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Speech by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth to the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian Parliament on the 60th anniversary of the Recruitment Agreement for Italian Workers

29.10.2015 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

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Caro Sandro (Gozi), caro Ettore Rosato, cara Laura (Garavini), caro Vito Francesco Gironda, caro Alois Streich,Signore e Signori, cari colleghi, cari amici!

It is as always a joy to be in Rome – especially when invited by my dear friend Laura Garavini, to whom I don’t like to say no! But I’m also particularly glad to be here for another reason, and that’s because this event marks the anniversary of an Agreement which has made German-Italian relations what they are today.

“L’amicizia ha due ingredienti principali: il primo è la scoperta di ciò che ci rende simili. E il secondo è il rispetto di ciò che ci fa diversi.”

(“Friendship has two main ingredients: the first is the discovery of what makes us similar and the second is the respect for what makes us different” – Stephen Littleword)

This beautiful quote about friendship and differences makes me think of our relationship. Germany and Italy are indeed linked by friendship. They have a relationship which is infused with life by so many people north and south of the Alps, by real life meetings, and does not just exist at state or government level. We have much in common. We have shared values and convictions, experiences and goals, and precisely because we share these, there is nothing at all wrong in pointing out where our differences lie. Europe is indeed a continent of unparalleled cultural diversity. And for that we should be glad and grateful!

Relations between Germany and Italy did not attain their present depth overnight.

Of course, Germany and Italy have long enjoyed many ties. But never before had exchange and contacts between our two countries reached the levels they did as a result of this Agreement.

You only have to look at the figures. More than four million Italians came to Germany under the Recruitment Agreement. In 1965 alone, 270,000 of your fellow countrymen and women arrived in my country. Many returned, but even so, more than half a million Italian nationals still live in Germany. Germany is thus home to more Italians abroad than any other country in the world apart from Argentina. Our Italian neighbours and friends brought various aspects of their Italian culture and lifestyle with them to Germany. These have now become part and parcel of our daily life.

They are so normal now, that people find it hard to understand that it was a real culture shock for people 60 years ago when the Italians arrived – with all the attendant fears, prejudices and stereotypes.

Close social ties now exist between Italians and Germans. That’s what gives the German-Italian friendship its special character.

Of course the political and economic relations between our two countries are also very important. But nothing can replace the diversity and intimacy of human relationships.

When the first Italians arrived in Germany 60 years ago, things did not always go smoothly. Many mistakes were made.

There were numerous barriers to integration and understanding. Language was just one of them. From today’s point of view, it is hard to imagine why Germans and Italians found it so hard to get used to each other. The Agreement was, at least for Germany, the first of its kind. Many mistakes can thus be explained, even if they cannot be excused. The most important mistake was that we failed to appreciate how great the upheaval in our society would be, how much the new neighbours, colleagues and citizens from southern Europe would change us ourselves.

In the meantime, we have amassed a wealth of experience and organised many projects designed to facilitate integration and foster a sense of shared community. The main focus is on education and qualifications. The key to successful integration is, first of all, learning the language.

What is the most important lesson we have learned from the past six decades? That we should consider the new arrivals above all as human beings. When the Recruitment Agreement was concluded, many people in Germany thought that workers would come. But these workers were not just workers. They were above all human beings, people in their own right, accompanied by their families, bringing their hopes, dreams and ambitions with them. That’s how it should be. But we in Germany had to first grasp this idea before tolerance and then respect could take root.

This realisation was a step forward for German society. Society grew stronger as a result. And I am not even thinking of the countless gifts that the Italian immigrants brought. In many sections of society, people are now prepared to meet new and perhaps foreign people and things with curiosity, and not to reject them out of hand.

There is thus all the less reason for us to repeat our mistakes today. Large numbers of refugees are coming to Europe. Of course, this movement cannot be compared with the migrations back then. But that should not prevent us from using our experiences and stepping up to the fold with confidence, knowing that yes, we can do it.

We must not view refugees just as an organisational and administrative challenge. Let’s not forget we’re dealing with human beings and their lives. Humans who have made their way to Europe to escape war and expulsion, many of whom are deeply traumatised. Humans who may now finally hope to live in peace, security and dignity.

This is a very difficult task. But it is not insoluble. Many people rightly view the current refugee crisis as the biggest challenge faced by the European Union since its inception. How we deal with this great task will be all the more revealing of our common Europe.

European countries must not disengage, and return to an age of nation states. Doing so would not only deprive ourselves of the freedoms we worked so hard to gain, but would also renounce the very foundations of our European community. It’s not economic indicators that are at stake, but our shared values!

Where if not in our united Europe should we find joint, viable solutions? Solutions that don’t consist of erecting new fences, but which are guided by a spirit of solidarity.

Ladies and gentlemen, the German-Italian Agreement of 60 years ago was a forerunner of our Europe of free movement and cooperation. We have seen how cohesion can increase and integration succeed in spite of all the obstacles. From the outset the German-Italian friendship was a cornerstone of European integration and a key pillar of the European Union. It is also something very close to my heart.

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