For millions of girls and boys in Ukraine, last Friday was supposed to be a very special day, as the new school year started there for all children on 1 September. The start of the new school year is normally a day of celebration in Ukraine. It is an even more special occasion than the first day of school in Germany. Children in Ukraine wear flowers in their hair, are given lots of sweets, and celebrate with their family and friends. For the past 559 days, however, nothing has been normal in Ukraine. Children hear an air-raid siren more often than they hear a school bell, as they have been living under the shadow of war for 559 days. According to UNICEF, only a third of Ukrainian children of school age are able to attend school regularly. Since the start of the war, a school has been destroyed every second day. That is deliberate, schools are specifically targeted. This is a breach of international law, a violation of humanity.
My Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba told me about the school in his home village when we met at the Foreign Affairs Council in Toledo a couple of days ago. Classes were supposed to restart there on 1 September, too. But a few days beforehand, when all the teachers in Ukraine were preparing for the new school year, a drone appeared over the school in this small village. Just one drone above the village, deliberately above the school. It circled and circled, although the battle line in Sumy Oblast is actually relatively far away. After circling a few times, it attacked, deliberately, purposely targeting the school. Several teachers were killed; others were injured. What was supposed to be the happiest day in the lives of the children starting school for the first time became a day of mourning.
Why am I talking about this again here? Because I think we have lost sight of something at times in our discussions of the past weeks. We have forgotten that a war continues to rage at the heart of Europe, every day, 559 days, a war that kills people every day, that robs women, men and children of their homes every day, a war that compels us to rethink not only our foreign and security policy, but also our economic responses. That is the situation in which we are drawing up the budget for next year.
And yes, all of us have to accept painful cutbacks. I can understand everyone who was hoping for more leeway. We discussed this over the past day and a half. But in my view, it’s not much help to simply wish things were different. We cannot wish away the check on public borrowing. Despite the dramatically changed geopolitical situation, and we have to be honest about this, we simply don’t have the necessary two-thirds majority here throughout the German Bundestag to change that. That is why we are working pragmatically with the parameters we have and focusing on our goals. After all, that is what the people in our country expect of us.
And yes, I don’t think I need to make any secret of it, particularly in view of this situation, with a war raging in Europe, the cutbacks in my departmental budget for the Federal Foreign Office are painful. That is why we are also setting priorities here under the current parameters we all face together ‒ pragmatically and with a focus on our goals.
First and foremost, we will continue our support for Ukraine for as long as the people in Ukraine need it.
We will do so by supplying weapons so that Ukraine can defend itself and intercept further drones; by providing humanitarian assistance; with large-scale demining programmes; and, most importantly, by lending our political support in the United Nations, the EU, NATO, as well as ‒ we must not forget this and I am grateful in particular to the Members of the German Bundestag responsible for this matter ‒ in the OSCE and the Council of Europe. For this is also a matter of safeguarding our peaceful order in Europe.
Secondly, we are investing in our global partnerships as a matter of priority and to a greater extent than ever before. Cooperation with our close partners in Europe and the US remains important. But how we work with countries whose friendship we perhaps took a bit too much for granted in the past years will become even more important in the future. That is why we are not only sending a clear message saying that we will not forget them, even if a war is raging in Europe, that we will not forget their security concerns. But we are also saying loud and clear that we are there for them in the same way they are here for us Europeans when the European peaceful order is under attack.
One example is how we are now supporting our ECOWAS partners. As my Senegalese counterpart, who was just here in Berlin, rightly put it: “If a democracy is overthrown by a coup, other democracies cannot simply look away.”
That is why we set up an EU sanctions regime in response to a Franco-German initiative. This regime will enable us to provide even firmer support to our partners in West Africa right now. After all, our partnerships are vital to our survival. We feel that, and we made them an integral part of our National Security Strategy. They are vital when it comes to defending our security, but also as regards mitigating the climate crisis, the greatest threat to security worldwide, and they are vital when we take on responsibility for people who urgently need our help around the world.
Worldwide, almost 800 million people go to bed hungry every night. That is why it was important to me to continue having a sizeable budget for humanitarian assistance, with a pragmatic approach that allows us to act rapidly. And yes, we have had to accept huge cutbacks here, too. But we agreed in the coalition that we will use the scope available to us so that we can respond ad hoc to new crises with humanitarian assistance.
We are investing in our partnerships, including with faster, digital visa processes and with an effective cultural relations and education policy, the latter because we need to provide more than German classes worldwide if we are to attract skilled workers.
Fellow Members of the Bundestag, we are facing the greatest foreign and security policy upheaval since the end of the Cold War. We did not choose this. But we can decide, each and every day anew, how we will respond. And we are doing so, as a united Europe, together with our partners around the world, so that children in Ukraine will be more familiar with the sound of the school bell than with that of an air-raid siren, even if we don’t know when that day will come. We are doing so for a peaceful and free Europe, for the security of the people in our country.
Thank you very much.