President Kiska addressed the European Parliament

President Kiska addressed the European Parliament

On Wednesday, President Andrej Kiska made a speech in the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. This was the first speech by the head of state of the Slovak Republic in the European Parliament since it joined the European Union.

"It was a great honor to accept the invitation to speak to this distinguished European auditorium. There is not more representative place where any European politician could express his views on the future of our European project.

Even the timing of my address here could hardly be better. In two days Slovakia will celebrate the day when we made our first steps to democracy. It all began with young people — with students whose courage to stand up against the regime had opened the door to the Velvet revolution. Twenty-eight years ago we went to streets and we called for freedom, human rights and democratic institutions. We forced the communist regime to dissolve after four decades.

When I try to comprehend what we have achieved since the November 17th, 1989, I almost can't believe how far we've managed to get. I stand here as a president of proud, free and democratic country — a member of the European Union — whose citizens can travel freely across the continent and use the same currency as countries from the opposite side of the inglorious Iron Curtain.

None of it would be possible without an attractive power of peace and prosperity of the European project. We have succeeded because we had vital vision to become a part of the West. And because we were granted the opportunity to fulfill this dream trough the European Union. Indeed, the success story of Slovakia is a success story of the European integration.  

The timing of my speech here might be a lucky chance, but it's no coincidence that I’ve decided to begin my remarks with the success story of the European integration in the part of the Europe I am coming from. Because in the middle of overwhelming pessimism of past few years it seems almost out of place to talk about a success.

And yet I am convinced that these doubts about the ability of the EU to cope with common challenges, to overcome present difficulties are greatly exaggerated. Make no mistake, this doesn’t make them less dangerous. They are in our heads, they influence sentiment in our societies, they tamper with our electoral decisions. In the end they even drive our political and policy actions.

So I am not here to downplay dangers of populism, nationalism and extremism fueled by dissatisfaction in our societies and amplified by professionally orchestrated propaganda. I am not here to underestimate the consequences of Brexit or real challenges we need to address in the monetary union, border protection or elsewhere.

But I am here to forcefully reject the idea that there are some fundamental flaws in the architecture of the EU that will lead us to a bleak future. That something is rotten in the European project and it's been — somehow — responsible for the recent rise of extremism and nationalism. I am here to refuse a popular game of “Blame-it-on-Brussels” whenever it serves to cover some pressing domestic political issue.

Let me point out where I do see our weakness in upholding the EU project. No doubt, we defend the right cause — the project of peace, prosperity and human dignity. Facts speak volumes about the success of European integration. Of course, anti-European populists and extremists cannot beat us in providing solutions to improve life of our citizens. But too often it looks like they beat us with their limitless confidence and passion for their case. We need stronger leadership, more confidence and devotion when acting and speaking up on behalf of the EU. 

We are aware of this problem in Slovakia. A month ago we adopted a joint declaration of President, Speaker of the Parliament and Prime Minister which strongly and decisively re-enforces our membership in the EU as a strategic interest without any alternative for the future of our country. We have agreed that we will communicate with our public responsibly. That we won’t use double language abroad and at home about EU decisions. I consider this point especially important. We can see how often is the EU misused in political campaigns. And how well it serves populists to present all victories as national and all defeats as European. 

We can't get trapped by images of doom portrayed by those who would like to see us in another crisis. The EU is not a sinking ship and we don’t have to radically reform the way we operate. The most pressing issues can be solved by finishing what we have begun years ago. This is valid for the Eurozone, Schengen or a single market. Not all of our past decisions were picture perfect and it will take some fine-tuning to overcome challenges we face. But we don’t need revolution. We just have to focus on what the EU members have mastered during 60 years of integration — solving the issues together, helping each other and learning from each other.

Solidarity and mutual trust are crucial to our success and our strength to overcome whatever comes next. But recent migration crisis unfortunately left the wounds on our mutual trust. And it will take time and effort to eventually heal these wounds. So let me just say today something what I used to repeat again and again during our heated domestic discussions. It's our moral duty to help children, women and men who flee their homes to save their lives. And Slovakia should never hesitate to show solidarity to our friends and partners in the EU.   

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Slovakia openly pursues its strategic interest to be in the core of the European integration. But I think we should focus on the substance, on achieving convincing results, and do not lose too much energy in debates on the core or so called multi-speed Europe. This discussion is not new, only players and contexts differ.

There always have been and there always will be the EU countries willing to do more than others at some point of time. To explore more areas of cooperation is certainly not against the unity of the EU when agreed rules are respected. But it's crucial that new initiatives will be open to anyone interested. And I know for sure Slovakia won't look for back seats when new projects will be on the table.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
While we invest our effort into the consolidation of our internal affairs, we shall not forget about the role of the EU beyond its borders. Because there are many threats out there with a significant impact on our common future, security and well-being. 

The EU today is an economic superpower, but its voice in security challenges around us is quite limited. Whether it is dealing with Russia over illegal annexation of Crimea and its support of separatists in Donbas or the situation in Syria and Libya. But the EU was built to be the project of a peaceful economic integration, not a common military powerhouse. It's always feels a bit cheap to criticize perceived lack of geopolitical prestige or a lack of operational capability during sudden crises, if one is not willing to equip the EU with proper abilities and powers. Or if one is not ready to respect common actions when they matter the most.

