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European Commission

[Check Against Delivery]

Neelie KROES

Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda

Tomorrow's Europe

Acceptance speech for The Peace of Nijmegen Medal

Nijmegen, The Netherlands, 7 May 2014

To add your comment to this speech, see the social version of the speech here

It is a special honour to be here today in Nijmegen. One of the oldest three cities in the Netherlands. A city with a long and rich history, encompassing many key moments in European history. From being a strategic Romans settlement to the early Middle Ages, with Charles the Great residing here, to more recent, Operation Market Garden in 1944. 

History can provide us with many valuable contributions, inspiring visions and ideas. History can also have its price and take its toll. Looking at the photographs of Nijmegen, which were made straight after the unfortunate American bombardment in 1944 - a terrible mistake taking the lives of 800 citizens and leaving behind a demolished city - it reminded me strongly of Rotterdam. The city, in which I was born, grew up and studied at university. 

As you all know, Rotterdam was bombarded by the German army in the early days of the Second World War, in May 1940. Devastating the city and killing the same amount of people as in Nijmegen and leaving tens of thousands homeless. 

Sometimes these events can feel like a long time ago. Something which was caused by generations of the past. Of leaders and their people who made the wrong decisions under different circumstances. Of things that are long gone and will never happen again.

That perception is understandable. If you have been so lucky, never to have personally experienced the violence of war, or its far reaching consequences, it is difficult to imagine the impact it can have on one's life and how it can determine how you see the future. The post war period in Rotterdam influenced me strongly in a way that I grew up with a sense that you can build and create a new life and existence out of nearly nothing, if necessary.

It gave me a strong belief in building and creating. In shaping your own life. But perhaps most of all, it made me realise you cannot do this on your own. Maybe you can build yourself a roof above your head. You need partners, allies, like-minded people to join forces with and to realise a society. To establish the rules and conditions together which safeguard important fundamental values. And create a better future and the power to maintain what really matters to you.

The year 2014 in this respect is an interesting year. In 2014 we commemorate two of last century's crucial events: the beginning of the First World War in 1914 and the D-day landings in Normandy in 1944. These commemorations are very timely. Looking at the events in and around the Ukraine, we all have the strongest reasons for great concern. And it is happening in our backyard.

This is not a speech about, as Louis Couperus would say: 'Of old people and the things passing by'. I am not an historian and I will leave it to them to describe all the parallels and differences between those days and today. I do however have a very uncomfortable feeling with the present day developments. The events show to me, and to the World, that maintaining peace, instead of being pulled into war, demands great courage, the need for unity and visionary leadership. 

Peace, so to say, is not for scared people. Peace is not self-evident. Peace is one of our greatest accomplishments of the Europe of today and we can’t value it enough. It demands our everyday care and deepest awareness. It demands the utmost of our daringness and courage to maintain it. 

The events of 1914 and 1944 represent two related themes for Europe: division and unification. Themes which are very relevant in Europe today.

One the one hand, in 1914, Europe's nationalism divided our continent and ignited the First World War. Leading to millions of deaths of young men and women - who would have had a whole and meaningful life in front of them - on Europe’s battlefields. On the other hand, the year 1944 represents an almost unprecedented unification between allies which made it possible to defeat Nazi Germany.

For me, the foundation of the modern Europe begins on the Normandy beaches. It is the Europe through which we have established freedom, liberty and prosperity. Peace is not - and I say it again - for the easily intimidated. For regaining peace, one needs to be fearless and devoted. For maintaining peace and prosperity, we need to unite.

When we look at today's Europe, in particular the European Union, the urge to unite and the intrinsic need to join forces couldn’t be further away. Even more so, there is an overall tendency to pull back behind national borders. To rely on the powers and prerogatives of the national state. This way many of us feel more comfortable, safe, secure and in control, or perhaps even stronger: where we can hold our own governments accountable. It is a natural and direct response to the complexity of the global challenges in today's society, economy and politics. 

There is also a contradiction: never before we have been so globally oriented in listening to music; going on holiday to all possible destinations on the globe; enjoying food from all continents; using Asian or American technologies and to study or work in other Member States. We tend to forget that globalisation is a two way street; not a one way street, nor a dead end street. If it enables opportunities for you, and you are happy using them, it does so for others as well. Furthermore, globalisation also has its negative impact on each and every one of us.

As political leaders we need to acknowledge this basic feeling many European have of wanting to be more in control and being able to maintain their own identity. We also need to be aware of the contradiction in thinking about globalisation and its positive and negative effects.

At the same time we also have the responsibility to dare to show that retreating behind borders and relying on models of the past is not the answer to the challenges we are facing. Let us not pretend we can escape the negative effects of globalisation by withdrawing behind dikes and borders. Climate change, neither rising energy costs nor cyber-crime or the banking crisis stop at Lobith on the Dutch border. We need to work on contemporary solutions which match these challenges, together with our partners and allies. Join forces, expertise and investments. The European Union provides the right platform to organise this. National governments and parliaments, as well as the European institutions could and should play a larger role in making clear to their citizens what they are fighting for on a European level. And not only during election time. 

It leads me to the central question: what unites Europe and what divides this continent? What unites Europeans and what divides us? Do we only feel the urge to unite ourselves when we are under great direct and physical threat? Or do we also dare to unite and align ourselves with other countries when we want to capture new opportunities and solve the large societal and economic challenges. Do we dare to admit and acknowledge that Europe is also a two way street?

