"Europe is our future – and that future is in our hands"
The historical turning point to which Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz referred in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has major ramifications for Europe and the European Union. Having begun as an inward-looking peace project, the EU must now defend its values and secure its independence and stability outwardly as well.
"We will not accept Russia's attack on peace in Europe,” said the Chancellor in his speech at Prague's Charles University. "We will not simply stand by and watch men, women, and children being killed and free countries being wiped off the map. Our Europe,” he continued, “is united in peace and freedom, and is open to all European nations who share our values. But first and foremost, it is the lived rejection of imperialism and autocracy". This is why Europe and Germany will continue to support Ukraine whilst it is under attack: economically, financially, politically, militarily, and through the provision of humanitarian aid. "And above all,” said the Federal Chancellor, “for as long as necessary".
During his speech in Prague, Scholz identified four areas which, in his view, are of central importance for a geopolitical European Union, because, as he says, Europe is now facing greater challenges than ever before.
Step one: an enlarged and reformed Europe
"I am committed to expanding the European Union to include the countries of the Western Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova and, in the long term, Georgia," said the Federal Chancellor at the beginning of his speech. Expanding the EU, he said, was necessary to ensure stability within Europe and to protect our common values.The European Council granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova in June and raised the prospect of it for Georgia: it is now time to take the accession promises seriously. The candidate countries, he said, deserved consistent support in their efforts to prepare for accession. The Western Balkan states have been waiting to join for almost 20 years.
At the same time, he added, an enlarged European Union composed of 30 or 36 member states would have to improve its own decision-making structures in order to remain capable of taking action. "However," the Federal Chancellor said, "in those areas where unanimity is currently required, the risk increases with each additional member state that a single country will use its veto to prevent all the others from moving forward".
In addition to more majority decision-making rather than seeking unanimity in the Council, Scholz advocated a new balance for the composition of the European Parliament, with a Commission that would continue to include one commissioner per member state, but with a more efficient internal organisation.
Step two: a more sovereign Europe
Scholz pointed out that Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine had shown that Europe had to become more independent and stronger. The Federal Chancellor therefore used his speech to call for an end to unilateral dependencies as soon as possible. Europe, he said, could achieve the necessary sovereignty through the expansion of global trade relations, diversified supply relations, and a genuine circular economy within Europe.
The Federal Chancellor voiced his support for a confident Europe that would become a pioneer in important key technologies such as microchip production or mobility. Specifically, Scholz called for a "Made in Europe 2030 Strategy". In comparison with Silicon Valley or Chinese and Japanese providers, he said, Europe would have to "fight its way back to the top". Many raw materials such as lithium, cobalt and nickel are available in Europe. Furthermore, climate neutrality should remain a priority until 2050. This, he said, could be achieved through an internal EU energy market, an EU hydrogen network, a charging infrastructure for cars and trucks, and investments in climate-friendly air transport.
Historical turning point: a foreign policy wake-up call
With an eye on the war in Ukraine, the Federal Chancellor called for "more synergy in our defence activities". Whilst NATO remained the "guarantor of our security", he said, it was nevertheless important to bolster Europe's foreign, security, and defence policy structures. The Federal Chancellor believes that this would require the European Council to act as the European Security Council, an independent Council of EU Defence Ministers, and an EU rapid reaction force with a fully equipped EU headquarters by 2025.
Scholz sees a considerable backlog of accumulated needs, especially in air defence: a collaboratively developed air defence system in Europe "would represent a security gain for the whole of Europe".
Step three: overcome old conflicts, dare to try new solutions
Speaking in Prague, the Federal Chancellor called for even more solidarity within the EU stating that old conflicts must be overcome and new solutions found. Two key areas, migration, and financial policy are exemplary: because many people around the world see Europe as an ideal destination, a realistic, forward-looking migration policy is needed. This, he said, would also include a fair and crisis-proof asylum system with effective external border controls based on the rule of law.
Legal immigration for work, he said, should be promoted, whereas irregular migration must be curbed. Third countries that cooperate in repatriation efforts, he said, should be granted avenues for legal migration in return; recognised asylum seekers should be allowed to seek work in other member states much earlier than is currently the case. At the same time, abuse must be effectively prevented.
Scholz also voiced his support for admitting Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia as full Schengen members in order to round off and strengthen the border-free Schengen area.
According to the Federal Chancellor, whilst the EU had shown a great deal of financial solidarity throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, it had allowed debt levels to increase at the same time. He said that it was now important to take a realistic approach to the necessary discussion on debt reduction whilst bearing in mind the fact that key transformational investments are possible. The Federal Chancellor therefore proposed a collaborative effort to further develop the EU's fiscal rules along these lines.
Step four: defend Europe's values and respect the rule of law
Finally, Scholz referred in his speech to our European values, which, he said, must be protected as the basis of our coexistence. The rule of law in particular is "a fundamental value that should unite our Union", said the Federal Chancellor. He made it clear that the Commission should also be able to initiate infringement proceedings in future for violations of fundamental EU values and that blocking mechanisms included in the Article 7 rule of law procedure should be removed and that EU payments should be linked to compliance with the rule of law going forward.
Because, according to the Federal Chancellor: "In terms of European politics, this historical turning point should be about building bridges rather than digging trenches. (...) Citizens expect very tangible things from the EU such as more rapid action on climate protection, healthy food, more sustainable supply chains, and better protection for workers. In short, they expect 'tangible solidarity'".