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‘State of Europe’

– Speech by President Charles Michel at the Berlin Conference 2021

By Charles Michel

I am deeply touched to speak to you, here in Berlin, on such an important date – the 9th of November. As a fervent European, there is probably no better date, nor place, to talk about the future of Europe. Because it links, by chance of the calendar, two events that were the seeds of the most atrocious tragedy of our continent and a few decades later the symbolic event that marked the beginning of our unification.

The Europe of 27 is the product of a unique reconciliation after a unique tragedy. And Berlin, on the 9th of November, is its symbolic capital.

But Europe is not just about symbols. Europe is the result of decades of hard work by many. They were not intimidated by the distance between their starting point and their almost utopian ideal. Konrad Adenauer was one of them. Discussing the future of Europe under his watchful eye calls for high standards and modesty. I thank you for giving me this prestigious opportunity.

The 21st century will be the century of Europe. This may sound presumptuous, I know. Europe, like the rest of the world, faces enormous challenges.

Climate change and saving the planet, and humanity, from natural disaster. This will require a radical transformation of our development paradigm. The digital revolution … and managing the boom of artificial intelligence. And in addition, COVID-19, a long-predicted pandemic for which we were not prepared. Finally, we face the growing pressure of authoritarian regimes. They provoke new tensions and undermine our democracies. Science and facts are increasingly questioned.

We are not unique. Every generation faces a unique set of seemingly insurmountable challenges. But it’s not an exaggeration to say that today’s challenges are the most complex since the aftermath of the last World War. And we all feel our collective historic responsibility. I am convinced that the EU has the strength to tackle these challenges.

Europe admired in the world

Of course, in Europe, we often hear pessimistic or defeatist accounts of Europe. That we are too weak, too helpless to face the dangers of these uncertain times. Some parties even use people’s anxieties as the springboard for their ambitions.

I have a different experience. When I meet leaders, NGO activists, or people around the world, they almost always speak with admiration about our European Union. I recently took part in the summit of Latin American and Caribbean countries, in Mexico. When speaking with leaders there, I felt the strong, magnetic attraction that the European Union holds for them.

So what exactly do they see in us?

They see a great power. They see the largest area of democracy and freedom in the world. The most advanced area of prosperity and social development. They see a unique example of continental integration: peaceful and voluntary.

A successful player

This admiration is not an abstract projection. It can be explained by our concrete successes.

Our single currency, the euro, has become the second most traded currency in the world. Our area of free movement offers benefits that we only fully appreciated when the pandemic limited them. And our successes have a direct impact on the rest of the world. For the better.

The European Union has led the fight against global warming for years. Notably in 2019, when we were the first to commit to climate neutrality by 2050. And others have followed.

And when COVID-19 struck, despite some initial hesitations, we reacted quickly and decisively. And most importantly, with solidarity. We agreed on the most ambitious investment and recovery package ever decided by the European Union. And this … from very different starting points.

Here I would like to pay tribute to Germany. You have played a leading role in moving the lines on common European investments. And financing a recovery that benefits our entire European single market.

On vaccines, the European Union was at the forefront of global fundraising. And we grounded our strategy in solidarity. Right from the start, we decided to jointly purchase vaccines for all 27 Member States. This ensured their fair distribution across our Union.

Back in March, on the topic of vaccines, we knew the EU was not running a sprint, but a marathon. And indeed, the EU has become the world’s largest producer and exporter of COVID vaccines. And when it comes to global vaccine solidarity, the EU is at the head of the pack. We helped launch the COVAX facility – for the equitable distribution of vaccines across the world. We are its first sponsor. We have launched programmes to develop mRNA vaccine production capacity in Africa. And we are prepared to do this elsewhere.

The EU has done all this, despite having almost no competence in health in the EU treaties. We did it because the 27 Member States wanted us to. And we did it without organising a convention or changing the treaties.

These successes, and the image we project across the world, reinforce my deep conviction that our unique European model will allow us to tackle this century’s greatest challenges head-on.

I believe Europe is destined to become the great “power of peace” for this 21st century. A positive, unifying power.

