Prime Minister Mitsotakis,
President Van Rompuy,
It is an honour to receive this prize as President of the European Commission and for the ten million Europeans who have taken part in the Erasmus programme since its inception. It is a prize to the students, the teachers, the dreamers who have made this European miracle come true. It is a prize to the ‘mother of Erasmus’, Sofia Corradi, who first had the idea of a European student exchange back in the 1960s. It is a prize to the 39 young Greeks who took part in the first exchange, 31 years ago. It is a prize to Maryia, a 24-year-old from Belarus who went on Erasmus to Spain just a few years ago.
When Maryia was asked what the Erasmus taught her, she answered – and I quote: ‘Being European is not about the country you live in. It is about the values. It is about your beliefs and your actions.’ Tonight we pay tribute to millions of young Europeans like Maryia. The Empress Theophano Prize that you are awarding tonight is precisely about that. It is about the values that make us European. It is about the beliefs and the actions that have brought our continent together, after thousands of years of conflict. It is about a shared culture that does not stop at borders.
We are here in Thessaloniki, a capital of this shared European culture, and in such a symbolic venue. This Rotunda was built along the road leading from Byzantium to the Adriatic Sea, and from there to Rome. It was a link between the East and the West. The Rotunda was then turned into one of the first Christian Churches in the world. And on the side of the building, you can still see a minaret, another testimony to the complex history of this place and of our continent. Thessaloniki itself is a summary of Europe’s history and culture. A European capital, a gateway to Asia, a crossroads of civilisations. This city saw Empires rise and fall, it was teared down and rebuilt. And each moment in this millenary history has contributed to shaping who we are, as Europeans. This is our history. This is our culture.
For the founders’ generation of our Union, European integration was all about peace in our continent after the great world wars. For Greeks in the 1970s, as well as for the people of Spain and Portugal, European integration was about democracy. For the people of Eastern Europe who tore down the Iron Curtain, European integration was about freedom. The two halves of our continent were finally free to come together. And we Europeans got used to a growing and ever closer Union.
The Erasmus programme worked as a perfect bridge between the young generations all across Europe. Millions of youngsters discovered what they had in common with other nationalities, and what made them unique. For the first time, they felt that they belonged to one big community that spread beyond their country’s national borders. Today, the Erasmus generation is all around us.
My friend Xavier Bettel, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, will never forget his Erasmus here in Thessaloniki. My children studied – thanks to Erasmus – in Barcelona, Zürich, Paris and Poznań. To the generation of my sons and daughters, Erasmus is as important as the Single Market, the single currency and open borders.
After 30 years, we can proudly say that Erasmus is one of the greatest unifying achievements in the history of our Union. It is right that the European budget agreed by the European Council includes a 55% increase for Erasmus. This is money well spent! But it is equally important progress that we are also extending the scope of Erasmus. In the future, more pupils and young people in education should benefit from the programme. Whether they go to school, whether they attend university or take part in a vocational training. Erasmus should be a truly democratic institution for all young Europeans!
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As we Europeans were enjoying the fruits of great achievements such as Erasmus, we started taking them for granted. But we must not. During the last decade, we have lived through crises that have shaken our European Union to the core. Ten years ago, during the financial and euro crisis, we saved the Union and the euro from breaking up.
But we have to be honest with ourselves, this came at a cost: Our economies then developed in opposite directions. Young people had to leave their homelands in search of work and a future. Countries increasingly blamed one another. These rifts are still visible and tangible today. Some of the initial reactions to the corona crisis seemed to repeat patterns and to trigger bad memories. But then, something remarkable happened.
In the face of the deepest health crisis, Europeans rediscovered the value of what we hold in common. As sad as the situation may be, it is also a new opportunity for Europe. We turned distrust and disunity between Member States into trust and unity in our Union. We showed what is possible when we have faith in each other and faith in our European institutions. This took time. But it was worth the effort. Now, our European Union has the chance to bounce back from the crisis and to build a better future for generations to come.
