“Towards a European ”Ostpolitik“ – Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Steinmeier at a panel discussion hosted by the Willy Brandt Foundation

04.03.2008 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Wolfgang Thierse,

Egon Bahr,

Elmar Brok,

Ladies and gentlemen,

“To me, Europe was and still is incomplete without its East.” Those, as you know, are Willy Brandt's own words.

So a Foundation that bears his name is a good place, I feel, to discuss today's topic: Europe's relations with its neighbours to the east.

More than perhaps anyone else, Willy Brandt stands for an active policy of peace, a policy of détente – and reconciliation with our eastern neighbours.

It was for this that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971. And to my friend Egon Bahr let me say that you shared in this Prize, too, I believe, for you worked very closely with Willy Brandt on the conceptual basis of this policy and translating it into political reality. So I am delighted that you are participating in our discussion this evening.

What this policy in fact achieved – as is now recognized also by those who criticized it at the time – was to make peace in Europe, despite the difficulties, a degree more secure. For the democracy movements in Eastern Europe it created new possibilities, new scope for action. It was a key factor, too, in finally ending the confrontation between the two blocs.

We should remind ourselves of this time and time again and next year especially, the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall!

Today the Cold War is history. Many countries of the former eastern bloc are now members of the EU and NATO. And with our other neighbours in the east we enjoy closer ties than ever before in the history of Europe.

Nevertheless, we are bound to recognize that not everything which in the euphoria of the early nineties seemed so close at hand, so nearly within grasp has in fact been achieved.

Let us cast our minds back. According to the Charter of Paris for A New Europe adopted in 1990, there would now dawn “a new era of democracy, peace and unity”.

A just, pan-European peace order extending from the Atlantic to Vladivostok – this great goal that German, European and American leaders had been pursuing since the end of World War II was at last to be realized.

A peace order founded on common interests, common values and common security. The road leading there, however, has proved much stonier and thornier that some perhaps imagined.

How many times have we seen outdated attitudes take over yet again! On numerous occasions – as I'm sure my friend Egon Bahr will agree – we've seen what a long shadow the Cold War casts even today. Far too often prickly rhetoric or open confrontation are preferred to dialogue and mutual trust.

In the light of new tensions and unresolved conflicts, some even doubt whether this goal – a pan-European peace order – is in any sense realistic. It would be naive of course to ignore these difficulties. But let me state quite categorically: we must remain firmly committed to this goal!

In this age of globalization there is to my mind no alternative, given the major challenges that lie ahead. Climate protection, energy and resource security, demographics, the fight against terrorism and other threats – on all these there is an urgent need for joint action.

That is why I believe that today, too, building a “peace order” encompassing both our transatlantic allies and our eastern neighbours is a joint task, a shared responsibility.

And when there's talk of a European “Ostpolitik”, I make clear that this and nothing else is the framework within which it must be developed.

Today more than ever that requires a firm foundation of dialogue and cooperation, of mutual respect, trust and understanding. And it also requires close liaison with our transatlantic partners.

Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr stand for the tradition of an “Ostpolitik” that strove to achieve just that. That is a tradition we want to build on.

Anyone with such aspirations, however, should treat the latest headlines with a certain reserve. Especially given our European perceptions of Russia, that's important to remember. Day-to-day events clearly provide ample reason to criticize Russia's domestic policies.

But to focus on that to the exclusion of all else would be to waste opportunities and leave development potential untapped. In much the same vein Urs Schoettli recently commented in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung:

“In today's sensation-loving world people have not only become more forgetful but are also no longer capable very often of properly grasping the significance of events. Just think how quickly Europe relapsed into eurocratic routine after the demise of the Soviet Union, instead of welcoming Russia's great culture and civilization after generations of isolation back into the European fold to make its full contribution to the common good of the old continent.”


But let's get down to brass tacks.

Russia has had its vote. You all know the results of the presidential elections on Sunday and you are also aware of the criticism surrounding these elections. True enough, one could imagine the voters having more choice at the ballot-box. The impression from a distance is that Russia could and should be more self-confident in this respect, more laid-back about democratic manifestations on the part of civil society.

But let's also not forget that barely a year ago everyone outside Russia was convinced Putin would violate or amend the constitution to remain in power. While he certainly had the means to do so, he chose not to pursue this option. There may be all kinds of reasons for his choice. But it's certainly not without relevance to what we are here to discuss!

The really important thing – which was true before the elections and is still true, I believe, now they are over – is that Russia is and remains an indispensable strategic partner if a pan‑European peace order is to become reality.

For this we need Russia! We need Russia to share responsibility for security and stability – on matters of energy security, arms control or the fight against terrorism. We need Russia, too, if we are to create long-term stability in the Middle East or the Western Balkans.

But it's not just we who need Russia. The reverse is also true – Russia needs us as well. Its modernization agenda is a gigantic challenge. Its infrastructure is run-down, its investment needs are huge, it's excessively dependent on commodity exports and deindustrialization and demographic disaster are looming.

