When I was born in 1961, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark applied to join the European Economic Community (EEC). In my last year of school in 1979, the first direct European Parliament election was held. In 1985, the final year of my university studies, the Schengen Agreement was signed, abolishing all border checks at the internal borders shared by Germany, the Benelux countries and France.
While growing up, I witnessed the progressive integration of Europe, and like me, every European can connect his or her personal history to the development of the European Union. I was already excited about Europe back then. But it was not until my post-doc work in the USA, that I really felt like a European. And that is probably what it is like for many of us – the value of something only becomes really apparent, when we no longer have it.
This is true of Brexit as well. When it is completed, the 27 countries remaining in the EU will painfully feel the loss. The British, for their part, will increasingly recognize their close link to the EU and the invisible advantages that often go along with that. The agonizing discussions regarding withdrawal and especially those concerning the future relationship of their country to the EU already make this abundantly clear. We, as citizens of the EU-27, have to learn from this loss and make ourselves clearly aware of the advantages of the EU – without having to first lose them.
Europe is the biggest peace project of the 20th century. Growing up in an EU member state means growing up in peace. And that is something that cannot be taken for granted. At the beginning of the year, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron met in Aachen to renew the Franco-German friendship treaty.
Former archenemies have long since become close partners. Without Germany’s integration in the EU, the reunification of Germany may have proceeded differently, perhaps less peacefully, or may not even have taken place at all. Brexit reveals once again the peaceful influence of the EU: finding an arrangement for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that prevents the Northern Ireland conflict from flaring up again seems nearly impossible.
The EU is also an extremely successful project from an economic standpoint. In this regard, the significance of the EU internal market cannot be overestimated. Since the EU internal market came into force in 1993, the per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in EU-28 grew faster than the average per capita GDP in the OECD.
The free movement of goods and persons has not only benefitted European growth overall but also European citizens: Without border controls, they can travel much easier and work and study in other EU countries. Europe stands for peace, freedom, stability and prosperity.
What is the matter with Europe? Why is it that so few are aware of these success stories? The EU is in the midst of a deep crisis. The rapid economic and technological ascent of China, the structural changes in industry driven by digitalization and automation as well as migration movements – these upheavals have thrown the EU and their member countries off course.
Many citizens perceive these challenges as threats and feel that future-oriented solutions from their governments are lacking. It is illusory, however, when individual countries believe that they have the power and possibilities to better address these issues alone than the EU together could.
We need “A Europe that protects” – according to the motto of the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union – in physical, economic, social and environmental terms. But we also need a strong guiding principle for Europe to convince all EU citizens of the future opportunities and advantages of a strong Europe. This principle is the “Europe of ideas”.
The history of Europe is a history of ideas, inventions, and innovations. Take the field of chemistry for example: Of the first 100 elements of the periodic system, 78 were discovered in Europe. The development of ammonia synthesis and plastics, without which modern life would not be imaginable, as well as developments in modern medicine, cars, mechanics and many other technological fields are all based on ideas from Europe.
European companies – small, medium-sized and large – are still successful in Europe and the rest of the world, by tapping into new markets with innovative solutions. It is through their innovation power that they are able to offer sustainable solutions to meet important societal challenges such as climate protection, energy supply, food supply and mobility. Until now, they have been successful at adapting to a changing environment. Innovative products have always been the basis for prosperity in Europe, a continent, which has achieved its strength primarily from one resource – the ideas of its people.
The tradition of innovation rests on three pillars: diversity, openness and collaboration. No other continent with similar cultural diversity has reached a level of integration comparable with that of the EU. As Europe has grown together, the contrasting cultures have resulted in an openness to other ways of thinking.
This is an incredible strength when searching for new ideas, as fundamental innovations these days derive almost exclusively from the collaboration between different scientific and technological disciplines. Ideas emerge where diverse perspectives come together. Obviously, we have forgotten this along the way. Because in these days, different perspectives in Europe seem more likely to encourage countries to go their separate ways.
A prosperous future is not possible without innovation. Therefore, we need creative and innovative solutions more than ever – and why should they not come from Europe? Roughly 30% of scientific publications worldwide are still written in Europe – a remarkable achievement! However, we Europeans must successfully exploit this good starting position to launch more innovations, products and commercial applications on the market. For a “Europe of ideas”, we need a new European stimulus for innovation.
To this end, research, from basic research to applied research, needs to be better and more consistently promoted. The next EU Multiannual Financial Framework offers great opportunities to send a clear signal with a significant increase of investment in the next research framework program. Numerous European universities and research institutes are still among the best in the world in the MINT subjects. We need to systematically expand and strengthen this potential through existing networks and clusters in all regions of Europe.
At the same time, such an innovation policy needs to be closely linked with a visionary industrial policy. In order to develop competitive and marketable solutions, innovation requires a regulatory environment, promoting market introduction. This means that the innovation principle must be consistently applied in order to assess whether new regulations encourage, or at least do not discourage innovation.
Furthermore, innovation policies and industrial policies need to be more closely aligned with European value chains. One example is electromobility and the accompanying future technologies: Here, we need to bundle our efforts across national borders to safeguard technologies and their availability as well as jobs they provide in Europe in the long term.
Ideas are not only the basis for innovation and the development of solutions to successfully deal with the world’s biggest challenges and to ensure the long-term prosperity of the continent. They are much more than that. Ideas also act as a binding force across national, cultural and societal borders.
This is exemplified by the “Know-how-Verbund” right across Europe and by the multinational research teams, which, with their diverse biographies and perspectives, have made the European research landscape what it is today – world class! We can all contribute towards a “Europe of ideas”, in which we are all connected by ideas and so that Europe remains a powerful, successful and optimistic continent.
I am a German with a European heart and excited about the idea of Europe. That is why I am going to vote on May 26, 2019 – for a strong Europe, that ensures our safety and prosperity.