Robert Habeck

A progressive vision for the future of Europe – Rede an der Georgetown University


Speech given at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. on January 24th, 2020 – check against delivery.

Thank you very much, Karen, for the kind introduction. Thank you also, Abe, to Georgetown and to the School of Foreign Service, for hosting me. Thank you to the Heinrich Boell Foundation for hosting me here in town these days. And thank you all for coming.

Compared to this time around, how very different was my experience during my last political stay in your city and in the US.

In the winter of 2009, I spent a week in Washington on the invitation of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, chronicling the changes and the special atmosphere that reigned here following the election and inauguration of Barack Obama. The city was buzzing with enthusiasm. There was a tangible confidence, a readiness to tackle and solve the world’s problems. It was vibrating, and I caught the bug, too. I was at this very library, attending a Think Tank event. And now, almost ten years later, it’s a bit surreal to find myself here again as a speaker.

I did actually return to the US with my sons a few years ago, but we mostly hung out in New York and then went surfing off Cape Cod. That was a crazy experience. I don’t know if you’ve been there before. As you access the beach, there’s this huge sign: Caution! Danger! Great white sharks hunt these waters. Do not surf with seals. So we thought: Okay, let’s not surf with seals then. And when we were riding the waves, the water around us was teeming with seals. They were playing in the waves right next to us, surfing parallel to us. And as we were lying on the beach, all of a sudden there was huge commotion because a big sea lion had been washed ashore. It had a huge belly wound, intestines bulging out. And all the beach ranger had to say was: Yup, a Great White. Must have happened a few hours ago, though…

Thankfully the sharks didn’t get us, and so I still get to speak with you today.

But boy, how the mood has changed compared to my stay here ten years ago. The world and the US have seen better days. Instead of setting out for a new dawn of the American-European relationship, we are struggling to prevent its breakup.

It’s an important time to remember what made this such a strong and united partnership in the first place. Our partnership was based on civilizational achievements that were anything but self-evident. They have always been heavily contested, and today, they are political battlegrounds once again. So-called “alternative facts”, an Orwellian inversion of language and attempts to rewrite history – all these are not symptoms of a crisis, but a crisis of reason.

This crisis is a challenge we share, just like we share a common heritage. And from that heritage, a common responsibility for the future. The Age of Enlightenment, the French and the American revolutions laid the foundations for liberal democracy, the primacy of scientific insight over religious doctrine, and the recognition of the inviolable dignity and rights of every human being on this planet.

German fascism and the World Wars that Germany unleashed almost led to the extinction of democracy, human rights, and freedom on the European continent and cost the lives of many millions of people. It was thanks to the United States and its European allies that fascism was defeated in Europe. You gave us a new, a third chance to prove ourselves as peaceful fellow citizens in Europe.

Yesterday, I had a meeting at the Pentagon. And at the walls of the Pentagon hallways there are these pictures and relics of various military operations. One scene was the Berlin Airlift. It is still astonishing to me how the American people helped feed the German people after 1945. One in ten Germans received a care package with food, coffee, or candy. Even though the Nazi regime pursued a deadly hunger plan to starve its adversaries during the war, your country did not take revenge, but instead imported almost 20 million tons of food to Germany between 1945 and 1949 – a historic rescue operation that is still unparalleled today. A rescue without which millions of people would have starved to death. And you initiated the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild the economies in Germany and Western Europe.

One price that had to be paid, and for which we Germans also are responsible, was the division of our country and the division of Europe. And once again, it was first and foremost the United States who, alongside its European partners, helped reunite Germany, and helped deliver on the promise of freedom in Central and Eastern Europe.

None of this would have been possible without courageous politicians who trusted each other in critical situations, who were guided by a clear compass of democratic values, and who relied on the US-European alliance. I would like to see more of that in today’s politics. Especially today, it seems that we have forgotten this lesson as new nationalism and isolationism dominate politics. We are facing global crises such as the climate crisis, yet politics is becoming more and more national in its outlook.

In recent years, we are witnessing the return of geopolitics that divide the world into spheres of power. Instead of overcoming ideologies, we see a surge of fundamentalism – religious, and by no means only Islamist, and national fundamentalism.

And all over the world, we are witnessing the erosion of old and time-honored democracies. This is especially true in Europe, as well.

My country, Germany, is still considered relatively stable. But in a survey last year, only 47 percent of Germans said that representative democracy was the best form of government.

