Speech by Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at the European Forum Alpbach
Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen; thank you, Mr President; thank you, Franz Fischler, for the invitation and for the opportunity to return to Alpbach.
As it has just been pointed out, I came here for the first time as a scholarship holder, over 10 years ago. I’ve now been to Alpbach more than 10 times. We’ve just realised, Franz, that I’ve been here more often than you, but since you’ve always stayed here for a considerable period of time, you’ve spent more days here in total. But after so many years in Alpbach, I associate many positive memories with Alpbach, of course.
I am delighted to be able to speak for a few minutes, uncontested, but am looking forward even more to the subsequent discussion, because that’s what this is actually about. With so many guests of honour here I cannot welcome everyone by name, but Mr Federal President, Mr Former Vice-Chancellor and, perhaps representing everybody, Mr Ban Ki-moon, it is a great honour for us that you and your wife have come to Alpbach; we are always delighted to welcome you to Austria. It’s good to see you here.
As Franz Fischler mentioned in his introduction, we – the Republic of Austria – took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union on 1 July at a very, I would say, internationally challenging time, in a very challenging international environment. We are facing that the tensions we have had with Russia for a number of years remain unresolved. We are experiencing that China has a very positive economic development and impressive growth, but that its core set of values, its image of society, and its image of democracy and the rule of law are very far removed from ours. We are experiencing increasing unpredictability in the USA, which is certainly a change considering that the USA had always been our strong transatlantic partner. Since the migration crisis and before that the financial crisis, we have been experiencing increased tensions within the European Union, and with the Brexit, for the first time, a country is voluntarily leaving the European Union. Probably the most important goal for our presidency must therefore be to do everything we can to at least ensure that after Brexit there will still be good links and strong cooperations between the EU27 and the UK. Because anything else would mean massive economic and political disadvantages not just for the UK, but also and above all for the EU27.
Looking at all these developments, especially in Europe, it almost seems – and as foreign minister, I sometimes felt that this was the case – as if the European Union were powerless against all the developments taking place. Too slow in the decision-making process to be internationally competitive, sometimes too divided to find common lines in key issues, sometimes too weak in foreign policy to stand up to the superpowers and to be the kind of player we would like to be.
I believe, however, that when faced with all these challenges and also the need for further development in the European Union, it is absolutely crucial that we – all of us together – do not forget what the European Union actually is: the greatest success project of the 20th century. A success project that in its unique way guarantees peace, freedom and at least modest prosperity for 500 million people, that internationally makes by far the greatest contributions to development cooperation, internationally more than half of everything done worldwide in order to improve living conditions elsewhere, outside Europe.
And most importantly, especially for us as younger people, it guarantees that the European way of life continues to exist as we know and value it – something that cannot by any means be taken for granted elsewhere in the world. I believe this can and should produce a healthy sense of European identity among us all. Not vain pride and certainly not nationalism, but a healthy sense of identity as Europeans. And I believe that this sense of identity should involve a feeling of gratitude: to the generation that built the European Union, but also the sense of responsibility that we must all remain committed, day after day, to ensure that the European Union continues to develop in a positive way. And I believe that if we want the European Union to develop in a positive way, we must start by strengthening the foundations – what defines us, what gives the European Union stability. We must also correct the course where necessary and I believe it is also time to take courageous decisions.
What do I mean when I say we need to strengthen the foundations of the European Union? I believe that what defines the European Union and makes it strong is not the sum of the funding distributed, not the number of civil servants in Brussels and not necessarily just our overall economic performance. What primarily defines us as the European Union are our fundamental values: the rule of law, democracy, freedom.
The basis for us in Europe and also an area where there can be no compromises when undesirable developments occur. Moreover, our foundations also allow us to live in peace, security and stability to an extent that is actually inconceivable in almost all other regions of the world. And to ensure that this can continue to be guaranteed, we believe that stronger cooperation is needed in the field of security and defence policy. Not in order to get in NATO’s way or as a counter-model, but because it will be an important foundation for us in Europe, in order to enable us to safeguard peace and stability in the long term. This also includes proper protection of external borders, of course: only if we work together as Europeans to secure our external borders we can ensure that the Europe without internal borders in which everyone of my age grew up, can continue to be a matter of course in future.
