Navigation and service

Address by Federal President Horst Köhler at the dinner for the Heads of State and Government of the European Union Member States to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome

Blick auf Schloss Bellevue mit europäischen Flaggen und Soldaten Berlin, 24 March 2007 Photo: Guido Bergmann, Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung (BPA) © Photo: Guido Bergmann, Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung (BPA)

"Friends in freedom"

allow me once again to warmly welcome you to Schloss Bellevue. One of the people who ought to be with us tonight is unfortunately unable to attend - Helmut Kohl, Honorary Citizen of Europe. He has asked me to convey to you his best wishes.

There are some topics which are almost guaranteed to be more than a speaker can handle. Take, for example, "The history, status and prospects of European unification", or "Europe's essence and identity". Anyone who relishes an intellectual challenge will want to cover everything at once, and, what is more, to do so within the limits of a speech which at least takes into account the feelings of the chef, if not those of the guests.

Upon reflection, however, I have decided to adopt a different tack. I merely want to talk to you a little about three books which have been very well received by German readers recently, and combine this with my own thoughts on Europe. And I can confirm with Voltaire that "the secret of being a bore is to tell everything".

The first book, on which I will spend a little more time than on the other two, was written by the journalist Wolfgang Büscher. It is entitled "Berlin Moskau" (Berlin Moscow). Büscher completed this journey - 1800 kilometres in total, on foot, following in the footsteps of the Grande Armée and the Wehrmacht, in which his grandfather served. No one knows where he is buried.

Büscher crosses the military roads and battlefields and pays his respects at soldiers' graves. In a small Polish town he is taken round a cemetery which unites combatants from various European civil wars, he lets the landscapes speak to him and listens to the stories of the people he meets. Stories of injustice and destruction, but also stories of love and humanity.

Büscher reports many positive experiences. For example, soon after embarking on his journey, he meets a Polish couple. The wife is a German teacher. When they say goodbye, she gives him a piece of paper densely covered with the telephone numbers of other German teachers. And what happens? Whenever he phones one of them, they are already expecting him. "I couldn't get lost", writes Büscher. "Poland was keeping an eye on me."

"Berlin Moskau" shows at a very personal level the uniqueness of freedom, the sweetness of peace and the depth of the well of the past. It shows how urgently Europe needs reconciliation - a reconciliation which does not deny what happened but which nonetheless affirms, "This is what you have done. But this is not what you are like." And it shows how in Europe the West stands as a shining example to which everyone wants to belong. Büscher observes that the East always begins just that little bit further to the east, and in this way it moves further and further eastwards, stopping just before Moscow - and yet Moscow in turn considers itself to be part of the West.

All this reflects the epochal success of European unification. We now take so much for granted that we have almost forgotten what it means. Freedom and peace are just like the air we breathe - we only realize their true value when they are no longer available. The founding fathers of the Treaties of Rome knew this very well: Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schuman, Paul Henri Spaak, Jean Monnet, Joseph Luns, Walter Hallstein, Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer - soldiers, prisoners of war, members of the Fascist and Nazi resistance, prisoners of the Gestapo. They had had first-hand experience of war, oppression, imprisonment and exile, and they channelled this experience into leadership. The European Union is not a miracle. It was constructed, and the builders' primary aims were freedom, peace, the rule of law and the fair accommodation of interests, in short, a good community. Let me add that these builders also include Winston Churchill, with his inspiring Zürich speech, and the United States of America, without whose protection and assistance Western Europe would not have come together and recovered. Yet in all this, prosperity was only of secondary importance. Economic cooperation, as successful as it was, was not an end in itself but a means of political integration. The first Commission President, Walter Hallstein, summarized this as follows. "We are not in business, we are in politics."

And our affinity with the European founding generation still prevails today in the conviction that the European Union is much more than a group with common economic interests. Would there otherwise always have been such decisive progress towards en¬largement? The Internal Market and the economic and monetary union do not exist for their own benefit, but form a basis for political common ground and solidarity in crucial political questions and a basis for joint action as friends in freedom.
But going back to Wolfgang Büscher: his book also makes us realize that European integration was only a partial victory until the revolutions of 1989. Only since that point and since the accession of our Central and Eastern European cousins has the Union become truly European and our continent been able to heal. This is totally unprecedented, for never before have so many nations and their states formed such an alliance of their own free will, and it is an extremely exciting and tense process. That is certainly true at political level, because new members understandably bring with them new ideas, because the older members equally understandably want to hold on to what they know, and because the rules of our interaction eventually have to be altered with patience and goodwill. Or should the European Union, which has experienced such positive growth, be hampered in its movement by a legal coat designed for an adolescent and only let out at the seams a few times? Yet the unification of Europe is also an extremely exciting and tense process for citizens and the European regions. Sometimes I wonder whether the Europe of conferences pays sufficient attention to this fact.

Millions of people have been working for a long time to drive forward this bottom-up cohesion process, not on behalf of the Union and not generally out of a love of adventure and discovery, but simply to make their living. They tirelessly travel along the old trade routes, they tirelessly get to know countries and people abroad and peruse timetables, phrase books and the advertisements in regional newspapers. Wolfgang Büscher met some of them - migrant workers, haulers and traders.

