Press Releases Keynote speech by President von der Leyen at the opening ceremony of the academic year of the Università degli Studi di Palermo

Keynote speech by President von der Leyen at the opening ceremony of the academic year of the Università degli Studi di Palermo

Magnifico Rettore, thank you for your kind words.

President Mattarella,

Minister Bernini,

Representatives of Sicilian institutions,

Dear professors,

Cari studenti,

It is such a pleasure to be in the beautiful city of Palermo. One of the capitals of the Mediterranean, one of the cradles of European culture. And what an honour to celebrate with you over 200 years of history for the University of Palermo.

We are meeting on a very special day for Europe. One year ago tomorrow, Russia launched its brutal invasion of Ukraine. Seen from Sicily, this may look like a faraway conflict. It is not. The young people of Ukraine share the exact same desires as all young Europeans, like you. They want to be independent and masters of their own future. They want to live in a democratic country that gives freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of movement. This is why young Ukrainians wrapped themselves in European flags and took to the streets, back in 2014. But in reaction, Putin invaded their country for the first time. Then eight years later, on 24 February 2022, Putin invaded Ukraine again. Putin denies Ukraine the right to exist. And in attacking Ukraine one year ago, he also attacked the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. And he attacked the principles of democracy. For it is the attractiveness of our liberal democracies that the autocrats fear – our economic success, our civil liberties, and the freedom of speech and ideas. That is why the brave Ukrainian people are not only defending their country but also fighting for our values. That is why we stand by Ukraine for as long as it takes. Libertà per l’Ucraina.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear students,

It is often in the darkest hour that we find our inner strength. This is what is happening in our Union. These three years have probably been the most testing ever for Europe. First, with the pandemic and its economic fallout. Then with the war and the spike in the cost of living. But these crises have taught us something. We have learnt that our destinies, as Europeans, are tied together. When we procured vaccines, we made sure that they reached all of Europe at the same time, for the same price. When we built our Recovery Plan, we focused first and foremost on the regions and sectors in greatest need of our support. And when Russia turned off the gas tap, making our energy bills much more expensive, we responded with European solidarity, protecting the most fragile families and firms. This is the kind of Europe I believe in. A Union that always stands by its people. And it is this idea of Europe that brings me to Sicily today.

Sicily has always been the centre of the Mediterranean. A place where different cultures meet and meddle together. This is the home of grand Greek temples and shiny Byzantine mosaics. It is a land shaped by Normans and Arabs. It is the home of brilliant minds, from Luigi Pirandello to Luca Parmitano. And this unique Sicilian heritage has made Palermo a European capital of culture, art and science. Today, I finally understand the words of my compatriot Goethe, who wrote: ‘Once you see Palermo, you will never forget it.’

But I know that sometimes, in your daily life, you feel far from the heart of Europe. Today, I am here to tell you that Sicily is at the centre of Europe. Sicily is in the core of the European project. And even more. The quote from Goethe goes on to say: Sicily ‘holds the key to all things’. These words are still true today. Because this beautiful island is absolutely central to addressing some of the greatest issues of our times. First, for the transition to clean energy. Second, for migration. Third, for building an economy that works for Europe’s next generation. Let me start with the transition to clean energy.

I know how much your generation cares about our climate. And you are right. No task is more vital than stopping global warming. So I am delighted to see that today you are opening your academic year with a focus on sustainability. Three years ago, the first act of my mandate was to launch the European Green Deal. And since then, the urgency of the clean transition has only grown stronger. When Putin started preparing the invasion of Ukraine, he blackmailed us with our dependency on Russian fossil fuels. The impact was felt all across Europe, including here in Sicily. But we have managed to break free from our dependency and his blackmail. We have replaced Russian gas with reliable suppliers. We massively invested in renewable energy. Italy has cut its imports of Russian gas by two-thirds, in record time. Prices for gas today are lower than before the Russian war started. But our work does not end here. This is the moment to speed up rapidly the transition to home-grown renewables. And Sicily can become a European clean-energy powerhouse. Not only do you have an abundance of sun and wind on this island but also a strong clean-tech industrial base. Earlier this month, construction works have begun, right here in Sicily, for the largest solar gigafactory in Europe. It will build a new generation of solar panels. NextGenerationEU, our European Recovery Plan, is contributing to finance it. Because we know that clean energy is the future. And this future is made here, in Sicily.