We can fulfil this destiny if we achieve the two conditions perfectly summarised by someone dear to you … and very dear to me. Angela Merkel. When she received the Charles the Fifth prize recently, in Extremadura, she said: “Europe can only be as strong as it is united. And it can only be as united as it is bound together by common values. United internally and strong externally.”

Unity and strength, along with our “strategic autonomy”, are the keys to the future of Europe.

First, unity

First, unity. Where else knows better than Germany that unity – unification – makes you stronger?

But as you know, unity does not appear from the Heavens. It takes work. It must be built. Step by step, day by day, year after year. It requires political courage. And for unity to work in a Union of 27, it takes two key ingredients – mutual understanding and trust.

Our countries and regions have diverse histories, languages, traditions, political and economic backgrounds. It is precisely this diversity that makes Europe extraordinarily rich. But it also makes our quest for unity particularly challenging. So we must strive to understand each other and respect our differences.

This means recognising the equal legitimacy of each part of our Union. There should be no talk of small and large Member States. Of centre and periphery. Of old and new. Nor should we speak of nations that have “understood” the European spirit better than others. This poisons our unity. And wreaks of condescension.

No place knows this better than this city – Berlin. Where the physical fall of the Wall led to the slow dismantling of mental walls. Yet elsewhere, we sometimes hear words that make some EU countries feel like victims of double standards. This cannot happen. There is no place for double standards in one Union.

For unity to survive and flourish, it needs a solid foundation. Our common values. Human dignity and freedom. Solidarity and tolerance. Respect for diversity. It also requires trust, which grows and takes shape in a set of commonly chosen and accepted rules. And patience.

Unity is not chiseled in stone once and for all. It’s a process, a collective journey. You start with different interests and different points of view. You discuss. You listen actively. You work to bring them closer together. You identify common interests. You compromise – for the common good. The good of all.

I often see the headlines before our European Council meetings. They denounce the divisions, as if different opinions and different national interests were a betrayal of our Union.

I don’t see it like that.

Democratic debate means coming together, looking each other in the eye, sometimes debating vigourously, and deciding. This is how democracy works

Unity also requires ownership. In authoritarian systems, this is easy – ownership is imposed. In democratic systems, it’s more difficult – it is debated, then acquired. This leads to democratic legitimacy.

In Brussels, you will sometimes hear the line: “The European Union would be an absolutely amazing invention. Unfortunately, it’s full of Member States”. This implies that Member States are somehow selfish and an obstacle to achieving our “European ideal”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The European Union is based on a double democratic legitimacy. On the one hand, the legitimacy of the Member States, where parliaments are elected and appoint governments. They represent their countries in the Council. And on the other hand, the legitimacy of the directly elected European Parliament.

The designation of the European Commission reflects this double democratic legitimacy. EU action is only possible when it is based on these two democratic pillars. One is not more legitimately European than the other.

This legitimacy is guaranteed by the rule of law. The rule of law means the separation of powers and the mutual independence of these powers. In particular, the independence of the judiciary – the essential condition for confidence in the system.

Strategic autonomy

The other key to Europe’s future is our strategic autonomy.

This term is understood differently in different places, and with different sensibilities. What matters most is not the term, but the meaning behind it – our goals.

In my view, strategic autonomy means no more and no less than being master of our own destiny. The ability to act together in an open world. It means managing our interdependencies while avoiding excessive dependencies. To reinforce our strategic autonomy, we must strengthen our prosperity, our single market and bolster our security.


Our prosperity is anchored in a competitive market of 450 million inhabitants – offering infinite scope for freedom of creation, enterprise, and exchange. We still need to perfect its framework –to complete the banking union and to achieve a true capital markets union to better channel money to the real economy. And we will soon have to discuss whether our Stability and Growth Pact, that has served us well for 24 years, needs to be updated.

Ludwig Erhard always reminded Germany that “the focal point of our economy is the individual”. Our European vision is one of shared prosperity, where all citizens enjoy the same opportunities and the same range of products and services. This is the meaning of our cohesion policies and of our Recovery programme – Next Generation EU – which aim to reduce the gaps between countries and regions The more our economies converge, the stronger they will be for each other.

