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First of all, thank you very much for the invitation and for being here with me this afternoon.
This university holds a unique place in the world. It is home to great thinkers of the past, from Erasmus onwards, and inspiring leaders of today such as King Abdullah of Jordan, who I know was studying here, and Malala [Yousafzai, Nobel Prize Laureate], who I know is still studying here.
I am also humbled to follow in the steps of many great leaders who were invited to deliver this Cyril Foster Lecture – among them a founding father of the European Union, Paul-Henri Spaak, and four Secretary Generals of the United Nations. I am honoured and I am humbled for being here with you today.
I was particularly struck by some quotes from my predecessor as High Representative [of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy], Javier Solana, who gave this lecture just over ten years ago.
He started his speech at that time with a question: “Why should the European Union play a global role?” I will argue that a decade later, this question is, in a way, outdated – because the European Union is already playing a global role. The title of my speech today is not a question any longer, but an established fact.
Yet, it is still worth answering that question, because we Europeans too often seem to forget the answer to that question, and also because the answer has changed, compared to a decade ago.
The European Union must play a global role because there is no other way to advance our values and our interests. If we want to prevent chaos from spreading, if we want a peaceful resolution of conflicts and a more equal global economy, we need to engage directly in world affairs. We cannot expect someone else to do the job. We have to take responsibility directly.
But there is also another reason, and it has to do with something very popular across Europe and across the UK as well, which is “taking back control”. Today’s challenges in the world are definitely too big for any European nation state. From global trade disputes to artificial intelligence, decisions are shaped by those who have or can mobilise a critical mass at the global level. Whether we like it or not, a lot of the power today lies with continent-sized powers, but also with companies such as Google or Facebook, with billions of users.
In such a world, the European Union is our best way as Europeans to regain sovereignty, in a globalised world. It is our collective way of taking back control as Europeans.
If I look back at these five years, I see a European Union that has worked to protect our common interests and advance our values on the global scene. And by doing so, we have also become a global point of reference for all those sharing those interests and values.
We are living difficult times, a global disorder that is clearly in front of us. In this moment of chaos, the European Union has been and is part of a global push to address such disorder through cooperation. I think first and foremost of the work we have done to achieve the nuclear deal with Iran, which prevented a nuclear arms race in a region that was already too tense and is still preventing a conflict in the region.
Building on that deal, we at the time managed for a short period of time – too short, unfortunately – to bring all regional powers around the same table to discuss how to end the war in Syria. I believe that such format would be very much needed today. And in the very same months in 2015 we also worked to reinvigorate the Middle East Quartet, to protect the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. It seems very long ago – and it is.
It was an expansion phase for multilateralism, well beyond the Middle East. On the global scene, Europe was central to achieving the Paris agreement against climate change, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It was a moment of hope. But after that expansion phase, a contraction phase followed for multilateralism and for a cooperative approach to foreign policy. Cooperation among global and regional powers was replaced by a new cycle of power competition. We witnessed a new attack against the UN system, possibly the most violent since its foundation.
Multilateralism is an essential part of who we are, as Europeans. The European Union itself is a multilateral project. It is probably the most successful multilateral experiment that history has ever seen. Multilateralism is written in our DNA and it is a founding value of the European Union and, I believe, for Europeans. At the same time, multilateral agreements such as the nuclear deal with Iran or the Paris agreement have also greatly advanced our interests. I underline this, because too often we fall into the trap of putting one against the other – our values against our interests – without understanding that the real way of serving our interests is being true to our values.
As the tide started to turn, the European Union has worked first and foremost to preserve the UN system and the multilateral agreements that we had contributed to achieving. We have become an indispensable natural partner in this work, and at the same time, a global point of reference and a champion of multilateralism. In the meantime, we have never stopped exploring new multilateral solutions to the great crises of our times. We have always tried to create the space for multilateral dialogue, for negotiations and for exploring win-win solutions even when dialogue and cooperation seemed to be completely impossible. And sometimes we failed; but sometimes we succeeded.
In Venezuela, for instance. In a moment when military confrontation seemed almost inevitable, we created the International Contact Group with partners from Latin America, Europe and the international community to first and foremost stop the escalation and move towards a more positive dynamic – one that could lead towards a peaceful and democratic solution to the crisis.
Wherever there was confrontation, we have tried to bring all players to the negotiating table and sometimes to actually create the table where there was none. We have not been alone in this work. We have always worked together with partners such as the United Nations and the African Union. We have stepped up our practical cooperation with all our partners in Eastern Europe. And in many cases we have created new alliances with other partners that share our goals. We have helped establish the Group of five Sahel countries – the G5 Sahel - and their joint military force. We have strengthened our ties with ASEAN, but also with Mercosur and the Pacific Alliance, trying to invest in friendships everywhere in the world to try and build networks that could sustain the multilateral agenda.
Winston Churchill [Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, 1940-1945] believed that the UN system – and I quote – “can only survive if it is founded upon broad natural, regional groupings.” This is also our logic: building a network of regional organisations that work towards our same goals. This is our way to keep the multilateral system alive, and make it work better.
