Speech by President von der Leyen at the F.A.Z.-Leserkongress 2022 ‘Between the lines’, via videoconference

(Source: European Commission)

Many thanks for the invitation. I am delighted to be able to join you at the F.A.Z. congress today. You have chosen a really fascinating subject – the future of Europe. And this future will, in part, be decided over the coming days, not only in the institutions in Brussels, but, above all, in the Member States. These major crises and challenges facing us – as diverse as they are – demand very close collaboration. If I may quote just a few examples: the climate crisis is threatening the very foundations of our life. We must stop global warming, which is continuing even as all the other crises are occupying our thoughts. The pandemic has shown us that, all over the world, we must reform our health systems and, above all, secure our supply chains. And Putin‘s war in Ukraine is now fundamentally shaking our European security architecture.

Yes, the significance of this Russian aggression, for Europe and for the other democracies of the world, can hardly be overstated. We should be clear – what is happening in Ukraine is not just about the fate of that country and its brave people. There is also a huge amount at stake for us too, for the European Union. The question of whether violence as a political tool will become entrenched in Europe again. Or will we succeed in preserving our security architecture, which has given us decades of stability and prosperity? Will constant conflict and fighting become the norm? Or will we have a future of common prosperity and sustained peace? And above all, the question of whether it will be autocrats who impose their world view on us. Or will we democracies manage to defend our values? The answers which we Europeans and other democracies around the world give to these questions will very clearly define the coming decades, not only for our coexistence in Europe but beyond our borders, too. Make no mistake – the rest of the world is watching very closely to see how steadfastly we stick up for our values.

I am therefore grateful, first of all, for the way that Europe, week-by-week, is responding to this challenge with great determination – it is now ten weeks since Putin unleashed the war in Ukraine. But we are also coordinating very closely with our partners on the other side of the Atlantic, and with the United Kingdom, in a way which has not been seen for a long time. Since the very first day of the invasion, the European Union has been providing financial and humanitarian aid in Ukraine amounting to billions of euro. To give you a figure: EUR 4 billion over the last ten weeks alone. You know that we have supported the purchase of weapons for the Ukrainian army so that they can defend themselves to the tune of EUR 1.5 billion so far. This is the very first time that the EU has taken such a step. And, very importantly, we are helping the five million or so people who, so far, have fled Ukraine because of Putin’s bombs. Above all, our Union of 27 Member States has rapidly and unanimously adopted a tough package of sanctions over these ten weeks. We are doing that because the aggressor must pay a price for the attack on Ukraine. Once again – this is a matter with repercussions far beyond Ukraine. The autocrats of this world must be in no doubt that democracies will stand up and that they will defend their values.

You know from the current discussion that, as the next step, we intend to impose an oil embargo. I presented the proposal for that step on Wednesday – the day before yesterday, in other words. I have just said that this will not be easy. But we cannot go on transferring large sums to a country that is waging a wholly unjustified war on our neighbours. The export of oil and also oil-based products, such as diesel and fuel oil, for example, is one of the Kremlin’s main sources of revenue. And it is precisely that source of revenue that we intend to dry up in the months to come, so that it is just not possible for Putin to go on funding his war. We plan to dry up that source of revenue in a way that hits the Kremlin hardest – while protecting our own economy as much as possible. In other words, it is a very fine line that we have to tread. Why? Because our economic strength is, of course, a powerful lever to support Ukraine, on the one hand, and to put pressure on Russia, on the other. We too, of course, must pay a price for independence from Russia’s despotism and its raw materials. But the price for the Kremlin is far higher.

If you look at the figures, day by day, week by week, our sanctions are biting harder on the Russian economy. The Russian Central Bank is forecasting a drop in economic output of 10% in Russia this year. And the World Bank has just confirmed this at its spring meeting and is forecasting negative growth of as much as 11.5% of Russia’s GDP. In other words, Putin’s war is not only attempting to wipe Ukraine from the map. Putin’s war is also destroying his own country. No wonder, then, that we are seeing the young elite, including very many IT people, leaving Russia in their tens of thousands. Because the brutal politics conducted by the Kremlin is robbing the people of Russia too of any chance of a future.

But Europe too must do its homework. Because, once again, our values – democracy, freedom, the rule of law, the right of each country to determine its own future – all of that we can defend effectively only if we ourselves are strong. Putin’s war has made it clear to us what areas we still have to work on. Later in our discussion we will no doubt look at those in detail. For now I want to concentrate on an area in which there is an urgent need for us to act – that is also the current discussion that we are having everywhere – and that is energy policy.

