Keynote speech by Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič at the Global Europe Seminar Salzburg

(Source: European Commission)

“Check against delivery”

Dear Johannes, dear Governor Haslauer,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning to you all. It is a pleasure to be in Salzburg today to attend this renowned event, hosted by my friend and colleague, Commissioner Hahn.

30 years ago, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed that we had reached “the end of history”, marking the cessation of ideological conflict in the global order.

Western liberal democracy, he argued, represented the unchallenged final stage of human evolution.

But as the current geopolitical context regrettably underlines, democracy and the rules-based order remain under pressure.

With Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine, we see old, failed ideas re-emerging, seeking to threaten the security architecture of our continent, and beyond.

But we also see the resolve and resilience of the Western world and its partners, most clearly demonstrated by the bravery and determination of the Ukrainian people.

We in the rest of Europe have likewise shown that we will do everything in our power to protect and nurture our model of peaceful democratic governance.

It is therefore important that, even as the tragedy in Ukraine unfolds, we in the West reflect on our role in this emerging era of disorder, and start to imagine what a new world order might look like, while making the strong case for common rules stemming from democratic values.

This pressure on democracy and values cannot come as a total surprise. Already last year, the 2021 Strategic Foresight Report adopted by the European Commission, pointed towards a global decline in democratic governance.

Countries that can be defined as liberal democracies have dwindled over the past decade from 41 to 32, representing a global population share of just 14 percent.

A number of G20 nations are among the top ten decliners, with the path towards autocracy typically following a similar pattern – from attacking the media and civil society first, to polarising societies by disrespecting opponents and spreading disinformation, and finally to undermining formal institutions.

Democratisation is still occurring but small countries dominate this trend.

We live in an era when literally everything – from technology to large-scale disinformation – can be used as an instrument of power, both domestically and externally, by deliberately targeting the weakening of democratic systems.

These factors all point towards to the need to strengthen the resilience of our public institutions. Therefore, it is essential that the rule of law remains the bedrock for everything the European Union does.

That will never change, which is something perhaps not fully understood in places like Moscow – but is grasped so vigorously in Kyiv.

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In response to these challenges, we must ensure that we are better prepared for whatever lies ahead.

In this atmosphere of turmoil, with war on our very doorstep and the pandemic still simmering in the background, we need solution-driven policies paired with the ability to act fast.

The EU and its partners in the West have demonstrated this consistently, and repeatedly, over the past months and years.

But the war in Ukraine speaks to a wider truth about our future and we must already look to draw lessons from the conflict.

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I already see three areas where we need to reconsider our current thinking.

First, we are seeing a step change in defence and security in the EU, with an increasing number of NATO members looking to meet the spending commitment of two percent of GDP – a particular point of contention with Washington under the Trump administration.

And, of course, recent events have prompted countries like Sweden and Finland to rethink their approach to membership of NATO, something almost unthinkable a few short months ago.

Moreover, we, in the EU, are set to be more strategic in terms of defence capabilities – be it through the Strategic Compass, or a package put forward by the Commission to move us towards a more integrated and competitive European defence market.

Second, we need to take a more geopolitical perspective when it comes to the twin green and digital transitions – the core of our upcoming Strategic Foresight Report.

Consider this: Europe is rightly striving to reduce its dependence on Russian energy. Last year, the EU imported more than 40 percent of its total gas consumption from Russia, along with 27 percent of oil imports and 46 percent of coal imports.

But our over-dependence on imports of the critical raw materials needed for the technology to power the twin transition is much more extreme, up to 99 percent in some instances – often from third countries, such as China, which cannot be counted on to share our values and do not shy away from using Europe’s dependence as a tool of geopolitical influence.

In response, I am convinced that we must embed open strategic autonomy in all that we do.

This includes the need to urgently scale-up Europe’s primary critical raw materials industry, including by creating a Strategic European Project (SEP) label for the most valuable critical raw materials projects in Europe.

We have also doubled down on diversification by creating strategic partnerships with like-minded trade partners.

I remain firmly of the conviction that the transatlantic bond – now re-invigorated – remains the most natural for us, given our shared values.

As someone who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, I personally appreciate this bond all the more, especially as more and more parts of our economies and societies have taken on a security dimension.

In addition, tectonic geopolitical shifts, together with the pandemic, are speeding up changes in supply chains, in favour of shorter and less vulnerable ones wherever possible. Under this trend, often dubbed reverse ‘glocalisation’, companies are beginning to rebalance their local and global activities in the face of supply risks and increasing protectionism.

Third, we need to be much more strategic about our enlargement policy, as is clearly the case with Ukraine.

It is equally critical that we take care not to lose our other neighbours – especially in the Western Balkans – to the political influence or assertive economy policy of China, Russia or other systemic rivals.

That does not mean, however, that we should act in a similarly single-handed way. We should aim for a multi-lateral world rather than one which is multi-polar.

We should invest in our partnerships around the world, such as with Africa and Latin America. Because those partnerships will come under pressure.

This challenge is already evident in the ongoing battle of narratives over the impacts of the war in Ukraine –for example, on Russia’s false claims that it is Western sanction that are responsible for the knock-on effects on global food supplies.

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Ladies and gentlemen,

More and more I hear the term BUNI – short for ‘brittle, anxious, non-linear and incomprehensible’ – to describe the complexity and chaotic nature of our modern reality.

To succeed in the face of this unpredictability, we need to make full use of strategic foresight, embedding a long-term perspective into all major policy initiatives under this Commission.

As part of that effort, we have stepped up our work on megatrends, with our Joint Research Centre monitoring 14 driving forces that will have the most significant impact on the EU and its Member States.

In addition, our new horizon scanning project helps us identify early signs of change that are not yet on the radar of policymakers. Once every quarter, our experts draw up a list of “new trends” to catch their attention.

For instance, we see clear signs that the semiconductor industry is on the verge of a new super-cycle.

Through the miniaturisation process, the capability of chips per dollar spent has already increased 67-thousand-fold since 1990.

However, the technological limits of current transistor architecture will be reached by 2030. Therefore, the most likely trend will be a shift away from miniaturisation and towards new technologies and materials to offset the upcoming physical limitations.

A tangible example of how strategic foresight has informed the Commission’s priorities is the recent European Chips Act, aimed at doubling the EU’s market share in the global semiconductor sector to 20 percent by 2030.

Similarly, fintech is currently undergoing a transformative process akin to a super-cycle, with global revenues set to hit 670 billion euros by 2030.

At the same time, crypto-assets and their underlying technology, blockchain, will be disruptive factors over the coming decade, not only in financial services but also in many other sectors.

The World Economic Forum has estimated that, by 2027, 10 percent of global GDP could be stored on blockchain technology.

Likewise, we should use foresight capacities to build a good understanding of the needs of businesses when it comes to insurance products in the post-pandemic environment and in the face of increasing effects of climate change, another major trend affecting our lives.

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In conclusion, let me reiterate that current geopolitical events serve as a catalyst; a wake-up call to foster Europe’s resilience in all its dimensions.

In this way, we can ensure that – regardless of whether Fukuyama’s prophecy about the supposed ‘end of history’ comes true or not – the future will be as European as possible, no matter what it holds.

Thank you for your attention, and I look forward to listening to Ivan Krastev and to our following discussion.

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