Robert Habeck

Bridges over borders – Rede an der London School of Economics and Political Science


Speech given at London School of Economics and Political Science on February 4th, 2020 – check against delivery/es gilt das gesprochene Wort. (LSE German Symposium – Keynote: The Green Wave – Europe’s changing political landscape)


First of all I’d like to thank the London School of Economics and the German Society at LSE for inviting me. And thank you all for coming. I look forward to our discussion and also hearing your views on Europe’s changing political landscape.

If I’m honest, it feels a bit strange being here today under the guiding motto of “Beyond Borders”, when it’s only been roughly three days ago that Brexit officially happened. Everywhere we look today, we see the re-emergence of borders. Just last week I was in El Paso with US Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, where President Trump wants to build his wall. I was in Israel and stood on the high wall that separates Jerusalem from the Palestinian Territories. We also have our European border – the Mediterranean Sea. And we close it and let no one in.

“Beyond Borders” – that was indeed a good leitmotif of the last 30 years of politics. In 2020 it is a hope at best.

Basically, I think that borders are not a bad thing. In a sense, they are necessary. Because only when a state or a legal area knows where its validity ends, it knows where its place is. But borders that undermine the universal claim to cooperation prepare hostility, hatred and nationalism and throw us back into the worst time. „Make America great again“ and “Take back control“ are treacherous phrases in so far as they describe a policy of „back „and“ again „. Since the expulsion from paradise, people seem to believe that everything used to be better in old times. But that is an illusion. It wasn’t. Especially not in Europe, where nationalism and the struggle for borders cost millions of human lives, and only peaceful cooperation in the European Union brought peace.

In those last three decades we saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, the reintegration of Western and Central and Eastern Europe, and the steady march of liberal democracy. Societies were opening up and globalization was bringing people together from different parts of the world. It was supposed to be the “End of History” according to Francis Fukuyama. But that time is over. History is back.

The era that began with the turn of 1989 and the collapse of socialism is finished. All over the world we see radical changes:

• Populism is expanding.
• Societies are fragmenting.
• Democracies, even long-standing ones, are eroding.

The percentage of people who say it is essential to live in a democracy has plummeted. Less than 30% of Americans, Dutch and British citizens born in the 1980s believe so. Only 36% of millennials in Europe believe that a military takeover against an incompetent government would be illegitimate.

The political landscape is in the grips of a fundamental restructuring. Old, established mainstream parties that have dominated politics over a century are losing support. The number of parties represented in parliaments across the continent has grown. In France, the Parti Socialist has slid into irrelevance, in Italy the largest party in the Parliament is the Five Star Movement.

Even German politics, long a hallmark of stability, ain’t what it used to be. Back in the 1970s, the Volksparteien – the CDU and the SPD – would together take 90 per cent of the vote. Only three parties were represented in the Bundestag. Fast forward to 2020 and their share has shrunk to around 40 per cent according to polls, with the number of political parties in the Bundestag having doubled to six.

So why is this the case? Why is the political system changing and why is the political center moving away from traditional parties? I would like to point out to a number of diverging trends.

First, society has become more individualized. In Germany, we traditionally call the CDU and SPD Volksparteien – people’s parties. But the fact is that the Volksparteien can no longer represent the Volk because the Volk is no longer the same as it was back in the 1970s and 1980s. The 20th century was the mass age, defined by mass production and consumption, mass parties and politics. But the 21st century is the individual age. Society has become individualised and more diverse. The challenge for political parties today is to find a language and type of politics that appeals to the individual and brings him into a collective. And the approval that my party has gained over the past two years is, in my view, also due to the fact that we embody a new policy offer. We want that different ways of life are accepted as they are and we think of them as greater freedom. But we are sticking to the fact that politics need a mandate to regulate the big questions. We organize alliances with different social groups. Business, churches, Fridays for Future – as different as they are, they are united in an alliance. We see ourselves as an alliance party and an alternative to the People’s Party.

Second, politics has become too removed from the individual. We are in the midst of a fundamental transformation. Digitalization, globalization, climate change, the reemergence of geopolitics – the challenges we face are massive, but they are too abstract for many people. People hear about the challenges, are confronted by facts and figures, but don’t necessarily feel a connection to politics anymore. People feel that they are exposed to anonymous processes, that as a citizen, they are no longer a subject in politics but an object of politics. That’s the vacuum that populists tap into. Populists don’t offer their voters competence but intimacy. They promise to re-establish the bond between elites and citizens. And that’s what the Brexiteers did. “Taking back control” – that slogan made many people feel like they can be a subject in politics again. It gives people a feeling of recognition. And recognition, the philosopher Hegel already argued, is the ultimate driver of human history.

I have also been confronted with this effect 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 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 tension 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. Therefore we need to advance a politics of recognition and not leave this area to the populists.

And last, I truly believe that the political fault line has changed.

• As interests, positions and opinions within society diverge,
• as society is becoming more fragmented and splintered,
• and as people feel increasingly disenfranchised and disconnected from politics, political parties have the responsibility to cover a broader spectrum, engage more deeply with citizens, and hold society together by bringing diverging groups together.

The political fight is no longer about left-wing or right-wing policies but
• about open vs. closed politics,
• about politics that unite and politics that divide,
• about politics of borders and politics of bridges that brings together different interest groups and demographics – bridges between the young and the old, between urban and rural, between immigrants and natives, between economy and ecology.

That’s where the battle is taking place. That’s where I currently see the political dynamic in Europe. And that’s the responsibility that we as German Greens take very seriously.

