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Thank you, President Shafik for that kind introduction.
Good afternoon everyone.
Let me say how honoured I am to be here, to be invited to one of the greatest universities in the world, to speak to you about leadership. About how the world needs Europe and the United States to keep stepping up. About how leadership is about people – about you – more than it is about institutions. And about how the geo-political realities we now face mean we are being called upon to plot a path to a future that is more uncertain than it was a few years ago.
I am the youngest ever President of the European Parliament. I am part of the generation, who were sitting on my parents lap as the Berlin Wall came down, who watched Tiananmen Square on grainy TV screens, who just remember the collapse of the USSR and unbridled joy of millions of Europeans finally free after half a century to determine their own destinies – who reaped all the benefits of the victory of liberal democracy in a new world.
In Europe and the US, mine is the last generation who remembers a world when liberal democracy was not a given. We believed that our way won – and that our victory would last forever. We believed that our way would define the new world order. When the world’s blocs were dismantled, we believed that democracy, freedom, rule of law, cooperation would herald a new age of global trade, of individual rights and liberties.
We believed we could outrun and outgrow any threats to our way of life. Perhaps we grew a little too complacent, a little too comfortable.
Last year we understood, in the most brutal of manners, just how painfully true that was. When Russian tanks rolled into sovereign independent Ukraine, looting, raping, murdering. The world changed. Forever.
We understood on that fateful day that we must lead in this new world. The United States and Europe have many faults, many things that need improving, but despite everything they stand as enduring symbol of our way of life – as a bastion of liberty and freedom, and if we do not fulfil our inherited duty to lead, then someone else, with a very different valueset to ours will.
That’s a responsibility that weighs heavily. We have and we must continue to take the decisions that necessary. Difficult decisions. Decisions like opening our doors and our markets to countries like Ukraine and Moldova or countries in the Western Balkans. Decisions like supplying weapons to Ukraine.
A little over twenty years ago, there was a huge discussion in Europe on whether ten countries should join the European Union. I was still a student, studying the ins and outs of politics, but with an ironclad belief in the transformational powers of Europe. It was never about creating everyone in the same likeness. Rather it was a core belief that in unity, even and especially in all our diversity, there is strength. It was about our security, about opportunity and the comfort of belonging. To us, it meant everything.
That is the spirit that drives our outlook today. Even with all our imperfections, there are still so many people around the world who live under the yoke of oppression for whom the European Union has not lost its shine. For whom the United States will always be a natural ally.
The geopolitical sands are shifting. We have Putin’s tanks on independent and sovereign Ukraine; Lukashenko persecuting, imprisoning, torturing people for their democratic beliefs; China that has risen with a value system that is different to ours; India on the rise; Afghanistan collapsing back into disarray; Iran stirring up the Middle East and propping up Russia; East and Central Africa at boiling point; and South America facing new and old economic challenges.
The EU and the US are two of the strongest economic blocs on the planet. Our transatlantic relationship is a vital artery of the global economy. But our true strength lies in something far deeper than that. We share a dream. We share values.
The world cannot thrive on imbalances. We need to build a global democratic alliance of trusted partners and friends.
The same responsibility that we felt and delivered when we were called upon to stand with Ukraine. We matched our rhetoric, with action, with real and tangible support. Together we enacted hard-hitting sanctions that have decreased Russia’s oil and gas revenues by almost 50%. And it is still decreasing. We have shown that we can react and adapt under an immense amount of pressure. That our way of life and our way of doing things does work, that our values matter, that it is worth it.
These relationships and principles have stood the test of time, only if we continue to work together, to lead together, if we are to beat the tests of today. Too many of our people are still struggling to make ends meet, too many women still face the thickest of glass ceilings, too many of our young people still face a completely uncertain future. Climate change continues to have devastating impacts on lives, livelihoods and our environment. The digital revolution is developing faster than we are able to regulate it responsibly. We must continue to keep our people’s concerns at the centre of all our actions.
Our next steps will be defined on how able we are to remain competitive. How can we create jobs and futures with dignity. How can we push back against inflation wiping value of assets without making it impossible for young people to buy a home. How can we ensure that the digital transition makes it easier for our companies to innovate. One where sure, you might fail. But one that then also makes it easier for you to get back up again.
In the European Union, we have started putting the building blocks in place. Take for example our Chips Act, our Digital Services and Digital Markets Acts. We are now working on the world’s first comprehensive, pro-innovation Artificial Intelligence Act. In all these ground breaking pieces of legislation, we managed to find a balance between innovation and business to flourish, keeping people safe online and setting standards that the rest of the world will inevitably follow.
It has not been easy. The European Union, unlike the United States, is composed of twenty-seven sovereign countries, each with different regulatory frameworks, constitutions, languages and interests that do not always necessarily align. But it is precisely within this melting point of ideas, that we can find the best solutions that work for all.
Of course, investment requires funding – public funding. How do we grow our economies – and pay back our debts – how do we ensure that we have the ability and liquidity to fund the solutions that are demanded of us? The answer is real, sustainable, economic growth.
I have always seen the green transition as an integral part of that sustainable growth strategy. It is not just an obligation, but an investment in our economies too. But in order for it to work, it needs to place the human at its centre. It needs to be human-centric, it must provide real incentives and safety nets for industry and it must be ambitious enough to address the very real climate emergency we are in. It must meet the targets of the Paris Agreement. But it must also work for people.
When it comes to addressing climate change, we need to move away from a binary way of thinking. We can be the most climate ambitious continents and at the same time aim to be the most competitive, innovative and business friendly ones too. But the only way to do that…is to keep speaking to people – and more than speak – to listen. This is how we avoid people from retreating to the political fringes, which offer up easy answers to very difficult questions. It is up to us to be the drivers of a clean-tech revolution and I am convinced that we can do this in a way that leaves no one behind.
In fact, in the European Union we have already made significant headway. We have implemented a vast reform of our Emissions Trading System, which is a market-based solution incentivising companies to limit their emissions by putting a price on carbon. We also established a carbon border tax to create a level-playing field for our companies and agreed to establish a Social Climate Fund that will aid both companies and households limit their emissions.
These efforts are already bearing fruit. Since last year, we have had good increases of solar power and wind power instalments in Europe – 47% solar and 30% wind, to be exact. Despite problems with supply chains after a devastating pandemic and challenging economic conditions, Europe is well on the way to achieving climate neutrality by 2050.
Allow me a moment on defence.
The concept of security, if we have learned something over the past year and a half, necessitates a new perception. It is no longer just about conventional means of warfare. Putin has weaponised information, energy, food, even people, in an attempt to crush Ukrainian resistance and to weaken the West’s support. The time is now for the European Union and NATO to reinforce the pillars of their cooperation. It is about supporting peace, real peace with liberty. It is about protecting our people. It is about defending our values.
One appeal to you. I came here today to invite you to lead. To feel that sense of urgency. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once wrote “Not all of us have power. But we all have influence, whether we seek it or not… There is quiet leadership of influence that seeks no power, but changes lives. In tough times we need it more than ever.”
The world needs what you, students have to offer. Your knowledge, your skill, your drive, your grit, your leadership. You will need to be prepared to encounter, like I did, a couple of cynics along the way. But every generation has been underestimated until it has proven itself in front of the world.
Whether it is in politics, in the medical field, in science, in tech, in academia, I wholeheartedly believe in your endless potential to help make our world a little bit better, a little bit safer and a little bit more equal. To bring our world a little closer to how it ought to be.
Friends, it is now our time for leadership and we cannot be found wanting.