Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Ambassadors Conference of the Czech Republic

27.08.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to have the honour of speaking to the Czech Republic’s Ambassadors Conference. My sincere thanks to you, Lubomir, for the invitation.

I could talk in the abstract about how close the Czechs and Germans are today as neighbours in Europe. But why be abstract when there are concrete examples to hand? Our sense of international responsibility always needs to be demonstrated in concrete terms; in the same way, good neighbourliness is expressed concretely too.

Two weeks ago, for instance, we were in Brussels for an Extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council. As we were leaving, our government aircraft broke down and couldn’t take off. This was all the more unfortunate as I had planned an urgent trip to Iraq that same evening.

Quite by chance, the Czech delegation’s aircraft was standing nearby on the Brussels airfield. One phonecall, a sprint across the tarmac, and a few minutes later our Czech colleagues were squashing up to make room, to drop us off in Berlin in good time on their way back to Prague. You, Lubomir, immediately cancelled your evening appointments so that there’d be time to make the stop. Your team even shared their dinner with us.

I was really struck by the uncomplicated readiness with which you proffered such neighbourly assistance. I believe it says a lot about how close we Czechs and Germans are today.

I have brought you something as a little thank-you – a pair of aviators! We on the German team reckon you’ve definitely earned these. When you wear them, my dear Lubomir, I hope they will remind you of that crowning moment for German-Czech aviation.

On a more serious note, however, the Czechs and Germans are bound together by more than geographical proximity. We are connected by cultural roots, by the densely interwoven threads of a very varied history – one that was defined by conflict for far too long – and by the first-hand knowledge that trusting relations are by no means to be taken for granted. I share your opinion, Lubomir, that we should make even more use of our potential. Let’s do so together!

2014 is a year of anniversaries. We remember 1914 and 1939, but also 1989 and 2004. Ten years ago, the major enlargement of the European Union finally put an end to decades of continental division based on fear and coercion. The brave demonstrators on Wenceslas Square in Prague, who helped tear down the Iron Curtain in 1989, played a big role in bringing that about. That role is not forgotten in Germany.

The EU didn’t just get larger in 2004. It also grew in experience, history, diversity and political clout. A lot of that is thanks to the Czechs. Looking back, I am impressed by the perseverance with which this society has transformed itself – by the political reform, the stamina, the creativity that was unleashed and the fresh approaches that were found to things that had seemed set in stone.

And not only have the Czechs succeeded in considerable inner transformation. As ambassadors, ladies and gentlemen, you have been making a significant contribution to responsible European foreign policy for many years. We were just talking about this today: that sense of responsibility is demonstrated by the Czech Government’s deliberations on what support, including military equipment, it might deliver to the Iraqi Kurds in their fight against the butchers of the so-called “Islamic State”. As European neighbours and friends, we want to shoulder that responsibility together – in concrete terms too, with respect to the dramatic situation in northern Iraq. Václav Havel once impressed upon us just how huge that responsibility was, when he said,“It seems to me that Europe’s main task in future will be to realise its own responsibilities in today’s globalised world, its responsibility to the planet.”

Ladies and gentlemen, in the east of Europe, we are currently facing our most severe foreign-policy crisis since the end of the Cold War. A quarter of a century after Europe entered a new era, we are having to fear that Europe might again be split, a division we believed had been overcome once and for all. The situation in and around Ukraine is extremely serious. The annexation of Crimea was a flagrant violation of international law and of trust, and we condemn it utterly. In eastern Ukraine, too, we have seen a dangerous escalation of tensions in recent weeks.

One thing must therefore be absolutely clear: Europe’s peaceful order is our highest achievement. We will protect it. We will not accept a return to 19th-century politics with its attempts to redraw European borders by military means. The united Europe therefore sends this unequivocal message to Russia: recognise your responsibility and stop this madness! Let us return to the path of cooperation. One thing is certain, after all: whatever direction our relations with Russia take, neighbours we shall remain.

We know that the people of the Czech Republic and other Visegrad countries are observing developments on Europe’s eastern edge with even more sensitivity and awareness of historical events than us. People in these countries still vividly remember Budapest 1956, Prague 1968 and Gdansk 1981. I travelled to the Baltic States and the Visegrad countries myself directly after the Ukraine crisis began to make it clear that you, our partners in Central and Eastern Europe, could rely on our solidarity. That pledge stands.

If there is a silver lining to this crisis, it lies in the way it has demonstrated the fundamental importance of internal cohesion among us Europeans. Just imagine for one moment where we would be today if the economic and financial crisis of recent years had driven us apart. Only if we stand together within Europe, with conviction and solidarity, can we take a strong stance in our dealings with the outside world. That uncompromising will to hold together is the internal logic, the heartbeat, of the European Union – even today, as we Europeans look through very different historical lenses at the dramatic events in Ukraine and yet still manage to agree joint policy.

In view of the grim circumstances, I am particularly glad to see the pro-European direction in which the Czech Government has been moving in recent months. In pursuing a policy of greater openness towards Europe, the Czech Government – particularly you, Lubomir – has courageously chosen a path that will take the Czech Republic back to where it belongs, namely the heart of Europe.

I see our German-Czech relations in that context too. We are bound together not just by friendship but as partners in a shared, strong Europe. This reflects the spirit of the German-Czech Declaration of 1997, which gradually brought our relations to a historic breakthrough after much internal and external resistance and pointed them towards a shared future. It is no exaggeration to say that those relations are now better than ever.

We Germans are glad and grateful that you extended the hand of reconciliation and that we have managed to achieve so much together. We take both as encouragement to keep going side by side.

That’s why, Lubomir, I was so happy to take up your proposal for a strategic dialogue between our two foreign ministries and governments. I know that this is also to implement part of the Czech coalition agreement. Close cooperation with the Czech Republic was also written into the German Government’s coalition agreement, in which we pledged that the German-Czech Future Fund would continue after 2017. I really hope that we manage in cooperation with our finance ministers to make the Fund’s work more long term. It has done a lot to heal the wounds of the past and brought thousands of Czechs and Germans into dialogue with one another over the years.

Ladies and gentlemen, I come to you fresh from our Ambassadors Conference in Berlin. Our discussions this year are focused on reviewing Germany’s foreign policy. Part of the reason why I launched the review process was that I saw my country facing something of a contradiction. On the one hand, there are the expectations which others have of us and the advanced degree to which we are integrated into the global system; on the other, there is the limited extent to which many Germans are prepared to take more of a role in international affairs. At the beginning of my term of office, my reaction to this discrepancy was to say that Germany was a bit too big merely to comment on world affairs from the sidelines.

I therefore completely agree with you, Lubomir, that to consider pruning our foreign ministries’ international networks in these times is to fail to live up to the realities of our ever more densely globalised world.

What I am after is intelligent, responsible foreign policy. That is, policy that doesn’t overreach itself and doesn’t throw its weight around – policy, moreover, that plays its part, that takes account of the lessons of history, that doesn’t hide away in a world where fewer and fewer states look beyond their own interests and that is, and indeed has to be, open to international cooperation as a result.

That, of course, is the view from Berlin specifically. But doesn’t something similar apply to Europe as a whole? I say it does. The united Europe is too large to stand on the sidelines of world politics. Or, to put it another way, Europe can only make a difference in this complex and in parts increasingly fragile world if its member states large and small all pull together. That is our shared responsibility, as Václav Havel reminded us. We intend to shoulder that responsibility – and not just as Germans and Czech but together, as Europeans, too.

On that note, I will say, “Děkuji Vám za pozornost” – thank you for your attention – and look forward to our discussions.

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