The sentiment that is expressed in this skeptical view is a longing for respect and recognition. I have clearly seen this myself on the campaign trail in the German states of Saxony and Brandenburg. In the Eastern German region of the Lausitz, there is a large lignite area. Germany must phase out coal, and quickly, in order to reduce its CO2 emissions. So you can imagine the fears, the resentment, the rage in those coal mining regions. On the campaign trail, I tried to ease these fears with facts and figures. This many billions in structural aid will flow into the region, we will develop new infrastructure, expand broadband and railway networks, and so on. But none of that really helped to calm the protests.

I found that the only way to ease the tensions, was to say: Your grandparents, your parents, and all of you, you have been the backbone of the booming Germany industry, you sacrificed your health and your lives so that Germany could have reliable and affordable energy. So, before we continue our discussion, let me thank you!

This was the only way to start a meaningful conversation. And I have experienced similar situations in discussions with conventional farmers, fishermen, or workers in the automotive industry. These kinds of exchanges give us some sense of how we might emerge from the crisis of democracy. People want to be recognized as human beings. They want to be seen and heard, recognized, and respected. They do not want to be mere strategic pawns of anonymous events.

And it isn’t only the older generation and the disenfranchised who are turning their backs on democracy. Young people in particular are becoming estranged from democracy and increasingly favor “strong leaders”.

Consider the youth movement “School strike for climate”. We must acknowledge that the greatest danger for this generation is not that they are getting too radical in their demands. The greatest danger is that they become democratically demotivated. What have these children actually done? They skipped school for two hours on Fridays. They sang songs and made posters. They didn’t vandalize train tracks or assault banks like the yellow vests, they didn’t throw Molotov cocktails like at the G20 protests. They opted for the most civilized form of democratic protest imaginable. What kind of signal does a government send to them when it fails to act? It’s telling them: “Do whatever you want, we don’t care.” Decisive, successful, consistent action against the climate crisis is not only an ecological imperative, it is a litmus test for democracy as well. We cannot allow it to fail, because if we do, we risk losing the future change makers for our democracies.

The survival and the revival of liberal democracy is one of the defining questions for the future of the European Union.

So how should Europe respond to the crisis of democracy, to the climate crisis, and to the shifting geopolitical and technological landscape?

Let me start with economic and fiscal policy.

I believe that unregulated markets are a danger to peace and democracy. Unregulated markets are a danger to social cohesion, and to people’s trust in the problem solving abilities of democratic institutions.

Criticism of unregulated markets must not be confused with a rejection of the general principle of the market economy. Markets are one of the most powerful social instruments we have. They generate fast innovation, they reward creativity, hard work, and achievement. They have brought much progress and good to our societies. We need markets.

But we should take greater care to ensure that they actually serve people and society. That they are inclusive rather than exclusive. That they are the means to an end rather than an end in itself. Social benefits, minimum wage laws or functioning public spaces are not a threat to economic growth and prosperity. On the contrary, they are their prerequisite. Greed may create material wealth for some, but it destroys the wealth of a society at large. Markets have to play by certain rules. They are not jungles, they are gardens. They need social norms and political regulation.

And now, in the 21st century, our markets need readjustment.  

We can’t allow environmentally harmful behavior to continue to be a profitable business model. We need to abolish environmentally harmful subsidies in all sectors. And, of course, CO2, and all the emissions that drive climate change need to have an effective price for markets to change.

As I discussed during my visit with members of your Congress, giving CO2 a price, is also an issue here. A CO2 price is a simple, market-based mechanism: Those who use our finite resources wisely will have a competitive advantage over those whose behavior damages the climate. Climate protection will become cheaper. Climate destruction, the cost of which has so far been borne by the general public, will become more expensive.

This is not only an environmental, but also an economic imperative. We need to foster a thriving competition for new and better solutions and technologies to combat the climate crisis and strengthen our economies. The greatest threat to industry and our prosperity is not our inability to develop these new solutions, but the risk of failing to act out of fear.

Consider the German automotive industry: Germany exports three quarters of its car production. But many countries have already decided to phase out combustion engines. So our car industry will have to either start competing in the market for climate-friendly cars, or stop producing cars altogether. Across sectors, the transition to green technologies is not only an environmental imperative, but an economic one as well. Green industries will secure prosperity and sustainable jobs, save us expensive energy imports, help prevent conflicts over raw materials, and boost our competitiveness.

