The attack on the very heart of American democracy, the Capitol, shocked many of us here to the core. After all, we in Germany are particularly indebted to the efforts of the US for our own post‑1945 democracy. We cannot and will not forget this.
But, however deep our shock at the events in Washington, they did not come as a surprise. Donald Trump has shown contempt for the democratic decision of the US electorate, and he has trampled on democratic principles, in recent weeks in particular.
A great America that is respected on the world stage – that is what he promised his followers when he was elected. The reactions to the violence in Washington that we have seen from Beijing and Moscow, and the schadenfreude in Tehran, Caracas and Pyongyang, speak for themselves. They make it painfully clear what has become of this promise; they show the disservice that right-wing populists do to their countries and the danger they pose to democracy.
It will be no mean feat for the new US administration under President Biden and Vice President Harris to restore trust in the country’s institutions.
But at the same time, American democracy and its famous checks and balances were able to withstand these attacks. In the night immediately after the storming of the Capitol, Congress confirmed Joe Biden as the legitimate winner of the presidential election. It would therefore be utterly wrong for us to moralise about what is happening in the US.
These societal divisions are not unique to America; they have long been evident on both sides of the Atlantic. Here in Germany, too, we have seen how incendiary rhetoric has led to hateful acts: in Halle, Kassel and Hanau and, a few weeks ago, here on the steps of the Reichstag.
Ladies and gentlemen, in an age shaped by rivalry between major powers, Germany and Europe need American democracy to be strong, capable and globally minded. And so we must join forces and strive for all democrats to stand in solidarity against the enemies of democracy, both within our own societies and beyond them, worldwide. The first step is to bring to justice those who are behind such unacceptable acts. That includes the violent rioters, and it also includes those who encouraged and abetted them. Anyone who deliberately incites hatred and violence must be held accountable.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is not my place to opine on the initiation of a second impeachment process against President Trump. Ultimately, however, this process is nothing other than the expression of the American people’s need to ensure that there are consequences for damaging their democratic institutions. At the same time, it must be clear that legal proceedings can only be the first step in the critical task that the US must now address, and that is the task of reconciliation within its divided society.
Politicians like Donald Trump and his supporters have been able to manipulate people and incite hatred for years unchecked, and this is partly the result of a fundamentally changed communication and media landscape. Social networks have come to bear great responsibility for the functioning of our democracy. And so we cannot leave it to the CEOs in Silicon Valley to decide how to fight inflammatory rhetoric on the internet and where to draw the line between free speech and hate speech.
There must be clear standards which uphold the rule of law. A not insignificant swathe of our country, including political figures and members of the Bundestag, has still not understood that. We know where this refusal of reason leads, and we have seen yet another example with the violence in Washington.
Germany’s rules for online platform operators are clear. Freedom of speech specifically protects views which differ from our own and which we may not like. But it ends as soon as it spills over into criminal threats and incitement, and that includes on social networks. We will be making progress on this issue at EU level in the coming months with the Digital Services Act.
I am confident that we will have a strong transatlantic partner in President elect Biden when it comes to defending our democracies, and not just against online hate-mongering and conspiracy theories. Joe Biden is contemplating an international network of democracies. Over the last three years we have worked on a very similar concept with the Alliance for Multilateralism, collaborating particularly closely with our French allies, and we want to continue this work together with the new US administration from its very first day in office.
Ladies and gentlemen, what unites us with the incoming US administration is the firm conviction that, in the twenty-first century, democracy remains the best and most humane form of government; and that a free society is well advised to listen to the voices of reason and, particularly at times such as these, to the voices of science and research. This is how we were able to develop vaccines against COVID‑19 in record time – in a transatlantic effort – which, of course, could not be more crucial. In the same way, we should be able to immunise our democracies against the virus of societal division, not only here but far beyond Europe’s borders.
Thank you very much.