Opening speech by Minister of State Michael Roth at the Visegrad Group’s New Year concert in the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral)

29.01.2014 - Speech

--- Translation of advance text ---

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’d like to thank Ambassador Dr József Czukor for inviting me to attend today’s New Year concert here in the Berliner Dom. It’s now become quite a tradition for the holder of the Visegrad Group Presidency – this year Hungary – to host this annual concert.

More than 20 years after it was established in 1991, the Visegrad Group can look back on an impressive success story: the integration of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic into the European Union and NATO did much to foster peace, prosperity, stability and security in Europe. This year we’re celebrating the tenth anniversary of your countries joining the EU. The Visegrad Group’s joint accession to the EU on 1 May 2004 was an important stepping stone towards European integration. The efforts and adjustments made by politicians and the business community, and most especially by ordinary citizens, on the way to the EU were huge; that can’t be stressed often enough.

But we all know that it’s easier to travel along a difficult road together. In an EU which is ever larger and ever more heterogeneous, cooperation among groups of member states doesn’t only make sense but is also desirable. Ultimately, it not only helps the states concerned but also the EU as a whole when a group of member states resolutely pull in the same direction and present joint positions. In Europe, a variety of regional formats have proved their worth – for example, the Franco-German Council of Ministers, the Weimar Triangle, the Nordics and, of course, the Visegrad Group.

The Hungarian Presidency of the Visegrad Group [from 1 July 2014: Slovakia] coincides with several memorable anniversaries this year: the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the 75th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland and the 25th anniversary of the peaceful revolution in Central and Eastern Europe, which led to the demise of Communism. These were important milestones, not only for Germany but also for the Visegrad states.

Our countries are linked by our shared European history. We in Germany will never forget how much our country owes to the Visegrad states. Let me name just some historical turning points: the Prague Spring of 1968, the erosion of the Communist system from within by Poland’s Solidarność movement, the Pan-European Picnic at the Hungarian-Austrian border in August 1989 or the descent of thousands of refugees from the GDR on the German Embassy in Prague. All of this shows that it was not least Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic which – with great courage and farsightedness – paved the way for German unity and a Europe without internal borders: a truly historic achievement.

Any assessment of the first ten years of the Visegrad states’ EU membership has to be positive. The overcoming of Europe’s division shows that the European Union is the most successful peace and democracy project in Europe’s chequered history. It rightly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. Together we’ve already achieved much in Europe – and we want to continue along this path hand in hand. The EU must never become solely the concern of the large member states. For if we in Europe really want to complete any major projects then, first and foremost, we need the support of the medium-sized and small countries. The Visegrad states are therefore more important than ever to Germany as European partners.

Above all else, the last few years were marked by a profound economic and financial crisis. Yet, even if our focus has been largely on stabilising the eurozone and promoting growth and employment recently, we must never forget that Europe is much more than a single market and a monetary union. Above all, Europe is a unique community of shared values. For its internal cohesion is largely founded on our shared values. However, it has been evident time and again recently how shaky the foundations of the frequently invoked union of shared values have become. That reminds us that our shared stock of values can’t be taken for granted. Rather, it has to be cultivated and defended every day anew.

My trip to Thessaloniki last weekend and the remembrance ceremony in the Bundestag on Monday, when we remembered the victims of National Socialism, have left a lasting impression on me. Remembering the Holocaust, the expulsion and murder of Jewish citizens, is a perpetual task for us Germans. We must remain watchful in future. For anti-Semitism, xenophobia and homophobia are in no way problems of the past. They are still gaining a foothold in our societies today. We must not look away when people suffer discrimination because of their religion, the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation.

Democracy, the rule of law, pluralism, cultural and religious diversity, social inclusion and the protection of minorities are all fundamental values which we have to fully respect ourselves in order to be credible when asking others to do so. And when fundamental democratic and rule-of-law principles are jeopardised in a member state, we need effective instruments and mechanisms at European level which enable us to resolutely protect our community of shared values. Of course, this new mechanism to protect our fundamental values must be based on objective criteria and apply in equal measure to all member states – regardless of whether they are big or small, founding members or newly acceded countries.

I cordially invite the Visegrad states to support the German Government’s initiative. Twenty-five years ago, your countries showed the rest of Europe how to tear down walls, thus paving the way for freedom, democracy and human rights. Let’s now work together to ensure that the community of shared values we fought to establish then, remains strong on a durable basis.

In just a few weeks’ time, in May 2014, we’ll be electing a new European Parliament. These will be the first European elections since the crisis broke out. This crisis has many different faces: debt crisis, financial market crisis, economic crisis, social crisis, the crisis in fundamental values. Although we’ve already achieved much through our joint efforts to overcome our wide-ranging problems, much remains to be done. The dramatic crisis of confidence in the EU due to the economic and social upheaval is especially serious. Many citizens no longer see Europe as part of the solution but, rather, as part of the problem.

The massive loss of confidence in the EU is grist to the mill of eurosceptic and right-wing populist parties, which are on the rise all over our continent. We must not abandon Europe to these forces – for they can only offer crude slogans and no solutions for the pressing problems we face. We have to engage them in a debate on the issues at hand, for I firmly believe that we have the better arguments on our side.

Making Europe’s added value evident to people remains a major challenge and task for us all. Citizens have to finally regard the EU once more as an organisation which is there to solve problems, not to aggravate them. We must finally prove to people who have lost faith in Europe’s strength due to the crisis that Europe will not leave them to cope with their concerns and fears on their own.

A better Europe – a Europe of solidarity, social cohesion and shared values – is worth fighting for. For as the great European Václav Havel said: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Let me conclude by commenting on the very apt programme of music: It’s fitting to celebrate the Visegrad countries and Europe with a concert, for your countries made it possible for a new melody to be played in Europe. And the following pieces are truly European, for the composers and their works, each of which have their roots in a different European country, have become artists and works of art which belong to Europe as a whole. They demonstrate Europe’s diversity and beauty in a very special way.

Let’s enjoy this European music together.

Thank you very much for your attention.

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