And I believe that if we want to strengthen our foundations, then – as Franz Fischler has already mentioned – it is also important that we keep in mind the motto of the European Union. This motto is ‘United in Diversity’ and not ‘Divided in Equality’. In my view, this means that we should resolutely continue what Jean-Claude Juncker committed to do at the start of his presidency and has attempted to put into practice in recent years: create a Europe of subsidiarity, focus more on major issues where common answers are needed, and at the same time allow the European Union to take a step back in issues where regions or member states can make their own decisions. I believe that only when we really live the principle of subsidiarity the diversity that we know and value in the European Union will continue to remain our strength.
In addition to strong foundations, there is a definite need to change course when undesirable developments took place. And I believe – and this is something I experienced, unfortunately, as foreign minister – that recent years have increasingly led to divisions in Europe that are too profound for a Union to be united. We have a north that repeatedly complains about the south; we have a west that grumbles about the east, and sometimes vice versa too. If we do not succeed in bridging these divides, if we do not succeed in acting in a more united manner once again, we will not be able to deploy the full power of the European Union. During our presidency, we therefore want to play a part and take unifying action here. I very much hope that we will succeed in the medium term, that we – even when there are different families of parties, different member states, different historical developments and opinions on major issues – that we will still succeed in acting jointly and in unity and also in tolerating these different approaches and opinions. Only if we succeed in doing so the European Union will be able to deploy its full power.
And now for the last point that I would like to address: I believe that, in addition to strong foundations and course corrections – where this is necessary – what we need above all are courageous decisions. I feel it is important here to address the fact that we do not currently have a complete European Union, in a geographical sense. For as long as the Western Balkan countries are not part of the European Union, Europe will not be complete. In recent years we have experienced a strong sense of enlargement fatigue, we have heard such statements as, that there will be no enlargement in the next five years, which is of course a statement of fact but at the same time was understood as somewhat dismissive in this region.
We are now experiencing a very positive dynamic. It is not just that the Western Balkan states are trying to implement important reforms. There has been a solution in the naming dispute between Skopje and Athens and also a marked rapprochement between Serbia and Kosovo. I believe that we, as the European Union, must support this positive dynamic by positively supporting rather than hindering all the solutions achieved there, by not trying to press our own views on those who are on the ground agreeing on the settlement of disputes, but by encouraging them as best we can in this project and also making an effort to ensure that they have the support of their population. If we succeed in harnessing the momentum that currently exists in the Western Balkans, we will be able to succeed in turning the European perspective in these countries into a European reality. And I believe that this courageous decision will be important if we want the countries to take steps towards integration rather than isolation, and above all if we want them to develop in a European direction and not in other directions. However, making courageous decisions also means making courageous decisions when it comes to determining where the money will go. We are currently experiencing that some regions in the world are not just catching us up, but even overtaking us in some cases. Singapore, for example, was a developing country 40 years ago, but has now overtaken many European countries in terms of prosperity. Israel is a country of about the same size as Austria, but investment in start-ups there is on a similar scale to that in Germany, a country around ten times the size. And if we look at the large internet companies and high-growth businesses, we quickly realise that almost all are based in the USA or Asia and hardly any in the European Union.
As the federal government, we are therefore making every effort to increase investment in education. We are investing more in preschools than before, and our new university funding scheme has provided a clear boost with regard to the funding of universities. The same is needed in the European Union too. Only if we invest in innovation, in education, in research and development, and also make bold investment decisions in these areas we can remain competitive, ensuring that we can maintain the prosperity that has been achieved as well as the welfare systems.
I believe that if we all make a joint effort, we will succeed in enabling the European Union even in challenging times to take a small step, every day, for the better. And if we achieve this, I believe that we can together ensure that the European Union is not just the strong international player of the 20th century, but will continue to be so in the 21st century, too.