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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda
Europe and Australia are essential partners
Europe – Australia Business Council lecture and conversation with Minister Turnbull
Sydney, 20 June 2014
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Minister Turnbull, Ambassadors, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is simply great to be back in Sydney after many years away.
I have a real love affair with this city and its people, having spent time on the board of Brambles in the 1990s. And it is a delight to be here getting food for thought and inspiration from your activities.
Having said that, I know you are also interested to hear about the European elections and all the associated discussions.
Clearly the election results are forcing Europeans from all backgrounds to confront some tough questions about what they want from their Union.
After six years of recession and stagnation, the real surprise would have been if the incumbents held their ground in the election.
But no matter what hits us, the EU always pulls through. You should not mistake the results as meaning a policy gridlock in Brussels.
Why ? 70% of voters chose pro-EU parties and we have a lot of stabilisers built into our system. These should reassure external partners like Australia.
To give you two examples,
Having said all that, there are geopolitical concerns, also outside of the EU, that make me value the friendship between Europe and Australia more than ever. If you will allow, I will share a personal story to show you my point.
I was born in Rotterdam, another port city, full of dreams and ambitions, like Sydney.
Just before I was born, in 1941, the German army bombed Rotterdam. The Nazis devastated the city: killing 800 and making hundreds of thousands homeless.
I wasn’t homeless, or in poverty, thank heavens. But I can still remember from the age of 4 or 5 walking to school through an open field. Not a pretty field that you might imagine. But a field of bricks and concrete and devastation that the bombing had caused. We faced that for years. We grew up facing the past every single day.
Sometimes these events can feel like a long time ago, or far away from a country like Australia. Caused by leaders and people who made the wrong decisions under different, unrepeatable, circumstances.
I get that, I really do. If you’ve never experienced the violence of war, or its far reaching consequences … well, of course it is difficult to imagine how it changes your perspective.
But for me I learnt valuable lessons:
And that’s what the EU is all about for me. It is not a transaction, it is our foundation of peace and prosperty.
The year 2014 is very relevant to those thoughts:
It’s relevant because you don’t have to look far into Europe’s backyard to see that we can never be complacent. Whether you live in Melbourne or Marseilles – don’t believe war can never happen again.
That is why we can’t forget or gloss over the importance of what the EU has achieved.
When I joined the Dutch cabinet in the 1970s more than half the Continent lived under Communism or military rule. Our single market was a nice idea, not a reality. When I left the government 10 years later, things were better … but not by much. The EU had grown only to 12 member states.
If you had told me of the changes since 2000, I would have sent you to a psychiatric hospital! As the former President of a psychiatric hospital I can say that!
28 members instead of 12. A continent reunited. A common currency with a waiting list to join. The world’s biggest economic market of 510 million consumers.
If you want to see the effect of the EU – look at Poland and Ukraine. They share a border and much heritage. They were in the same situation 25 years ago this month. The difference today is that Poland broke free from Communism and joined the EU. They shaped their institutions by joining with ours. They avoided recession, like Australia did. And today Poland is four times richer than Ukraine.
It’s a miracle when you step back to look at that big picture. To bring democracy out of the ashes - in not one but 15 countries – is a rare and beautiful achievement.
It is a long way from where the people of Russia and North Africa find themselves today. And for all of China’s achievements – I know I would choose to live in Poland if faced with a choice between them.
And that tells me why our relationship – Europe and Australia – matters and endures. Like Australia we believe in a rules-based global order. We know that it takes more than trade to guarantee peace and prosperity. It takes shared values and institutions and friendships to guarantee that.
So take from me that I personally, and Europe – its people and its institutions - will stay united in that view.
We know the price of division. One the one hand, in 1914, Europe's nationalism divided our continent and killed 37 million. On the other hand, the year 1944 represents what unprecedented unification between allies can achieve. And that includes the Australians who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of all of us in this room.
They knew that if fascism conquered Europe and Asia, there would be no real freedom at home. And we continue to thank you for it. The timeless lesson is that to maintain peace and prosperity, we need to unite.
