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Europe Right Now - Connie Hedegaard's Berlingske Award acceptance speech


Connie Hedegaard

Your Royal Highness the Prince Consort, Ladies and Gentlemen!

Check Against Delivery

"As a rule, a speech will start with a word of polite thanks for the invitation to deliver it, but as I have been invited to speak about 'Europe Right Now', I am not certain there is really any cause for thanks!

You will agree that, on the whole, this is an impossible subject. I will come back to that in a moment. But before I turn my attention to 'Europe Right Now', let me start with the Europe that has led us to where we stand today.

Part of the problem with the EU debate in Denmark is precisely that it usually focuses on (all) the things that we find intolerable about the EU 'here and now', while the broader story of European integration tends to be forgotten.

For me personally, as for many of my fellow Danes, I believe, the story of the European Union began with the campaign leading up to the 1972 referendum. I was in the 6th form, and I remember putting up a YES poster in my classroom in the run-up to the referendum.

Denmark did join the club, with a solid majority at that: 63.4% voted in favour. As I remember it, the argument in favour of joining that mattered most was not about the price of bacon or agricultural subsidies or any such prosaic matter. No, it was about wanting to be part of a community which, ultimately, was a bulwark against war.

The EC was seen as a project to promote peace. In my home, the emphasis was on values and historical considerations, rather than economic ones. And that, clearly, is where Europe's influence first made itself felt.


Later on I was able to make my own European experiences. An Interrail trip in 1978 led me, among other places, to Rome and Athens, to the Forum Romanum and the Acropolis, to the European roots I had learnt about in classical history. At the same time, though, it was a journey through a Europe marked by the iron curtain. Eastern Europe was but a hatched white area on my Interrail pass. We travelled straight through Tito's Yugoslavia. But from what we could glimpse through the train window we could tell what a different world it was.

I also remember well our class trip, in my second year of high school, to the divided Berlin. What it felt like coming from the well-lit west to the dim-lit east. Oh, but the east had culture, explained Mr Toft, our teacher, taking us to see Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle in East Berlin.

And yes, the theatre performance was indeed impressive, but I can assure you that the three long hours spent waiting on Friedrichsstrasse before we were let through, the obligatory exchange of hard-earned pocket money into East German marks for which we had no use, and the overcooked vegetables served in a dreary restaurant afterwards made an equally lasting impression.

I will now fast forward to the period that began on 13 December 1981, when Jaruzelski, under pressure from Walesa's Solidarnosz, declared martial law in Poland. At Langlinie, seven Polish men belonging to the Solidarity movement went on a month-long hunger strike, not daring to return to Poland. This was an issue I became involved in, as a conservative student politician, and which was also covered by Berlingske Tidende.

Years later I was travelling from Swinoujscie to Warsaw by train as a fellow passenger removed his sweater to reveal a Solidarnosz t-shirt. It was a clear sign that the times had changed. During last year's Polish EU presidency I was thrilled to attend an informal ministerial meeting at the old shipyard in Gdansk where the seeds of the new Europe had been sown.

I also remember the young east Europeans I met in the early 1980s in Prague and Budapest. The East Germans would be easily recognisable by the identical sandals they were wearing. But they also stood out thanks to their impressive knowledge – that is, about European culture and history before 1917. The East German economics students were just as knowledgeable about Ibsen and Strindberg as this Danish student of literature, and the young Czech carpenter was able to date the magnificent buildings of Prague with great precision.

In the train to Rostock on our way home, my fellow traveller had difficulties hiding his exasperation with the overzealous officials, forgetting that 'idiot' is understood quite well in German, too. For a moment we thought we would never make it across the border, to the undeniably freer air in Denmark.

Meanwhile, the (west) European project continued to evolve, unaffected by the situation east of the iron curtain. In 1986 Mr Schlüter, the then Prime Minister, announced a referendum on the 'EU package', that is to say, on the Internal Market.

It was an incredible prospect: a Community where we could trade freely with one another across borders. As a young MP, I attended numerous meetings to argue in favour of a 'yes' vote. And the outcome was an emphatic 'yes', at 56.2%.

Later, getting the population's approval was to become harder. Strangely enough. After all, when the wall 'suddenly' came down – suddenly enough, at any rate, for very few people to have seen it coming so soon – it was a great moment for Europe. This was a fascinating time for me, travelling in the 'new' free Europe as a journalist for Berlingske Tidende and learning about the destinies of people such as Mr Bökenhauer, an old man of the communist system who was now running his own business: a video rental store!

Other memorable moments included attending the opening of the first Netto grocery store in Neubrandenburg, close to the Polish border, and paying a visit to Mrs Brandis, who had resisted the old East German regime from the presbytery of Potsdam, but had crossed the Glienicker Bridge over to West Berlin only once since the wall fell because of the pain of being confronted with life as it could have been.