I have already mentioned oil. We also need to free ourselves from our dependency on Russian gas. Today, Europe imports 90% of its gas, with 45% of those imports coming from Russia. After the events of recent weeks – you will recall that Gazprom stopped supplying gas to Poland and Bulgaria – it must now be clear to everyone that this dependency cannot continue. Russia is no longer a reliable partner. Moreover, the Kremlin is using its market position to threaten, divide and blackmail us in Europe. Therefore, we must no longer allow ourselves to be dependent on such a supplier. And we must no longer enable a country which attacks its neighbour to make billions in revenue.

Energy policy meant, and still means, security policy. This is why, for some months now, we have been doing our utmost to reduce our imports of Russian gas. As you know, on an almost weekly cycle, we are now tapping alternative sources of supply, for example LNG, from across the globe. The Member States hardest hit, for example Germany, are working tirelessly on this, and I am very grateful for this. However, at European level we are also playing our part. Before Easter, for example, I agreed additional LNG supplies from the USA with American President, Joe Biden. From next year, these volumes will replace one third of Russian gas. This is good, but we of course need to do more.

Our most effective means of achieving independence is to end our use of fossil fuels, such as gas, and to transition to renewable energy. Consequently, huge investments in infrastructure here in Europe must encourage, in particular, the transition to green hydrogen, but also to other renewable energy sources. Put simply, whether solar, wind, hydro or biomass energy, every additional kilowatt-hour of electricity we generate ourselves here in Europe from renewable energy makes us less dependent on others, is better for our climate and planet, and creates jobs at home.

The development of domestic renewable energy is, at the same time, our best way of responding to rising energy prices. Because it is the old carbon-heavy energy sources, i.e. oil, coal and gas, that are now becoming increasingly expensive, with gas prices going through the roof. By contrast, the cost of renewable energy has been falling continuously for many years.

I would like to present one example to you. As you know, I am speaking to you today from Barcelona. Electricity prices are now being slashed for businesses and households in Spain and Portugal, something which has only been possible in both these countries as they already meet nearly two thirds of their needs with renewable energy sources.

As this example shows, the great advantage we have in Europe, despite all the difficulties we face, is that, with regard to renewable energies, we are already on track to achieve greater security of supply for our continent. You know that we have the European Green Deal. You know that we have common climate legislation. And you know that we are investing billions in these renewable energies. However, as is also now clear to us on account of the war and the pressure on energy prices, we need to massively speed up the expansion of renewables we have started. Through investment but also in order to give renewable energies priority to some extent. This means, when we look at the whole issue of approval procedures, we now need faster permits to extend wind farms, install wind turbines and for all the related issues. We are also significantly scaling up our targets for green hydrogen. I am convinced that green hydrogen is the form of energy that will enable major parts of our domestic industry to have a productive and zero-emission future.

Ladies and gentlemen,

so much for energy. Putin’s war against Ukraine and the necessary sanctions are clearly in reality far more than just a stress test for our economy. I was in Ukraine before Easter. I was in in Kyiv and spoke to President Zelenskyy. I was also in Bucha with Prime Minister Shmyhal. I met the survivors there, who were still struggling for words to describe the unspeakable. I saw the mass graves; I saw the rows of body bags right next to a church. Driving through the streets, I saw bombed-out houses, hospitals shot to pieces and schools in ruins — as far as the eye could see.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

this is the reality of the war waged by Putin’s army across Ukraine. For me, these images and impressions are a powerful reminder. Putin is committing a breach of civilisation. And we, as democratic societies, need to take a stand. Our place is alongside Ukraine, which is resisting the aggressor so fiercely and bravely. We want Ukraine to win this war. The Ukrainians are fighting so courageously because they know exactly what kind of future they want. They do not want to live at the whim of an autocrat — without civil liberties, without democratic discourse, without a free press. What the people I met in Kyiv and Bucha are fighting for is a future as a free and open society. As a democracy, they are defending our European values. They want no more and no less than to belong to a strong democratic community

I was deeply touched by talking to the people of Ukraine because their longing, especially that of the young generation in Ukraine, reflects what we have achieved as a European Community in the past decades and what we far too often take for granted: the peace, freedom, legal order and economic security that Europe has brought us. It is worth standing up for this Europe; it is worth fighting for it; and it is worth investing in it and strengthening it every day. Because our future is this Europe. With that in mind, I am very much looking forward to our discussion.

Thank you!

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