Thank you, Jacki, for that kind introduction.
Thank you, General Middendorp, for inviting me.
Thank you, Jeanine, for hosting this event.
Bringing so many people together from so many walks of life is truly a great achievement. Above all, it breathes a spirit of inclusivity, diversity and openness, which is important now, more than ever.
To put it in your words, I am part of the European Commission ecosystem. This is very much a legal and economic ecosystem.
Let’s take that robot: for you, a technological miracle. For us, a legal headache. Lawmakers around the world are now asking questions dreamt up by Science Fiction writers. Should we tax robots? Do smart robots have rights?
In 1942, Isaac Asimov phrased his Three Laws of Robotics, three simple rules to stop robots from harming people. The kind of rules I like: Need to have, not nice to have.
But Europe is not just about rules. I also belong to the European Union eco-system. As do many of you here, because Europe is not just “Brussels”. Europe is the Member States, the people, the citizens of Europe. It is an ecosystem made up of many different languages, cultures and traditions. Despite our differences, we work together based on our shared values. Values like democracy. Freedom. The rule of law.
Fundamental values are the answer to basic questions. Like why do we need defence? Why do we need security? To be safe, of course, from threats. Military threats. Terrorist threats. Ultimately, this is about protection.
But then – what do we want to keep safe? Our loved ones, of course. But beyond that, our way of life. Our open society, our democracy, our rule of law, and our freedom.
And of course, security is about safeguarding peace. The European Union has overcome the violent schisms of the past. Mind you, this is not popular to say. ‘Don’t mention the war’, is what people say, if you point this out. Some people take peace for granted. Yet you know, soldiers know more than anyone, that you can never take peace for granted. That is a luxury, you cannot afford.
This conference today is a meeting of unusual partners. Europe is a union of unlikely allies. If you think nationalism is a welcome breath of fresh air, think again: It is the road to war. French and Germans, Dutch and Belgians, Danes and Swedes, French and English, Hungarians and Romanians, Bulgarians and Greeks all fought each other on the bloody timeline of European history. By 1945, just after Asimov thought up his Three Laws, three generations of French and German young men had slaughtered each other in three wars within living memory. But history can surprise us. Sometimes for the better. Twelve years later, 60 years ago next month, these two countries signed the Treaty of Rome, along with four other European nations. From arch enemies, to best buddies. They founded the most successful peace project in human history.
NATO protects that peace. I strongly believe in NATO. Because for peace, it is not enough to have democracy and unity. You also need security. Now more than ever, when we see the return of geopolitics. Russia is challenging the European order. We see hybrid warfare, now in Ukraine. Will the Baltic states be next? We see the return of the menace of nuclear war. Russia has less checks and balances than the Soviet Union had. President Putin enjoys more unrestrained power, than Nikita Khrushchev ever did.
For a moment, just imagine the Cuban nuclear missile crisis fought out on Twitter between Presidents Trump and Putin. We need to rediscover the fact that we live in a nuclear world. We need to re-write the rule book that served us well during the Cold War. We also need to draw new red lines in an age of hybrid warfare. And most importantly of all, we need a new escalation control in a world where social media prompts politicians to respond with the speed of light, where actually more cooler heads should prevail.
The Transatlantic relationship transcends any singular politician on any side of the Atlantic and remains the bedrock of our security. But it does mean we have to do our bit: Europe must pull its weight and shoulder its burden for its own security. I strongly believe that our strategic interests run completely parallel to those of the United States. Our relationship goes back a long way and supersedes transitory personalities and politicians. We are relatives by history and friends by choice. We are friends because the same values underpin our societies: Openness. Diversity. Pluralism. Freedom. Democracy. I am not afraid these values will erode. I believe in the strength of American society. I am sure that checks and balances will ultimately win the day.
But let’s not worry about what goes on across the pond, when right here, on our own doorstep, our fundamental values are under threat. In Europe, we see the return of the politics of paranoia. Fuelled by alternative facts in Internet echo chambers, the disruptive forces of xenophobia, intolerance, illiberalism and nationalism and are on the march. New parties are peddling old, dangerous ideas. Brexit, Turkey, Poland, Hungary and even in the Western Balkans we see the return of fault lines in Europe. Not an iron curtain of machine guns and minefields, but a barrier of the mind, between inclusion and exclusion, between open and closed societies.
But why? The fourth industrial revolution is bringing change faster than ever before, disrupting our societies. Let’s look again at Pepper, the robot. He may be Wall-E to some, but he’s Terminator to others. Some think: great, he can do my work for me. Others fear: what if he takes my job from me? It certainly looked to me as if he is after your job, General.
An ideological battle is raging, a struggle for the soul of our societies. With at its heart, the question: how do we protect our citizens from the gales of globalisation and breakneck technological change. What is innovation to some, is disruption to others. People are bewildered, without anchor or perspective. Too many people have been left behind, creating a deep-felt need for protection. A need for security, not of a military kind, but of a social kind.
The populist answer is: exclusion. Shut others out. Not just Muslims. Anyone who disagrees is the enemy. After the British Referendum and the US elections, you could hear: “I am the people” or “We are the nation”. As if the ‘others’ didn’t matter anymore. I reject this solution. Because where exclusion wins, freedoms suffer. As we have all too often seen in our history. Let’s resist the urge to Godwin for a moment. That’s too easy. This is as old as Europe.
Take Marcus Tullius Cicero more than 2000 years ago. Arguably he was a populist himself, but all his actions, all his speeches were focused towards rediscovering virtue and renewing the Republic to save it. His tragedy was to be a witness and ultimately a victim of other populists who started out by saying they spoke for the people and ended up as tyrants and hastened the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Like Cicero, we can lose all that we hold dear overnight. History tends to surprise us. And often for the worse. The collapse of the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire. World War One, the Bolshevik revolution, World War Two, the Cold War. The unthinkable can happen. If there is no political will to uphold the rule of law, it can be dismantled. The European Union can be destroyed – and more importantly, with it the peace, democracy and prosperity for which it stands. It is an important realisation: nothing is irreversible.
But having said this: nothing is inevitable either. We ain’t dead yet.
First, we must confidently speak out, that only an open society can truly protect from the challenges of modernity. Creativity is the currency of the new economy, and it is best minted in an open and free society, protected by the rule of law.
Second, we must show unity, and strength. There are two kinds of Member States in Europe, small ones, and those who don't know yet they are small. Divided we stand alone in this world in flux, united we can look to the future with confidence. Our strength comes from a strong defence. Our strength comes from unambiguous unity even if we don't always agree on everything, and most importantly, it comes from our inner strength, the fundamental values we cherish and uphold. And I am optimistic. The future of Europe is not decided by the tweets of the President of the United States. Brexit and Trump are having enormous centripetal effect on the Member States. They are finding their middle ground.
So, again why do we need defence? We need it to protect our fundamental values of freedom and democracy. Otherwise, what's the use? Make no mistake: if our morale falters, military security will not help us. We also need political will to protect our way of life. So, it is not enough to sit and gripe. It is time to act. All of us must fight for our way of life, our freedoms and values. As Obama said in his farewell address: “Our values may be unalienable, but they are not self-executing.” We cannot just hope for the best, we all have a responsibility.
And I am optimistic. The silent majority of people of good will are saying: no more of this. You see it in the outpouring of solidarity for refugees, both in Europe and the United States. You see it in the women who are mobilising around the world, in a way that inspires me incredibly. You see it above all in our young people. They are the best connected, best educated and best travelled generation we have ever seen. Idealistic, without being ideological.
So, let history not surprise us, but let us surprise ourselves.
It is time to take a stand.