Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the European Writers Conference 2016

09.05.2016 - Speech

Ladies and gentlemen,

A young author from Hungary recently offered what I consider to be a moving description our Europe. She chose the Danube as the narrative voice for her story, travelling the length of the river from the Black Forest to the Black Sea – through countries and time, war and peace.

“(…) It was far more often the case that human blood turned my water red,” recounts the author through her riparian narrator, the Danube. And she relates how her own great-grandfather managed to escape a German prisoner-of-war camp via the Danube River – from Passau to Budapest.

“Everything became much better after the last world war. ... Increasing numbers of bridges are uniting my two banks. The people ... are delighted by my appearance. I cannot smile back, but I can ... greet them with a special wash of my waves.”

This is what Fanni Olah, a pupil at the Kossuth Lajos secondary school in Budapest, writes. Her parable is one of many texts about the Danube that young authors from countries along the course of the river have penned as part of a project run by the PASCH schools which enjoy the support of the Federal Foreign Office.

Why am I telling you this?

Because we are pleased that literary talents are emerging at our partner schools, of course.

But also because the history of Europe and the topic of our conference are so vividly depicted by this Danube parable.


“Writing. Away. Borders.” That is the title of our conference.

And this is deliberately meant to be open to interpretation.

“Writing. Away. Borders” is firstly about pointing out borders, flagging up differences and learning to understand them. But, at the same time, the title goes beyond this. It is a call to unite, to work together and to enter into dialogue – above and beyond borders.

This is not only about physical borders that threaten to divide us once again in Europe – barriers, fences, walls. No, this is, above all, about those borders that are invisible, about lack of understanding, prejudices and resentments. About borders that we build up in our heads and which create new dividing lines.

But I am also thinking about another border. It is, if you will, the direct consequence of these first two, namely the border on our continent today that separates us from what is and what we hope for ourselves in and for Europe. The border between the possible and the desirable, the things that we associate with the “European dream” today.


“A dream of Europe”. That was the title of the Writers Conference in West Berlin in the year 1988, which brought authors to Berlin from all around the world. Together, they dreamed the dream of a united Europe. The Hungarian author György Dalos, who was there in 1988, said: “The fact that there was barely one and half years to go until the fall of the Wall ... that didn’t occur to us even in our wildest European dream.”

The Iron Curtain was lifted not long afterwards. Europe was united. And, in Paris, the countries of Europe dreamed of a “new era of democracy, peace and unity”.

It was “when a fresh start was made” and when, “for a few months, peaceful co-operation between the major powers appeared possible,” as Josef Haslinger once put it.


And today?

The Dutch author Geert Mak speaks of “tectonic shifts” that are currently taking place in our world, and of “shock waves reverberating through the world order”. At the same time, a whole concoction of crises is bubbling away here in Europe, with the financial and economic crisis, Brexit discussion and, last but not least, the refugee debate, which is putting Europe under genuine strain.

The divide between dream and reality in Europe is perhaps deeper today than ever before. It is tempting to conclude that just as the year 1989 unexpectedly tore down the Iron Curtain, the return to barriers in Europe in recent months has also caught us unawares.

It is clear to me that we will only be able to weather these storms by keeping Europe together and by closing ranks in this our Europe.

In order to do this, we need to enter into an earnest dialogue with one another. About our “borders”, our differences, our history and our histories. About the dreams and traumas of our neighbours. I firmly believe that only by tracing modes of thought and learning to understand hopes will we be able to talk to and not about each other.

This is why the cultural and, first and foremost, literary dialogue within Europe is so important especially now.


Many of you, esteemed authors, come from the regions along the so-called Balkan route, which many thousands of people seeking refuge have embarked upon to reach us.

You, ladies and gentlemen, have thematised these new borders in your works. The barbed wire, the walls, the bureaucracy. But this is about more than that. Whether in the novels by Shumona Sinha, the poems by Eugenijus Alisanka or the plays by Ivana Sajko – you, ladies and gentlemen, confront us with the most varied of fears, experiences and hopes that people in Europe associate with the refugee crisis.

We often like to say that you hold up a mirror to us. However, it would be closer to the truth to say that you hold a kaleidoscope up to our eyes, an image of our Europe in countless fragments – one that is much more complex than the often far too simplistic version that we are familiar with from “our” national debates in social media.

“All European nations have a common destiny, but due to their heritage and history, each nation experiences it differently,” or so Milan Kundera once said.

