order to safeguard Europe’s economic success and thus its ability to act in the future, Europe needs to become both technologically and digitally sovereign. The pandemic has made Europe’s dependencies in the digital field extremely clear, in terms of both technology and services.
And yet digital sovereignty does not mean that we need to be able to do everything in Europe. However, we need to be capable of deciding for ourselves where European independence is called for and how we wish to implement it. This applies, for instance, not just to developing a secure and trustworthy European data infrastructure but also to creating capacities in critical technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. We wish to make use of our Presidency to gain further ground here.
Thirdly, the dramatic consequences of the pandemic throughout the world require Europe to assume more global responsibility at a time when the political climate has become harsher not just in Europe but across the world. Antidemocratic, authoritarian and inhuman challenges are on the rise. They wish to deny what Europe has stood up for. They wish to see the rule of law and system of checks and balances undermined. They wish to violate human dignity and call into question human and civil rights. They wish to cease engaging with history and maintaining a culture of remembrance. And last but not least they wish to take away from us an existential requirement at all times – the distinction between truth and lies, between information and disinformation, between knowledge and ignorance.
This is something we must confront resolutely – not just here in Germany and not just in Europe.
Europe and its promise of peace, freedom and equality is precious. We cannot remain indifferent when it is damaged from within and outside. Each generation has the task of reshaping it, and this is not a historic burden but a democratic gift.
It is therefore precisely at this time that the world needs Europe’s strong voice for the protection of human dignity, democracy and freedom; for while many humanitarian crises are also intensifying, they appear to be taking a back seat in view of the current events. We will therefore also be taking into account the needs, concerns and hardships of our partners in the world during our Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Africa, for instance, is to be a foreign policy focus of Germany’s Presidency. There are already signs now that the countries of Africa are suffering particularly from the economic and social consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the countries of Africa have much experience in combating pandemics, as impressively demonstrated by the success of Rwanda, Uganda and Ghana in combating the Ebola virus. The summit of the European Union and the African Union in October will therefore seek to find joint answers to the crisis and to how the consequences of the pandemic can be mitigated. At the same time, it will also be about addressing Africa as the continent of the future and shaping our relations in a spirit of partnership.
Europe’s relations with China will also remain in the focus of our Presidency. The decision to postpone the EU-China summit planned in Leipzig for 14 September due to the pandemic was not an easy one for us. I have agreed with the President of the European Council Charles Michel and China’s President Xi Jinping that we will make up this meeting, as it is important precisely towards a strategic partner such as China that Europe speaks with one voice for all 27 member states.
This is the only way we can convincingly stand up for our European values and interests.
I call for an open dialogue enabling us to continue working with China on such important issues as the conclusion of an investment agreement, progress on climate protection and our joint role in Africa, as well as on questions concerning the rule of law and human rights and last but not least the future of Hong Kong, where we are concerned that the principle of “one country, two systems” that is so important is increasingly being undermined. We will continue this dialogue during the German Presidency and hope we can help the EU achieve results in the spheres of climate protection, free trade and multilateralism.
Dear President, dear colleagues, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned our social, economic and political life completely upside down. We are living in a pandemic. But just as Europe has overcome previous crises, so I am confident that we will now also jointly weather this crisis by asking ourselves at an early stage which lessons we can learn from it for Europe and what Germany can contribute in this regard.
The conference on the future of Europe proposed by European Commission President von der Leyen could serve as a suitable format for this. If in this context we concentrate on a small number of issues, we could reach concrete and tangible results in the foreseeable future, among other things for further developing the Schengen system, modernising competition law in order to adapt it to the challenges of the digital transformation and globalisation, developing a Europe-wide pandemic contingency plan or creating a European Security Council for foreign policy issues.
While all this is of utmost importance, what is decisive and paramount is that we in Europe boldly stand up for each other and break new ground together.
“Together for Europe’s recovery” – that is the motto of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Germany, the Federal Government and I myself will devote our entire strength and passion to supporting this during our Presidency. I appeal to you for us to do this together. I therefore ask for your support in this and have every confidence that our commitment to Europe will pay off.