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Ursula von der Leyen's message to the Warwick Economics Summit: Full transcript

  • European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, gave a special address to the 20th edition of the Warwick Economics Summit on Saturday 6 February 2021.

  • She spoke about topics from vaccines to Brexit and the future of the EU's international relationships.


Dear students at Warwick and from all over the world. Dear friends. Thank you very much for this invitation. It's a great pleasure and an honour being with you today. For 20 years now your conference has been a role model for students who want to have a say, who want to assume responsibility and who want to shape the future. And this is what I would like to talk about today. Europe’s global role and how together we can shape the world of tomorrow. My own time as a student dates back quite a few years. I was 20 when I was studying in London, in the year 1978. It was a time full of fond memories and I still vividly remember passionate debates with my fellow students from all over the world about the Cold War, or the aftermath of the oil crisis for example.

Well, every generation has its own challenges. But I know that being young today is particularly difficult. We are facing tests of a lifetime. We are hit by a global pandemic the likes of which we only knew from science fiction movies. We are confronted with a new reality and this needs a new mindset. An entirely new approach to geopolitics and global affairs. When I was your age, the world was still divided in two blocs. The superpowers were fighting to expand or maintain their sphere of influence. Well, this world is long gone. And yet, the old confrontational mindset has arrived.

Think for instance about Covid-19 vaccines. Some countries see the quest for a vaccine as a race amongst global powers, like the space race in the 1960s. This is an illusion. The only race is against the virus, and the virus is spreading faster than ever before. The more safe and effective vaccines, the better for all of us. This is the most efficient way to stem the pandemic and save lives. This is not a competition between Europeans, Russians, Chinese and Americans; this is too serious. And it's time to understand that our best national interest means international cooperation. And this was Europe's choice since the beginning when the pandemic erupted.

We immediately brought together an international cooperation to fight the virus, to join forces with other countries, like the UK, the WHO, but also with countless NGOs, philanthropists and artists, from celebrities like Coldplay, Lady Gaga and David Beckham. We didn’t just raise money, we also offered to the world a framework for international cooperation on vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. We set up an initiative called Covax to ensure people in all corners of the world get access to vaccines. Instead of competing with others we have set up an alliance to multiply our chances for success. But why we do this - it is not simply altruism, it is also because our European interest coincides with shared global interests. And this is how I see Europe's role in the world.

This is what Europe has to offer: cooperation based on shared interests, which is an offer which we are addressing first and foremost to our closest friends, the United States of America and the United Kingdom. The inauguration of President Biden opens a new chapter in our long standing relationship with the US. The US has changed a lot in recent years and This document is under embargo by the European Commission until Saturday 6 February 2021 at 2.00pm GMT 2 Europe has changed too. So we won’t simply turn back the clock. But we put forward our proposal, a new transatlantic agenda. We reach out to the US with an offer- to address today's greatest challenge together: the pandemic. And I’m so pleased to see that the Biden administration is joining the Covax facility. This will boost our efforts to make the vaccines available everywhere.

Second, to work on a green recovery and here too, the US has re-joined the Paris agreement and this is great news for the world. And my offer to our American friends is: let's go even further. Let’s do it together. Let us agree on a shared transatlantic agreement: to become carbon neutral by 2050. A transatlantic green roadmap. This could set up a new world benchmark in the run-up to COP26, which takes place in Glasgow. If Europe and the US lead by example, I am sure that many others will follow. So let us discuss how to put a price on carbon. Let us create the largest ever marine protected area in the southern ocean. Let us join forces on green tech. Europe and the United States are global leaders on innovation. If we join forces on renewables, on clean hydrogen, on green tech. Our possibilities are infinite. Europe and the US are among the world’s greatest economies. Let us become the most sustainable and green economies together. Let us lead again by the power of our example. I am confident that we will speak the same language with the new administration.

