Political Keynote Speech of Dr Wolfgang Schäuble

First Minister,

Prime Minister,

Lord Mayor,

Lord of Schwarzenberg,

Ladies and gentlemen,


“We have spoken European. It’s a new language that we’re going to have to learn.” For Aristide Briand, whom I am quoting here, European understanding was a learning process – and that as early as 1926. In Europe, which is growing together, we have learnt a lot in recent years, but our common language is still imperfect today. We still do not have a common public sphere in Europe. And we will not have that for a long time to come. And yet language is not the real problem. It is rather – and this is what Aristide Briand wanted to point out – the completely different points of view in the Member States.

Last week it was to be observed again: In the reactions to the ECB’s latest decision. In these reactions, the completely different mentality becomes clear, between, on the one hand, a more continental European tradition that is German in the broadest sense, that is to say to save first in order to invest the savings then, and, on the other hand, a more Anglo-Saxon attitude, to invest first and only then to finance. Both have their advantages, but of course there are fundamental differences. And an interest rate decision that ultimately implies that saving actually no longer makes any sense is almost inevitably met with a different echo in the German public, where family businesses play a completely different, dominant economic role than listed, capital market-dependent companies, than in countries with a different tradition.

And this is just one current example of European decisions meeting with a national resonance area. Instead of a European public sphere, we see a mosaic of partial public spheres – with specific national points of view and perspectives. And that makes it so easy to polarise. “Brussels” then becomes the cipher for bureaucracy and other evils, while the nation states are responsible for the successes. And this generally also applies to the media’s European reporting, which still functions as a part of foreign reporting. And one does not speak wrongly of “national filter bubbles”.

Another example of this was the election of the new President of the EU Commission this summer: Politically, when in the complicated process of determination between the Heads of State and Government on the one hand, and the Council and Parliament on the other, national interests were articulated openly and in the end the top candidate model was thrown overboard, the goal of which had actually been a broader European public. And in the media, when in German reporting the solution with Ursula von der Leyen was measured against the undeniable European qualities of the candidate, but at the same time a tenor was unmistakable in the German media that belongs in the tradition of a “We are Pope”.

To make Europe visible and understandable as a community project that creates identity, to create its own European identity, in which at the same time there remains space for the self-confidence of the individual states, that is a central task. And in addition to common experiences, myths and possibly threats, a common public sphere and communication are a necessary condition for this to evolve. However, this can only be achieved with clear and correctly set priorities – in politics and in media reporting. By concentrating on the major global issues such as peace, security, sustainability, migration, digitisation and economic stability, which all European nations can only solve together.

After all, the crises of recent years have also had a positive effect. The dispute over the euro, refugee policy or the Brexit polarised and politicised. And European political reporting thus moved out of its niche existence and more into the centre of attention. Europe as a „Auflagen- und Quotenkiller“ (i.e. as having a killing effect on circulation and ratings): that was yesterday. Even if a genuine European public is at best in its infancy, at least the public of the member states is again discussing Europe, more vehemently than before – and not always omitting national stereotypes and clichés. We have to deal with that.

A European public can also educate itself about the fact that the same European issues are discussed in the member states after all. But this presupposes that these debates are not conducted solely from the national point of view, but that the perspective of others is included in one’s own perspective. Foreign policy actually always requires the willingness to understand the other’s point of view. And that is even truer in Europe. That we learn in our sub-publics, the national sub-publics, to better understand against which historical background, on the basis of which traditions and historical experiences, the neighbours think the way they think. And that the media give the necessary space, the background, the knowledge for this endeavour.

The willingness to recognise the diversity of legitimate interests and points of view that we have to deal with within national societies and especially in the Europe of probably soon only 27 is in the end the key in Europe to keep our political culture on the path of the constructive and rational. For me, this was ultimately also an essential motive for advocating, together with my French counterpart, a Franco-German assembly, a joint chamber made up of members of the Assemblée Nationale and the Deutsches Bundestag, which meets alternately in Paris and Berlin, in order to initiate agreement on central political points of view – after all, this is unique in the world – and to enable parallel implementation in political action. In this way, both parliaments underscore their willingness and ability to take each other’s perspectives into account when making their own decisions and, above all, to learn from each other. The first working session will take place next Monday in Berlin.

Democracy, ladies and gentlemen, presupposes citizens’ belonging and identity. Therefore, when we discuss European public opinion, we are essentially discussing the democratic legitimacy of European decisions. In any case, we are accustomed to counting the lack of a European public sphere among the deficits in the legitimacy of the European institutions. And it is also true that the public debate is absolutely essential for the formation of a political community. Democracy not only permits political diversity, it also makes political diversity possible. In other words, the political diversity of a society is a testament to its capacity for democracy – I extend my greetings to Hong Kong. But the complexity is growing – not only at the level of the European Union, but also in our member states under the conditions of globalisation and digitisation. Post-industrial societies are becoming increasingly heterogeneous, confusing and conflict-laden. They are increasingly fragmented – and with them what we call ‘the’ public.

But democratic decision-making needs joint communication in a public space. And that is why the fragmentation of the public sphere becomes a challenge for every democracy. That is why it is now said that the general must be rebalanced against the special that so many in our societies strive for today. But how, when a common space of experience and discourse seems to dissolve in the “Society of Singularities”, of which the sociologist Andreas Reckwitz speaks?