I am particularly proud of the work we have done with Africa. We have left behind any colonial legacy - and we know that history has been heavy in that respect - and even the old “donor-recipient” approach. In these years we have always focused on what Europe and Africa have in common, realising that our priorities and objectives very often coincide. They were not necessarily at two different sides at the table, but in most cases we sit at the same table, which is a round one, and share the same objectives. A strong Africa is one of our core strategic interests. And this is the logic behind our European External Investment Plan for Africa – the largest ever investment plan for the continent. Some ask for a Marshall Plan for Africa. I always say we already have one. It is not American, it is European one.
All this work has required a change of mind-set inside Europe – and this is still work in progress and it is fight every day. We are progressively realising that there is no contradiction nor competition between the national interests of European countries and our collective European interest. On the contrary, I believe that we are slowly realising – one step forward, two steps backwards, two steps forward, one step back – that there is no contradiction. On the contrary, the only way to effectively serve national interests is through our collective instruments and policies.
A couple of examples: Again, preserving the nuclear deal with Iran is a collective European interest as well as a national interest of each and every European country. And the same is true for growth in Africa, or for Ukraine’s resilience.
This was one of the key ideas behind the Global Strategy for foreign and security policy that we prepared in my first two years of mandate. I was certain that we could define a common European vision about our joint role in the world. A vision that was not just the lowest common denominator, but a practical and even very concrete road map for the years ahead. Thanks to that work, to which some in the academic world have contributed enormously, we have achieved progress that seemed totally impossible only three years ago.
I will give one example that speaks for all, on European defence. Building a European Defence Community was the dream of our founding fathers and let me also say mothers – even if they were few and less visible than the fathers, but still there were some -, some 70 years ago. It was a dream that never turned into reality. Today, we have finally made this dream come true, although in a very different way compared to what [Winston] Churchill imagined. Originally, the dream of defence integration was all about making war impossible between European countries in an irreversible way.
That is still a core part of the European project, this is still a core part of the European Union’s value that our generation can take for granted exactly because the European Union exists, and has been so successful in building peace and cooperation among us. Once you share the same interests, you do not go to war against each other. But today European integration also serves a different purpose. It is about our role in the world as a global security provider. It is about being a global force for peace. And it is about regaining our sovereignty in an environment that is completely different from that of the 1950s.
This has nothing to do with an EU army. On the contrary, I am convinced that we managed to achieve progress on European defence because we put aside the never-ending quarrel about a European army. And we focused instead on practical steps that we could take immediately, and were immediately needed by Europeans and by Member States themselves.
For instance, we have worked to equip ourselves with the full spectrum of defence capabilities that security in the 21st century requires. We need the most advanced cyber defence technologies, and we need our militaries to be capable of intervening in the aftermath of a natural disaster. We need drones and satellites, as much as we need systems to protect our ships from all sorts of threats at sea.
No European country can develop this huge range of capabilities alone – not one. But together, as Europeans, we can. How? By using economies of scale and overcoming fragmentation. And this is exactly what we have started to do in these last three years – through our new Permanent Structured Cooperation, the European Defence Fund and all the tools that we have set up in the aftermath of the Global Strategy.
We have worked to make Europe more autonomous, and at the same time, we have strengthened our partnerships like never before – most of all, our cooperation with NATO. I call it “cooperative autonomy”. And we have proven wrong all those that were betting on the fact that strengthening autonomy of the European Union would have been to the detriment of partnerships, first of all with NATO, but also with others. We have done exactly the contrary, the two at the same time, in an unprecedented manner.
The European Union’s capacity to be a global player depends primarily on our resolve to play that role. We clearly have the potential to be a global power. Fulfilling such potential, is primarily a matter of political will. It does not need to change our treaties and our structures, but to take the decision to use all the instruments that we already have.
Ten years ago, in his speech here in Oxford, Javier Solana had already clear in mind the next steps to develop a stronger EU foreign policy. Let me quote him again: “If the European Union gets its act together on energy, climate change and migration, we will have created big building blocks for a foreign policy fit for the 21st century.” And indeed today I believe that we have started to do it in all those fields. On climate change, this is quite clear. We are leading the work on the global scene. On energy, we are starting to realise how much of a geopolitical interests and how much autonomy is there, when we work on energy.
And on migration: when I arrived to Brussels, I was shocked to see that the Foreign Ministers of the European Union were simply not dealing with migration. As I was an Italian Foreign Minister, you can imagine how much of a distance there was between my national experience and the European one. It was simply considered an issue for Interior Ministers only – as if migration could be dealt with as a mere border issue.
Obviously, it is not just about borders. It is about how and why people get out of their countries and to our borders. It is about the criminal networks that exploit peoples’ desperation. It is about saving lives at sea and in the desert, where you see people losing their lives and where you do not see them. It is about investments and job opportunities, it is about human rights and good governance.