We in Slovakia are in favor of more ambitious foreign and security policy of the EU. I don’t think it’s sustainable to limit the EU to the role of a money-raising benefactor after the dust settles. A benefactor trying to rebuild what has been left or destroyed by interventions of unscrupulous players on the international scene. Looking at the world today, it must be clear that the EU needs to transform itself into a more powerful global player.

But I suggest we address this task rather honestly. No common policy can be efficient if it's pushed aside any time someone deems it convenient. I am content that we have abandoned the idea of some European army as a starting point. Because we need to first agree on what it really means to strengthen our cooperation in this field.

Also, let me be clear — in Slovakia, we have never seen this initiative as an attempt to compete with defense guarantees provided by NATO and strategic partnership with the United States. But we see lot of room where enhanced European cooperation can fill in and play crucial role. Without merging our resources together, we would never be able to stand to our ambitions. That’s why Slovakia welcomes the idea of “permanent structured cooperation.”

While speaking about security, let me add one remark. I do follow an ongoing investigation in the United States about the scope of Russian interference in their presidential elections. Then I look back home where I can hardly see any action at all. And I always tell myself, how lucky we all are to live in Europe. Where, apparently, no Russian influence is felt as none is being intensely investigated…

But on a more serious note: while we start talking about the European defense projects, we should act together against imminent and dangerous threat we all face — the Russian propaganda and information war. It would be ridiculous to work on our defense hardware, but to leave this vulnerability open to attacks. Honestly, it would be shame to let the European project fail, because of our inability to halt dissemination of hoaxes and fake news.

Propaganda has real consequences in our everyday lives, it shapes the moods in the EU and influences attitudes of our citizens. It seeks to spread chaos, to weaken our stability, to undermine trust of people in our institutions, and to make us afraid of every upcoming elections.

One of the biggest threats comes from inside — we need to look into organized financial and personal schemes linked to media, non-governmental organizations, business entities or political parties. It's no secret that people in our countries get hired and used to destabilize our societies. In many cases, we simply ignore it, or feel inappropriate to take actions. But Russia becomes more bold in their efforts to destabilize Europe and it is ready to use any situation to this end.

I appreciate that this Parliament has approved a resolution on Russian propaganda last year. It was bold and much needed first step. It is clear the problem should be dealt with utmost political and expert attention on the European level and it should lead to active defense. We shall not tolerate disinformation to interfere into our strategic interests. We must defend ourselves. In words and in deeds.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
I've mentioned post-communist journey of my own country as a proof of success of the European integration. I’ll go even further and I’ll say that the enlargement itself has been the most successful EU policy since the fall of the Berlin wall. It’s been the most important contribution of European politicians of the past three decades to keep the continent peaceful, free and prosperous.

I have no doubt that our common future will be determined greatly by our capability to accept new members, by our ability to secure stability and prosperity of our neighborhood. No matter how serious our internal challenges seem to be right now, we must not give up on enlargement.

The fate of Western Balkans countries must remain one of our priorities. Yes, there are reasons to be disappointed by the lack of progress in reforms, in overcoming old divisions. But rather than relax our attention, the EU should engage more. We have horrific experience what could happen if Western Balkans stay at the margin of our attention. The security and stability of the region is so closely intertwined with the security and stability of the EU that we can't afford to give up on them. That means, we can't kill the vision of a successful integration for them.

A failure to offer hope is empowering adversaries of prosperous, peaceful and integrated Europe. We simply can't afford to lose friends in our neighborhood, especially in Eastern neighborhood. In this situation it’s ridiculous to spend months-long discussions on how to avoid any reference to a membership vision, instead of focusing on what we can offer them.

Let me be more specific. Moldova is one of the poorest parts of Europe. People there desperately long for better lives — that can be achieved through reforms and a realistic vision of a better future. Something that the EU can offer the best. Without our help they will be left vulnerable to Kremlin's interference.

Georgia — a country that has been doing its best for well over a decade. Our true ally in the region. But also a country that suffers from a recent war with Russia. Big part of its territory is still illegally occupied and people are left suffering. I touched the barbed-wire fence that can divide your garden overnight and leave you with no access to your family. And yet, Georgia has not lost its strategic direction towards the West. So let's not put this bond at risk by our ignorance and indifference that could lead to an unrepairable damage. 

And finally, Ukraine, our biggest neighbor, is fighting its war for a territorial integrity while doing reforms at the same time. I often hear they don't do enough. But they won't do better if we lose our interest, cut off our support and leave them on their own. Moreover, if we’ll get back to the business-as-usual with Putin’s regime, if we lift the sanctions without forcing Kremlin to respect international law and principles, then we are willing to trade our own long-term security and stability over dubious individual short-term profits and interests.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear friends,
The European integration embodies everything that is dear to us — a life in peace, a life in dignity where every human being is respected. It is our common heritage. Our precious and verified plan to survive. Our only meaningful path to the future.

I am sure the European Union has many great years ahead.

Thank you for your attention."