I also participated as a lecturer in democracy courses held by the US National Democratic Institute. I remember, among other things, a group of Czechs from Havel's Obczanska Forum, or Citizens' Forum, for whom the course meant speaking freely in front of strangers for the first time. The course was held, of all places, at the old convalescent centre of the Communist Party in Karlovy Vary. The first day it proved hard for the participants to speak freely. They had to get used to it. Was it safe? Was it really possible? But it was fascinating to witness people taking possession of their freedom of expression.

Similarly, in the Bulgarian capital Sofia I witnessed students camping in the centre of the city to push their demands for further reforms. I also lectured in the Baltic countries, including a Riga which then felt like a 1950s time-pocket. It made a lasting impression on me when, at a course about setting up free political parties and a free press, Russians and Latvians almost came to blows: 'Do you think I have forgotten that it was you who put my father in prison?'

This, precisely, is why the enlargement that was finally agreed during Denmark's last presidency was so astonishing, so tremendous, so historical, that for me no further justification was needed for the existence of the European Communities, soon to become the European Union.

In spite of this, the political mood became more sceptical, as reflected by a series of referendums producing a close 'no' to Maastricht in 1992 (with 50.7% against and 49.3% in favour) and a less than ringing endorsement of Denmark's reservations the following year and the Amsterdam Treaty in 1998. There had always been some opposition, of course: The EC/EU was too centralised. Too capitalist. Too undemocratic. And in any case not as good as the system we used to have.

Indeed, throughout Denmark's EU membership there have been awkward stories about overregulation (remember the curved cucumbers?) and the excesses of the common agricultural policy, with an undertone of 'us and them'. It was never said openly but dressed up in the usual Danish modesty. The subtext, however, was clear: In a Protestant Nordic country such as ours, so well-organised, hyper-democratic and run in the spirit of Grundtvig, we had – and still have! – better ways of doing things. Or so we believe. Ways that we are loath to give up.

And so our relationship with Europe has often seemed a love/hate relationship. We love the open borders, for instance: east Europe is no longer a hatched-out white area on the Interrail pass. To most of us it seemed evident that free movement should apply not only to goods, but also to people.

I believe this remains so today, and that most Danes, despite worries over immigration and competition for jobs, enjoy being able to travel freely across borders in Europe or to disembark from their flight from Berlin or Palma directly into the arrivals area of Copenhagen airport. At any rate, I had very fond thoughts of Schengen recently as it took me well over an hour to get through Cuban passport control. And that was on my way out of the country!


So far so good. A solid majority of Danes were willing to follow the EU up to this point. But then came the euro, and the euro referendum of 2000. At the time, I criticised the campaign run by the government for being a bit off the mark. The high point was the distribution to all households of the infamous leaflet with the Lise Nørgaard look-alike and the heading: 'Matador's mother also says yes'. Did they (the government, the establishment) think we (the citizens) were that daft?

As we all know the result was a clear 'no', at 53.2%, and that is where we still stand today. Indeed, no government has since dared to go to the voters for advice in EU matters; besides, those who voted 'no' are unlikely to have changed their minds over the past months.

In truth, though, very few people think the euro is the cause of Europe's financial woes. Greece has financial problems not owing to but in spite of the EU and the euro. Now massive help is being provided on the basis of European solidarity. Nor can Ireland's problems, particularly in the banking sector, be blamed on the EU, and soaring youth unemployment in Spain is not Europe's, but Spain's responsibility.

Clearly, however, the crisis has confirmed the warning given by experts when the euro was created: a monetary union requires greater political integration. Europe is now paying the price for having failed to heed this warning when the currency was created some years ago.

The question 'what if we had NOT created the euro' appeals to the historian in me – counterfactual history is an intriguing exercise – but as a politician I must consider the world as it is. And the euro is part of the European reality.

The clock cannot be turned back. We may abolish the euro, or it might founder. But we cannot pretend that this would not have far-reaching consequences. Enormous consequences. That is why Europe is now pulling out all the stops to rescue this project.

And yes, I am aware that greater integration is anathema to many Danes, at least emotionally. At a rational level many of us may acknowledge the need, while still longing for yesterday's reassuring world where the nation-states could mostly manage on their own.

Let us be frank and admit that there is also a north-south aspect to this. Here, in our corner of Europe, playing by the rules and getting things done is lauded as a virtue. This is how we see ourselves, at any rate, and it is mostly true. Not all member states are equally diligent in this respect.

In the past 12-18 months, though, this is precisely what Europe has been trying to do: Getting the legal framework into place, setting out rules that ought to have been agreed long ago, and, last but not least, ensuring that the EU becomes much, much better at implementing and enforcing what has been agreed.

For it is not good enough for only some to play by the rules, while everyone is expected to help with the tidying up. And it is also not good enough that the rules apply only to the small players.


I believe that in order to gain the population's backing, the EU needs to show it can deliver. This is one of the reasons strong institutions are called for. When I say 'we', I do not mean 'we down here in Brussels'. Rather, it is the member states that have a need for strong institutions. For the small and medium-sized countries in particular it is essential that someone – and this, as it happens, is what the Commission does – safeguards all member states' interests. So as to ensure that decisions are followed up and implemented, and that the EU functions not a club dominated by a few – for this read large – countries, but as a community where the interests of all countries are taken into account.

