Budapest Forum

(16.09.2021 – 17.09.2021)

Building Sustainable Democracies



Fit for freedom

how today’s complex crises require more resilient democracies

10:15 - 10:30


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Budapest Forum – Building sustainable democracies
« Fit for freedom – how today’s complex crises require more resilient democracies »


Honourable guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure for me to be here today to address the Budapest Forum on sustainable democracies.

Of all the countries in Europe, the Hungarian people probably know best that freedom is neither given nor granted. Freedom is achieved and earned, often at great expense. From a Western European perspective, the tragic events of 1956 and the triumph of 1989 that this city and this country have gone through evoke a certain sense of humility and, ultimately, gratitude that the end of the 20th century reserved such a benign outcome for a continent divided for so long.

Today Hungary is part of a free and united Europe. A European Union that needs to promote its interests and values at a global stage in order to actively shape the global future.

However our Union is facing a number of challenges that threaten the very core of our stability and prosperity. While some had hoped for the “end of history”, we have witnessed the emergence of circumstances that run counter our free market based democracies.

While the expression “crisis” has become somewhat overused, I would like to argue today that we are facing three crises, which I would describe as “complex crises”. These crises are so profound that they risk undermining the very fabric of our societies. I will argue, furthermore, that only a reinforced commitment to democratic principles can help us overcome these threats.

The first complex crisis that I would like to describe is, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic. Much has been said about its sanitary implications and the resulting hardship, and the millions of human tragedies that have occurred due to this unprecedented public health challenge. I would like to emphasise one particular aspect of this pandemic, namely its effect on cross-border communities in Europe, by which I mean multinational groups of people living close to internal border regions, closely connected on an economic, social, and human level.

In spring 2020, the freedom of movement enjoyed within the Schengen area came to a stop overnight. Over three decades, cross-border communities have erased physical borders in the EU: living in one country, dropping their children off to school in another and working in another country still. The development of cross-border communities was in some cases made possible by the EU acquis; the epitome of the many successes of European integration.

However, this crisis has brought to light how fragile one of the biggest achievements of European integration really is. In Luxembourg, we were hit particularly hard by the effects of border closures. Nested in one of the most interconnected regions of Europe, where crossing borders are part of everyday life, situations which were deemed impossible unfolded: families were separated, health and other workers faced delays at the border, essential goods among which medical supplies were held up.

These are examples from Luxembourg’s border regions, yet all border regions in Europe have suffered from the panic-stricken reactions from March 2020 onwards, from reflexes that neither corresponded to the European spirit nor respected European law. Indeed, 30% of the Union’s citizens, which corresponds to around 150 million people, live in border areas.

Covid-19 is not yet over, and who knows what autumn and winter will bring. However, I am also concerned about the next crisis, the next pandemic, or the next security incident. If a treasure of European integration such as Schengen can be all but abolished overnight, then what certainties do we still have ?

Second, I would like to mention the climate crisis.

Recent events over the summer ranging from torrential rain to scorching heatwaves have sadly showed us once again how urgent it is to take action. My country and its neighbouring regions were severely affected by floods, leading to dramatic scenes: people have lost their lives, others have lost their homes and belongings. Hungary, I am told, also experienced an unprecedented heatwave. In Southern Europe and many other countries around the world, forest fires have affected the lives of many and caused widespread damage.

Clearly, the climate crisis is one of the biggest disasters of our time. It is a crisis still in the making, and science tells us that the worst is yet to come. As such, it has become a subject of inter-generational debate, and I welcome the voices of youth that remind us of our collective responsibility to mitigate and prevent the effects of climate change.

Indeed, our democracies will be measured by the way governments handle this issue. The upcoming COP26 in Glasgow will be a pivotal moment to gather international support for the fight against climate change. Should we fail to gather enough momentum, the judgement of future historians will not be kind.

The third crisis that I would like to describe is not an external one, but it comes from within. It is not a crisis for democracy, but a crisis of democracy. Democracies are built primarily on trust. Trust in our fundamental rights, principles and values. Trust in national governments as well as in the EU is only possible if we stand up for our values and fight for them. There must be no doubt about the rule of law, the respect for common values, and freedom of the press in the EU. Equality and non-discrimination are among the core principles of the EU to which all governments signed up when joining our Union.

Over the last decades, legislative developments have improved the lives of many people and helped to build fairer societies with greater acceptance. For this to continue, the active involvement and participation of many different stakeholders, be they governmental or non-governmental, civil society, academia, and the media are essential.

