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European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR)
News article21 April 2017Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations13 min read

Keynote speech by Commissioner Hahn at Princeton University: Europe and the Crises in its Neighbourhood

Dean Rouse,Dear Professor Danspeckgruber,Excellences,Ladies and gentlemen,Thank you so much for the invitation to speak on these sacred grounds of international affairs.One hundred years after President Woodrow Wilson led the United States into World...

Dean Rouse,

Dear Professor Danspeckgruber,


Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you so much for the invitation to speak on these sacred grounds of international affairs.

One hundred years after President Woodrow Wilson led the United States into World War One – some may say "to save Europe from itself", we may sometimes despair at today's very "un-Wilsonian" world. But that doesn't mean that we can't seek inspiration from President Wilson.

Of course, I am not arguing for a one-to-one implementation of his famous Fourteen Points – but rather to look at some of his basic principles: free trade, openness, democracy. They remain crucial in our connected world.

Ladies and gentlemen,

When you google "Europe" and "crisis" you get a lot of "hits". And I am afraid I can't blame Google for that…

The last decade has seen the "old continent" stumble from one crisis to the next; from a crisis of credibility of elites through the economic and financial crisis to the challenge of global migration. All of these have been skilfully exploited by new populist forces.

It is tragic that a lot of the blame for these issues has been laid at the doorstep of the European Union. As if the EU were the root of all evil, the incubator of the economic crisis, the Trojan horse of globalization, a "prison" of strong, sovereign states.

Today, I will try to counter this point, or actually try to turn it "upside down". Rather than being the root of the problem, the EU is the backbone of a solution to many of the generational challenges we face in Europe and its wider neighbourhood today.

Not because it is on the brink of a giant political leap forward towards a super-state, but simply because we are stronger together; because our Member States can't tackle cross-border problems alone anymore. You don't have to be a blue-eyed Federalist to understand that.

My plea is therefore not one for radical integration, but one for a new European pragmatism, especially on the global and regional level.

Of course, we cannot make the case for Europe in the same way as our founding fathers did 70 years ago. But the basic "raison d'être" of European integration – peace, prosperity and security – is more relevant than ever; in particular in my own area of responsibility – the EU neighbourhood from Eastern Europe and the Caucasus via the Middle East to the Maghreb, and our accession talks in the Balkans.

Yes: we may have thought that Europe's values were a self-fulfilling prophecy in our neighbourhood. Yes: Some thought that political and economic transformations would happen on autopilot, as part of a larger, inevitable historical trend. Be it in Europe itself, be it around the Union.

Well: We were wrong. Geopolitics has come back with a vengeance, in a strange mix of old and new challenges, from brutal regional conflicts to climate change and energy insecurity. We started building a ring of friends. We got a "ring of fire" instead.

Unfortunately Europe doesn't have the geopolitical luxury of being protected by two oceans. It is basically an appendix to the Eurasian landmass. Therefore, what happens in Eastern Ukraine, in Syria, in Libya, has a direct impact on us.

So we can't simply wall ourselves in. We need to reach out. If we don't actively export stability, security and opportunities, we are bound to import instability and insecurity.

At the same time, there is no need to engage in self-defeating pessimism - we are the largest trading block in the world, producing nearly a quarter of the world's GDP with only seven percent of global population. We have, despite all issues, maintained a massive quality of life. We are the biggest trading partner of 80 nations in all corners of the globe. But we must leverage that power more intelligently.

Let me illustrate that with a few examples from my daily work:

Let me start with the broader neighbourhood, this arc of instability from Eastern Europe through the Middle East and Africa; it sometimes seems that someone threw all possible problems at these regions: ethnic hatred and pseudo-religious extremism; dictators waging war at their own people, outside powers meddling; and all of this on top of complicated structural problems like economic monocultures, climate issues and a demographic explosion.

Still, we shouldn't fall into the traditional trap of "Euro-Masochism". It is not that Europe has "failed" these partners. But we must improve our game, in our very own self-interest. Don't get me wrong please. I don't want to lower the bar. What I want a smarter, tailor-made neighbourhood policy that focuses on the real fundamentals where it can.