Let us be honest: This is where the shoe pinches, as reflected by the events of the past months and years. Few Danes are cheered by the sight of Sarkozy and Merkel strolling in Deauville, or wherever else it is that they are about to announce to the rest of the EU what they have agreed.

As Jean Monnet, one of the EU's founding fathers, once said: 'Nothing is possible without men, but nothing lasts without institutions.'


Almost all other matters are currently eclipsed by the troubles of the euro and the financial crisis. If all goes well, today's challenges will be resolved without splitting the EU, a structure which prevents the recurrence of such situations will be put into place and our welfare states will be cut down to size. And then what? Let us conclude by looking at Europe, not only as it is right now, but as it will be in the near future.

How will we generate income? How can we reach decisions more rapidly and more efficiently, something our emerging competitors are quite good at? How can we boost the green economy, which will set the competitive parameters of the future?

Europe is – still – the world's largest economy. Economic power usually goes hand in hand with political power. Yet one does not need to be a professor of international politics to note that Europe's political clout on the world stage does not match its economic power. Indeed, our power is diminishing. The same applies, for various reasons, to the United States' geostrategic dominance.

At the same time, other economies grow at impressive speeds, and although the challenges faced by the countries concerned, not least China, should not be underestimated, we should not be blind to the fact that as other economies grow larger, their values are also likely to carry more weight.

On the other hand, the climate conference in Durban gave us a remarkable example of how influential the EU can be on the international stage – provided, of course, that we speak with one voice, or rather sing from the same hymn sheet and stick to common positions, and form the right alliances.

This, I believe, leads us to the essence of the modern European story: For my parents' generation, it was the prospect of peace and freer trade across borders. For my generation, as I mentioned previously, it was the enlargement leading to a united Europe. What will be the European aspirations of my children's generation?

I hardly think today's crisis management is what will inspire young people and get them behind the European project. In my view it is not least through encounters with the values held in other parts of the world that the new generation will see the importance of a strong and united Europe. This is in our interest. There's no two ways about it.

I also believe that the tough competition for markets – and thus for jobs and prosperity – that we will see in the coming years will make it increasingly clear that only by better pooling our resources can we Europeans remain competitive enough to safeguard our values, as well as the prosperous welfare state which the vast majority wants.

Economic forces are becoming ever more global and potent. There is a growing concentration of wealth, and of the power that goes with it. The political institutions need to keep up, unless one believes that the market can sort out everything on its own. As a conservative, I have never believed that.

Indeed, after what we have witnessed over the past few years there are few people left who believe in pure market forces. Policies are also essential, as are rules, including market regulation. Ideally, in a globalised era and economy, such rules should have a global reach. Yet the G20 is a useful reminder of just how difficult this is to achieve. In Europe we have at least succeeded in creating increasingly strong cooperation at regional level.

In spite of today's problems, from a historical perspective this has been, and remains, a huge success. This might just be the reason for the ever-growing queue of countries wishing to join.

Yet the EU needs to know its limits. There are numerous areas where it makes little sense to regulate at European level, and the more detailed rules need to be adopted at national level in any case. On the other hand, if the aim is to fight air pollution, say, it makes perfect sense that those efforts should not be limited to one country's airspace.

Perhaps the most obvious illustration of this is the greatest challenge that the world is facing today: How to balance a growing population and an ever-increasing demand for goods and thus for growth on the one hand, with on the other hand mounting pressures on the climate, environment and resources which will become impossible to withstand unless we change our ways. This balancing act can only be achieved by means of a targeted and far-reaching green transformation of our economies. Do we think this can best be done individually by 27 countries? Or can we manage this better by means of shared targets and pooled resources? I, for one, am not in doubt. I am also convinced that this is an area where the new generation clearly sees the need for more, rather than less, EU cooperation.

I began by speaking about the past. About the victory of peace and democracy in Europe, and the need for a European community. Some might be led to believe that this was a necessity of the past, not of the present. But the situation in 'Europe right now' is a reminder that the need for a strong Europe still exists – also in terms of safeguarding democratic rights and freedoms. Yes, the treaties and institutions are there for a reason and have not lost their significance. They must be respected, even today. Just ask Hungary.

The foundations on which the European Union rests are therefore not only of historical interest. We still need cooperation at European level to protect core European values. Through joint political and economic efforts we can – and will – strengthen the region's competitiveness. And if we manage to act in concert internationally, rather than as individual nations, we stand a far better chance of exerting global influence in the 21st century.

In this regard, the ambition of promoting unity and cooperation in Europe is at least as compelling in 2012 as it was when the Treaty of Rome was drawn up in 1957, or when a solid majority of Danes voted in favour of joining a European community 40 years ago. With all that is going on in 'Europe right now', being part of that community may seem burdensome. But none of the many daunting challenges faced by the European continent can be better solved without it.

Thank you for your attention."

Last update: 04/11/2014 | Top