In all these areas the Russian Government needs to act urgently. And Russian leaders know their natural partner for this modernization project is Europe!

Already today 50% of Russia's trade is with the EU. Some 80% of its energy exports go to the EU. And over 75% of the country's foreign investment comes from the EU.

This interdependence creates opportunities for both sides. So turning our backs on each other is the wrong course, I believe. And while the elections can be criticized, of course, I would point out that Dmitry Medvedev, the future president, has made clear he is committed to a wholesale programme of national modernization.

On a recent visit to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia he noted that the rule of law must become one of the most important values in Russia, adding that freedom in all its manifestations must be at the heart of government action.

He also said – and there, too, we listened very carefully – he would like to see a renewed partnership with the West.

To that I say: let's take the future president at his word! Let's take up his offer of partnership! Transforming Russia – that's what he wants but it's also what we want. Interaction is a good way to make progress here – without losing sight of our values and standards.

What steps are needed to make progress?

Firstly, we need to discuss frankly those security policy issues that have caused irritations and tensions between the West and Russia.

You are well aware how hard we are struggling to preserve and adapt the CFE Treaty. You are also aware of the controversy surrounding the US missile defence plans. My position is this: if what we want is an enduring European peace order, we have to work very seriously to reach solutions agreed by all concerned.

And I'm firmly convinced such solutions are possible. Despite the many difficulties which I don't underestimate, ultimately this is about something that threatens us all jointly. That means joint responses are possible and indeed necessary, and the NATO-Russia Council is the right place to formulate them.

Secondly, as soon as possible the EU and Russia should open negotiations on a new partnership and cooperation agreement.

The negotiations will certainly not be easy. But they'll be an opportunity to develop new perspectives in our relationship. This could mean closer cooperation with Russia in the sphere of the European Security and Defence Policy. Other possibilities include an energy partnership on equal terms and, once Russia joins the WTO, also a free trade area.

Thirdly, we should intensify our dialogue with Russia on global issues and the challenges of tomorrow's world.

We need a common agenda that consciously seeks to intensify cooperation in areas of key importance for our common future: climate and energy policy, a concerted effort to enhance energy efficiency, health policy, the demographic problem, education and research.

We can build here on the foundations laid by the Charter of Paris I mentioned earlier on. That was our common post-Cold War agenda. At the time security policy was our foremost concern. Those were the issues we had to come to grips with.

And of course many of them are still highly topical. Today, however, we are faced with entirely new issues – some I've already mentioned. That's why I believe our common agenda needs updating! And perhaps, I may add, we even need something like a new charter. In my view anyway the Russians are tremendously interested in working with us on these new issues especially.

And Dmitry Medvedev is of course closely identified with them. When the Berlin Wall collapsed, he was only 24 years old. He belongs to the new generation of political leaders whose outlook was not shaped by the Cold War.

Infrastructure, health, energy efficiency, education, a modern financial system – these are the priorities he repeatedly cites. This is where he's looking for cooperation. So let's take him up on this, I say, and see what we can offer!

Fourthly, we need new momentum also in the difficult discussion concerning our common past. Russia's cooperation with Poland and the Baltic states is associated, I know, with a legacy that brings painful memories to mind.

But precisely for this reason would it not be a good idea to try a fresh approach? 2009 will be the 70th anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Are we perhaps now at the stage that historians from Russia, Poland, Germany and the Baltic could embark together on a critical and self-critical analysis of the different national perceptions that still shape the way we view our common past?

These, after all, are often the underlying reasons for persistent reservations and new tensions. To my mind it is vitally important that we debate such issues in a climate of mutual trust, discuss them frankly and honestly. Only then will they gradually become less painful and wounding.


Russia is undoubtedly the EU's largest neighbour. But how far the project to create a pan-European peace order is successful will depend also on what happens in Ukraine, in Belarus, in Moldova and the southern Caucasus.

You know how hard we worked during our EU Presidency to give the European Neighbourhood Policy a new dynamic in an eastern direction.

What we're offering – as we've made clear to our eastern neighbours – is more than the progressive opening of our internal market. We want a comprehensive partnership, we want them to fully share in the benefits of a peaceful and prosperous Europe.

And let me state very plainly that our offer also applies to Belarus – if it pursues the path of reform and improves the human rights situation. The recent releases of political prisoners are a first step in the right direction. And more must follow! But if Belarus continues down this path – which means also dealing fairly with the Opposition – that will make it possible for us, too, to again contemplate forging closer links.

There's another country, as you know, that plays a prominent role here – Ukraine. A country with a population of 47 million, in terms of territory the second largest in Europe. Ukraine is a key country, of that there can be no doubt. And if the reforms there go well, this will have a positive impact on its neighbours, too.

Stability remains a problem, however. The elections on 30 September did produce a new parliamentary majority, but the constitutional conflict between President, Government and Parliament has yet to be resolved. And whether the new partners in the Government are truly committed to the thorny path of reform will become clear over the summer.

