Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Academy of Sciences, Budapest, on 2 June 2009

02.06.2009 - Speech

President Palinkás,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Twenty years ago in Europe “time exploded” in the words of Czech writer Jáchym Topol – a feeling shared by everyone who experienced the watershed events of 1989 at first hand.

It was the end of an epoch – and the start of a new era. From today's perspective, what happened in 1989 and 1990 is both history and present reality. Or to quote Barbara Tuchmann, it's “history that's still smouldering”.

History that we recall with gratitude – and which continues to make demands on us.

Twenty years ago all over Europe there was a sense of heady expectation such as had never been seen before. What people yearned and craved for was freedom. Even now that yearning is a source of strength that stands us in good stead, when we ask, namely, what lessons 1989 holds for the period we're living through right now. What hopes perhaps have yet to be fulfilled? What still needs to be done in Europe?

There can hardly be a better place for reflecting on these matters than Budapest. It was here in Hungary that the first cracks in the Iron Curtain appeared in summer 1989. Here for the first time a gap was cut in the border fence that separated one half of Europe from the other.

The images of that moment were relayed around the world. All of us can still vividly recall how Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn and his Austrian counterpart Alois Mock together cut through the wire fence at Sopron. How hundreds of East German holidaymakers escaped to Austria through a gate in the fence, which had been left standing ajar. How thrilled and exhilarated people were over their new-found freedom.

These scenes developed their own dynamic, generating ever new waves of people hoping to escape to freedom. It was not long before the refugee crisis in Hungary and later also in Poland and Czechoslovakia became a crisis of the GDR regime.

The importance of the Hungarian Government's courageous decision to open the borders for the course of events in Germany can scarcely be overestimated.

That's something we Germans will never forget! That's also why I am here today. Germany says “Danke”!

For had developments in our neighbouring countries to the east taken a different turn, we know what happened on 9 November 1989 would never have been possible.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall on that day now symbolizes for people all over the world the end of the brutal division of Europe. But the fact remains that, as Karl Schlögel pointed out, the Fall of the Wall simply “made official” or endorsed what had already been decided elsewhere.

The seeds of the peaceful revolution that in 1989 finally engulfed the whole of Eastern and Central Europe had germinated long before – in 1956 in Hungary, in the Prague Spring of 1968, among the supporters of Charter 77, the freedom agenda drawn up by the great Vaclav Havel and his companions in the struggle. They had germinated among the marchers at the impressive Solidarnosc protest rallies in Poland, protests that even the 1981 proclamation of martial law failed to suppress.

It was Adam Michnik's slogan of “dialogue, not confrontation” that in 1989 paved the way for the round-table talks that led to the first semi-free elections, whose 20th anniversary falls this week. A few weeks later Poland had its first non-Communist Government headed by Tadeusz Mazowiecki.

As in Hungary, the developments in Poland had an impact that was felt far beyond the country's own borders.

Within two years of this annus mirabilis 1989, some nine Communist dictatorships, including even the Soviet regime, had imploded across Europe.

That was certainly not Gorbachev's intention, yet without his reform agenda such an outcome would have been totally unthinkable. His abandonment of the Brezhnev Doctrine and his pursuit of glasnost and perestroika – however challenged these policies may have been – opened up new prospects for the whole of Eastern Europe.

No discussion of what led up to 1989 would be complete, however, without mentioning the policy of détente. Of course the West was not the driving force behind the events unfolding further east. But the détente policy pursued by Willy Brandt, Egon Bahr, Walter Scheel and Hans-Dietrich Genscher played a major role in overcoming East-West confrontation, defusing tensions and breaking down negative stereotypes.

Without the Helsinki Process, 1989 would never have happened. For in terms of human and civil rights Helsinki involved what has been called “a golden hook”. To secure the prize of political détente, the signatory states had to sign up to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.

This made it easier for dissidents to argue their case, although obviously they didn't always win the day. Nevertheless, Helsinki helped strengthen the position of people who had their own ideas and wanted to be free to speak out about what they believed and live their lives accordingly.

There can be no doubt at all. All over Europe 1989 was about respect for human and civil rights, about democracy and the role of civil society. It was about freedom in the broadest sense.

What people wanted, two hundred years after the 1789 French Revolution, was for liberty, equality and fraternity to become reality in the whole of Europe.

As British historian Tony Judt once neatly put it, for people in the East in 1989 the alternative to communism was not capitalism but Europe. A Europe that stands for a culture of freedom, democratic pluralism and a certain way of life.

One feature of such a Europe is that the state guarantees freedom by upholding the rule of law. Another is the importance of civil society, of citizens contributing their time and energy to advance democracy and justice.

