Kiska on European Union: We have to find new passion

During his Monday visit of Berlin, President Andrej Kiska addressed the Konrad Adenauer Foundation with a speech about rebuilding trust in the European Union:

"Ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for your invitation. It is symbolic - and very interesting for me - to visit your foundation, especially on this day. I came to Berlin in relation to Slovakia’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union ending. But these hours happen to be exactly 14 years since, also in December (2002), Slovakia – together with nine other countries – received at the EU summit in Copenhagen an invitation to join the European Union.

We in the East perceived this unification of Europe – after decades of being deprived of our liberty, having suffered repression and increasingly falling behind – as a huge satisfaction. The accession of 10 countries was seen as a final dismantling of the Iron Curtain. Although optimism prevailed at that time, it was the leader of the Opposition in the Bundestag at the time, today's Chancellor Mrs. Merkel, who said: “new members belong to us" – but, at the same time, she sounded a warning that there will also be concerns, fear and scepticism. And she added something that today is even more relevant than in the past – that it will be the task of every responsible politician to make this great Europe a citizens' Europe.

How did the responsible politicians succeed?

One thing I know for certain is that events were quickly gaining momentum. The joint European project has almost doubled in terms of the number of countries. A substantial part of the territory has introduced a common currency and internal borders virtually ceased to exist. For a short period of time, we were experiencing a kind of fiction about the end of history, at least here in Europe.

And then the financial and economic crisis has occupied us with rescuing the Eurozone. And the wave of migration - among others - challenged the rules of the Schengen area. It is probably no coincidence that the challenges that we faced related to these two major projects of unique proportions. Some might say that this is actually logical. As a former manager, I know that all major projects have their early deficiencies and they need to be adjusted and innovated according to the current situation. In a political project, things are even more complicated. Over the past eight years the European Union has perpetually lived in some kind of crisis mode – not to mention the events in Georgia in 2008 and then in Ukraine in 2014.

We should not lose sight of the broader context, when we ask ourselves: How well are we managing? I actually think that we are handling the situation really quite well. When bad options fail, we adopt reasonable solutions. When things go too far, we reach consensus, despite initially opposing views. The pressure eventually forces us to act. A broader context also means, that as a common European project on this scale, we are actually still in its infancy - and we are learning. And yet, the European Union is not some sort of select super-club. It is rather a common apartment block in which we live. With our different talents, different temperament and different tastes. I don’t not know how it is here, but in our country the meetings of apartment house residents are always very difficult events, often accompanied by heated debate and disputes.

I am trying to imagine that someone completely foreign, from some other world, would come to Europe today. If he saw, how discussion is taking place in many parts of Europe, he could get the impression that the common European project of freedom, peace and co-operation is balancing on the edge of abyss. If only we could explain it, to justify why the current state of affairs and the tone of the debate diverge so gravely? And is it really true that people have lost confidence in cooperation or even peace in Europe?

One of the great advocates of democracy and someone who also defined the pitfalls of democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote 176 years ago: "Let us have ... a healthy concern for the future, which compels one to be alert and to defend freedom, and do not succumb to despondency and inactive anxiety which kills the heart and drains the energy."

How do we look through the prism of this idea? Do we look to the future of Europe with healthy concern and are we sufficiently alert? Or is it more a case of us being despondent, anxious and because of this anxiety we also show resignation and inaction?

Ladies and gentlemen,

When voters at the beginning of summer voted in the UK to leave the joint European project, Europe experienced a frenzied effort to identify some specific common EU agenda – an agenda that will strengthen people's confidence in European institutions and the European project itself.

This is perfectly logical instinct. For me it would also be easier to visit any small Slovak town or village and to be able to tell, show and promise something specific and tangibly related to EU membership. It would be best, if any of my fellow presidents could do the same in any part of Europe, and in any town or village.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid this will not be so easy. And I admit that our complacency is also a little at the root of the matter, our wishing this all to be so simple.

Until recently, the confidence, affection and dedication for a common European project was based on three generally accepted understandable motivations. Strong enough for the European project to have comfortable secure support of the majority of European citizens.

Firstly,  the European project as a neighbourhood of peace, freedom, tolerance and democracy.

Secondly, the European project as a source of prosperity, a better quality of life and a better future for people.