That path is the right one, beyond any doubt. And has the backing of the international community.

The WTO has given the green light for Ukraine's accession. And there's progress, too, in strengthening ties with the EU. During our EU Presidency, as you know, we initiated negotiations on an Enhanced Agreement with the EU. This, I am sure, will radically transform our relationship – and even lead to the establishment of a comprehensive free trade area.

As far as closer links with NATO are concerned, you're familiar with current developments in this debate. Our position is clear. We support Ukraine on its chosen path. But we also believe this process must not be allowed to undermine our efforts to create a pan-European peace order. Rushed decisions are no use to anyone – including Ukraine, whose population has been generally sceptical to date. The important thing is to create an environment that will allow Ukraine to further strengthen its ties with NATO without opening up new fields of conflict.

I've discussed with President Yushchenko very frankly and seriously whether pushing through the Membership Action Plan for Ukraine and Georgia – a plan supported by some and viewed with scepticism by others – would produce any real benefits for Europe's security and stability. Or whether the sensitively managed further development of NATO-Ukraine relations would limit the risk of creating an excessively large number of losers – both domestically and internationally.

At the Bucharest Summit this could mean that while the MAP remains beyond us, we make clear our interest in further developing this relationship stage by stage and concluding interim agreements.


Promoting peace and stability in our neighbourhood also means paying greater attention to regions we have perhaps neglected in the past.

I'm thinking here of the Black Sea region and Central Asia – two regions with tremendous potential for cooperation and which were a focus of European foreign policy during our Presidency.

As far as the Black Sea region is concerned, this was an entirely logical step, for with the accession to the EU of Bulgaria and Romania, the EU's border moved right up to the Black Sea!

So the EU is now a player in a region that is not only in great demand as an energy and transport corridor but also serves as an important bridge to the Middle East and also the Caspian Sea. We want to make the most of the opportunities that offers.

But now we're direct neighbours of the Black Sea region, we're also much closer to its unresolved conflicts: Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia or right now Armenia. We're all familiar with these conflicts, which also have an immense potential for destabilizing areas well beyond the region itself. y

That's another reason why we've taken the initiative here. Our strategy was and is to promote regional cooperation and strengthen mutual trust. That's the only way to get some element of movement into these frozen conflicts.

Where Central Asia is concerned, we're building on Europe's many centuries of contact with this region. But what we've in mind is not some romantic revival of the traditions of the Silk Road.

This is a region with immense energy resources. A region that is a major cultural crossroads between Russia, Europe, Asia and China. A region that for the most part practises a moderate form of Islam – as yet anyway. It's also a region with not exactly easy neighbours – Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

We are aware of the problems in each one of the five Central Asian countries. Despite that, we decided to go ahead and see what kind of cooperation we can offer. For if we don't – others won't wait till we've got our act together!

During our Presidency we developed an EU strategy for this region envisaging cooperation over a broad spectrum: an energy partnership, expansion of trade relations, joint action to control drugs, combat terrorism, strengthen the rule of law, promote education and training and make effective use of water resources.

The implementation of this ambitious programme is already under way. At the latest at the European Council in June we'll jointly take stock of what's been achieved. And our French friends, who will be taking over the EU Presidency for the following six months, have already announced their intention to strengthen EU-Central Asia links still further. They can count on our support!

Ladies and gentlemen,

Sometimes we need to look back a few years to grasp the true measure of what's been accomplished. Where Europe and relations with our eastern neighbours is concerned, a glance at the political map of 1970 suffices to gauge the magnitude of this achievement.

The scale of the changes that have happened since then is simply mind-boggling. At that time Polish and Czech intellectuals were still dreaming wistfully of a place in the heart of Europe. And in Riga or Vilnius the idea of national independence could be talked about only in whispers, in secret.

Today all that is history, the pain and suffering caused by the Iron Curtain, the division of Europe, the confrontation of two opposing blocs. Today these countries are now members of the EU.

I believe that if any policy deserves to be called successful, it must be the “Ostpolitik”, the policy of détente pursued by Willy Brandt, Egon Bahr, Walter Scheel and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, which – despite stiff resistance – ultimately made all this possible.

A modern European “Ostpolitik” – today that means closer ties with Ukraine, partnership with Russia, democratization of Belarus, cooperation with Central Asia and harmonious relations in the Black Sea region and the Caucasus.

It also means close cooperation with the United States and our other allies to realize these common goals.

And it means above all creating a common area of peace and prosperity extending from the Atlantic coast to Siberia – or even from Vancouver to Vladivostok.

A dream? Yes, perhaps. For the moment anyway. But more than that, a real possibility – and a tremendous challenge for Europe! To rise to this challenge we need a clear-sighted policy that combines a focus on strategic goals with a sound grasp of what is feasible.

Or to quote words with which we're all familiar, we “need to have an eye for new dimensions and the energy to cope with them ... a healthy mixture of faith in the future and sober realism”.

Here, too, I believe we should take Willy Brandt's advice.

Related content

Top of page