We started investing together, we started looking together as Europeans, into the dynamics of the phenomenon and we started to act together with our partners on this, to create jobs or to address security issues, for instance in a crucial area such as the Sahel – the major transit route from the African countries of origin to Europe. We set up an unprecedented form of trilateral and extremely effective cooperation with the African Union and the UN agencies dealing with migrants and refugees – the IOM [International Organisation for Migration] and the UNHCR [United Nations Refugee Agency] - helping over 50,000 people who were “detained” in Libya’s detention centres to get out of the centres and to be saved. Thanks to the work that the European Union, the African Union and the UN collectively have done, they were able to get back home safely, voluntarily and in a protected manner and start a new life.
This work was part of the change in mind-set that I have described: moving away from crisis management mode only – that is a strong temptation if you are surrounded by so many crisis -, looking beyond the crises of the moment, and working to prevent the next crisis, or to stabilise countries that are coming out of a conflict and that risk to fall back again into a crisis mode, if you do not invest to stabilise them properly.
We put the concept of resilience at the centre of our work. I could mention the work we have done in Iraq or in Colombia, but the best example is our engagement with Ukraine. The conflict in Donbass and the illegal annexation of Crimea are still ongoing. But compared to five years ago, Ukraine is a completely different country. It is a much stronger country, thanks primarily to the Ukrainian people’s stubborn demand and work for change – anti-corruption, reforms -, but also thanks to the European Union’s contribution. In five years, we have put together the largest support package in the history of the European Union. No one has invested in Ukraine as much as we did and we have never invested anywhere else as much as we have invested in Ukraine.
No individual European country could have done the same alone – not one. Such work truly makes a positive difference in the life of millions, inside and outside the European Union. Sometimes I imagine what would happen in the world, if the European Union external action was to disappear for 24 hours. What would happen in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America, in the Arctic, along the maritime routes, to the UN? No individual country can do this alone and I think they all realise the potential of a united European foreign policy – with Member States and European institutions acting in unison. Yet, the work we have started in these years has been difficult and continues to be difficult, and needs to be consolidated and completed. Some bold decisions will have to be taken by European leaders – some consistency will be needed - already in the coming days and weeks.
Let me mention the first such decision that I imagine will be coming in the next couple of days will be about the Balkans and their future within the European Union. Europe will be a strong global force only if we complete the work to stabilise our own continent, and to make war impossible in an irreversible inside Europe – all of Europe. Because every time I say that Europe has been in peace for 60, 70 years, I am reminded, and rightly so, of the wars in the Balkans that happened only 20 years ago. To do so – to make war impossible inside our continent - we need to unify Europe, bringing the Balkans within the European Union.
In these years we have achieved some crucial steps: the Prespa agreement between Greece and North Macedonia, important progress – even if with difficult setbacks - in the talks between Belgrade and Pristina, some crucial reforms all across the region and in each of the six partners we have in the Western Balkans. And most importantly, a completely new awareness in the region, among the leaders and the people of the region, that cooperation among them is more convenient than confrontation. This is the very same basic principle that is at the origin of the first steps towards the European Union, after World War II. We stopped fighting each other in the moment we realised that making business together was much more convenient than fighting each other. To consolidate this progress in the Balkans, it is now time to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. And I hope our leaders will take the right decision in the coming days.
At the same time, we must push forward the work on Europe’s strategic autonomy. This is not just about security and defence – we have discussed that also. It is about the freedom of European countries to choose their trade partners autonomously, based on our interests and values, and not on decisions taken in other capitals. Strategic autonomy is about the role of the euro in the international financial system. And it is about our capacity to set rules on a global level – for instance the rules on data protection or on artificial intelligence. Strategic autonomy is about contributing to shaping a more cooperative global order – more democratic, more equal and more peaceful.
Europe is not alone in this endeavour. We may feel more and more lonely – sometimes it is also a personal feeling that the world is not going in a direction that you wish it was going -, but there is a whole world that shares our goals and our aspirations. From Canada to South East Asia, from Chile to New Zealand, many all around the world share our approach to world politics.
And there is a new generation of leaders who have the courage of seeking peace after decades of war – I think for instance at the winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia [Abiy Ahmed] – a brave, young man who I have met several times and who has invested enormously not only in his country, but also in trying to change the dynamics in a difficult region in Africa and inspiring the continent as a whole.
But even more importantly, there is hope coming from so many of our societies. Citizens who are taking responsibility for their countries, and for our planet. There was a great US President not long ago who said, the most important office in a democracy is not the president, or the prime minister. The most important office is the citizen and I believe he is right.
Europe’s role in the world is also to be on the side of these individuals, these movements. As a friend and as a partner, as someone to rely on – for all peacebuilders and change-makers. And I have seen this responsibility, this quest for responsibility, exercised on the European Union’s level in the eyes of all my interlocutors around the world. I hope the same awareness of how important our role as Europeans is can be developed inside every single European citizen, so that we can respond properly to that request for partnership in the world.