First, after a root-and-branch reform of the European Neighbourhood Policy which I conducted in my first year in office, we are now zooming in on stabilization in the true sense of the word, politically and economically.

Over the last decade and a half, we sometimes got ahead of ourselves. We became overly optimistic in legalistic crash-modernization, instead of acknowledging how complex the transformational process of our neighbours was. But as one of my predecessors said, Chris Patten: "Democracy is not instant coffee."

Stabilization means prioritising socio-economic development: Employment and employability, including vocational training, are key to tackling many of our shared challenges including migration and radicalisation. Instead of an arc of instability, I want to build a belt of prosperity around Europe.

I don't have to explain the youth-bulge of these countries. One example should be sufficient: we have more than 7000 births per day in Egypt alone – that's about 2.5 million new Egyptians a year. The Egyptian Cooperation Ministry even installed a giant clock along a highway in Cairo to "count" this figure. That's why I am reorienting most of our assistance to Egypt to socio-economic levers, esp. jobs-generating sectors.

The EU has really started to think out of the box here: where others are considering fences and walls, we have negotiated fast and far-reaching Free Trade Agreements to realize quick commercial wins for our citizens and neighbours alike. Open markets open minds! The most advanced ones – with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – are de facto integrating these countries into the EU's market and hopefully immunize them more and more against outside interventions. They have already led to an impressive surge in exports from these countries to the EU.

The next such agreements, esp. with Tunisia, are in the pipeline. With Jordan, we have focused our trade measures on regions and sectors with a high refugee-population. And with Armenia, we have found a balanced deal that shows we do not consider our neighbourhood an exclusive sphere of influence.

New "growth missions" with European investors also deploy the potential of the private sector. We are launching more seed funding for start-ups in the East and South – exactly because access to capital is a massive problem for them.

Through more student and youth exchanges we invest in future generations. Last but not least, we must boost new avenues of legal, circular migration. Currently, the only way of getting into the EU is by risking your life and then asking for political asylum. That can't be smart, although it's not exactly popular to say that back home.

A second key point in tackling the crises in our neighbourhood: We must be more hard-headed in pursuing our European interests, and seeing those of our partners.

Again, we must not practice a mistaken "realpolitik" that got us into trouble in the first place. But we must acknowledge that good intentions and money alone don't buy us reforms, let alone respect for universal values. You cannot turn on the light of modernization with the flick of a switch. We can only support reformers where they themselves choose that path, and must do so less mechanically, with less "megaphone diplomacy".

A test case for this policy, I won't hide it, is Libya, which is currently the main thoroughfare on the Central Mediterranean migration route.

In addition to pushing forward the political transition - a pretty tall order per se, we are also, frankly, adding "filters" along the migration route: from training and financing the Libyan coastguard so that it can finally control its coastline, to ensuring humanitarian standards in the migrant camps along the coast; from breaking the business models of local smugglers and offering them economic alternatives to improving controls at the southern borders, we are tightening all stages of the route.

We have also lined up a European Investment Plan that, with EU funding as a backstop guarantee, is meant to leverage billions of private investment in the source states of migration, especially in Africa where we have 19 of the world's twenty most demographically explosive states (except Afghanistan). And we must get better at resettling the most vulnerable refugees, be it in the region or directly to Europe. Here, we are certainly not as generous as we should be.

Let me turn to Syria, this terrible stain on our international conscience. I will not dwell on the latest, complicated picture on the ground, nor will I comment on whether and how Western forces should intervene, and on which red lines.

Not because I would be ducking responsibility here, but because the EU believes that, ultimately, there can be no military solution to the conflict. Only a credible political solution, as defined in UNSCR 2254 and the 2012 Geneva Communiqué will ensure peace and stability in the country and at the same time enable a decisive defeat of Da'esh and other terrorist groups.

I will not hide my personal disappointment with the lack of speed of this political process. But in the end it's the only game in town. I am not saying that clinical military strikes can't be useful. They can. But they have no meaning without a broader political strategy.

My specific job, in turn, is to bolster the resilience of the people of Syria and of the host communities in neighbouring countries. We just passed an important milestone with the continuation with our multi-billion pledges at the Brussels Syria Conference two weeks ago.