The US and the European Union are built on the same democratic traditions. But democracy is a living thing, and every generation has to breathe new life into it. We have to make sure that our democracies evolve together with new societies. But also that they remain true to our fundamental values. Yes, our democracies are being challenged and questioned like never before, and that’s why we need to make them more inclusive and fair, and make sure that every person in our society feels represented. Whatever the colour of their skin, and whomever they love. I believe that the United States and Europe can learn from each other to make democracies evolve on both shores of the Atlantic. And let me paraphrase Amanda Gorman, the young poet who spoke at President Biden’s inauguration: Our democracy isn't broken but simply unfinished. Yes, democracy is a constant work in progress. Sometimes we stumble, sometimes we fall. But through the decades we have always managed to progress towards a better and more complete democracy. A more perfect union, as our American friends like to say, with liberty and justice for all. Let us walk this path together. Let us climb that hill together. Europe is ready for a fresh start with our American friends.

Now let us turn to Europe. 2021 will also see a new beginning with old friends: the United Kingdom and the European Union. I know that among you there are quite a few young people who feel at home in the UK, and many others are British youth, who feel no less European than our friends on the continent. Brexit has been a painful page in the history of our friendship, but now it's done. We have turned the page and are ready to start something new, something different. It will never be the same as being part of one union, but it is a new beginning for our friendship. So on Christmas Eve, we finally reached an agreement with the United Kingdom. It’s a new deal, fair and balanced. It has helped us avoid major disruption for workers and travellers. It ensures that our companies will compete on a levelled playing field. It's a deal between like-minded friends. And yes, an era has ended, but a new one can finally begin. An era of cooperation with the UK on the international arena. We have many more like-minded partners beyond the UK and the US. In our immediate neighbourhood, in Latin America, in Africa and of course Asia’s democracies.

This year the two biggest democracies in the world will meet. The European Union and India. We have a lot in common and we should cooperate much more on climate, on the digital economy, on pharmaceuticals. It's time for Europeans to pivot to the Indian Pacific. Our offer to engage on the global scene is not only addressed to our oldest friends. How could we tackle the greatest issues of our time, from coronavirus to climate, if we don’t engage with China? And let me be very clear, although China and the European Union are cooperating when it comes to fighting climate change, although we are competing in the economic field, we are systemic rivals.

When it comes to society, individual rights and the role of governments, Europe will continue to call out human rights abuses, to push for change. We believe that every human being is entitled to the same fundamental rights. The people of Hong Kong asking for democracy, the Uighurs, Europe will always speak up for them. If we want China to cooperate and change, we must engage with Beijing; and this is why we’ve worked for years on a comprehensive agreement on investment, which we finally signed last December. Our agreement will not just provide access to the Chinese Market for European investors, it also commits China to do more on climate change and work towards joining the international convention against forced labour. And China agreed to do this because of us. And this is the role I see for Europe on the global stage. A forceful cooperation, a forceful progress. A convening power.

Dear friends, as some of you have asked about my personal experience, allow me to end with one final thought: what I have learned in 20 years of politics is that it is always possible to change direction if there is a will. And this is as true in politics as on a personal level. As a mother of seven, I was often told I would have to choose between my children or my career. I am deeply convinced that, with the right conditions, this does not have to be the case. Throughout my working life, I have often been the only woman in the room. I have always regretted that. Not because women are better than men per se, but because they are different. And to me one thing is clear, lack of diversity, lack of perspective, means fewer brains to pick, means less talent around. And this is also why it was extremely important to me to achieve gender parity on my commission. And this is only the beginning.

We need talents from all kinds of backgrounds to succeed in this globalised world. The motto of our European Union is, United in Diversity. Our task is to live up to these words and to fulfill their meaning. You will be the leaders of tomorrow. Be it in politics, business, academia, or your respective communities. It is the responsibility of my generation to hand over to you a world that is sustainable, liveable and fair. And then it's up to you to take over from there. The world will be where you want it to be. There to believe things can be different. There to believe and challenge the status quo. The world needs your creativity, your talent, your vision. The future is in your hands. Make it bright.


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