Thirdly, the European project is still a live, innovative project wherein as part of European integration we are able to define for ourselves targets that will bring us closer to first two points and strengthen them.

I’m afraid that all these three sources of automatic, politically convenient support bases for the European project are currently depleted.

With respect to the first motivation, we have become a bit of a victim of the huge success of the EU project. We have lost the self-preservation instinct. It may sound blasphemous, but it is as if the freedom and peace in Europe became a routine affair, taken for granted by people. They became the air we breathe, and we lost the healthy concern, which compels one to be alert. This is also because many enemies of liberal democracy and European values are succeeding to pretend that if they came to power people would not lose their freedom and democracy.

I will not judge other countries, but in our country, I would say that we – in democratic politics – have been afflicted by two major sins at the same time. Pride and indolence or even laziness. Pride lies in fact that many believe that one can flirt with impunity with the dark side of human nature, such as anger and envy. Laziness rests in the fact that many politicians prefer to adjust and join the trends of populistic pronouncements.

What I mean to say is that confidence in the European project will always be only as strong as the faith and dedication to the values of freedom and liberal democracy. And every one of us must fight for these values individually. And every day again and again. And at certain times - like now – with double the dedication.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As regards the second source of confidence and dedication for the European project, namely the continuous growth of prosperity and the standard of living, it seems that we have reached a threshold, beyond which reality across the whole EU will not be able meet expectations in every corner. But our problem lies somewhere else.

A few days ago I saw results of a public opinion poll concerning what people in some countries in the world consider to be the biggest problem. For example more than half of the respondents in Poland and Hungary mentioned the level of health care. I think that in Slovakia we would see it very similarly and almost certainly we would also add corruption. In Italy and Spain, more than half of respondents mentioned unemployment. And, for example, almost half of Germans – the wealthiest country in the Union –identified poverty and social inequality. I think that the last figure would cause a surprise for many citizens in Slovakia. And yet, a lot of people several hundred kilometres south of Slovakia, just outside the European Union borders would very probably view the reality of many Slovaks, with a monthly income of 500 or 700 euros, as promising.

In each of these areas membership in the European Union is a great help for all of us. But it will not substitute the efforts of national governments. I think that even today we do not need to convince the overwhelming majority of European Union citizens that in some areas, such as energy security, we are not able to move forward without common policies. But if we talk about the outlook of citizens, this is determined by the success of domestic policies, not the failures of the so-called Brussels policies.

Confidence in the common European project today, in fact, depends on how things work for people in their immediate neighbourhood – in villages, towns, in the region, in the country. But in the same breath also the second part of this equation must be mentioned. Namely that the trust or distrust in the European project today also depends on how much the politicians in member states of the Union blame their own failures on Brussels and the European Union.

I’ve said it at home in our Parliament and I will repeat it: The term "Brussels" is used by many politicians as a synonym for insult and about the European Union – except for special occasions – they forgot to say one nice word in their everyday lives. I don’t think that this applies only to Slovakia. In fact, I don’t think that the problem is with the common European project – on the contrary, the real problem lies with our domestic policies.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I will also touch upon the third motivation, which was until recently a source of energy and dedication for the European project. I call it integrational inventiveness. New ideas for further integration of Europe. Ideas, which recently have become rather a pretext for questioning the common European project.

Let me cite an example, which has recently been thoroughly debated: European security. The first thing that should be noted here is that the naming of the goal itself by politicians can be confusing. Some talk about strengthening Europe’s defence capabilities as a permanent complementary part of NATO. Some talk about European defence, with unclear content. Some are talking as advocates of own European defence self-sufficiency. Others would like to have even more security for less money. I'm not talking about documents, expert discussions, informal discussions by politicians, expert conferences. What I mean is how the subject is treated by politicians in domestic debates, on social networks – how this issue lives.

In terms of communication we live in challenging times. We cannot allow ourselves to give rise to misunderstandings, rumours or even fear, if we don’t do our homework ourselves. I think it is only now that we can fully appreciate –and we can even precisely measure – what George Orwell actually meant when he said that a lie is always one step ahead of the truth. I therefore believe that in terms of integrational inventiveness we need today, more than ever before, to exactly name the goals, better manage expectations and avoid surprising each other. Or, I might even say: let’s try not to outdo each other, let’s not come up with surprising ideas with the hope to win points at home or on European stage. Still a greater responsibility for confidence in the European project is borne by those politicians who stand behind it and who support it, than those who want to dismantle it.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I also do not want to avoid the topic that over the past year and a half has seriously divided us across Europe. More than the disputes over how to manage the Euro crisis; or, in different shades, how to react to Russian policy.

