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Keynote address by President von der Leyen at Princeton University

Keynote address given yesterday by President von der Leyen at Princeton University.

Dear Dean Jamal,

Dear Andy, Professor Moravcsik,

Thank you very much for welcoming me back to Princeton,

Distinguished members of the Princeton faculty and administration,

And most importantly, dear students,

Indeed, this is the United Nations General Assembly week right now. And you can imagine that one dominant topic was and is the war that Russia unleashed against Ukraine. It was 24 February when Russia invaded Ukraine and brought war back to Europe. I visited Kyiv for the first time since the beginning of the war round about five to six weeks after the invasion started. And I went to the town of Bucha. Before the war, Bucha was a quiet, friendly suburb on the outskirts of Kyiv. It has been occupied by Russian troops. Two days before I went to Bucha, it had been liberated by Ukrainian armed forces. When I went there, I saw mass graves; I saw the body bags lying there – men, women, children. I saw these brutal scars of missiles and bombs that had been aimed deliberately at residential areas, hospitals, schools kindergartens. So I basically saw first-hand the reality of Putin's war.

Last week, as you said, Andy, I was again in Kyiv and I was in Irpin, also on the outskirts of Kyiv. You still see the scars of the bombing of houses and hospitals and schools. I spoke, for example, to schoolchildren. And while we were speaking, when I visited that school, there was a missile alarm so we had to go to the shelter. And they told me that it was the third time on that day that they went to the shelter. That is their daily experience. But I also saw that life has come back to Kyiv. The streets were filled with people, the shops were open. People in Kyiv try to win their life back. The Ukrainian army is making impressive advances, liberating many towns and villages, and forcing the Russian army to retreat. Of course, I know that this all needs consolidation, but the success of the last days is lifting spirits – and not only the Ukrainian ones.

I know that some are calling to stop the fighting. But I must say that the reality is as follows: If Russia stops fighting, the war is over. If Ukraine stops fighting, there will be no more Ukraine. Much is at stake. Not just for Ukraine – but also for Europe, for the international community and for the global order. Russia has invaded Ukraine with the goal to wipe the country from the map – that is what Putin says and writes. So Ukrainians are fighting for their survival, but they are also fighting for global values. This is not only a war that Russia has unleashed against Ukraine. This is a war on our values; this is a war on the rules-based international order. This is an attack on the UN Charter. I mean, Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations, we should not forget it. This is trampling on the UN Charter. And this is a war about autocracy against democracy. And I tell you: Many, many worldwide are watching very precisely what the outcome is going to be.

From day one on, the United States and the European Union and many other friends have stood at Ukraine's side with weapons, and it is amazing to see the bravery of the Ukrainians fighting for their survival; with funds; with hospitality, on the European Union side, for more than 8.1 million refugees in seven months; and with the toughest sanctions the world has ever seen. Let me tell you that these sanctions have only been possible because of a very, very close cooperation with our friends in the United States. As you said, I have been in politics now round about 20 years, 14 of them in the government of Angela Merkel. Never ever have I experienced such an intense, trustful and detailed cooperation with the White House. And therefore, I think the saying is right: When you face a crisis, you know who your true friends are. Since last year already – it was around Christmas or New Year when Putin had started, as you might remember, to deploy 10,000 troops to encircle Ukraine –, our teams started to work on the sanctions to align the European system with the American system. They are very different but the effect of the sanctions should be the same. And we do not want extraterritorial effects but sovereign effects from the European Union but also all the other G7 members that joined us and, of course, the United States. And this intense work over weeks then had as consequence that when the invasion started – on day two, day four, day six –, we could immediately deliver three very heavy packages of sanctions that are unfolding their effect right now. The sanctions are biting. Russia has tried everything to camouflage the effects. And as this is not a free country, you can twitch and turn around facts and figures into what you want them to be. Or you can say what you want and hide what you want. But if you look at the financial sector in Russia, it is on life support now. Russia's industry is in tatters. It is very interesting to see the military complex, because the military complex now has a very hard time to replenish what is necessary for the armed forces. Because the updated technologies are missing, these are coming from our side and are no longer delivered, there is a ban on the exports. The spare parts are missing. So you observe now that the Russians are cannibalising their refrigerators and their dishwashers to get semiconductors they can use for the military complex. Basically, the Kremlin has put Russia's economy on the path to oblivion. And I want to make it very clear that the sanctions are here to stay. This is the time for resolve and not for appeasement.

The same is true for our financial support to Ukraine. So far, Europeans have provided more than EUR 19 billion in financial assistance since the beginning of the war. And that is without counting our military support. The message is: We are in it for the long haul.

