Speech of Foreign Minister Baerbock at the Council of Europe's 75th anniversary

16.05.2024 - Speech

Outside this building, 50 metres from here, was the place where the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe first met 75 years ago.

But as we come together today to celebrate, we cannot do so without remembering another place, 50 kilometres from here.

The small village of Natzwiller. 530 inhabitants. A peaceful spot at the foot of the Vosges Mountains.

In early June 1943, 86 men and women arrived in Natzwiller.

86 Jewish men and women from eight different countries.

These 86 men and women went from one hell to another.

They came from Auschwitz. They had been selected because the Nazis wanted to prove their cruel “race theories”.

For that, they brought them directly to the town of Natzwiller to kill them and examine their skeletons.

At the so-called Reichsuniversität Straßburg, which the Nazis had established after annexing the Alsace.

In total, 22,000 people from all over Europe were murdered in this camp alone. An entire town.

On the ruins of this fascism and nationalism, on the ruins of a war that had brought this continent to the brink, ruins for which my country was responsible, ten ministers from ten European countries held the first Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe 75 years ago.

They dreamed the dream of reconciliation.

Robert Schumann, the Foreign Minister of France at the time, described this moment as “the last chance of salvation for Europe and for our countries.”

It humbles me to speak to you today as German Foreign Minister as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Council of Europe.

For me, this marks a moment of deep gratitude.

Because it was in Europe and through Europe that my country was able to grow into a democracy, a living democracy.

19 days after the founding of the Council of Europe, West Germany adopted its constitution.

In it, we pledged to serve the peace of the world as an equal partner in a united Europe.

A pledge that never ends.

One year later, Germany joined the Council of Europe. But becoming an equal partner in a united Europe took us time.

It took the trust of our neighbours, of all of you.

It took the will of our citizens, of your citizens, to build and shape our democracies and your democracies – together from then on.

To be able to grow, democracies need a solid foundation of rules and values.

This is precisely what the Council of Europe, our Council of Europe, provides, forcing us to constantly question ourselves.

Because democracies are never complete, never finished – just like people.

They grow through institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights, where every single citizen can hold their government accountable for violating their rights.

When the Court was established in 1959, this was nothing short of a revolution in international law.

It reflected an entirely new understanding: that every individual enjoys the same rights, no matter where they were born, no matter what their gender, no matter what religion they have or who they love.

An understanding that is the exact opposite of the crude “race theories” of the Nazis.

But if we are honest, when people think of the strength of their constitutions, the strength of their democracies, many people do not think of the institutions of the Council of Europe.

Many even confuse, I would conjecture sometimes even in our parliaments, the Council of Europe with the European Union.

But the EU, a union of freedom, would be inconceivable without the Council of Europe.

And to be frank, especially to my EU friends, I believe this occasion, this year, is also an important opportunity to redouble our efforts to have the European Union officially join the European Convention on Human Rights.

A Convention which laid the foundation for so many other important Council of Europe documents.

Documents that prepared the way for a better life in our countries.

For example, and I think such examples can be found in many of our countries, the fact that it is punishable to beat your children in my country today results from the Social Charter of the Council of Europe.

And without the Istanbul Convention, also in Germany, women and girls would have less protection from domestic violence. Even until recently.

In German courts, the sentences of offenders who attack their partners were often lighter if the offender had had an intimate relationship with the victim before the crime. A clear contradiction of the Istanbul Convention.

Therefore, last June, the German Bundestag passed a new law explicitly including gender-specific motives as aggravating factors for the crime of domestic violence.


This does not only strengthen women’s rights, it also makes our democracies stronger. After all, and here I quote quite an elderly woman who I met in the winter of 2022 at the former “contact line” in Ukraine who said, “if women are not safe, no one is safe. Always remember that.”

And I do remember that. We all do.

Because women’s rights are a yardstick for the state of a democracy. For the state of our democracies.

And this is the strength of the Council of Europe. It makes our democracies stronger. It helps us grow, grow together as European democracies.

And if you listen to the two young delegates Maurizio and Nina, who just spoke to us so eloquently, it is precisely this belief that makes young people say today: Europe is my home.

However, 75 years after the founding of the Council of Europe, our way of life is under pressure as rarely before.

75 years ago, Winston Churchill said here in Strasbourg: “After 30 years of fighting, I’m confident that we have reached the end of nationalist wars.”

This hope has not come to fruition. And that’s why today is not only a day of gratitude and joy. It’s also a moment of self-reflection.

Russia’s war of aggression has brought suffering to millions of people in Ukraine and dealt a severe blow to the European peace order.

Many of you, especially our Eastern and Baltic partners, have been warning us about Russia’s behaviour for years.

But frankly, we did not listen carefully enough. Today, let me assure you, if Russia’s war has taught us one thing, it is that we cannot take our security, our freedom, for granted.

I’m sure that Putin not only expected Ukrainian resistance to collapse, but also our unity in pan-European institutions such as the Council of Europe.

But he miscalculated. We are not only standing united at Ukraine’s side, but we also showed the strength of the Council of Europe.

It’s not Ukraine that is isolated, it’s Russia. We have given a strong response to this war. We have excluded Putin’s Russia from the Council of Europe and assured Ukraine of our support.

But at the same time, our societies are under pressure from within. From nationalists who imprison human rights activists and censor free journalism.

From extremists who attack local politicians and spread hate on social media. From forces who want to roll back everything we have built together over the last 75 years.

And far too often we see how hate turns into violence.

We saw this yesterday, when Prime Minister Robert Fico was violently attacked.

Our thoughts are with him, his family and all of our Slovak friends. We will not accept such attacks on our democracies.

Ladies and gentlemen, as we see the threats to our European democratic values growing, we need to ask ourselves: how can we ensure the success of the European project for the next 75 years and beyond?

How can we strengthen the very institutions, such as the Venice Commission, for me the crown jewel for fortifying our democracies, known worldwide, that allow us to grow into stronger and better democracies every day?

Last year I talked to the judges of the European Court of Human Rights who told me how difficult it is for them to do their job. That the Court is lacking lawyers, clerks and administrators.

Take the “letter office”, where citizens submit their complaints. A whole room full of boxes of letters from floor to ceiling. Right now, more than 75,000 complaints by citizens are pending.

Citizens who put their trust in the Court, in us.

Therefore, I want to be clear. If we want this Court to serve as an effective early warning system, we have to listen when it sounds the alarm.

And that is why I call on all of us to adhere to the Court’s judgments, especially in cases where individuals have been unfairly imprisoned.

Autocrats from outside and demagogues from within have one thing in common: they see our democratic values as a weakness.

But they are wrong.

What could be stronger than the promise that a person has the right to a self-determined life?

A life in peace and freedom.

This promise is stronger than hate.

A promise built on the ruins of nationalism and fascism, 75 years ago.

A promise of joy. A promise of deep gratitude.

And a commitment that never ends.


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