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“Europe and the view from outside” — speech by Federal Minister Steinmeier at the “Perspectives on Europe” event at the Academy of the Arts in Berlin

02.06.2007 - Speech

— Check against delivery —

Mr President, dear Klaus,
Excellencies,
Assia Djebar,
Wang Hui,
Elias Koury,
Wole Soyinka,
Ms Maischberger,
Ladies and gentlemen,

“Wherever the idea of Europe and European is perceived as an intellectually secure concept, we are faced with either a banality of spirit or a need to rapidly embark on practical discussions.” I admit that this could have been uttered by a modern-day politician who has grown old in the service of the European idea.

Nothing could be further from the truth! It is an almost word-for-word quotation from Hugo von Hofmannsthal, warning against the illusion of an immutable Europe more than one hundred years ago.

And now? Let us take a moment to reflect on how surprisingly relevant this warning still sounds.

Has so little happened in the meantime? On the contrary, you will say, and I wouldn't contradict you, a lot has happened. Europe has become much more real in every respect since Hofmannsthal's day. But not because the concept and definition are now much more stable, but because we have acquired the confidence to be able to live and work with concepts which have to be reassessed from day to day.

For this reason we now want to embark on an exchange of views which does not have to stay within the confines of directly practice-oriented decisions. Nor is there any room here today for banality of spirit. The Academy of the Arts is exactly the right place to bring together politicians and their critical interlocutors – authors and culture professionals in the widest sense.

Some politicians find it difficult to respect the distance between culture and political practice, but this distance will and must continue to exist. It is understandable and desirable that art in principle needs to be free from the dictates of current affairs. However, that does not have to involve either restraint or abstention from politics. No criticism can be levelled at artists and authors who adopt a position on current affairs in their community because they regard them as res publica, as matters which concern them. We need them. We have needed them all the more since the tragedy of the 20th century, when politics and culture became enemies, as Imre Kertész reminded us only yesterday.

We are well aware that we suffer from blind spots, not only as politicians but also more generally as Europeans, and that is precisely why we desire this exchange. Discussion often starts out as a communication attempt between insiders and outsiders, theory and practice, interests and idealism. But with a bit of luck and determination it enables us to break down existing barriers and embrace global responsibility and the joint search for a way forward.

The task of cultural relations policy, maybe even of cultural policy as a whole, and certainly the task of foreign policy, is to protect and promote the very creative potential that our differences harbour. We can foster peace, stability and wellbeing more effectively when we see differences not as a misfortune, but as an opportunity.

We do not have to approve of everything others say, but we ought to try and understand where they are coming from. And since understanding is not always easy, we should at least ensure that the basic conditions for understanding are in place by respecting others and questioning them on their views.

These are not merely abstract considerations, as you might suspect. Take the discussions between Europe and Russia over the past few days and weeks. Without respect for national traditions and traumas caused by history, without a sense of these deeper layers running through every conversation, we would not be able to conduct such discussions responsibly.

Yesterday, in his moving speech, Imre Kertész spoke of the “schools of bitterness” which the Central and Eastern European people endured, and of the tearing open of ancient national wounds. That is also the deeper reason why I was so committed to calming the rapidly escalating conflict between Estonia and Russia – because Germany's history is very closely linked to that of Russia, the Baltic states and many other European countries, since the last century also through the tragedy of war and persecution, and because, as German Foreign Minister, I personally am able and indeed keen to approach my interlocutors not only with knowledge of this history, but also with respect for their traditions and culture.

In the words of Milan Kundera, “All nations of Europe endure the same common fate, but each nation has a different perspective on it, coloured by its particular experiences.” And that is why I believe there is no alternative to serious dialogue. Our responsibility for this persists even when results are slow in coming. Speechlessness or, worse, refusal to engage in dialogue, exacerbates conflicts. We have seen proof of this all too often in the turbulent history of international relations.

That is not only true of Europe. It has been my experience everywhere I have travelled. The feeling that we will probably never understand others completely is a unifying rather than a separating factor, at least when we can appreciate the creativity inherent in diversity. We certainly cannot generate this kind of awareness on our own, and certainly not solely through political discussion.

Rather, we need cultural exchange, which gives us first-hand experience of this potential, because that is the best way to reach people's hearts and minds directly. And our task as politicians is to provide the space, or more accurately spaces, in which this can take place – spaces in which we define ourselves as part of Old Europe and make ourselves understood, across the entire spectrum of our political and cultural modes of expression!

In practical terms, that calls us to invest in our cultural infrastructure abroad. Consequently, since I assumed office we have carefully but consistently been overhauling our cultural presence abroad. This includes preserving, reforming and wherever possible expanding our cultural flagship, the Goethe Institute. From next year we will add another priority – education. Our schools abroad are an all-too-frequently forgotten asset! We intend to strengthen them and combine them with a new international school element which will also boost our presence in areas where we are not yet represented. In conjunction with our financial support for the expansion of school systems in Africa and Asia through local ownership, this is intended to promote the intercultural learning community we so urgently need.