Europe is finding its way back together in new constellations: British workers on Czech building sites, Romanian au-pairs in Paris, Polish plumbers in London, Italian manufacturers in Hungary, German doctors in Stockholm, commuters between Tallinn and Helsinki, between Gdansk and Malmö. Everywhere you look, you will find telephone directories with Yellow Pages and direct calls abroad, everywhere you look, you will find a dense network of Transeuropean bus routes, ferry connections and cheap flights. This also makes it easy for tourists to explore Europe in all its diversity and harmony, and hopefully it will soon be completely normal for students to spend a year living in a neighbouring European country. Europeans are thus gradually acquiring a common perspective on life and living.

This learning community deserves all the support it can get! For the European Union has to become an irreversible fact in people's minds and hearts. So why are we not doing much more to awaken people's curiosity about Europe and their enthusiasm for such coexistence, particularly among the young? In many discussions with the younger generation, most recently together with President Napolitano at the University of Tübingen, I have observed that young people want Europe, and view it with a combination of idealism and awareness which gives me hope. They are asking, for example, when there will be a European television channel worthy of the name which broadcasts detailed and reliable information from all Member States around the clock? A channel of this kind would also play an important role in building a politically informed European public, which our Community so urgently needs.

Moreover, if we have already left it to Switzerland to host the Eurovision Song Contest, UEFA and the World Economic Forum, why don't we at least establish a House of European History and invite people to an annual international European Forum of Diversity and Dialogue?

But I said I was going to talk about three books. The second is currently at the top of the bestseller lists and is by Hape Kerkeling, an intelligent comedian and television personality. Incidentally, he has a special fondness for Schloss Bellevue, because many years ago he dressed up as a foreign Head of State and was chauffeured here in a limousine just as the real Head of State was due to arrive. He did indeed get as far as the entrance hall, and my fellow Germans still laugh at the footage from this memorable appearance.

Hape Kerkeling also writes about a journey. He travelled the Way of St. James, the thousand-year-old pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela. The book is entitled "Ich bin dann mal weg" (I'll be off, then) and describes how the author finds himself after years of overwork, an attack of sudden deafness and gallbladder trouble, and how he takes the time during his travels to think about God and the meaning of life. His account is characterized by un¬dogmatic spirituality and tolerance, and legends about saints rub shoulders with reflections on whether God might even speak to his pilgrims through billboards. And Kerkeling is joined on the Way of St. James by people from all countries, by no means just Catholics. The book's great success across all denominations and faiths has surprised some people. I think it is a sign of how natural it is for countless Europeans to consider the question of what gives us inner security. The book is also a good example of how unconcernedly and fearlessly we in Europe are able to reflect, talk and write about the purpose of life and about God.

The third book is by Daniel Kehlmann and is entitled "Die Vermessung der Welt" (Measuring the world). It is ingenious and entertaining in recounting the life stories of the mathematician and astronomer Carl Friedrich Gauß and the naturalist and global traveller Alexander von Humboldt. It brings to life their genius, their energetic grip on reality, their determination to get to the bottom of things - the one purely by thinking while lying in bed at night, the other by travelling incessantly. Both are quite typical in their constant quest to receive and to give plausible explanations, typical for a culture of thought and action which has characterized Europe since time immemorial. This attitude has a good repu¬tation throughout the world - as my recent Latin American trip confirmed once again. Yet the title of Kehlmann's book also contains a play on words: could our academic attempts to measure the world end in us having too great a measure of our own importance? Has the beautiful new reality we have created with the help of science and technology not long come up against its natural limits? Can sustainable globalization really imply the globalization of the lifestyle that we Europeans and several other nations in the western world currently enjoy, and for the sake of which we and others thoughtlessly exploit the world?

The eyes of the world also turn to us for answers to these questions. Here, too, Europe has a good reputation. For example, what the European Union has achieved to date in the field of environmental protection in the Member States and throughout the world is quite commendable and ought to serve as an incentive for us to continue to show responsibility and initiative in this area. Many foreign observers also see our combination of freedom and solidarity as a potential model for sustainability within a society. And the young people we talked to in Dresden and Tübingen want to see the principle of sustainability as the driving force behind all European legislation. Our combination of personal freedom, academic and economic strength and social and environmental responsibility, which, despite many individual differences is nonetheless undeniably European, is attractive. We have to join forces to maintain and strengthen the intellectual and the material foun¬dation of this typical European combination, here in Europe, and everywhere globalization can be moulded into a positive force for good. And we have to seek dialogue with other cultures and emerging nations, for we can learn a great deal from one another.

Only three books from the hundreds and thousands which are published in our countries year after year. Yet these three alone tell us a lot about Europe, about its position between Africa and Asia, its internal diversity, its depth and its darkness, its achieve¬ments and the issues it now faces. The European Union has demonstrated how enmity can be overcome and how peoples and states can learn to co-exist in harmony and work for the good of everyone. The Union provides its members with the framework they need to balance their national interests fairly and to pursue their shared goals, here in Europe, and, as long as we speak with one voice, throughout the world. We have developed a form of co-existence within and between states which appreciates diversity while being united by common values. That does not make us any better than anyone else. But it does mean that we as citizens of the European Union can, with humble confidence, help make the world a better place.