For Herbert Riehl-Heyse, the newspaper was one of the last brackets of a society drifting ever further apart, a society in which even orthopedists could hardly communicate with hand surgeons without interpreters. But this bracket is becoming less and less common in households. The loss of importance of the classical media compared to the offers on the net is a consequence of the increasing social segmentation – and it deepens this even further. The Internet is fuelling a development in which, in isolated groups of like-minded people, communication is at best still superimposed on one another, but no longer takes place.

And the competition for attention on the Internet has once again intensified immensely. Journalistically prepared information and unreflected utterances stand side by side – truths, half-truths, untruths. In the meantime, science has proven that false claims spread much further and faster on Twitter than correct information. The science journalist Ranga Yogeshwar sums it up as follows: “In the past it was said, and that still applies today, that ‘bad news are good news’, but today one would have to add: ‘False news are fast news'”.

And all this has consequences for the public: traditionally, within national political communities, it bundles the attention of an anonymous and scattered audience for selected messages – says Jürgen Habermas. He states that the Internet does bring an increase in egalitarianism. But it is paid dearly: with the loss of strength to “form a focus”. Yet focus is needed. Especially in view of the confusing wealth of information with which we are confronted on a daily basis, probably even more so than ever. Without selection and reduction to the essentials, we easily lose our bearings.

And the effects on trust in the democratic system are considerable. Because from the infinite variety of opinions, views and interests we have to come to decisions in the end – that is the goal of everything political, whether European or national. And in the complicated process of democratic majority building and decision-making, we need institutions and procedures that guarantee a sufficient degree of fairness and responsibility for the future. And this is still best achieved in the model of representation. But it is precisely this principle that is clearly under pressure. Not only in Germany and Europe, but in all Western democracies. Under the changed social conditions and the far-reaching structural change of the public in times of digitalisation, it no longer seems sufficiently capable of reaching the citizens.

Paradoxically as it may sound, this “crisis of the general” also represents an opportunity for the principle of representation. And that holds true, if Parliament is the place of bundling, of concentration on the important questions of our social future, of classification and of lively discussion. And that is why I remain convinced: the principle of representation can regain ground through good debates and convincing resolutions. Through responsible actors who, in addition to representing the legitimate interests of their voters, always keep an eye on the common good to be negotiated.

In Europe, too, where there is still no European identity, it is necessary to bring the thinking, fighting and wrangling about the content of European politics from the world of experts to the reality of the people and to the perception of broad sections of the public.

For me, by the way, this has always been one of the reasons for advocating the direct election of a European President – because I had hoped that such an election campaign would result in a stronger European consciousness. As long as we do not yet have the courage to take such a step, however, politics should at least muster the strength to initiate debates on the major issues of the future and give these debates direction and purpose. To give direction to the people of Europe.

At the same time, we need public understanding of the complexity of the public task, namely to reach decisions by majority vote in the end, given the multitude of interests, opinions and sensitivities. In view of the increasing tendency in the digital age towards aggravation and scarcity, speed, emotionalisation and personalisation of reporting, communicating this does not become easier. Not for politics, nor for quality media. Perhaps, however, we have long become too accustomed to seeing only the negative sides. The new media also offer great opportunities – especially in view of a youth that not only travels through Europe as a matter of course and uses the unlimited possibilities of freedom of movement, but also moves routinely in the digital world. A world that at least makes transnational communication possible by going beyond the traditional national framework of a democratic public sphere. The potential of this cross-border networking has been demonstrated for a year by the Friday for Future movement, and the “Pulse of Europe” movement, which is not restricted to young people, also shows this.

Nevertheless, “European” remains – in the sense of Aristide Briand – a complex, diverse language. There will always be audible national accents in it. After all, a nation has always been associated with the promise of reducing the complexity of the world to a manageable framework. The European, on the other hand, confronts us with the world as it is. This can be seen as an imposition. And it is true that the European Union asks something of its citizens. But Mr Laschet, the move from Bonn to Berlin was also an imposition on German politics. Today, 20 years after the move, we are right in the middle of it and we are no longer acting in an apparent idyll of Bonn.

Europe asks something of its citizens because it takes them seriously. Because it does not show them simple solutions where there are none. The world is complex – and the answers to the world’s challenges can only be complex. A complementary, interlocking system of democracies with different reaches and responsibilities, a kind of national-European double democracy, inevitably places special demands on what we call ‘the’ public. And to all of us, as citizens of our national democracies and a European democracy at the same time. In the end, we need a European public sphere that, in the tension between unity and diversity, makes both possible: giving space to diversity and yet also enabling a focus on what is common. To do justice to the different experiences, the own, the national, the traditions and cultural coinages of the past, because they are part of our binding identity, and to draw attention again and again to the responsibility for a common future, which can only be European. And both are necessary. But the more important part, in my view, is shared responsibility for the future.

The tasks we are faced with here are immense. Whether we think of the humanitarian dilemma with which migration confronts us: saving people from drowning in the Mediterranean without at the same time supporting a cynical smuggling system. Or how we combine the worldwide demand for more prosperity through growth with the necessary sustainability concept to preserve the foundations of our lives. But such tasks also make us inventive, they can mobilise forces and in the best case strengthen confidence in us to be able to achieve great things instead of just clinging to what already exists, because we fear that we will not be able to cope with change.

And it is through tasks that we win the future – and that is how the European community of destiny will develop. I am convinced of that. And that this future will be shaped by a generation that is more European and more cosmopolitan than any previous generation. The Internet is a medium that can create a public sphere that is at least European, if not global, and is no longer tied to the limited distribution areas of traditional media, especially as the blessings of artificial intelligence will make it possible to overcome even the last hurdles in language in the foreseeable future.

If no confidence grows from this!