And when I say this, I am consciously thinking of the situation in Afghanistan. What Europe and Germany and many others are doing there in the way of humanitarian and cultural reconstruction should be neither devalued nor abandoned. And anyone who has seen the young Afghan girls and boys who, thanks to our commitment, once again have the chance to learn in schools and thus the prospect of a civilized life can imagine what it would mean to let these people down.

Culture is the best way to understand what is close to our hearts. The numerous talks with schoolchildren and students I meet on my travels, the discussions I have had, most recently with Marco Kreuzpaintner in Mexico, who, as a German producer has made an American film about the impact of globalization, or the moving poetry readings Daniel Kehlmann gave on my first South American trip all convey very divergent ideas of what is the right way to live. Artists and works of art, too, prompt unusual interpretations and associations, are sometimes even misunderstood or met with incomprehension. That has never prevented fruitful exchange. And we should do everything we can to preserve and expand these kinds of cultural opportunities. At the opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair I stressed that notion with reference to Amartya Sen, and Carlos Fuentes yesterday reemphasized that an identity which excludes others locks us up in a cultural prison. And you'll notice that this automatically leads us to the highly political question concerning the justification and role of defining cultures.

I personally believe that our task is to have no fear of diversity and not to isolate ourselves from people from other cultures. Instead, we should listen, understand where possible and allow ourselves to be inspired by the insights we glean. In so doing we can remain self-assured, and if we have to reject another way of life for ourselves, within our own limits, we should do so calmly, without getting excited.

In Europe we have plenty of experience with doctrines which stake a claim to the absolute truth, with formulas purported to save humankind once and for all. I respect everyone who strives to live rightly, but we are aware that there are also convictions against which we humbly and vigorously have to uphold the rule of law and the principle of civil liberties – as Old Europe knows! This expressly includes artistic freedom.

Now, civil liberties by no means always promise universal happiness. Sometimes they really have to be tolerated, not only by minorities but also by the majority of society, and not only in cases of disparaging insults or excessively bad taste. But viewed as a whole, tolerance generally gets us further than its opposite, as long as we do not tolerate its bitterest enemies.

This European creed is nothing new. Over the centuries, entire generations have fought to make it applicable in law, and we owe them our respect.

But now, speaking as a foreign minister, I have to say that we Europeans, and perhaps the whole of the so-called western world, have become rather accustomed to people everywhere accepting our habits and mindsets as being right and sensible and adopting them. But this isn't always necessarily so. We have to relearn how to convince others, with more patience, more effectiveness and fewer contradictions than we sometimes show at the moment. This skill has been somewhat neglected due to our economic hegemony in the last century, with its inherent tendency also to stake its claim on cultural dominance.

The desire to show the necessary empathy in interacting with other cultures is less widespread than the refusal to do so. And this is despite the fact that openness for the world outside and interest in other lifestyles has a long tradition in European culture. Consider how many ideas, how much of value has come to Europe from East Asia, Africa and Latin America – how many sources of wisdom, inspiration and insight about how we can be more considerate to ourselves and our environment and about networking international and intercultural thought. Ilija Trojanow put it very aptly recently: “If we want to arm ourselves for the future, we ought to regard our borders as areas of confluence … For the things that separate us are always merely a temporary difference, a fleeting moment in history.”

Allow me to make a second observation from my perspective as Foreign Minister, which in the final analysis is not confined to foreign policy and therefore hopefully that much more plausible. True security can only be achieved through a form of dialogue in which we acknowledge differences but do not stop searching for common ground.

We cannot create it by refusing to engage in dialogue because we are already utterly convinced of our values and opinions, for instance. Whoever has been privileged to see the world first hand, whoever has caught even a glimpse of the rich culture of Iran, the beauty of Arabic poetry, whoever has seen with their own eyes the magnificent cultural monuments along the Silk Road will no longer try to prove that their own traditions are necessarily more enduring than those of others, and they will also be less patronizing.

This kind of cultural openness is essential if we are to shape what is after all our common future on this planet together.

German listeners, take note. I therefore believe that culture does not belong under the heading “Living in security”, one point in the current platform of a major German political party, which, incidentally, is not mine. And, let me be quite frank, I consider it wrong to believe or expect that “cultural identity offers security to the people in our country”.

“Cultural security” seems to me to be more a description of a nightmare or state of fear than a well thought-out expectation.

“Cultural openness”, in contrast, can be the outcome and the mission of European history.

Let us take a look at this European history. From the very beginning, this continent made life difficult for itself and others. Animosity has flared up between cities and various forms of rule, between faiths, between countries and regions, since the Classical Age. Europe's history is marked by strife, and this strife was not always motivated by noble intentions. Time and again Europeans, and with them their intellectuals and philosophers, have asked themselves, “Why are we as we are? Why do we keep on making ourselves and others miserable?” This question plagued those who paused to reflect, and the answers they found led to a process we call Enlightenment and in this connection to something else – the love of utopia. Since time immemorial, people in Europe had dreamed of the ideal state, the ideal society. Often people surmised that this utopia really existed somewhere beyond the blue horizon, and some sailors even claimed to have discovered it.