What unites us, or should unite us, as Europeans, are not only the challenges, nor just the opportunities. What unites us are also our key values: the importance we attach to freedom; to self-determination who we want to be and where we want to go; to be able to have our own identity being Dutch, British, French or Polish. To be independent and to – speaking with Virginia Woolf – have a room of one's own.

Let me say this: the Europe of today should embrace this diversity.  We should do so, before it divides us. Europe has proved over the last 64 years, with ups and downs, that the European Union as a concept works. Our well-being, our economic growth, our opportunities for ourselves and our children have increased tremendously since the beginning of the EU. This cannot be denied.

The EU is also a concept which is not finished. Starting in 1958 from 6 neighbouring countries, the EU now consists of 28 Member States with 500 million inhabitants. The largest economy in the world. An incredible transition, in particular over the last 10 years, has taken place. Who could have expected that former dictatorships, like Spain and Greece, or part of the communist regime, like Estonia or Poland would join the EU?

The European Union is a concept that needs continuous attention. The EU, like any national government, needs to keep an open mind to the changes in the mind-set of society, its citizens and developments in local and global economy. Adaptability and flexibility is key. Europe needs a self-critical and constructive attitude of its leaders, as well as its citizens. Europe needs to be a binding force where it can contribute to the larger transnational goals, instead of a dividing force by overregulation. Europe needs to give space to its partners to flourish under their own conditions and by acknowledging the differences. The EU provides us with key-principles as subsidiarity and proportionality to realise this. Let us make much better use of them in the near future!

In this respect, the motto ‘Unity in Diversity’ which is often used to symbolise the European Union should be rephrased or reinterpreted into a more contemporary motto, matching present day feelings about Europe, but with maintaining the ultimate goal. There is a general need to provide space to differences and specific demands. In other words: to give space to Diversity in the Unity.

We need to be much more liberal in our approach. To focus on the main topics and challenges, instead of over regulating into details. To be less top-down, and more bottom-up. We need a much more modern, contemporary Europe. We need a new wave of European thinking with more space for diversity and self-determination. For 'room of one's own'. Only this way we can change the inward looking debate into an outward looking mode, using the great opportunities and tackling the challenges which are immanent.

We need to do this, especially for the younger generation. For our youngsters who are now attending school and have their expectations, ideas and plans. The generation which grows up with ‘being and working digital’. They rely on us to prepare the grounds and give them the space to realise their dreams. The digital revolution will affect and benefit every European, but it is the younger generation who will shape it and be shaped by it. This is why the digital economy and society should be at the core of our policy.

To conclude:

A few weeks ago I was in London and visited an exhibition with the work of the German artist Hannah Hoch. Early last century she stated that the purpose of art was not to ‘decorate’ or ‘replicate’ reality, but to act on behalf of the ‘spirit’ and changing values of a generation. Art in essence, had to be rebellious.

For the occasion - and to be bold, I am not a diplomat, as many people are aware - this applies quite often to politics as well. Politicians have to keep in mind to act on behalf of the changing values of a generation and work in their spirit to prepare the grounds for the new generation. If politicians ‘replicate’ and promise the past, or ‘decorate’ the present with one-liners and void ideas, we are missing the opportunity to give the new generation a kick start into the future.

This also accounts for politics in relation to vested interests in present day economy. If we don’t prepare the grounds for innovative new comers and digital developments, in other words: the new generation in business, who will create our jobs and address societal challenges, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Other continents will get there first and will simply take over.

When I think of Europe, I too have a dream. I want this continent to be the most open, secure and competitive internet space in the world. For this we indeed need to be much more daring and even rebellious. To provide our youngsters and innovative new comers with the opportunities for the future, we need to focus on 5 things:

1. Complete the internal market: Starting this year with TSM, and consequently with finalising DSM and creating a European Energy Market.

2. Boost public and private investments into R&D and innovation. Do not think cents and pennies. Think billions.

3. Invest in education and incorporate digitisation in every aspect of it. Starting by coding for kids.

4. Make security and privacy a precondition of our digital life and the industrial value chain of our future products, services and networks. Use the societal debate on privacy and cyber security and turn it into competitive advantage. Say Yes to protection of our data, technology and networks. Say No to protectionism. Work with trusted partners and allies across the whole digital value chain.

5. Change mentality: be entrepreneurial and risk taking. Create the right space and conditions for innovative newcomers. Or in the words of Rovio: Be creative and fearless! Both in policy as in business.

I have travelled to many places on this globe, but there is nothing comparable to what we have here. I love Europe and I think we cannot value it enough. We have to transfer these European characteristics and values to our children. And even more: give them the space to build on it and realise their own dreams.

Winston Churchill said in the context of WW2: Give us the tools and we will finish the job. I say: give the younger generation the digital tools and they will create the jobs. They will create their own future and together they will build the future of a strong and united Europe. In freedom and prosperity. 

The Peace of Nijmegen Medal reminds us that we have to pass on fundamental values such as freedom and peace, so they will never be taken for granted. Values which are close to all our hearts and at the core of a united Europe.

To me, it is a personal privilege to have been awarded this Peace medal this week, 64 years after Robert Schuman presented his declaration, which was the foundation for the EU.

It is my honour to thank the City of Nijmegen, the Radboud University and NXP for providing this opportunity. I also like to express my gratitude for all the important and kind words that were spoken.

I thank you for your attention.


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