European Council
Council of the European Union

Speech by President Donald Tusk at the 2015 Bled Strategic Forum

European Council
  • 31/08/2015
  • 17:30
  • Speech
  • Institutional affairs
31/08/2015
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Preben Aamann
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I have recently read an article by Ivan Krastev, which reminded me of a book I came across more than thirty years ago, written by Raymond Aron and entitled "In Defence of Decadent Europe." As a then editor of an illegal periodical, (it was the time of the Communist regime in Poland) I was looking for inspiration, something that would help me go beyond the simple division: the political power versus the underground opposition. The reflections on freedom of authors such as Raymond Aron, Michael Novak, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper or Isaiah Berlin formed a foundation for my personal and political optimism, mixed with cautious scepticism. Today, I feel duty-bound to undertake an effort, both intellectual and political, to once again defend the decadent Europe along with her old-fashioned values, above all freedom and democratic capitalism. By a fortunate coincidence, I am saying these words on the 35th anniversary of the birth of the Solidarity Movement, which was also my experience, maybe the most important in my life.  

When Aron was writing his defence of Europe in the mid -1970s, the prevailing mood was one of pessimism and doubts about the future of democracy and free market, as well as about Europe itself. Religious violence ran riot, with geo-political consequences. Nationalists rose on the left and right; the energy crisis shook the European economy, discrediting mainstream politics. Terrorist groups emerged, particularly aggressive in Italy and Germany while the students' revolts and radical movements, often backed by Soviet secret services, shattered societies from within. Europe was losing clout on the world stage and many thought that they had found themselves at a crossroads of blind alleys, as Ivan Krastev so aptly described.

The voice of Raymond Aron, barely audible in the seventies and drowned out by the avant-garde outcry of radical intellectuals, proved to be the voice of reason and shrewdness. Europe and her traditional values which constitute liberal democracy, have not only survived, but have also become, once again, a universal positive model for millions of people, not only Europeans.

There exists a good number of reasons also to defend today´s decadent Europe. To every sensible observer of the global scene, Europe is still clearly the best place on Earth. In fact, migrants who put their lives at risk to find their way across to our continent know it better than anybody else, unintentionally becoming the most obvious proponents and advocates of the decadent Europe. One can't help but notice the stark contrast to some of today's European intellectuals who are always outraged, ready to offer scathing criticism of their own community and at the same time being completely unable to find practical solutions. By the way, in the past the main task of intellectuals was to think while today it is to be outraged. They are too busy looking for an ideal, ready to abandon reality for destructive projects which look and sound creative and attractive. The last thing Europe needs today is new theories and grand visions. In fact what we really need today is sound judgement, determination in action and common sense.

For sure the European Union is not the best of all possible worlds. But surely it is the best of the existing ones and in all likelihood the best among those that human kind has seen across the centuries. Europe is safe and prosperous and shows respect for the rule of law and the rights of individuals. The poor are offered help, universal education and medical care are provided for. We are not perfect, but are still doing better than at any other time or anywhere else. Europe has also found a way how to durably substitute conflict and violence for dialogue and consensus.  Isn't this enough to defend her?

I often hear that what Europe lacks today is energy, vitality and bravery. We are surrounded by nations and civilizations powered by the energy that they draw from nationalisms, religious orthodoxies and ideologies. It is often poverty that lies at the source of this energy, which was also our experience in Europe`s remote past. Today however, the attractiveness of Europe stems partly from the fact that our continent is largely free from these potent and dangerous emotions. Europe is secular, multinational, tolerant, wealthy and pluralistic. In a sense she was conceived and designed as an alternative to the 20th century´s hell of nationalism and totalitarian ideologies. Surely no-one in their right mind would want us to return to those sources of energy.

In fact, the question if anybody would like to go back in time is irrelevant. It is simply impossible if we want to continue to think about Europe as a political entity, about Europe as a whole. No European nationalism, just like no one European nation will emerge. It is also unlikely for one religion or ideology to conquer the hearts and minds of most Europeans. This is why our energy and determination must be powered by other emotions.

One such emotion is pride. Today we need to feel more proud about our common Europe, simply because Europe deserves it. Pride about our culture, wealth and the political idea of solidarity. I have in mind the same kind of pride which the ancient Greeks felt for themselves and for the barbarians. Not because the barbarians were worse, but because the Greeks lived differently. Pride is this galvanising value which breeds the feeling of dignity and the need to fight for it. Incidentally, we Europeans must today restore the ability to distinguish between pride and hubris. All too often we show hubris to our neighbours, and weakness to the stronger, forgetting that hubris is accompanied by weakness while pride is accompanied by strength. In the history of politics an arrogant weakling has been a most pathetic figure.         

We need to think about our Europe with greater tenderness and patience. We need to protect her not only against external threats when they appear, but also against internal temptations for revolutionary and total changes. The European Union certainly needs to adjust and improve itself, and it must do so constantly, but under no condition should we undermine the very essence of Europe or the political and legal norms of the Union.

There is more and more talk about the need for the new legitimacy of the European Union, as the historical reasons for its creation, the reaction to the tragedy of the Second World War and to the threats from the side of the Soviet Union will no longer suffice. New generations will look for new justifications but what will most certainly endure will be the positive legitimacy of who we are today and who we want to be in the future. And I have no doubt that we want to remain free, tolerant, wealthy and safe citizens of the national states organized in one European community.

If we stay true to our values we will win our future. To achieve this we need to be strong and smart, the most priceless assets in politics. Instead of concentrating on predictions about the distant future and long-term planning we need to stay in shape.  As the saying goes: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans."  More important than ambitious visions are therefore our prowess, resilience, courage and determination. If we are able to rebuild them, we won´t be afraid of the new challenges, even if they take us by surprise.    

Pragmatic European leadership, both on the level of national states and pan-European institutions, must focus on practical solutions. Problems that we encounter presently can be overcome on condition that they do not become an excuse to turn Europe upside down. Equally important are mutual loyalty and solidarity among European players, in particular vis a vis external enemies. I don't suppose anybody has any doubts that they exist.

On every issue on today´s agenda, the Greek crisis, war in Ukraine, migration, terrorism, potential Brexit, we take action, which - if only we are sufficiently loyal to one another and stand united - will bring about positive results. We will continue to live with the problems longer than we would like to - but this is not the reason to question our European principles.              

Is global disorder the new global order? No. In fact disorder has existed since the beginning of time. And indeed, the moderator of our session, Mr Nik Gowing, who in his very long and amazing career as an international broadcaster covered such dramatic events as the terrorist attack on Twin Towers, the Gulf War, Kosovo, Mumbai, the death of Lady Diana, the financial meltdown, and the imposition of the Martial law in Poland, which is especially important to me, is living proof that disorder and chaos are an immanent part of our human existence. Perfect order has always been a dream, while the world around us has always been full of conflicts and surprises. The real challenge is not to change the status quo in search of the perfect order. It is beyond human  reach. Therefore, the real challenge is to preserve and consolidate our imperfect order which we have enjoyed within the European community. Thank you.