The European Union has a clear and robust strategy to face the challenges of the 21st century. A strategy underpinned by our twin transitions of climate and digital. They are enshrined in our Green Deal And in our Digital Agenda. This transition implies a massive transformation of our economic and social paradigm

Today’s climate emergency leaves us no choice. We must pursue a totally new development model – one that no longer abuses natural resources, but re-uses them in a circular economy detached from fossil fuels. This transition will require profound changes in behaviour. It also offers extraordinary potential to innovate and to create new technologies and services that will drive our prosperity. The digital revolution will play a pivotal role, and maximising the vast potential of data and artificial intelligence will be decisive to our future success.

This future sparks excitement in some, and anxiety in others. Many people wonder what will become of their jobs or worry about their children’s prospects. This uncertainty is understandable. Ten or twenty years from now some of you will be working in jobs that don’t yet exist today. This is hard to imagine. So we must be forward-looking and provide the right training for these new professions because we will crucially need skilled workers. We want everyone to be part of this exciting future.


Prosperity comes from our internal market, and it also comes from external trade. Trade drives development, and it is a powerful lever to influence the world.

The European Union is the world’s leading trading power. But we have a problem. We are very good at striking ambitious free trade or investment agreements with foreign partners with the European Commission in charge. But for some time now, we have difficulty ratifying these agreements once they are signed. We can only implement them provisionally at best. The problem is one of form and one of substance.

On the form, the confidentiality of these negotiations makes it increasingly difficult to explain their value to the public and to the national parliaments that must approve them. In other words, ownership does not work. We should take inspiration from the more transparent and inclusive method taken in the Brexit negotiations.

As for the substance, we need to clarify the goals and priorities of these agreements. We started this discussion among leaders at our last European Council. Do we believe that they should facilitate trade and investment within a framework of reciprocity and level playing field while also contributing to a fairer, more sustainable world? Or do we think an agreement is only valid and acceptable if it solves all the world’s problems in one go?

I’ll give you an example. The Commission negotiated a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China. This agreement would open access to major sectors from which our European companies are currently barred. It would create more reciprocity and address labour laws and conditions.

Is this agreement perfect? No. Did we get everything we wanted? Certainly not. But neither did China. Would this agreement lead to a democratic system in China and full respect for human and labour rights? No. But it creates a platform to discuss these issues with the Chinese authorities, who don’t like them because they don’t share our same system and our values.

The question is: are our interests better defended and our ability to protect the Uighurs’ rights and to promote the rule of law in Hong Kong better ensured with, or without, such an agreement? This is not an exact science. There is no easy answer.

So we need to agree – at the level of the Member States and the EU institutions – on the priorities we pursue with these trade and investment agreements. And in any case, I agree with my friend Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, when he says: “Europe must be a player. Not a playing field.”

I will make sure the European Council addresses this important debate.

Global capacity and security

The second pillar of our strategic autonomy is security.

It begins with our “soft” geopolitical influence aimed at promoting our values and defending our interests. Here, I believe we have a powerful advantage – the world wants to engage with us. Because our partners see the benefit of engaging with a positive force, free from the colonial prisms of the past centuries.

We are building new alliances – with Africa, Asia, and Latin America – with partners who are confident about our vision and about our values. These alliances are about interconnecting our physical and digital infrastructure and about connecting our people, by stimulating public and private investment within a framework of rules and standards that put fundamental values at the heart of projects. This is what we call ‘trusted connectivity’. And we want to develop this trusted connectivity with like-minded partners.

Moreover, global issues can only be addressed through global cooperation. The best way to exert influence is to be present diplomatically and to engage diplomatically. Ensuring our security means knowing and better understanding our neighbours, our competitors, even our adversaries. And making ourselves better understood by them. That is what I try to do, for instance, in my phone calls with the Russian President. It gives me the knowledge to share with my colleagues in the European Council or with other international partners like the Ukrainian President.

Diplomacy also means taking advantage of opportunities

Last spring, when I visited Georgia, a strategically important country in the framework of our Eastern Partnership, I saw the opportunity to broker a political deal between the conflicted parties. Similarly, after my contacts with the Armenian and Azeri leaders, the EU managed to broker a post-conflict deal between these countries, which were at war a few months ago. The EU has a role to play, an important role.

