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"Today’s United Europe is thus the result of a unique achievement of civilization."

21.09.2017 | Reden

Bundespräsident Alexander Van der Bellen hält zum Abschluss seiner Reise in die Vereinigte Staaten einen Vortrag an der "Columbia Universitiy in the City of New York" zum Thema "EU - An Ever Closer Union?"

Speech by Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen at Columbia University in the City of New York, on 20 September 2017


Good afternoon to all of you gathered here today!
Ladies and Gentlemen, 

Thank you very much for your kind invitation. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to you here today. 

As the President of a small country in the heart of EU I would like to share with you some of my reflections and convictions on Europe’s future role in the world, and afterwards  the floor is open for a discussion.

EU History

For centuries, Europe’s history was a history of recurring conflicts and wars. 

It was not until after the end of World War II and the abyss of the holocaust that the understanding matured in Western Europe that only peaceful cooperation among the European states would allow Europe’s citizens to enjoy a positive present and future. 

This was also founded on the idea that very close economic interconnectedness of former wartime enemies should prevent them from ever waging war against each other again.


Also the much later enlargement toward Eastern European states - following the collapse or implosion of the Soviet Union - was motivated by the vision of a peaceful, free and economically successful Europe.

Today’s United Europe is thus the result of a unique achievement of civilization.

The states of this United Europe established this peace through mutual respect, negotiations and cooperation,but without war or violence.

This constitutes an achievement of civilization that the European Union can be proud of.

With the exception of the wars in former Yugoslavia and East-Ukraine over 70 years of peace have led Europe to a level of prosperity and freedom that could not have been attained by its individual countries alone and in an isolated fashion.

Today, the European Union still has —and I will address this later— 28 member states with about 500 million inhabitants.

The European Union is the largest trading power in the world and the leading provider of development and humanitarian aid.

Europe’s diplomacy carries weight and wants to contribute to making this world a safer and more sustainable place.

This is illustrated, for example, by the historic agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. Or by the leading role assumed by the EU in the negotiations on the Paris climate agreement. 

Stronger Together

For me, it is a simple fact that the European states are stronger together than each individual country is by itself.

Nationalists of all sorts tend to ignore that.

For looking at it from the outside, it could appear more promising and profitable for other governments — be it from neighboring states at the EU’s Eastern external border, or be it an administration of the United States — to divide and split apart the European Union.

And some of President Donald Trump’s early statements raised doubts as to whether the continuation of a successful European Union is to remain a primary concern of US foreign policy.

In January 2017, for example, President Trump described Brexit, the UK’s exit from the EU, as a “great thing.”

In April, however, he emphasized that a “strong Europe” was in the interest of the United States.

One thing is clear:

for each individual European state, the possibilities to represent its interests internationally are much smaller than for the entire continent.

Therefore, it is in the interest of each and every member state of the European Union to prevent a fall-back into the sectionalism of former times. 

But apart from the poor negotiating position that would result from nationalist isolation for the individual countries concerned:

Which of the large pending issues could be resolved better by isolated European states?

Just think of the looming climate change, whose consequences can no longer be denied. They have become visible, tangible and their very presence is threatening indeed.

In the USA, you have just recently experienced this once again in Texas and Florida. In Austria, we also experienced various disasters resulting from severe adverse weather conditions, mudslides and floods this summer.

Climate researchers unanimously agree that these are the first repercussions of the man-made climate disaster.

I very much hope that also the United States will continue to be Europe’s partner in protecting our climate.

In June of this year, we held a climate summit in Vienna, our federal capital. It was the first “Austrian World Summit” with former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, as you surely know, was born and raised in Austria.

Fifty nations attended this event in Vienna, and together with representatives of the business community, we discussed examples of best practices of climate protection.

The Austrian World Summit with Arnold Schwarzenegger illustrated the opportunities that also exist on the economic level in actively protecting our climate.

This inspired me with confidence that the international community can succeed in resolving the challenges ahead of us together.

I am convinced that our future lies in cooperation, not confrontation.