That is again Europe’s challenge in 2014.
Some find it easier to unite around the national state – it feels safer, and easier, a clearer identity. The reasons are obvious. We recognise sources of power close to us, and we feel we can hold them accountable - in a way we do not feel about people we haven’t met or rarely see on TV. It is a natural and direct response to the complexity of today’s global challenges.
And yet those challenges will not go away. And we certainly do not gain control by running away from them. From Climate change to cyber-crime we face challenges that don’t stop at borders, that don’t even recognise borders.
We must also see the contradiction of shutting ourselves behind national borders. Today we travel, eat, study and entertain ourselves from a global selection of options. We accept that globalisation is a two-way street when it suits us. We can’t pretend it is a one-way street, or a dead end street when it doesn’t suit us.
Having said all that there was still a protest at the ballot box. What does it change for Europe and Australia?
As I hinted before, only 13% of citizens voted for the extreme right, much less for the extreme left. That leaves a clear majority who can still legislate in the general interest.
We are not facing Capitol Hill gridlock.
Yes, trade deals can expect more scrutiny, but the road ahead is not blocked at our end.
We must push ahead with the EU-Australia framework agreement under negotiation – and I hope that is a message you pass to all members of the Australian government as I do to Minister Turnbull today, so we can then extend our relationship further. It is true that both Australia and Europe have busy agendas when it comes to other trade discussions and partners. But smart leaders, like smart investors, always spread their bets.
Let me finally touch on one example close to my heart. I am certain that one of the first votes of the new Parliament will be to finalise a draft regulation I proposed in 2013 for a “Connected Continent.” That law will end mobile roaming charges in Europe, and legally guarantee the open, unified and neutral Internet. Exactly the sort of practical improvement to everyday life that around 80-90% of Europeans support. It will help give new opportunities to companies like those building your National Broadband Network – innovators like Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent, Nokia Siemens and more.
In summary: it will not be business as usual in Brussels, but business will go on.
What about the leadership ?
Even the ones that didn’t vote, have said: we want a different kind of Europe. Europe is ready for change in the tone and scope of EU ambition. Europeans want the efficiency and opportunity of being united – but they don’t want a Mother Superior in Brussels.
So we have to start with the question of what we want to achieve in policy in the next 5 years and once we know that, then we need to think about who can achieve that.
To be credible we need fresh faces with fresh ideas. Europeans will not be satisfied with the generation that managed the lead up to crisis and the great recession and stagnation that followed.
I think we seriously need to consider female candidates for the Commission and Council President posts.
But most of all we need the highest quality candidates who can lead us into the more open and digital future. Leaders who are confident enough to give space to Europe’s diversity.
I think other good news for Australia is that the EU will be forced to focus on what it does best: bringing down barriers.
That makes me think of Winston Churchill. He said to Roosevelt in 1941, via radio broadcast to his compatriots, “Give us the tools and we will finish the job.”
Once upon a time, the leaders of Europe might have made that request of the people of Europe. Today it is the other way around.
Europeans wants peace and opportunity and prosperity. They want to be enabled to achieve these things: they want European leaders to give them the tools, and then they want to finish the job themselves.
Let me finish by paying a compliment to Australia. You have achieved a real miracle here. You have created a welcoming, growing multicultural society.
A country where a man who did not speak English 20 years ago, Matthias Cormann, can leave Belgium today be the Finance Minister in Australia. A country where Tanya Plibersek’s parents can escape the shadow of the Iron Curtain and raise her in peace and sunshine on the way to the top of her party. That they can reach these places in their early 40s only adds to the compliment.
Like Australians, I pride myself on being pragmatic and focussed on outcomes. So for me it is critical that we capture that changing spirit and chase the complacency out of Europe.
We will work with you to bring down barriers, and we will work amongst ourselves to do the same.
In the global scene we will continue working together – at the G20, at the United Nations, and bilaterally to guarantee our freedoms and further our prosperity.