To achieve this transition, the European Union must act as a strong and united player. We must develop common standards for a sustainable economy – instead of allowing others to impose their strategic decisions on us. Since the US is banking on financial-market-driven capitalism and China is relying on authoritarian state monopolism, our European response must be a social-ecological market economy.

A Green economy will also give us new tools to promote greater socioeconomic justice. Too often, efforts to promote Green economic policies have burdened the poorest members of our societies. When we tax consumption, for example through higher gas taxes, lower-income households feel a heavier burden than higher-income households. This was the economic driver behind the yellow vest protests in France.

We cannot achieve our environmental goals by sacrificing our social convictions through such regressive policies. Instead, we must devise policies that are both socially and environmentally progressive. In Germany the top 10% consume three times more CO2 than the bottom 10%. Globally, it is ten times more. If we put a price on CO2, and then divide all the income generated by the number of citizens and pay it straight back to the people, the social effect is that lower-income households will benefit significantly more. We call this the “energy dividend”. A European energy dividend, implemented through our tax system, would reconcile ecology and social justice in an unprecedented way. Not as a fix, but as a principle.

To become a leader of a post-fossil economic order, the European Union also needs to get serious about a common economic and fiscal policy. The EU is the largest market on earth, and should learn to make better use of the power and possibilities that entails.

Germany is the biggest profiteer of a united Europe. A stable and prospering Europe is in Germanys vital interest. Germany of all countries must therefore strive to make the EU function better, and must invest in that.

My party has proposed the national measure of rewriting the balanced-budget rule allowing Germany to double its public investments annually. This is the time to seriously invest in our future.

Europe also needs a fiscal policy, not only monetary policy, and Germany must strive to make the Euro a genuine lead currency, with the ability to issue its own bonds, in order to make the Euro a safe form of investment.

This is how we can fortify European democracy and withstand a possible economic downturn.

The second thing that the EU ought to do is to define its place and interests in the shifting world order, and to step up and act as a united, global leader.

For me and many Germans, the EU is more than an economic union. It is a union of values. It has brought peace to our scarred continent – for the longest period in modern history. And given the global situation, the new isolationism in the United States, and the rise of authoritarian regimes, it is more urgent than ever that Europe be a global political player and show a united front to defend and uphold the enlightened ideas of rationality and democracy.

This won’t happen overnight, of course. And we are well aware of the internal conflicts and different opinions within the European Union. Therefore, we need a new and powerful political effort in order to achieve more unity and to focus on our common challenges. Especially Germany and France will have to play a major role in renewing Europe’s promise for a sustainable and prosperous future.

In our immediate European neighborhood, we are currently failing to meet this responsibility. The US has substantially reduced its presence in the Middle East and instead shifted its focus towards the Asia-Pacific region. The US is leaving Syria, and intends to leave Iraq and Afghanistan. There are understandable reasons why many Americans are weary of these long wars, but in leaving abruptly, the US will effectively clear the way for Russia, Iran, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and others. And, unfortunately, this also paves the way for the resurgence of Islamist terrorist organizations.

The same applies to the menace of a war between the US and Iran. The US President’s actions are irresponsible. Stoking the flames in a region where you no longer want to take responsibility is political hara-kiri.

Yet the EU, for its part, has proven paralyzed, divided, and unable to take any relevant joint foreign policy action.

Take Libya, for example. Italy has supported the current government; France has been backing the rebels, while Germany has been trying to mediate between France and Italy. We have to get our act together. This is our immediate neighborhood. The recent agreement on Libya by the international community reached in Berlin some days ago, is therefore a major step forward. This diplomatic outcome shows that Europe can be an essential player if we overcome the lack of political will and disunity.

Right now, we Europeans are doing everything we can to make ourselves smaller than we are. Our internal market is a giant, but we often act like a dwarf. We weaken each other by infighting. We do not use our potentials. A concrete example is North Stream II, the construction of a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, a grave geopolitical and ecological mistake which simply disregards the justified security concerns of our eastern and Baltic neighbors. Another example is Europe’s dependence on China’s Huawei 5G technology, which threatens to make us technologically dependent on the goodwill of a country that is at least in part a systemic rival.

And of course it applies to the Middle East. The Middle East has long been the world’s gas station. What will happen to these states once we stop buying their oil? Once they no longer rake in petrodollars? At the same time, the climate crisis is already hitting these regions particularly hard. Water will be in short supply. There will be climate wars. Ethnic and religious tensions are on the rise. But just as we have a responsibility to leave the old energy world behind us, we can make these regions partners in the new one. Europe should strive to conclude agreements on solar hydrogen with its Arab neighbors and create a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, importing clean, green energy.

