Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier on acceptance of an honorary doctorate from the University of Piraeus

29.10.2015 - Speech

--Translation of advance text--

Ladies and gentlemen,
My dear Nikos,
My dear students,
Esteemed guests,

Thank you so much for the warm welcome here.

“Agápa to fílo sou me ta elattómatá tou.”
“Love your friend with all his flaws.”

This is a well-known Greek saying. And none of us here in Europe is without flaws – neither the Greeks nor the Germans!

I have been welcomed here in Greece today like a good friend – at a time that is certainly not easy for you here in Greece, for your country or for any of us in Europe.

I am happy and honoured that you have awarded me this prestigious title. At the same time, it is a painful reminder of something – my age!

On days like this, in places like this, a venerable old university, it becomes particularly clear to me that my own student days were in fact quite some time ago. When I attended lectures like you, my dear students, it was back in the 1970s. But unlike you, I didn’t have the Mediterranean on my doorstep. In Giessen in western Germany, where I went to university, we only had the River Lahn, a tributary of the Rhine. And it was usually too cold to swim there anyway.

But what not all of you here may know is that two famous Greeks had just left my university when I started my degree in the mid‑1970s – Costas and Spiros Simitis! And another well-known person studied at Giessen University at the same time as me –

Nikos Kotzias!

My dear Nikos, you were studying economics and politics at the time. I was a law student.

I don’t know if it’s the same thing here in Piraeus, but there is often a parting of the ways when it comes to one’s choice of what to study. I can well remember a heated debate among a couple of students at my university who were talking about their degree courses. Just to be clear, Nikos Kotzias was not one of those young people, although I’m sure that even back then he wasn’t one to avoid a discussion.

The students were arguing about which of their fields was the oldest and most venerable. A medical student said, “Well, when God made Eve from one of Adam’s ribs, he performed the first medical operation in history. So obviously medicine is the oldest subject!” But a student of architecture didn’t agree. She said, “No, no. Way before that, God created the world out of chaos. Architecture existed first!” At that point the law student got up and said, “Yeah – and where do you think the chaos came from?”


My dear Nikos,
I am delighted to receive this special award from the University of Piraeus. I know that you worked very hard here for many years. And I am aware of the great commitment you brought not only to your teaching, but also to organising political debates.

One does not always need to have the same opinion in academia or politics. And, as Nikos Kotzias knows, the two of us certainly do not always share the same views, whether it concerns the analysis of political theories or concrete foreign policy measures. But debates – particularly serious debates on the search for the right path – are an expression of mutual respect and appreciation, an expression of partnership, indeed of friendship and common ground.

My dear Nikos, you were, and still are, a champion of freedom of opinion in academia and politics here in Greece, but also in Germany, from where you supported the resistance against the military dictatorship in Greece while you were a student.

These values – the desire for freedom and democracy – unite us as Europeans. They form the basis of our shared system of values. But something else also unites us, Nikos. The way that you, despite some criticism, speak of your affection for Germany and the Germans, I would like to assure all of you of my sincere affection for your country, for Greece.


It is a great honour for me to receive this prestigious award from your university today. However, I see it less as an honour for me personally, but rather as an incentive to continue doing everything I can to foster good relations between Greeks and Germans and to champion the European project because it is obvious that we Europeans share responsibility for resolving the current challenges. That is what we must focus on – especially now!

Your country, Greece, is a key anchor of stability in the troubled eastern Mediterranean region. Every day, we are reminded of how important this stability is. Greece does not only form an external border of the European Union; it is also an EU Member State with many connections and extensive experience of dealing with the countries in the fragile neighbouring Middle East region. A good example, my dear Nikos, is the conference on religious and cultural pluralism in the Middle East that took place here in Athens a few days ago at your personal initiative. This event created important impetus and was also important as regards preventing the currently escalating situation in the dispute on the Temple Mount from getting completely out of control.

It is obvious to me that we need these experiences. We need Greece! We need your important insights as regards the crises in the Middle East. After all, the conflicts in Syria and Libya, but also in Ukraine, concern us all. They concern Europe as a whole. And it is equally obvious that we can only find sustainable solutions in Europe by working together. This is perhaps the most important principle of German diplomacy.

Of course, every country, including Germany, has its own interests. But responsibility – European responsibility, particularly in the heart of Europe – means that one cannot measure one’s strength merely by how cleverly one achieves one’s national interests. Instead, European responsibility means that we draw up wise European compromises that are of benefit to us all. Europe must stand together internally in order to be successful in the outside world.

For me, this means that we do not regard Europe as a contest between large and small, North and South or East and West, but rather as our common project – a project that is built day by day on new compromises and where we listen to each other in order to learn how to understand each other. And this is precisely why it is so important to me to be here today.


However, this doesn’t mean that we don’t all occasionally need to go the extra mile. This goes for Germany. It goes for Greece and any other EU Member State.

This means that we have to take a serious interest in how our partner countries are faring, especially when they are going through hard times. We need to realise the extent of the endeavours that many EU Member States, particularly Greece, are undertaking to bring about reform. And in this regard, I sometimes find it hard to understand how people can claim in public discussions in my country, without anyone contradicting them, that nothing has been done in our neighbouring countries.

We in Germany also know how painful modernisation processes are. I experienced it myself when we drew up and implemented the Agenda 2010 reform programme. Correcting our own mistakes led to huge political upheaval and cost the government the next election. It was the end of Gerhard Schröder’s term as Chancellor. I had to leave my post as Foreign Minister and spend four tough years in the opposition. I have some experience myself of the difficulties. And at the same time, I am aware that the strain is incomparably greater here in Greece. This is why I expect Europe to help to overcome the difficulties rather than watching from the sidelines. The call for European solidarity is justified – and it has been heard!