I refer to necessity to overcome the dispute regarding the compulsory refugee redistribution quota system.

Personally, I’m very saddened, because it is my belief that we should and could have avoided this dispute.

Regrettably, the EU Member States under the Slovak Presidency did not reach and will not reach a solution on this issue. But on the other hand: we learned a lot. I'm slightly optimistic in this case, mainly because we are approaching a point, where we have simply exhausted all other options. And I believe that now there are leaders at the table of the Council of the European Union who want to reach agreement.

I think we will have to understand that the advocates of solidarity cannot and will not agree to restrictive attributes of such solidarity by restricting its fundamental meaning, as well as the fact that opponents of mandatory quotas will not give ground. We will than have to meet somewhere half way.

I want to assure you that I have always been, and I will be the one who will say that just like any successful person also every successful modern country has a moral obligation to help. And I have absolute understanding for the gesture of solidarity, expected from us by other countries affected by the high number of refugees.

But I also think that this issue was probably littered with a great number of misunderstandings; and that many of us were probably closer to each other, than how it looked.

There are points where all countries fully agree. I think, for example, that all member states of the Union and Schengen, without any difference and at all times want control of their external borders. That none of us is interested in any uncontrolled flow of people inside the Union and Schengen. I think we all understand how important the ability to differentiate treatment of refugees and economic migrants from safe countries is – with respect to our inability to separate these two groups from one another physically, but also in political communication. This was the cause of most problems between us.

I also believe that none of the current leaders of European countries will deny help to men, women and children with an international right to a refugee status. To people fleeing death and violence.

Some of the countries refuse solidarity with qualifiers. They want clear solidarity and without conditions. But a group of countries rejects a combination of even two qualifiers with the term quota: mandatory and permanent. They are concerned that solidarity in providing a safe haven for genuine refugees in the European Union could turn into a blank cheque for any unlimited number of people in the future. It is a fact that this kind of concern exists here – partly sincere and partly artificially promoted – and it needs to be dispelled. I’m convinced that things would be helped by mutual assurance and understanding that every member state and the Union as a whole, has its own physical and psychical limits. Of course in any of these countries these limits are higher than zero.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The politician and statesman, whose name bears your Foundation, is the author of a statement, which is still relevant. In fact, it seems as fresh as new. Konrad Adenauer - coincidentally also in middle of December - said the following about a united Europe: "A united Europe was the dream of a few. It has become a hope for many. Today it is a necessity for all."

For those 60 years, since this statement was delivered, the European project has been providing its citizens a better life than ever before. It has the capacity and means to manage any conceivable problems that countries are not able to tackle on their own. However, today I want to point out that we must address many of the issues causing people to lose confidence not only in the European Union, but in politicians and political institutions as a whole. We need to see where they originate – which is at home.

No common European agenda will win for us the battle that each of us must fight at home. And no single European project will alleviate the struggle for European idea of peace and co-operation against its opponents and enemies in every member state.

What we can and must do together, is to show more empathy for each other. Because we have different temperament, different history, different problems – and even in the event of similar problems, they may have different causes.

Empathy is associated with communication, mutual discussion, exchange of ideas and sharing experiences.

Along with empathy, we must find the tools and courage to identify and name selfishness. Selfishness of politicians. Selfishness and desire of populistic politicians for own power, who in the quest for votes and political power are capable of destroying the core values of a modern and compassionate Europe.

What we also can do today is to not let decency, humanity, consideration, tolerance and refinement be branded with the so-called political correctness label. Because the vulgarity of many fighters against the so-called political correctness is not an agenda. Their dissemination of anger and hatred is a sin. Dissatisfaction of people cannot be caused by restrained and polite vocabulary, but by poor results – but even poor results do not justify political vulgarity. Decent people of Europe should straighten their backs and not be pushed into the position of offenders just because they refuse to promote anger and rage. They should not brush aside the issue by saying that the Internet and social networks justify just about anything.

We have to find a new passion. Look to the future with a healthy concern, but without despondency and anxiety, which kills the heart and drains energy.

Thank you for your attention."