Speech by Minister of State Michael Roth at the Soul for Europe Conference

03.03.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Ms Schulte-Noelle,
Mr Swoboda,
Ms Hertling,
Mr Hassemer,
Ms Deventer,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to speak to you today at this 10 year anniversary Berlin Conference, “A Soul for Europe”. There’s a good reason for that. Many times in recent years, we’ve talked about nothing but numbers, economic indicators, structural reform and growth forecasts. Today though, the focus is on our values, ideals, emotions and how culture can contribute to European integration. This is a pretty rare opportunity to look at Europe through a different lens than that of restrictive economic necessity, and for that I would like to thank your initiative, as well as the co organisers, the European Parliament and the Allianz Cultural Foundation.

At this conference in 2006, Wim Wenders said, “When I was young, I dreamed of a Europe without borders. Now, I travel back and forth without ever having to show my passport, and I even get to use the same currency all over, but where has that big emotion gone?”

I grew up right next door to the border between East and West Germany. Until I finished school, a few months after the Wall came down, the idea of having no borders was no more than a dream. It’s not just as Minister of State for Europe that I’ve been seeing a lot of our continent since we overcame its division 25 years ago. But I too find it hard sometimes to muster emotion and passion for Europe while we stay in perpetual crisis mode.

The practical value of Europe is indisputable. We have open borders bringing freedom of movement to people from Portugal to Poland, from Finland to Italy; more than 60 years of peace and freedom and the promise of prosperity; not a super-state, but democracy in action, with a strong European Parliament and confident national parliaments; the largest single market in the world and one of its three reserve currencies; mediators and relief workers in many crisis zones across the globe; an administrative apparatus set up to see that 130 billion euros is put to good use and organise a community of over 500 million people, with only a third of the staff that Berlin’s Land administration has; 24 official languages and, to date, 50 capitals of culture; fertile ground for cultural creativity and diversity, fed by a whole series of European support programmes.

But the European Union is much more even than that. The strength of our European social model doesn’t simply lie in an economic order that values solidarity, competitiveness and stability, but also in the way our community works on the inside. We must not compromise on the standards we share on human rights, the rule of law, an independent judiciary and the fight against arbitrary actions. These shared fundamental values are the essence of what Europe represents in the wider world. And they need to be protected, because we can by no means take them for granted.

The dramatic images coming out of Ukraine in recent days and weeks should be proof of that. Changing your vantage point can sometimes help you see more clearly. Many people living outside the EU, outside Europe, want to be part of it at any price. In Ukraine, people have been risking their lives for that in Independence Square. They associate Europe and the EU with the promise of hope. I’m thinking too about refugees, especially from Africa. They long to be free from oppression and hunger – and all too often that costs them their lives, not only in Lampedusa.

In short, the EU is state of the art. There is no point in just saying we’re sick of things and gloomily moaning about whatever isn’t working in Europe or whichever particular Europe we don’t want. Committed Europeans have got enough to do at the moment – because, of course, the EU has a whole range of difficult problems to deal with. I have no intention of embellishing the situation.

Trust in and support of the European project have suffered a major turn-down in these last two years of crisis. Unemployment, particularly among young people, has reached unacceptably high levels. Heated debates about freedom of movement and poverty-driven migration, excessive red tape, suspected abuse of national welfare systems and many more topics are making lots of people regard Europe as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Particularly in this year of commemoration, we share a responsibility to show Europe as somewhere we can invest confidence and hope. This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the75th anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Poland and the start of World War II, but also the 25 anniversary of the fall of the Wall came down and the tenth anniversary of eight countries in Central and Eastern Europe joining the EU. Yes, and the people of Europe will be electing a new European Parliament in May 2014. It’s no good reducing things to a choice between more or less Europe. We would do better to concentrate on how we might work together towards a different, better Europe. How can we do that?

Let me start with my own field. Politicians have a tendency to make the EU either a scapegoat or a fig-leaf. Anything good comes from Berlin, Paris or Riga; all the bad stuff is the fault of Eurocrats in Brussels. That is despite the fact that the national governments almost always have a hand in decisions made in Brussels. True, not every detail needs to be decided at the European level. The EU should primarily be involved where it can really be of value to its citizens. I have on occasion wished for a policy of greater self-restraint on that score. On the other hand, there is no reason why we shouldn’t have ‘more Europe’ in the sense of a Europe with greater capabilities. After all, in an increasingly globalised world, nation states working in the old ways are finding they face limitations in more and more areas. Neither Germany nor any other country can tackle the big challenges of the 21st century alone.

In those areas where we need to act jointly, we politicians need to say so – and defend that position committedly. We can and should have arguments in politics about the best form for that joint European action – but not about Europe as such.