Allow me to take aim at an over-used cliché. It says that without our own defence, the European Union lacks the instruments to assume our role as a global power. We have many instruments – often unsuspected – to influence external actors. We could be much stronger and more efficient, by being more pragmatic and more coherent.

There are many examples of pragmatic European responses to crisis situations. But we need to be more coherent. EU policies such as trade, development, competition, neighbourhood, and climate action are often managed “in silos”, independent of each other.

This is precisely what the European Council does – linking different policies and ensuring coherence. Requesting the Commission to organise on the external dimension of migration. We strive for a mutually beneficial cooperation with third countries. We have a lot to offer them

This topic brings me to a current crisis.

We are facing a brutal, hybrid attack on our EU borders. Belarus is weaponising migrants’ distress in a cynical and shocking way. At our last European Council, we condemned and decided to respond to these attacks. We asked the Commission to propose all necessary measures in line with EU law and international obligations.

We have opened the debate on the EU financing of physical border infrastructure. This must be settled rapidly because Polish and Baltic borders are EU borders. One for all and all for one.


Security also means defence.

European defence is anchored in our Atlantic alliance. NATO is the backbone of our collective security. Beyond the military, this alliance links us to our strategic partners on the other side of the Atlantic. We share a common history, values, and commitments.

This alliance of democracies is all the more essential at a time of increasing pressure, as we face new kinds of attack from authoritarian regimes. This is why we must develop our defence capabilities. Stronger allies make stronger alliances. And we welcome the United States’ recognition of the value of a stronger European defence, as a complement to NATO.

Yet, we cannot ignore the long-term developments, even among our allies. Recent geopolitical events in Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific have shown that we must rely more on ourselves and take greater responsibility for ourselves. Overdependence – even on our best friends – is not sustainable. It is not healthy.

In concrete terms, the European Council has agreed on a work plan for the near future. In December, we will discuss the “strategic compass” being prepared by Josep Borrell. This compass will set out our strategic axes. We will endorse it at a defence summit in March next year.

We are often asked the question: will Europe one day have its own European army? The prospect exists. But in any case, we all know it wouldn’t be for tomorrow.

Today, more than a European army, we need European capabilities. Yet, I do believe we must act in a concrete and operational way to develop our capabilities in the face of new risks and in new areas, such as cyber and space.

Digital development is making our economies and our societies more efficient, but also more dependent on technology, databases, and connectivity. One thing is certain: we will one day have to face a major cyber-crisis or cyber-attack. The only question is when?

Recent attacks have shown that the threats are global. And so are the attackers. It is therefore in the interest of Europeans to pool our efforts and to create defensive and deterrent cyber capabilities. This should start by establishing an EU system for cyber crisis management and response to large-scale attacks. Our upcoming discussion on our “strategic compass” will be an opportunity to consider this project.

Our cyber security is also intrinsically linked to the security of our resources in space. We are familiar with geolocation, observation, and surveillance tools on land and at sea. But space is increasingly hosting infrastructure and services that provide connectivity functions essential to digital development.

The congestion of this territory, not to mention the activities of malicious actors, mean that we must also protect our interests there. So we must strengthen the synergies between the civil, space and defence industries. Last April, we adopted the new European Union Space Programme with a record budget of 13 billion euro. We will make a difference by pooling our efforts from the outset.

Konrad Adenauer – who else – famously said: “We should not forget that to achieve great things, we need patience.” I would add this: some victories come after a long time, while others can be reached swiftly.

The European project takes time. Seventy years is still a young age for such a unique organisation like ours. We have already achieved a lot. Our experience shows that sometimes we can gain time by taking our time. And in other moments, it’s good to be pragmatic and speed up.

I have no doubt the EU is on the right track to become the great power of peace of the 21st century – the century of Europe. For the benefit of our people, and for a better, fairer and more sustainable world.

We must be wise and know when to be patient, and when to seize the moment and take decisive action. We will stick to our values and to our ideals. And we will grow in power by being pragmatic, by being realistic, and by being ambitious.



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