Many people I believe are tired of the old way of politics defined by antagonism and Manichean thinking. Some people like to conduct politics as the “Art of the Deal”. The calls for “national sovereignty”, for “my country first” are dominating debates. Many follow a policy of fear that relies on internal and external scapegoats. Walls are being built, in people’s minds, in trade relations and on the actual ground. I believe politics is the “Art of the Compromise.” There’s a key difference between the two: Compromising is self-less. You give up something to find something greater together. Dealmaking is selfish. You expect something for giving something. International rules and agreements are at risk of being supplanted by the doctrine of “might makes right”. To prevent this, we need to start a new attempt to revive international institutions.

The art of bridging divides and bringing supposedly opposites together will be a key requisite for political change and political success in the future.

And best start with the European-British relationship after Brexit. I want Britain to stay as close to the EU as possible. There are economic policy models for free trade agreements like the Framework Agreement between the EU and Switzerland for example that is presently negotiated. It is the basis for all future bilateral agreements on market access between the EU and Switzerland and makes sure that Swiss law is in accordance with EU law when it comes to the free movement of persons, technical tariff barriers, agricultural products, aviation, and other areas. In case of disagreements, both parties can initiate a dispute settlement procedure and questions of compliance with EU law can be decided by the European Court of Justice.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that his idea for the future relations between Great Britain and the EU could be something like the CETA agreement. The challenge is that the agreement with Canada was negotiated for eight years, other agreements even for 12 years. And Johnson has stated that under no circumstances does he intend to conduct the negotiations for longer than 11 months and has categorically ruled out the extension of the negotiation period, which is possible until July. He neither wants to accept the EU rules for work and the environment nor the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Europe, on the other hand, cannot accept tax and regulatory dumping on its doorstep and must protect its internal market and insist on a level playing field. Moreover, it is an open question how and whether upcoming regulations and taxation will be taken over. The risk of an unregulated Brexit is still high. Failure in 11 months is more likely than a solution. The next test is still ahead of us.

An agreement should not only include trade and finance but also matters of foreign and security policy like defense, intelligence and police cooperation. I strongly believe that it is of utter importance to cooperate closely in these areas, not only within NATO but also on the basis of a European alliance. Frontex, a European Criminal Police Office, a common European foreign and security policy – we need Great Britain to remain a close partner in these efforts. This is our shared interest. Last Friday, when Britain left the European Union, some activists from the anti-Brexit movement „Led By Donkeys“ projected gigantic video images onto the white cliffs of Dover. Two old men, veterans of World War II, are talking. They talked about what Europe meant to them: „What I would like to tell you all, in Holland, Germany, France and Belgium – this is news from the UK,“ says one. „I am deeply depressed that we are leaving the European Union,“ added the other. „Because it meant so much to me. The feeling of togetherness that you feel when you travel through Europe is very special.“ According to the two veterans, Europeans should look at the white cliffs – and the British from there on the continent: „And we should feel that we belong together.” Then the European flag appeared. One by one the stars disappeared until only one was to be seen on the white rock: “This is our star. Look after it for us. “

The film is a moving evocation of the great European idea, peace, mutual understanding, closeness. Perhaps it takes almost 100 year ol to express what so many young people feel.

It is still a tragedy that your nation has left the EU. Great Britain will be missed and as a German I say the door is always open. On the other hand, Brexit has also made it clear to many Europeans how fragile the Union is and how uncertain its future is. Two years ago, right-wing populists called for a Dexit, a German exit from the EU. There’s no more talk of that. That is why Europe must go further, become more capable of action, deepen its unity. The European way will be to develop a European fiscal policy.

Germany, in particular, must change its policy. For a common European economic policy, however, we will need a better balance of interests between the EU member states. If Germany wants the EU to protect its industries from dumping, it has to offer something to France or other countries, such as more public investments. Our former chancellor Helmut Kohl understood this very well, that for the EU to succeed, and for Germany to succeed within the EU, Germany will also have to offer something at times, to show solidarity with its European partners. Germany must think with a European mindset again. I would even say, it must think in political terms. My party has proposed the national measure of rewriting the balanced-budget rule to match our current conditions, allowing Germany to double its investments from about 18 billion to 35 billion annually. In addition, Germany, of all countries, 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, a world currency. This is how we empower Europe to shape global policy.

Europe’s mission now is to make its own set of values as appealing as possible. In order to achieve this, it needs appropriate civilian means. Trade agreements for example could be leveraged as instruments to promote climate protection and solidarity.

European cooperation is the basic prerequisite to be competitive in the technology markets of the 21st century. Yet, it is still failing to meet its own self-imposed target of investing three percent of GDP in research and development. Europe’s predominant policies in recent years have left us behind in the technology race. We must reverse this trend and invest heavily in Europe as a hub of knowledge and innovation. We must strengthen the European Research Framework Program and, in particular, we must promote basic research in key economic fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, quantum technology as well as bio- and nanotechnology.

To do this, the European Union must act as a strong and united player to develop common standards for a sustainable economy – instead of allowing others to impose their strategic decisions on us. Since the US believes in financial-market-driven capitalism and China is relying on authoritarian state monopolism, our European response must be a social-ecological market economy. In order to create prosperity for the future in this time of upheaval, we must firmly set the right course at the national, European, and global level.

For me and many Germans, Europe is more than just 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, new isolationism in the United States, the rise of authoritarian regimes and irrational policies, it is more urgent than ever that Europe becomes a global political player and shows a united front to defend and uphold enlightened ideas, rationality, and democracy. And even if Britain has left the European Union – it does not leave the world of European values. Let us build bridges in this difficult time – also across new borders.