And people tried to bring about the ideal world by force, only to find that the sense of happiness experienced while devising simplifications and radical solutions did not endure, and above all, did not lead to happiness. European history is full of examples of how not to do it.

Europe never had and still does not have a convincing answer to every question, but it does have, after a long history of suffering, inflicted both on itself and on others, certain convictions.

Through centuries of European wars, civil wars and revolutions we have learned that a little more willingness to embrace uncertainty makes us immune to absolutist pretensions and totalitarianism. This attitude has not always come out on top. Too often it has been defeated, resulting in a terrible amount of suffering.

When all is said and done, reason never celebrated a spectacular victory. But plausible alternatives were lacking, so in the end it won after all. With the secular state under the rule of law we have created a framework which allows us to change while retaining our self-confidence, but it involves a daily struggle.

In one of his moments of poetic genius, Peter Rühmkorf produced the sentence, “Remain shakeable, and resist!” I have no qualms about taking that as a poetic expression of a very European tenet.

Looking back on 50 years of day-to-day activity in the European Union, let me add that we do not resist by promoting a European homogeneity and identity which pretends to be unquestionably superior. Unity can only be found in diversity.

Blaise Pascal once said that unity without diversity is no use to others, while diversity without unity is harmful for us. That is true, and it means that there will be no end to our struggles, negotiations and efforts to convince others. But as far as I can see we are fairly competent when it comes to peacefully allowing opposing views to stand side by side, explaining positions and conducting amicable but tough negotiations. Conflicts of interest exist both within and outside Europe – differing views on the distribution of burdens, the fight for advantages and of course clashes over money. Since the Peloponnesian War, some things in Europe have changed, but not all. However, we manage to deal with our differences rationally and peacefully, because we prevent them from becoming matters of principle or even striking a pseudo-religious note. We say, “Never say never,” and some flare-ups will always be unavoidable, but at least we know that there is strength in remaining calm.

Our system has its flaws, and maybe it appears to be more riddled with flaws than it actually is. For it does not offer any absolute truths or unconditional insights. Freedom, prosperity and justice are never irrevocably secured. Conflicts between the values of freedom and security, between the rights of ownership and free personal development, between respect for religion and respect for the law are handled differently in different European countries and undergo continuous adjustment.

But precisely this could be a strength of Europe in the world. Although we often stand in our own way, we have learned how to live with this. We know, as Sten Nadolny said a year ago, “There are neither political nor religious paths which lead indisputably and directly to happiness. Every path we embark upon must be regularly reviewed and corrected if it is not to end inevitably in unhappiness.”

As long as we take this to heart, we will not get bogged down in selfishness and com­mercialization and a one-dimensional way of life, as many people within and outside Europe fear, for nothing will stop us from seeing this danger and keeping an eye on it.

Incidentally, that is also the reason why we are still working to preserve the substance of the European constitutional treaty. I admit it is not perfect. It is like us Europeans. But I also say that the compromises it reaches, the new paths and goals, are greater and better than what we have at the moment!

But even the European constitution, or whatever the reform package will be called, will only be one stage on the way towards European integration. To take our efforts further we urgently need a view from outside, and that is why I am looking forward to today's discussions. The guests and audience here represent the people in the world who are asking, “Where do we go from here? What are the pitfalls along the way? How can we make the most of our common chances?” Those are our questions, too.

I would like to ask the artists, authors and intellectuals once again not to abandon the politicians or, more importantly, the people. It goes without saying that you will never sub­ordinate your art to the dictates of the political zeitgeist, its agendas and the assorted media. And we would not want you to do so, for only the above-mentioned banality of spirit would ask that of you.

On the contrary, we need your autonomy and hope you will keep a close eye on what is happening precisely because art and literature can anticipate, fictionalize and cause creative chaos. The reason reality needs your help is because you can see, produce and describe things which go beyond day-to-day life. Feel free to keep a careful watch on what we are doing.

Though I assure you that politics, the fate of the community, even at global level, is by no means such a banal, rigged affair as antipolitical smalltalk would often have us believe.

Politics is not only about the routine distribution of resources, and certainly not only about administering and retaining power. Contrary to what some deliberately truncated media statements imply, we do indeed try to find solutions, both for the future of our own societies and for global threats. The fact that in doing so we always try to reach a majority consensus should not provoke outrage in a democracy. And if the arduous quest for understanding and compromise, as we are currently experiencing in climate protection policy, does not immediately bear fruit, that does not in my opinion devalue the efforts made to attain it. Some people seem not to understand this, those who routinely protest about international conferences as such rather than in response to the topics and issues they address. In short, the claim that politics is not about politics ought not to reap approving nods. That statement is as right and as wrong as the claim that business is not about business and journalism is not about truth.

Anyone who doesn't believe a word of what I am saying is strongly urged to take a closer look, or at least to not always focus on the same point – in short, to shift their perspective on Europe.

I therefore want to conclude by reiterating the request I made yesterday evening. Let us share your perspective, your opinions and your counsel. I assure you that we have invited you here because we want to listen to you and are interested in hearing your insights and ideas. And last but not least, because we know we have a lot to learn. That is one thing all of us here have in common, and no one can afford to do without it.

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