Of course, sometimes diplomacy and economic initiatives are not enough. We witnessed this with the horrific wars and atrocities in former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. We Greens took part in the decision back then to intervene militarily, sending German soldiers abroad to fight for the first time since World War II. Military capabilities are crucial for the EU, to be able to act abroad in the case of urgent humanitarian or security crises, and to defend our continent at home. We are currently spending three to four times as much money on defense as Russia is, yet much of that money is going to waste. We need to take pooling and sharing within the EU much more seriously, building up the capabilities we need, and use PESCO and the European Defense Fund as first steps of increased European military cooperation. We have 35 different types of tanks in the EU, nearly 20 types of combat aircraft and more than 10 types of tanker-aircraft. Investing in this diffuse infrastructure is ineffective. How to come to a better cooperation, and develop the capabilities we need is the discussion we should be having instead of being solely focused on a random number connected to our fluctuating GDP.

With the rise of China, India, and other emerging and developing economies, the transatlantic world is losing its relative weight and influence. The multilateral institutions and regulatory frameworks of the 20st century don’t reflect this new reality. At the same time, they are increasingly challenged by political forces in our own societies. The calls for “national sovereignty”, for “my country first” are dominating debates. International rules and agreements are at risk of being supplanted by the doctrine of “might makes right”.

But we are not at the mercy of these developments; they are not a force of nature. It is up to us to help shape them, to help shape the world order of the future. The legacy of American-European relations is one of collaborating in and building up multilateral organizations such as the UN, the WTO, and the World Climate Conference. At a time when so many of the challenges we face can only be solved at the global level, from the climate crisis to growing numbers of refugees, we need these multilateral institutions more than ever. It was the US that founded these institutions. It was the US that taught us and the world the importance of international institutions and rules.

We Germans have a particular responsibility in this respect. The lessons we have learned from our history compel us, firstly, to think in terms of partnerships and alliances, globally and within the EU. Germany’s future lies in working towards European unification. This includes transferring further sovereign rights, authority on tax matters, a common foreign and security policy, and ultimately, the emergence of a federal European republic.

Lastly, the EU should realize that the climate crisis will be THE defining political issue of the 21st century. Whether we like it or not, it will be the central issue of our security, our economies, social justice at home and around the globe, our health and the health of our democracies. Climate policy cannot just be a separate policy area within the EU portfolio, but has to be an integral part of all European policies and strategies.

Yesterday I went across the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. Just like FDR’s New Deal tackled the social consequences of industrialization, we should now respond to the social and environmental consequences of the climate crisis with a Green New Deal. A Green New Deal could safeguard our planet, revitalize our economies, contribute to social justice, and foster global cooperation. It would also be a visionary project taking into account our historical heritage.

It could be the cornerstone for a future partnership between the United States and the European Union, a partnership not based on one-sided dependence, but a healthy relationship that stands on two strong legs. Together with the United States we could lead the way in solving the climate crisis, defending liberal democracy and standing up to authoritarian strongmen, reforming and strengthening multilateral institutions and frameworks.

Of course we cannot influence whether the United States will want to set sail for that course.

In the meantime, perhaps our best option is to be hands-on, to rely on cooperation between people – as was the case with the care packages after World War Two. Until we once again have governments that muster the strength to do great things, we must work below the level of national politics to strengthen our human, cultural, and economic relations.  

As for Europe itself, we CAN decide which course we want to embark on.

We can be the leader we aspire to be if we act courageously and ambitiously, and if we are united. Our societies remain remarkably innovative and productive. I firmly believe that Europe has something to offer the world: for all our historical failures, our union today reconciles peace and prosperity with freedom and the rule of law. Of course, we are always striving to perfect this European Union. But I believe that, in an era of unprecedented global change and instability, we offer a model of society that many people around the world can aspire to.

My own political experience has made me confident that we can win this battle for our future, and the future of our planet. It will entail taking risks, speaking out for what we believe in even when it’s unpopular, and sometimes trying something radically new. We will need courage to face this new political era. But fortunately courage is not a finite resource. We can find it everywhere. With the young people striking for the climate week by week, with women and minorities speaking out for equal rights, with protesters in Hong Kong, Russia, Iran and all over the world demanding dignity and freedom.

There are more seals in the oceans than there are great whites, and together they are stronger.

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