I grew up in a divided country. I was lucky. I was born in West Germany, in the western part of Europe, in a free and democratic country. I vividly remember the times of the Iron Curtain. When I was your age, student age, when we wanted to drive to the island of West Berlin that was surrounded by the GDR, I remember, still today, the feeling of being terrified when you were driving on the corridor through the death zone. Because you knew, one false move and there is no rule of law anymore to protect you. So I remember this feeling very well, what the Iron Curtain and the Wall, and the death zone were all about. I also remember, of course, in 1990 the jubilant days, when the Iron Curtain came down, when the Wall in Berlin came down, and when the countries behind the Iron Curtain broke free. Indeed, the Baltics, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Czechia – you name it, so many others. Today, there is the same wind of change that is once again blowing across the continent. Because Ukraine has now applied for membership in the European Union. With their decision to apply for the candidate status in order for Ukraine to join the European Union, they have very clearly chosen the path of freedom. And with our decision to grant them candidate status, we have chosen to stand by Ukraine as long as it takes.

This war will change Europe and the world fundamentally. Take energy, I want to speak a little bit about energy. At the beginning of the war, Europe was heavily dependent on Russian fossil fuels: coal, oil, gas. 60% of the Russian budgets' revenues at that time was from fossil fuels. So you can imagine how important the fossil fuel export was and is. Putin has built very strategically, and later on used, our dependency to blackmail us, basically to suffocate us, with lowering – already in hindsight, I see it – the gas supply last year to the storage to make sure that we have not enough gas in the storages to make it through the winter, and slowly but surely cutting the gas supplies to one Member State after another. At the moment, he prefers to flare the gas – that is literally burning the gas – instead of delivering it, as he should, if you look at the contracts. I guess that he obviously thought that he could intimidate us and divide us. But let me tell you that just the opposite is the case. This blackmailing has really united us. And it is a turning point, because we have decided, as a European Union: We will end our reliance on Russian fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, Europe has banned Russian coal imports completely. We have been winding down and are winding down the oil imports from Russia, down to 10% by the end of the year. Gas is interesting. Let me give you three figures: If you look at the overall global pipeline gas demand, 75% was the demand of the European Union on global pipeline gas supplies. So we are a huge client – very important. Half of it was imports from Russia. Today, we are down, on Russian imports, to 25%. One quarter is left. How are we doing this? We are diversifying away from the Russian supply towards other suppliers that are democratic friends and trustworthy. First of all, of course, our friends in the United States. I closed an agreement with President Biden on LNG imports that really, really helped us and saved us in these difficult times. It is very successful. The second point that we are doing, besides diversifying away, is saving energy. The energy that is not being used is good energy. We save it to the storage for the coming winter.

Of course, this comes at a price. So let me tell you that we all feel that the global energy market is very tight. The whole Russian supply is missing, so we are demanding energy on the global market. Therefore, the global market is really tight. Energy prices are skyrocketing, as you will observe in Europe. This is a heavy burden on people's and businesses' shoulders. We are taxing now the windfall profits of electricity-producing companies to have a targeted support for vulnerable households and vulnerable businesses. We are doing all this not only because it is necessary but also because we know that this is the way to dry out Putin's war chest. And we know that we are doing this because with energy independence and energy freedom comes greater power to defend the global rules. This is the immediate response. But there is of course a mid-term and long-term response.

Ultimately, the best way to get rid of fossil fuels is a massive investment in renewable energy. Every kilowatt-hour that we are producing electricity from sun, from wind, from hydropower, from geothermal, from biomass, from green hydrogen – you name it – is not only good for the climate – it is also good for the climate that is the most important part – but it makes us independent. It is home-grown; it is security of energy supply; it created good jobs at home. If you look at the price today of solar and wind energy, it is cheaper by now than fossil fuels. This is why, for example, we are investing heavily in offshore wind parks. The biggest one worldwide is now starting in the North Sea. When it is ready to go, it will heath 50 million European homes throughout the whole year.

So in sum, the era of Russian fossil fuels in Europe is coming to an end. And this is a big geopolitical shift, because if you look at the map, the demand and supply from Russia is coming to an end. This demand from the European Union will now switch towards the Global South. Because if we do it right, we are not only diversifying to other gas or fossil fuel suppliers, but we massively invest now in renewable energies, in regions where the resources are in abundance. If you look at the other side of the Mediterranean, in the European Union, it is the African continent: sun, wind, partially hydropower, in abundance. And if we invest in the infrastructure, we do not only gain freedom from the blackmail that we have experienced with Russia, but we are also fighting the right cause against climate change.

The fight against climate change is the biggest one. And I want us – the Europe Union and the United States – to be allies in that fight. Global warming is the real crisis that is overshadowing everything. We know that climate change is man-made. The body of evidence is overwhelming. So it is us. The impact is tangible, you know it: floods, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, tornados, melting glaciers, rising sea levels. I had yesterday a bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan: three-quarter of the country is inundated – climate change, it is nothing but climate change. So it is very bad. But there is a glimpse of hope, because if it is true that climate change is man-made, we can do something about it. That is the good news and the bad news. And that is what the European Green Deal is all about. When I came into office in 2019, this was the first initiative I took. Our strategy, the European Green Deal, wants to transform our economy, so that we preserve and restore nature. We need to decarbonise our economy; we need to move towards the circular economy; we need to develop a way of life and work that gives our planet a real fighting chance for the next generation, for you. So we have, as the European Union, cast in law our goals for 2030 and climate neutrality for 2050. We want to be the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. And we are the first highly industrialised continent that has put a concrete plan on the table on how we want to get there. So pieces of legislation, legal acts to make this transformational change happen.