But I know that this statement may sound abstract and out of touch to many people here in Greece because they feel that they personally don’t see any of this solidarity, because they see that their pensions keep getting smaller and that they have less and less money, because they’re looking for work, because they don’t see many prospects for the future. European solidarity seems a long way off.

And this is how an emotional chasm is created in Europe – a chasm between those who are facing great personal strain and feel that Europe has abandoned them and those who feel that they are providing more and more help, with no end in sight. The result is frustration and worry on both sides.

The costs and burdens are immediately evident, whereas progress cannot be seen everywhere. And above all, progress takes time! I am certain that we are on the right path, although it is a long and arduous one. And it is our shared political responsibility to ensure that frustration does not increase on this path and that what people feel as a chasm does not become a real rift. We want Europe to stay together.

For both of our countries, this means that we keep our promises but never reduce our bilateral relations to just these undertakings. The “Financial Times” may describe us as creditors and debtors. I say that we are partners. We are friends!

And because this is the case, I think we should ask ourselves self-critically whether we always struck the right tone in the public debate, both in Greece and Germany.

And I will repeat that I know the burden of past mistakes here in Greece is far heavier and that the efforts needed to overcome them are now far greater than they were in Germany ten years ago.

In my opinion, the Greeks sent a dual signal in the parliamentary elections in September – the firmly rooted desire to stay in the euro and in Europe along with the need for profound change in politics and society.

I am pleased that consensus was reached on a new rescue package and that the new Greek Government has decided to work resolutely on modernising your country. Now is the time to look to the future. And I trust that your Government will live up to its responsibility for paving the way to investments and economic growth in Greece so that things improve in Greece and in Europe.

I firmly believe that we must continue working on our single currency. In this summer’s dramatic weeks, we experienced how the foundations of the European house are shaken to the core when there is doubt about the euro membership of even one country. We all need to ensure that such events are not repeated. And this is why we must reinforce the irreversibility of the euro – for all countries that joined the single currency, with no exceptions.


Ladies and gentlemen,
European responsibility also means that we stand up together for the values on which Europe is built, the values that we so urgently need today.

The refugee crisis is making this all too clear to us. I don’t need to tell you this – you see the ferries arriving from the islands every day, packed with people seeking protection in Europe from war and displacement. We are all familiar with the photos of refugees in Lesbos, Idomeni and Munich Central.

I would like to thank the Greek state, but above all the countless Greek women and men for their efforts to cope with the humanitarian emergency situation and to help the refugees.

It is obvious that the current refugee crisis poses a further huge challenge to Europe after the financial crisis. The answer to this crisis cannot be a retreat to the nation state and isolation. Instead, the answer must be better and greater solidarity in Europe.

Germany and Greece are particularly affected by the refugee crisis and stand shoulder to shoulder. In addition to the assistance it provides via the EU, Germany has provided bilateral support to the UNHCR in Greece and to the International Red Cross.

I am pleased that we have now managed to agree on an action plan with Turkey. I know that this topic is particularly sensitive in Greece, but we need to cooperate with Turkey because it is the key country in the refugee crisis. And I know that you in particular, Nikos, have always called for a pragmatic relationship with Turkey.

It is obvious that we need a European solution based on solidarity and a fair distribution of the burdens in order to meet this enormous challenge. This means that we now need to act rapidly and resolutely in Europe.


Ladies and gentlemen,
I also regard today’s award as an incentive for me to continue working on strengthening relations between our two countries. You all know that recent months and years have not been an easy time for Greek-German relations.

For many decades, huge numbers of Greeks have called Germany their home. From the 1950s, tens of thousands of Greek immigrants and their families went to West Germany. And during the military dictatorship, many Greeks fleeing political persecution went there. Many of these people stayed in Germany, while others returned to Greece.

All of them ensure that there are now so many close contacts between the people in our two countries, while many Greek-German organisations help to combat negative stereotypes.

It is clear that contacts between people are the bedrock of Europe. This is why the initiative to establish a German-Greek Youth Office is such an important step. The aim of this organisation is not only to promote school exchanges, but also to organise internships, visits to memorials and work placements for volunteers and skilled workers in the other country. Exchange, dialogue and learning about each other are the first steps towards the insight and understanding that we need to avoid misunderstandings and misconceptions in the future.

We would be happy to see many of you do part of your degree in Germany or if you were interested in Germany and the German language.


Around 3,000 Greek students are currently studying at German universities. And conversely, Greece is also a popular destination for German students. I can well understand that – and not only because of the excellent wine and ouzo, which certainly also play some part in this popularity.

I urge you to make the most of the opportunities that Europe offers you and to have the courage to experience new and unfamiliar things!

After all, youth is a victory of courage over timidity, of the taste of adventure over the love of comfort.

I didn’t write this sentence myself – and I notice that no one here is particularly surprised to hear that. But you didn’t write it either, my dear Nikos, although I can imagine that will come as a surprise to some people.

In fact, I was quoting the Greek politician and general Pericles.

Follow his wise words! Go out into the world and bring the spirit of Europe to life! And do this here in Greece, in Germany or anywhere else in the world. Play your part in shaping Greece and Europe. It is our common future, or, as Hans-Dietrich Genscher, a great predecessor of mine, put it: “Europe is our future: we have no other.”

Thank you very much.

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