Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the Halma Initiative presentation in Berlin

11.05.2007 - Speech

Dr Hamm,
Dr Janetzki,
Mr Zajc,
Ilija Trojanow,
Ladies and gentlemen!

Timothy Garton Ash recently bemoaned that “Europe has lost the plot”. The people don't know why the European Union exists and what it is good for. What we urgently need, according to Ash, is a new narrative.

If Europe has supposedly lost the plot, what could be better than creating a new web, a new network?

And if we urgently need a new narrative for Europe, what could be more apt than linking European literary hubs?

Precisely that is what this Initiative is all about. Halma is designed to give writers, editors, translators and those who promote literature the chance of working in a more “European” setting. Halma seeks to establish a network based on a shared belief in the European ideal, across geographical and cultural boundaries, with the aim of fostering joint work in Europe and on Europe. In my eyes, this is an approach that can enhance and expand our awareness of Europe. There are strong literary traditions in all our countries; each nation has its epos and its traumas that resurface time and again, and that exert a strong influence on current affairs, because they are embedded deep in the people's identity.

This is not an entirely abstract notion, as you might suspect. Take the discussions between Estonia and Russia over the past few days. Without an awareness of these identity issues, which are rooted in Europe's past and present, we are unable to understand such discussions, let alone respond to them in a responsible manner. This is why, when faced with the rapidly escalating conflict, I was personally so committed to calming the situation. Because Germany's history and culture have all too often linked us closely and tragically to those two countries. And because both sides realized that my suggestions were made with all due respect and even a little humility towards their history and culture.

This also demonstrates once again that we cannot forge a common awareness solely or perhaps even primarily by means of political talks. What is needed is cultural understanding, which releases the creative potential inherent in these differences and, yet more importantly, lets us experience this creative potential first-hand.

Halma is thus in my opinion an exemplary European initiative. It enables leading figures from national literary scenes to work together at a range of venues in Europe, to discuss and revisit their aesthetic and ethical positions regarding perceptions of foreigners as friends and equal partners in the European project. Or to put it more succinctly: Halma wants to nurture literature that is truly European.

Halma is thus also breaking new cultural-policy ground. Differences and contrasts are necessary, fruitful and sometimes even liberating for our cultures. They are also vital if international exchange is to open works of art up to new interpretations and meanings, so that they are truly understood.

Culture is therefore not about cautiously gauging differences or building sheltering walls. As a foreign-policy man I can tell you that true security is only created through dialogue in which we identify our differences and seek common ground. For this reason, approaching other people with genuine curiosity and being open to other cultures is essential if we are to shape our common future together.

I therefore believe that culture does not belong under the heading “Living in security”, where it has been put in the current platform of one of the major German political parties. Rather, culture belongs under the heading “Shaping tomorrow's world”.

The task of cultural policy is not, as this same party platform proclaims, “cultural security”, but rather cultural openness.

The best literary illustration of this thesis comes perhaps from the pen of Ilija Trojanow, whom I am particularly pleased to see in the Foreign Office for the first time. In his debut novel he put it thus: “The world is still large. So large, that help will be found.” It is precisely this view that should be behind our cultural activities in a globalized world.

But we will only grasp this fact if we are curious about other cultures and open to them, if we broaden rather than limit our own cultural horizons.

As a network of narratives, literature is uniquely able to act both as a depository of memory and a storehouse for the future. Halma is building on this unique ability, and we all want to support it, in Germany, Europe and beyond.

This is also true of many people who have moved to Europe from abroad. Migration and exchange have brought the nations of Europe, including Germany, not only economic gain, but also cultural riches.

I remember well the dinner at which I first met Ilija Trojanow. I had invited a representative group of cultural celebrities who are active in Germany, and who have enriched our culture with new elements drawn from their intercultural biographies. The star dancer Vladimir Malakhov was there, as was actress Jasmin Tabatabai, the musician and Tom Jones producer Mousse T. and many others. All are part of the German cultural scene, and it is precisely that which in my view makes out the special strength of German culture today.

This is precisely the reason why we in the Federal Foreign Office pursue our cultural relations and education policy – because we know that especially in a globalized world and especially in Europe and our country, it is inadequate to view cultural identity as an immutable given.

With its cultural policy dimension, and its literary “rapprochement through interconnection”, Halma is following the best European traditions. For this is precisely the leitmotif of European unification: working together to overcome nation-centred cultural, economic, social and administrative divides. This is the “de facto solidarity” that I referred to two days ago at the Europe Forum, using the words of Robert Schuman.

I would like to mention a second reason why I find the Halma Initiative so important. In my opening speech at the Foreign Office Conference on Culture last autumn, I hoped that the Federal Foreign Office would do more to serve as a “docking station” for cultural initiatives. And that it would put our foreign policy expertise, our web of missions abroad, at the service of cultural experts, artists, professionals and promoters. This call seems to have been heeded, as demonstrated by the cooperation today between the Robert Bosch Foundation, the Literary Colloquium Berlin and the Federal Foreign Office.

Halma does not only want to establish a literary network, but is of itself a network of private and public partners, who have joined their strengths, qualities and differences across many European countries and locations.

Our support of the Halma Initiative should therefore not end with tonight's event. On the contrary, the Federal Foreign Office should and will help to forge the network of narratives.

In practical terms, this means that we too will make available a writer's grant out of our budget. I would like to express a wish regarding the use of this grant. I am familiar with Halma's goals, and am aware that the countries of southern and western Europe are perhaps not yet sufficiently integrated into the Halma network. I would thus be very pleased if our German grant could be used to strengthen ties between Portugal and Slovenia – in reflection of the present inauguratory Trio Presidency.

Through our cultural relations and education policy, we ourselves want to work on cultural networks. For this reason I would like to seize this opportunity to mention another event at which we Europeans could learn more about ourselves from “outside” literature. I have arranged with the President of the Akademie der Künste (Academy of the Arts) that on 1-2 June, Assia Djebar, Carlos Fuentes, Wole Soyinka, Wang Hui and Elias Khoury will turn their attention to Europe and with European artists and intellectuals such as Ilija Trojanow, Imre Kertesz, György Konrad, Andrzej Stasiuk and Mario Adorf, will ponder the question “What is a European?”

I hope that this will lead to a conversation between “Europe” and “the outside world”, which draws attention to the blind spots in our self-perception, lets us gain new insights and is not afraid to look outside to a global community of shared responsibility. I believe that this is fully in the spirit of the European initiative presented here today.

Thank you.

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