What are the principles? The first one is: CO2 needs a price, because nature cannot pay the price anymore. Those who emit CO2 must pay. Therefore, we have put in place an Emissions Trading System: If you want to emit CO2, you pay. If you want to avoid that, you go and innovate into clean technologies. Second principle: The transition has to be just, otherwise it will not happen. So we invest massively to support the regions that have to leapfrog forward, for example coal-abating regions that have to leapfrog forward into completely different industries. And we have a Social Climate Fund to support the small incomes and the vulnerable businesses that have no leeway to adapt to cleaner mobility, to insulated houses, to better heating systems and all that is necessary to change. The third principle is: We need massive investments in innovation and infrastructure. That is the point where NextGenerationEU comes into play. I called it NextGenerationEU because we raised EUR 800 billion on the capital markets to invest in projects that will serve the next generation. EUR 360 billion of these will go into projects of the European Green Deal. And I am very glad that the United States is matching that now. I was happy to hear that from this climate package, USD 369 billion, I think, are going into green projects, projects fighting climate change. The fourth principle is, and that follows from it, that the fight against global warming is a global one, a global task. Europe is responsible for 9% of the global emissions. We need everyone on board. Therefore, I very much welcome President Biden's strong commitment to also become climate-neutral by 2050. And last but not least, the fifth and last principle is: We consider the European Green Deal as a huge business opportunity – our new growth strategy. If we master the turnaround, those who have innovated and developed the clean solutions will be the front-runners. They will have the first-mover advantage. Then the whole world will be asking for their technologies. This is the reason why we have to prepare now if we want to be competitive in the future.

This brings me to one afterthought. I have been speaking about energy, I have been speaking about dependency, the European Green Deal or fighting climate change. The green transition but also the digital transition, I must say, will massively increase our needs for raw materials. Lithium for batteries; silicon metal for chips; rare earths to produce magnets, for example for electric vehicles. Demand for those raw materials and rare earths will presumably at least double until 2030. The good news is: That shows that the European Green Deal and the green transformation overall worldwide is progressing fast. The not-so-good news is: One country dominates the market. Out of the 30 critical raw materials, today 10 are mostly sourced from China. And China basically controls the global processing industry. Almost 90% of rare earths and 60% of lithium are processed in China. We have to avoid falling into the same trap and dependency as we did with oil and gas. So we have to be very careful not to replace one old dependency with a new one.

And that brings me back to where I started: Democracy versus autocracy. Each of our democracies is very unique and different. Because ultimately, they have been shaped by our people, by our history, by our backgrounds, our cultures, our constitutions. But in the very end, democracies in all forms come down to one single point. And that is: It gives people a voice. It gives the ability to change things at the ballot box. In democracies, we even fight for the right to be against us. That is democracy. To be able to speak you mind. To change your mind, if you want to. To be free to be yourself so that if you are different from the majority, you are equal before the law. It is the accountability to all, and not only to those who have voted for you. That is democracy. A system where power is given and taken away by the citizens and framed by checks and balances. And we see what the alternative is. At the beginning of this year, Russia and China declared an ‘unlimited friendship'. And despite the fact that cracks have appeared in the last days, both continue to aim for a fundamentally different vision of the future. I believe we have to take this challenge very seriously. We need to defend the open and inclusive international order – both in the United States and the European Union, and beyond. Those who were lucky enough to be born and raised in democracies – like me – can often take the democracy just for granted. It was always there. I have always lived in a democracy. But now I realise that it is not going to be here if I do not stand up for this democracy. Those who have lived in autocracies and authoritarian regimes will know all too well how precious freedom is. In Europe, we have learnt that we must always work on improving democracy – because we know how quickly and how devastatingly history can change. We know that the opponents of democracy today are using sophisticated, new tools, modern technologies to oppress and manipulate through systematic disinformation. Disinformation is not a partisan issue, it is a societal one. Because it seeks to muddy the waters so much that truth and facts become impossible to distinguish from lies and falsehoods. So in the very end, democracy needs us – each and every one of us, explicitly. By that, I want to address you, the students, the faculty members, the administration here in this room: You have the privilege to study and work in an institution that is based on a long tradition to unveil truth through critical discourse, through evidence-based research, respect for facts and figures, the understanding of history. These are the tools and the ingredients to dismantle disinformation. You have a mission. As politicians, we have a mission, too, but you have a mission. Or in the words of Princeton's informal motto: In the nation's service and in the service of humanity.

Many thanks for your attention.

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