Sicily is central to our energy transition also for another reason. Right in front of your shores lies another clean-energy powerhouse, that is Africa. Africa’s potential is immense for solar, for wind power, and for green hydrogen too. Europe must reach out to the southern shore, and Sicily is a natural bridge. Since the beginning of the war, Italy has done an impressive job with African partners to diversify its energy supply. And our Union is creating new connections with Africa, through our Global Gateway investment plan. For instance, we are now financing a new undersea electricity cable between Sicily and Tunisia. The time has come for a new European pivot to the Mediterranean.

The second issue I would like to address is migration. Sicily today is both a land of immigration and emigration. On the one hand, you have welcomed through the years countless people who have landed on your shores. On the other hand, so many young people like you have chosen to leave and follow their dreams elsewhere. Because this is what migration is about: it is about searching for opportunity; it is about dreams. And yet too often, for people who fall into the hands of smugglers and traffickers, the dream turns into a nightmare. This is not how things should be. Think for instance about the humanitarian corridors that have been created, right here in Sicily, by churches and local communities. It is a safe alternative for those who flee from war. And this model can be supported by the European Union. There is a basic principle that should drive our actions. Migration can be managed. We need to have safe pathways to reach Europe, for those who have a right to protection. We have to fight the smugglers and traffickers. We need to speak to partner countries, work with them on the return of those who do not have the right to stay and to stop this tragic loss of life. And we must cooperate at the European level. Europe must show solidarity to all Member States and local communities. And all Member States should act together, for a challenge we all share. This is exactly the spirit of the New Pact for Migration and Asylum which we have proposed. And earlier this month, the meeting of European Leaders has recognised a simple fact: Migration is a European challenge that calls for a European response. We must all do our part, and we all need each other’s support. We now have a plan, which we need to take forward together. A European solution is possible. And I will work hard to reach this goal. A European system that works for Sicily and for all of Europe.

My third and final point has to do with you, the young people in the audience. I believe my generation’s greatest responsibility is to leave Europe a better place for the next generation. You, dear Rector, have just mentioned a beautiful quote by Hans Jonas on the imperative of responsibility to future generations. This is first and foremost about climate action. But it is also about building an economy that works for our youth. Because this is not always the case today. One young person in three does not work or study. Less than one woman in three has a job. So it is clear that things must change. This is why we called our Recovery Plan NextGenerationEU. Because it is all about making Europe fit for the next generation. It is all about opportunity and new sustainable jobs throughout our Union. Italy is the largest beneficiary of this huge investment programme. The Bank of Italy says the plan will create 375,000 new jobs in your country. And at least 40% of Italy’s plan is coming to southern Italy. With these investments and reforms, Sicily can become a land for young people. This region is home to so much talent. Sicily performs way above the European average for the quality of your scientific publications, even if R&D investments here are way below the average. So it is time to invest in you. For instance, we are financing 240 new posts for researchers and PhD students right here, at the University of Palermo. There is one of your projects that I really care about. You are putting a strong focus on healthcare, creating the first centre in Italy on digital health prevention. This is great news not only for young and aspiring doctors but for all Sicilians. NextGenerationEU is also investing in a new chips factory close to Catania. It will be the first of its kind in Europe. It will produce chips that we currently import from far away and create 700 high-skilled jobs. These are the good jobs you are studying for. But of course, this has to be complemented by a broad supply of good childcare and good schools. Because this is the precondition for families, young mothers and young fathers to reconcile work and family. We should be so proud of young people who want to take the responsibility to raise children and have a career. This is the kind of opportunity that you deserve. And all of this is the heart of NextGenerationEU. We can make Europe the place of your dreams. Because you are the ones who will carry on the torch of responsibility. And I am confident that you will rise to the challenge.

There is a quote by your brother, dear President Mattarella, that really strikes me. He believed that Italy and Europe have a responsibility to help southern Italy transform itself. But he also said: ‘Progress cannot be imposed from above. It needs to be driven by our hidden energy and enthusiasm.’ This is what makes me confident. You, the young people of Sicily, your enthusiasm, your talent, your passion. You are the hidden energy of this island, and its inner beauty. You make it ‘Sicilia bedda’. So best of luck for this academic year.

Viva la Sicilia, e viva l’Europa.

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