This is what our Recovery Plan for Europe, NextGenerationEU, is all about. Just as Erasmus was then, NextGenerationEU is now. It is a programme of unprecedented scale and scope. And it can become the next great unifying project for our Union. Using our common strength, we are raising the necessary funds together. EUR 750 billion, most of it as grants, are a magnificent signal of solidarity and willingness to reform and invest. But NextGenerationEU means much more than money.
In past crises, the Member States bypassed the European institutions and did not fully trust each other. This time is different, because the virus hit us all. Member States – small and large – healthy companies, industries, small and medium enterprises and start-up’s. All paralysed by the impact of the pandemic. This time we are in this all together. We are investing together not only in a collective recovery, but also in our common future.
For a good reason we called our recovery and resilience programme ‘NextGenerationEU’. When we raise such large sums of money, then we have to invest this money in such a way that we can master the major challenges for the next generation. It is the future of Europe’s next generation that we are shaping today. This is in particular good news for the host country of this Theophano Prize. Greece is one of the largest beneficiaries of the Recovery and Resilience Facility. The grants of NextGenerationEU correspond to 8.7% of Greece’s gross domestic product. And on top will be the loans from NextGenerationEU. NextGenerationEU offers enormous opportunities to Greece to help modernise its businesses and municipalities.
The digital transition is particularly important for Greece. Think of interconnections with islands, or of high-capacity networks, digital public services, or the development of digital skills. When I talk about digital opportunities for Greece, these are digital opportunities for Europe. If we build structures together now, we can benefit together in the future. The sharing and secure use of data is an excellent example. A real data economy could become a powerful engine for innovation and new jobs throughout our Union.
Therefore, we need to secure in particular our industrial data for Europe and make it widely accessible. Common data spaces – for example in the energy or healthcare sectors – will support universities, companies and researchers. We will build a European cloud based on GaiaX to ease access to data and collaboration. Another example is artificial intelligence. Whether it is precision farming in agriculture, more accurate medical diagnosis or safe autonomous driving – artificial intelligence can open up new worlds for European citizens and businesses. All this can be powered through NextGenerationEU.
Our globe will become more digital, but will it remain liveable? We know that as the global recovery speeds up, global warming will not slow down. Just weeks ago Greece was hit by a hurricane – the likes of which we do not see on the shores of the Mediterranean. You are facing more and more wildfires, and farmers are forced to adapt to rising temperatures. And this is just the beginning. We know that change is needed and we know that it is possible. The European Green Deal is our guide to make that change happen. At the heart of it is our mission to become the first climate neutral continent by 2050. But we will not get there by standing still – we need to move quicker and do things better.
NextGenerationEU will invest in this change, while creating new job opportunities across Europe. This will finance clean energy sources such as hydrogen, and it could support the Greek government’s plan to phase out lignite-fired power plants by 2023. The programme will fund a renovation wave all across Europe, so that old buildings can become more comfortable and less polluting.
First-mover advantage counts double in this recovery and focusing investment will be absolutely essential to make the most of that. The speed with which we need to invest in a cleaner, more modern and more circular economy has only accelerated during this crisis: From clean energy to clean transport, from saved biodiversity to restoring our nature. This is how NextGenerationEU can change the game. It can reduce our dependencies and strengthens the resilience of our societies. A world where we use digital technologies for a healthier, greener society. A world that our children can be proud of and thrive in.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This is a decisive moment for our Union. President Van Rompuy knows how hard it can be to build unity when the interests of 27 countries and almost half a billion human beings are at stake. But in view of the pandemic, we have realised that we can only overcome the crisis if we stand together. Solidarity, trust and unity have to be built and rebuilt time and time again.
I do not know whether NextGenerationEU can change Europe as profoundly as the Erasmus programme did. But I know that once again Europe has chosen to master and shape its future – together.
Long live Europe.