This European social model is the culmination of the whole of Europe's history since the Enlightenment. It is our common achievement, accomplished at the cost of much struggle and sacrifice. But it can easily slip our grasp! Every day it must be struggled for and defended anew.

We live in a world in which new and incredibly dynamic centres of power and influence are on the rise, in which other societies no longer perceive our European social model as the frame of reference for or guiding principle of their own development. The advantages of our model over other social models need to be credibly demonstrated – especially in turbulent times such as this.

For what we're seeing now is more than just a severe economic crisis, more than just the threatened collapse of entire financial markets. What we're seeing now undermines the very foundations of our society.

What has evidently gained the upper hand in parts of our economic system is a misunderstanding of what freedom is all about. According to this view, freedom is a purely economic concept and “homo oeconomicus” the sole criterion of action. Greed has triumphed over economic common sense, maximizing short-term profit is the only thing that counts. This has produced all kinds of excess.

Today we realize this attitude has led us to live above our means not only in the economic sense.

For to view individuals as the source of everything and entitled to anything they can get, regardless of moral constraints or the use they have made of community resources, is likely to end in disaster.

Such a concept of the individual and individual freedom threatens the core values that bind our society together and enable its members to feel they truly belong. Clearly it was not this understanding of Europe that inspired the civil society movements in Warsaw, Budapest, East Berlin and Prague.

Unfettered economic freedom threatens the freedom that is the cornerstone of our whole system!

It's time to take these lessons to heart, both as far as the European social model is concerned and especially as far as my own country is concerned. For as we Germans have painfully learned from our own history, it's in times of crisis that our beliefs and values are truly put to the test.

Do we take the necessary steps to restrain harmful conduct, create a better regulatory environment for economic actors and restore people's confidence?

Or do we cede the field to the populists and extremists on the right and the left, who with their seemingly simple answers to complex issues are in reality making false promises?

All over Europe this is a particularly pressing question right now. This weekend in all 27 EU member states the elections to the European Parliament will take place. In recent years the European Parliament has, with good reason, acquired a wide range of new competences. That is where issues of vital importance for our future, the future of us Europeans, are decided. Yet despite this, voter turnout has steadily declined.

Let me be very clear on this. Not to vote in the upcoming European elections is definitely the greatest disservice one can do to the memory of 1989 and our European social model.

The challenge right now, after all, is to work together to ensure this model remains successful also in future. This cannot be done by falsely implying some innate contradiction between freedom on the one hand and the state on the other. It can be done only by rediscovering what policy-making can and should be about: protecting freedom by laying down clear rules governing the way the market operates.

That is another of the lessons 1989 holds for us. For 1989 was one thing above all: a grassroots movement for change, a movement that mobilized ordinary citizens across Europe. It was a movement embracing also the new freedoms our societies had been discovering since the late sixties and early seventies. A movement informed by a new European consciousness.

With good reason, Bronislaw Geremek once termed these developments – the emergence of vibrant civil societies throughout Europe and the return of the Eastern and Central Europeans to the European fold – a “second founding act” of European unity.

But it was a founding act and no more. European integration has yet to be completed. Progress on external integration must be followed by progress on internal integration.

Nearly five years ago eight Central and Eastern European countries joined the European Union along with Malta and Cyprus. Romania and Bulgaria joined in January 2007.

I have vivid memories of the celebrations on New Year's Eve 2006 on Bucharest's University Square. Over 200,000 people had gathered there, brimming with excitement and hope for the future. No one present could fail to sense what a powerful force the idea of European integration remains even today.

Yet joining the EU has required and continues to require huge efforts on the part of people living in the new member states. Even before the current crisis the economic and social transition process made life for many a hard struggle. Everyone has had to make difficult adjustments.

But for the old member states, too, integrating twelve new member states, most of which had a long way to catch up economically, demanded an extraordinary effort. That was why it was also an act of genuine European solidarity.

So if we look back on enlargement today, we can see very clearly what Europe is capable of when solidarity, partnership and foresight guide our actions.

These are the qualities required also in the current crisis. We need to show that Europe is a community founded on shared responsibility.

The watershed events of 1989 were a boon, for they brought us all together. The only way to weather the storms of 2009 is to join ranks and stand together.

What we need now is a sense of common purpose and foresight. What we need is more, not less Europe – now of all times.

Let me illustrate this with some very concrete examples.

Firstly, for very different reasons a number of Eastern and Central European countries – including Hungary – have been particularly hard hit by the economic and financial crisis. Some media have even suggested this amounts to a new division of Europe along the line of the old border that once cut our continent in two.

