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We feel very honoured and privileged, Your Majesty, to welcome you to the Federal Foreign Office today. Your presence at this conference shows how much you care about the bond between Germans and Belgians – and it is a gesture of special significance in this year of commemoration 2014.
When World War I broke out 100 years ago, Stefan Zweig was on holiday in Belgium. Belgian hospitality was something he greatly appreciated. In his book “The World of Yesterday” he vividly describes the tranquil and carefree atmosphere of the small seaside resort of Le Coq in July 1914. When news arrived of the outbreak of war, the summer idyll came to an abrupt and sudden end. As more and more details of what was happening reached locals and holidaymakers, it all seemed, in Stefan Zweig’s own words, “totally absurd”. He just managed to catch the last train leaving Belgium for Germany. As the train crossed the border, he recalls seeing right next to it German trains laden with howitzers heading in the other direction to wreak destruction on the Belgian neighbour. “We could not believe it because we did not wish to believe in such madness”, he wrote later.
This “madness” triggered Europe’s seminal catastrophe. What this great writer deemed “madness” is a view corroborated also by recent historical scholarship. There was certainly nothing inevitable about the outbreak of war in 1914. Many at the time thought it was unlikely in fact. In his book “The Sleepwalkers” Christopher Clark has meticulously documented how in 1914, over the course of just a few weeks, lack of communication, estrangement, military hubris and jingoistic nationalism caused a diplomatic crisis to turn into a general conflagration, a world war that ultimately claimed 17 million lives. Within weeks the situation was out of control, all communication was broken off and death went knocking from door to door. A 100 years later we remember the suffering and devastation inflicted especially on our neighbouring country of Belgium. The atrocities perpetrated on civilians in Belgium’s “martyr cities”, the massacre of Dinant and the destruction of Leuven University – in both countries these are searing memories.
Yet 2014 is not only a year of commemoration, it is also a time to reflect on what a long way – an extraordinarily long way – we have come since those days. For nearly 70 years the heartlands of Europe have known peace. This era of peace is inseparably linked with the history of the European Union. This union first took shape in the 1950s, its founders were Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France and Italy – those very neighbours that were still so deeply scarred by the wounds of two world wars.
What’s evolved in Europe since then is something more than a succession of international treaties. Over the decades the countries of Europe have created a new collaborative template. And the unique foundation of this European model is the belief that a functioning market economy and an inclusive society belong inseparably together. You can’t – at least in the long run – have one without the other.
I was very pleased to see what you will be debating today at this German-Belgian Conference. The topic you will be exploring is what kind of Europe the Belgians and the Germans would like to see.
That came as something of a surprise to me, since nowadays current affairs programmes and talk shows tend to concentrate on precisely the opposite, namely, what kind of Europe we don’t want to see. That’s definitely the tenor of the debate right now on freedom of movement. It hasn’t escaped our notice how outraged people get over the European Commission’s alleged “regulation mania”. We’re well aware of the anger simmering especially in regions hard hit by the economic crisis, particularly among young people there. Far too many young people today equate Europe not with a better life, a better future but with never-ending crisis and zero prospects. Europe may be keeping the demons of 1914 at bay – but they’ve still not been totally vanquished.
So it would be irresponsible to gloss over these problems with stale slogans and upbeat rhetoric. We can’t talk about what a success inner-European reconciliation has been, a theme we politicians like dwelling on in our speeches, without focusing on these pressing concerns as well. We need to demonstrate that the European model is still capable of providing solutions to people’s concrete problems.
That means, firstly, that we must tackle the economic crisis with a combination of consolidation and measures to stimulate growth. Reducing youth unemployment in southern Europe must be our top priority. Secondly, we must consider what European mechanisms are needed to protect our shared fundamental values. The intention is not neighbourly finger-wagging, of course. Thirdly, we must defend freedom of movement in Europe, but we must address, too, the concrete problems it has created in a number of towns and cities.
In 2014 there’s certainly no reason for anyone to sit back and relax. Europe is a work in progress, with a host of major construction sites. But we have the resources, the people and the ideas to do what’s needed and do it well. Of that I’m absolutely convinced.
Those of us born too late to know war and devastation at first hand have no right now, when Europe is in crisis, to succumb to resignation. We have a duty to ensure that this great European unification project remains intact, providing once again a solid basis on which to build a better future for all Europeans. As Foreign Minister I do a great deal of travelling. And I can assure you that even in more distant parts of the world I’ve found that the European dream of peace and freedom, of a society that allows no one to feel left out, is dreamed not only by people in Europe. That’s something we need to keep very much in mind. Our two countries, Belgium and Germany, will do their share to help make this dream come true.