Unfortunately, in Europe and beyond, we see that these standards can come under severe pressure. When taking up the function of Minister for European and Foreign Affairs back in 2004, frankly speaking I could not have imagined that some day we would have to discuss the rule of law situation inside the EU in the Council of ministers. Over the past years, we have witnessed significant regressions indeed in terms of the respect of the rule of law in the European Union. Regrettably, this verdict has been confirmed by various assessments carried out by the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and several decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union. This is no matter of ideology, or of political differences. Hollowing out the state, cajoling the press, stifling academia and civil society, and stigmatizing vulnerable minorities are textbook examples of political behavior for which there is no justification. As regards rule of law, we really are at the end of the line.

This is something that matters to all of us. The EU values are indeed common to all EU Member States in a society in which inclusion, tolerance, justice, solidarity, and non-discrimination prevail. These values are an integral part of our European way of life that we want to preserve, for our children and grandchildren.

I have now outlined three complex crises with broad implications for our societies, our countries, and our Union. How can we tackle these developments in order to preserve our achievements and secure them for future generations?

We need to make our democracies more resilient. This means equipping our democratic institutions with better tools to handle unexpected setbacks like the pandemic, foreseeable large-scale events like climate change, or self-inflicted damage to our values and principles.

As regards our handling of the pandemic, we must in the future ensure that the vulnerability of border communities is taken better into account in the EU decision-making process. Capitals need to know what the situation really is like at their border and take into account the specificities of these regions when imposing such drastic measures as border closures. It is a matter of legitimacy and legality of the measures imposed, with a direct impact on their effectiveness. As regards recent extreme weather events, fortunately, we were able to show solidarity and help each other. However, as global climate change is affecting us all, we need to reevaluate our need for action urgently. I am glad that the EU is taking up its leading role by taking concrete measures. The Fit for 55 package is expected to play a crucial role in helping Europe emerge stronger and more resilient from this crisis. Building a sustainable society will help us sustain our democracies.

On the need to protect the rule of law at EU level, we have created new structures. The Commission is now analyzing the rule of law in all Member States, including my own, in order to identify and address problems at an early stage. In addition, a new mechanism for the protection of the Union budget has been introduced, which can block the disbursement of EU funds if the EU’s financial interests are at stake. The Court of Justice of the European Union is due to rule on this new mechanism this year, and I am confident that the regulation will soon be implemented.

But let me be very clear on this: there is a growing sense of frustration – people rightfully expect the EU to act where its interests and values are not protected. One should not underestimate this trend. This is not driven by governments or EU institutions, but by ordinary Europeans who want to make sure that their tax money is being used in a way that respects our common rules.

No government should putting at risk the EU membership of its country for short-term objectives.

This is about our common values as Europeans, about democracy, and ultimately about our Union.

The solutions that I have outlined are, of course, not sufficient to deal with these complex crises in their entirety. Above all, we must strengthen our democratic model and make sure it stays attractive, as a true political counter-offer to populism. We have to make up for the loss of confidence that the crises of the past years have cost us.

Despite the adverse circumstances in recent years, however, the voices of citizens have not turned against the Union: most Europeans have a positive attitude towards the Union, including here in Hungary. Citizens’ confidence in the Union is at its highest level in ten years, also thanks to the EU’s swift response to the Covid pandemic, be it through the agreement on the new EU budget and NextGenerationEU recovery plan, or the joint procurement of life-saving vaccines.

Today, governments and institutions are more aware than in the past of two central problems of EU policy to date – the importance of transparency and proximity to the citizens. As pointed out by some of the previous speakers, citizen participation is of vital importance.

The Conference on the Future of Europe was launched on Europe Day on May 9, 2021. It creates a unique opportunity for European citizens to debate on Europe’s challenges and priorities, and provide food for thought on the future of our Union, with the aim to strengthen the democratic legitimacy of the EU. In particular, we should listen during this process to the voices of young people – after all, the future of Europe belongs to them.

The motto of the conference is “The future is in your hands”. I can therefore only strongly encourage all citizens to get involved, as every opinion matters. If you have criticism of the EU to share – and I am sure that some are justified – then you should voice it and participate actively in order to contribute to the improvement of our Union. This is not only the right of every citizen in a democracy, no, in a certain sense it is also part of his or her duty.

Our democracies can be envied for their achievements, but in order to be fit for the crises yet to come, we need to find ways to make them more resilient. Today’s global rivalries are no longer about the modes of production or the notion of “class” – they are about systems of governance, and the ability of societies to discover and command the technologies of tomorrow.

Only a united Europe, equipped with resilient democracies, will succeed in this challenge.

Thank you for your attention.

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