We politicians can also do a lot to help foster new trust in Europe. For the German Government, combating the dramatically high levels of youth unemployment in Europe is therefore one of the key projects that we are putting all our efforts, creative thinking and courage into. We must make clear to the younger generation in Europe that Europe solves problems, doesn’t exacerbate them. We cannot rest while 60% of young people in Greece and Spain are without jobs and without prospects.

That said, you of the creative and cultural sector have a responsibility too. I can’t let you off the hook entirely today. Europe is, for many people outside our continent, the epitome of culture in all its fertility and diversity.

Europe’s shared foundations in common values exist thanks to that culture. What’s more, the arts in Europe already had a global outlook and an international influence long before globalisation became a watchword. Film makers, musicians, painters and dancers are mobile. Their work resonates emotionally as well as intellectually. Would it not be fair to assume, then, that safeguarding Europe in all its diversity should be a prominent theme, even a project, for the creative professions too? Mary Ann DeVlieg of the Informal European Theatre Meeting in Brussels recently said, “Culture is the ability to question reality and symbols, and to analyse very complex issues in society through the use of metaphor, analogy and images.” That strikes me as a very good definition, maybe even a job description. After all, the European Union and the problems it is facing present a highly complex affair that practically cries out to be addressed creatively by artists, authors, actors and dancers:

Take freedom of movement – an essential condition for art that exists for more than its own sake and for artists who want their work to be seen and have a place in the world; take migration – a challenge and an inspiration for theatre, dance and language; take the right to decide what information one shares and the importance for all of us, but of course creators of art in particular, of privacy and a private life. I am very glad that authors such as Juli Zeh use their voices so clearly in this field. However, I do wonder sometimes if Europe hasn’t become too exclusive a domain of politics and economics. Who will hold a mirror up to us politicians if you don’t?

I for one am convinced that, if we want to see progress on the way responsibilities are fulfilled from the bottom up and see European integration inspire more emotion and passion, then we are going to need the continuous energy that the arts can generate. That’s what makes initiatives like A Soul for Europe so important. I appeal to you to challenge the politicians! To paraphrase a much abused quotation, “Ask not what Europe can do for the arts; ask what the arts can do for Europe!”

I must call directly for active input from our intellectuals too. They have an enormous influence on the way we all see Europe. I can still hear Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s apodictic sigh, “Europe, Europe!” He wrote that, and then decried the European Community as a “chicken coop of ever-shrinking states” that revel in their diversity and complexity but ultimately have no significance in the world. Intellectuals should endeavour, but also have a responsibility, not to be put off by the complexity of Europe. Of course you can criticise globalisation and capitalism, and vilify the EU as an excessively bureaucratic proponent of free-market fundamentalism. But shouldn’t we be putting our efforts into enabling ourselves and the EU to function well in a globalised world? How are freedom, democracy, solidarity, the rule of law and our desire for sustainability to win through? A return to national issues cannot be the answer, can it?! If you flew the flag for our united Europe in spite of all its flaws and weaknesses, some of us might be shaken out of our lethargy. In a recent debate with Alain Finkielkraut, Ulrich Beck said he was afraid that the intellectuals were leaving Europe in the lurch. I wouldn’t perhaps go quite that far, but I do wish that they of all people would show more support and a bit less negation when it comes to Europe. I am therefore grateful to Mr Beck for the pan-European call he made last week for everyone to vote, which has garnered a lot of support from other public figures. It was very much in the tradition of Hannah Arendt, who understood playing a role within a ‘vita activa’ to mean getting involved in the public realm and politics in order “to insert one’s self into the world and begin a story of one’s own.” As a politician active in European and foreign policy, I would add that this could also enrich the current debate about why Germany, in and with Europe, ought to be willing to get involved in foreign and security policy matters earlier, more decisively and more substantially.

You unite civil society, politics and the arts here today. This conference, with its aim of creating contacts between leaders and multipliers and making agreements understandable and verifiable, is exactly the kind of initiative we need. If you really want to change things, rhetoric is never enough. I therefore think it was an excellent idea to conduct this Berlin Conference as a sort of monitoring exercise. That’s because I am sure the discussions about the future of the EU are only going to really take off after the European elections. Artists have a considerable contribution to make to that discussion, by using their work to show what an anachronism it would be to want to cut Europe off from the world and cut their countries of origin off from Europe. If the arts are to become a key factor in the way Europe and the EU develop, then all creative people need to recognise that now is the time to make their voices heard. And I mean make them heard through all the modes of artistic expression they have, with criticism whenever needed and always full of hope. I urge you to do so.

Thank you very much.

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