Ultimately, we are all interdependent and need to work together, as we are one world, one global community.

At least in the EU all the major challenges, be it flight and migration, climate change and energy policy, unemployment and poverty, war and displacement, violence and terror, or be it digital transformation.

All of these issues cannot be resolved through a single-country approach

Who, for instance, if not the European Union, or more precisely, the European Commission, will be able to ensure that global groups do not abuse their market power?

Who, if not the European Commission, will be able to forge agreements with Facebook, Google, Microsoft and the others on new rules of the game?

Austria as a small state in the heart of Europe cannot do it alone. I also doubt that the much larger Germany could do it alone.

Europe is only strong together. Only together is Europe’s voice in the world loud and powerful enough to be heard.


European Fundamental Values


Ladies and Gentlemen,

The European Union is not only an economic community; it is also a community of values. This is a normative statement. It should be a community of values!

With all the necessary debates on concrete political contents, the European Union must not forget the compass that determines the course of our common journey.

It is the European fundamental values which constitute this compass, which guide us and which have made Europe so great.

And I am convinced that in principle, we share these fundamental values with our friends and partners here in the United States:

Liberty, equality and fraternity today we would call it solidarity — to quote 1789. Tolerance and respect, empathy and attention to other people‚s needs

In a time when so much is changing, we should also direct our attention to that which should not change, to that which should endure: our European fundamental values.

They constitute the threads out of which we Europeans can confidently weave our future.

Together we want to work toward a Europe where human rights, freedom and respect have a chance. A Europe characterized by respect for those who think differently, for those who love differently, for those who look different.

A Europe where safety and security, prosperity and social peace prevail.

Together we need to work toward a world where people don’t just think of themselves but also demonstrate a sense of responsibility.

Responsibility toward those who can only dream of these values and of our high standards of living, because they are in the midst of fleeing from hunger or war.

Or who cannot enjoy even the most minimal fundamental rights due to repressive and authoritarian regimes.

To change our way of thinking, to help, to transform. To also think of future generations—I trust that the young people in America also dream this dream: The dream of a better and more just world for us all.


Brexit and the Consequences

Ladies and Gentlemen,

These days, numerous US observers have the impression that the EU  is in a crisis,

at odds with itself, incomplete and vulnerable.

There is  some truth to  that. Yet I would like to reply to this: When twenty-eight highly developed democracies write the script for their coexistence, it cannot be easy, nor can every detail remain uncontested.

Reaching a consensus on important issues has never been easy and simply “smooth sailing.”

We are experiencing this once again right now.

However, the European Union has gone through many crises, and thus far,

it has almost always grown from them.

For a total of twenty  years, I used to be a professor of economics, first at the University of Innsbruck in the Austrian federal state of Tyrol, and then at the University of Vienna.

I still remember very well when in the late 1970s and ’80s the European Project began to lose its footing in an alarming way and deep pessimism started to spread, similar to today.

We called this “eurosclerosis.” Europe was considered to be ill.

I also recall, however, that the European Union has freed itself from every single one of these crises, and for the most part has emerged all the stronger.

In Europe, this has fed the conviction that the European integration, in spite of various setbacks at times, will continue to progress with strong determination and can no longer be reversed — more or less like a law of nature.

This, of course, is loose thinking, it is a non-sequitur. You may overcome a hundred crisis safely, and the 101st one may still be deadly.


Ladies and gentlemen!

The Treaty of Lisbon talked about an “ever closer union.”

On an explanatory note: The Treaty of Lisbon is the treaty that regulates how the EU member states work together, the “fundamental treaty of the EU”, so to speak. It was signed in 2007 in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, hence the name.

The EU - striving to become an “ever closer union” - was long considered a very attractive club, a club whose membership those, who had not yet been allowed to join, aspired to.

This attractiveness has developed some cracks.

The development regarding the ways the rule of law is being applied in some Eastern European member states has filled us Europeans with deep concern, and still does.


Viktor Orban of Ungary talks about an „illiberal democracy„ which he would like to establish. And in Poland the separation of power between the executive and the judicative one is increasingly shaken.