Frankly, this makes me proud to be European – exactly because I have so often seen the real difference we make on the ground: from basic humanitarian support to putting kids through schools to financing start-ups run by refugees.

At the same time, let's face it: Europe is too often a mere payer, and not often enough a player. I want us to be more level-headed when it comes to leveraging our money into political influence.

Let me turn to another key player in the region - Turkey:

I am afraid we are now reaching a point of no return with Ankara. There can be no more business as usual, in which we simply pretend to believe them about their commitment to join the EU, while events on the ground speak a different language, unfortunately.

Too much backsliding on key areas of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms has occurred over the last few years – already long before last year's attempted coup, and culminating in last Sunday's referendum on the very problematic new Constitution.

Simply put: It's time that Mr. Erdogan tells us openly where he is heading. This is becoming an issue of credibility for both sides.

Of course, we should not recklessly disengage. That would be short-sighted. Geography is destiny, and we continue to share a wide array of mutual interests with Turkey, from security to trade, from energy to migration management. On the latter, we have agreed on an arrangement that holds, in the interest of both sides.

The strategic question is more whether these shared interests and common gains are best pursued together in an EU accession context – which is increasingly fictional anyway, given Turkey's trajectory, or in an alternative, more realistic yet still ambitious and comprehensive setting.

We will have a first discussion among EU Foreign Ministers about this next week. So stay tuned.

That brings me to the Western Balkans, our own "front-yard" if you will. This is where our policy of "exporting stability" remains particularly relevant. Our job is not done there. It is vital to keep a credible, firm EU accession perspective to the region as an anchor of strategic stability and reforms. The migration crisis actually showed that the region is already an enclave inside the EU.

Still, the fact that EU leaders just recently reaffirmed the path of the entire region to full EU membership is no small feat, especially at times of internal "enlargement fatigue" and one Member State rushing to the exit.

As we know, politics abhors a vacuum. If we were to get wobbly in our commitments in the Balkans, someone else could wrestle in – and that someone is actually already trying. In that sense, EU enlargement, with all conditions and criteria, is the best security policy the EU has ever had – just imagine where Poland, the Baltics or others would be today if we hadn't used the time-window of the 1990ies.

At the same time, enlargement is not a free lunch. Only local leaders can do the job and deliver to their citizens. They must step up to the plate and build on the progress that has been made. We need to see political will instead of political games, and real reforms not on paper but on the ground – especially in the key areas of the rule of law, competitiveness and connectivity. That may endanger the business model of some individuals - but strategically, there is no alternative. Their citizens know that.

The EU is "by far the best game in town". But again, we all must be ready to play! We must be better – and tougher - at using our soft power of attraction. We can't take it for granted. Europe's gravity might be a force of nature, but it has to be deployed intelligently.

For example, a majority of Serbs still believe that Russia is the biggest investor in their country – while Austria alone invests four times more than Russia. I think such misperceptions capture our problem nicely. The issue is not Russia. The issue is that we don't tell our own story with enough determination.

Ladies and gentlemen,

To cut a long story short: The case for European integration remains strong.

Not in the sense of complex institutional integration, let alone the "T-word" - Treaty change; but rather in terms of practical cooperation, of getting things done together. You could call this a new European functionalism, not least on the international stage.

As a former businessman and manager, I am a fan of practical tests: does it work or not? If not, why not? And until when can we get it done.

I firmly believe that we need this new pragmatism, not our European specialty of institutional navel-gazing; and this especially in the field of foreign policy. Form follows function!

This also means that we are inevitably heading towards a new division of labour with our American friends. Not in the sense of competition, but in a new burden-sharing.

Over the last decades, every incoming US administration has asked for this - and understandably so. Writing bills may not be the best way to go, but taking a hard look at "who does what" is perfectly legitimate, I believe.

Clearly, Europe needs to shoulder more in its immediate neighbourhood rather than waiting until Washington bails us out. We need to get our own act together. And we can. That's partly a matter of resources; but first and foremost a matter of collective political will. We are already doing it in most of the Balkans, as a crisis-manager and -solver. We should do it elsewhere too.

That renewed pragmatism could be the European cornerstone of a renewed Atlantic alliance.

Thank you very much. I look forward to your questions.