Let me be very plain on this point – that's something we won't allow! We won't allow our common European purpose to be made the plaything of national egoisms. The test of true solidarity is when the going gets tough. Solidarity is no luxury but an urgent necessity!

This we've clearly understood, as is clear from the budget support for countries that have been hard hit, the rescue package for Eastern European banks and the accelerated disbursement of funding for infrastructure projects.

And it's true that both now and in future Europe is more than a market. Only as a community built on solidarity can Europe's inner unity become reality and its social model remain viable.

Secondly, over recent months the euro has proved to be a real force for stability. However, we also know this stability can be compromised if the eurozone countries drift apart in terms of important economic parameters. If one eurozone country fails to introduce necessary structural reforms, this will have repercussions on the others, too.

So it seems sensible in future to consult more closely within the eurozone on major economic issues particularly in the area of wage settlements as well as social and tax policy.

In the eurozone – this “joint liability community” – there is every reason to consult on economic stimulus measures and the general direction of employment policy. And to prevent destructive cycles of wage and tax dumping.

These are some of the lessons to be learned from the present crisis. They are also in the interest of countries that – like Hungary – will be adopting the euro once they've fulfilled the stability criteria.

I firmly believe that people in Europe want a more concerted approach, also and especially on economic and social issues.

Thirdly, Europe doesn't end at Poland's or Hungary's external borders. In times of crisis it's especially important to have the right strategic compass shaping policy towards our neighbours.

Europe's own stability is inextricably linked to the stability of countries in our neighbourhood.

Our enlargement and neighbourhood policy is certainly more than a mere tool for resolving conflicts on our periphery. In the case of enlargement policy especially we must clearly identify the risks and define the conditions of membership, for enlargement, after all, changes the face of the Union.

But it's a question of our own credibility that we stand by our offer of a European perspective for the countries of the Western Balkans, and that we continue the accession negotiations with Turkey in good faith.

The candidate countries need to do their homework, of course, just like the EU. But one thing's quite clear. It's in the interest of both sides for the enlargement process to continue. And that applies just as much to the development of a close, broadly-based partnership with the EU's eastern neighbours, including Russia.

The watershed of 1989 awakened hopes not only for a Europe of freedom and democracy. It also inspired hopes for an enduring and just peace order extending from Vancouver to Vladivostok – a peace order in which the North American democracies, Europe and Russia would all participate.

The road towards that goal, as we've all now discovered, is harder than we believed at the time. We've seen setbacks and even on occasions a reversion to the mindsets of the past.

Despite this, forging a partnership built on a shared understanding of our common interests, common values and common security remains a challenge of truly European dimensions.

If we are to remain true to the legacy of 1989, we must first and foremost build greater mutual confidence. That will require ongoing dialogue and a host of small steps in each other's direction.

What is also crucial is to recognize that we all have different experiences that deserve to be respected. Especially in 2009, this year so rich in European anniversaries, I believe this is very important.

For of course even in a united Europe national remembrance cultures continue to have value and significance. As I see it, however, it's vital that we don't keep our national remembrance cultures strictly isolated and boxed in. However difficult, we should try to end this isolation and open the boxes up.

That's why I proposed a year ago holding an international conference of historians to mark the 70th anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the start of the Second World War. Both events that still cast long, dark shadows and remain to this day a source of suspicion and mistrust.

This conference took place last week in Warsaw. A conference on the origins of the Second World War, whose participants included German, Polish, Russian, Baltic state and Ukrainian historians as well as historians from other parts of the world. That, I believe, is an encouraging sign.

But it's also clear of course that in a larger Europe there are always going to be considerable differences in the way we interpret and analyze historical events.

What is important, however, is to have a genuine dialogue on the various perspectives and remembrance cultures in Europe.

A dialogue informed by an understanding that what has divided us in the past and continues to shape our different interpretations of that past need not prevent us from shaping together our common European future.

We need both to remember what has long divided us and to recognize, despite all our national differences, all that forges a common bond between us in Europe: peace, democracy and a culture of freedom. Respect for human and civil rights. The quest for social justice. These are the wellspring notably of the events of 1989.

And this, I'm sure, is also where the strength will come from to overcome the current crisis.

This is what can and must generate a European sense of belonging. Without such a sense of belonging, such a sense of community, there's no way what belongs together can grow together, as Willy Brandt famously said on 10 November 1989, the day after the Fall of the Berlin Wall. With great prescience, he added that the same was true of Europe as a whole.

In 1989 people pushed the gates of freedom wide open. Yet we will only preserve the freedom that seems so self-evident today if we have the courage to stand up for it every day anew. Join together to defend it. And live this freedom responsibly.

That is the spirit of 1989.

And it's just as important now, ladies and gentlemen, as it was then!

Thank you very much!

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