The EU member states are as well divided over the refugee question. Whilst the Eastern European countries would rather not take any refugees at all, Germany, Sweden and Austria received during 2015 more than one Million refugees - mostly from Syria.

And from Libya more than 100.000 have taken the very dangereous mediterranean route this year and have been received by Italy.

But I do not want to deny that in Western European countries too the acceptance of refugees has been increasingly critizised.


And last year, the decision by the majority of the United Kingdom’s population in favor of Brexit abruptly yanked us out of all European integration dreams.

For the first time, a member state is now leaving the club, that had thus far been so attractive.

This came as a real shock.

Personally, I consider Brexit a serious mistake, a tragic error, if you will. Nonetheless, the British people’s decision is, of course, to be respected.

I think the Brexit shock also offers an opportunity though.

We all, politicians as well as citizens, will need to take the European Project more seriously again.

I remember last year very well. It was the year of presidential elections in my home country of Austria.

From the very beginning of my election campaign, I did not leave the slightest doubt as to my pro-European approach.

I was convinced that when push comes to shove, my compatriots would vote in favor of Europe. Especially after the Brexit decision, while my opponent briefly even toyed with the idea of leaving the EU.

In the end, the pro-European approach ended up victorious.

Or think of France. Although given little chance at the start, Emmanuel Macron achieved a sparkling election result. .He took a stance against Madame Le Pen of the Front National with a clearly pro-European program.

Yes, most people in France wanted change, they might perhaps want a different Europe. But they do not want “no Europe”!

France has clearly taken a pro-European course. And regardless of the election outcome in detail, Germany will continue to pursue its pro-European course.

The prerequisite for progress in the European Union has always been consensus between Germany and France.

After the German Bundestag elections this coming Sunday, the Franco-German axis could bring new momentum to European integration.

This could of course also trigger justified concerns, especially among smaller and medium-sized member states.

Nonetheless, I believe that we can remain confident. Over the past six months, I visited all of Austria’s neighboring countries.

The larger countries Germany and Italy, as well as the smaller ones — Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

During all of these visits, Austria’s neighbors unanimously emphasized that they wanted to take part in Europe’s further development.

This inspires me with confidence.


Jean Claude Juncker - State of the Union

And a view days ago the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, held a State of the Union speech. Last year his State of the Union speech had - in view of the Brexit decision - a strong pessimistic undertone.

This year, however, Juncker was a different person. His speech was full of optimism. He made several interesting propositions, how the integration of the European Union could be advanced again.

Since then these propositions have been intensily discussed within the European states.


Young People are Pro-European

And there is something else that also inspires me with confidence!

The majority of the United Kingdom’s young voters prefer to remain in the European Union.

However, many of them did not take the referendum seriously enough.

They did not vote.

I believe that everybody can draw a lesson from that: not making use of one’s voting rights can lead to a rude awakening.

Today, young British people are afraid of the impact of Brexit on their opportunities, on their education, on their career options, on a free life of on studying, traveling and working in Europe.

Yet the key message of young generations is:

They do not just place their hopes in Europe; they do not just believe in Europe.

First and foremost, they are confident that this European Project is and will continue to be a success.

Young people certainly have different views and expectations regarding Europe.

But in the numerous talks I have had with young people, I kept hearing the same basic idea:

All of us are Europe.

This, our, European future belongs to us all.

This is also confirmed by a recent survey conducted in my home country.

67 percent of the young people surveyed have a positive attitude toward the EU. Only seven percent responded that they were against the EU. (The remaining 26 percent considered the EU to be “neither good nor bad.”)

And as many as 83 percent of the young people felt they were “certainly” EU citizens![1]

For them, the European Union is part of their everyday norm. In the same way the nation-state was normality for the older generation thus far, for these young people

the European Union is their natural home.

We Europeans will do all we can so that it can remain that way.

Thank you for your attention—and I look forward to our discussion!

The Speech on Youtube

(starting at 26:00 min.)

[1] Source: (Austrian daily newspaper)