The Polish film director Stanisław Mucha is one of the many artists to clearly demonstrate this fact. After the EU’s eastward enlargement, Mucha set out on an extraordinary journey, a journey in search of the centre of Europe. Dozens of regions claim this distinction for themselves. From the Westerwald to Ukraine, Mucha filmed “about 40 centres” with his camera. While he didn’t find Europe’s definitive centre, he met people with their very own concerns and expectations of “their Europe”. Mucha himself once said that he preferred to stand on the periphery rather than at the centre because, as he put it, “you have a clearer view from there of what is happening in the centre.”

I firmly believe that we need this change in perspective. We need this view from the periphery, from the centre, from above and from below. A viewpoint that opens opens up and broadens our perceptions – of ourselves and our neighbours. We need this perspective offered by films, literature, art and theatre.


This is what we need culture for. And, for those of us in the political arena, this means that we must create cultural spaces and that we must strengthen and expand access to culture and education.

I am thinking, for example, of the work done by our schools abroad – the eastern European schools’ Danube project is just one example of many. I am thinking of our Goethe-Institut. I am thinking of events such as the literature festival in Odessa and also our conference here in Berlin today. I am thinking of the artists’ residencies and translators’ prizes. And I am also thinking of the fact that we are supporting the dialogue between civil societies. It is palpable especially today just how much there is still to do in our Europe – almost seventy years since the establishment of the European Communities.

This is not a question of decreeing a “common narrative” or plying each other with soap-box speeches on days like today. It is clear to me that we need scope for debate in Europe that allows us to enter into dialogue about our differences. It is precisely this that strengthens the European public sphere, the lack of which so many bemoan.

I too am concerned that a narrow and mean-spirited view of world affairs appears to be so popular today. Shrill calls for isolation are to be heard in social media. And not only there. Calls for allegedly simple solutions. There appears to be a great longing for simplicity. The more complex the world, the more complex the conflicts, the greater the need for easy answers. And those who claim to have them are ever at the ready. However, the sober realisation of recent years is this: whether in the financial crisis or the refugee crisis, simple slogans have long since ceased to offer answers to the big questions that we are confronted with in Europe today.


The only way to fight populism is with differentiation. Listening and looking carefully are the only remedy, in both the cultural and political domain.

We Germans must also ask ourselves whether we really did listen carefully to the concerns of our partners in Europe in the past. Were we sufficiently aware of our eastern neighbours’ hopes and fears at the time of the EU’s eastward enlargement? Did we listen carefully to the concerns of the Greeks who, so soon after the financial crisis, are being made to face a new test now with the refugee crisis? And have we really managed to always explain our own position clearly to our neighbours in all the challenges we are currently facing?

It is clear to me that only by trying to understand our partners’ concerns and by seeking to communicate our own worries will we be able to think of ourselves in terms of a united Europe. And to act as a united Europe. This is especially true of the refugee crisis.


That is why I travel the world! That is why I keep on setting out, especially to the European countries that are not the easiest of dialogue partners. Perhaps we sense particularly today how ambitious and demanding Willy Brandt’s simple statement, that we want to be a “people of good neighbours” in Europe, was. A country whose people have understood that European cohesion is essential.

Such discussions always come back to precisely the topic of our conference, namely borders. Borders between what is possible and what we wish for Europe. This is our daily bread in the world of diplomacy – shifting this fine line of the possible bit by bit into the realm of the desirable.

This means that we have to be prepared to compromise and to be patient. This means, for instance, that we will keep on meeting certain European partners for long and also arduous talks in order to ascertain where we can find common ground in the refugee crisis, in spite of all of our differences.

This also means that we are honest. Such as in the area of our agreements with Turkey. While it is clear that we need Turkey in order to overcome the refugee crisis, it is also abundantly clear that we cannot and will not look away when freedom of the press and freedom of opinion are restricted by Ankara. This is also a border that we must stake out with all due honesty.

There are also necessary borders with a view to our Schengen system. Saying this clearly is also part and parcel of an honest debate. Let us remember that when we adopted the Schengen Agreement, we were all in agreement that the opening of our internal borders was a wonderful achievement. But what we failed to emphasise at the same time was that the removal of international borders must go hand in hand with genuinely functioning systems to protect our external borders. One will not work without the other. We also need to point out this necessary border when weighing up the possible and the desirable.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me to conclude by saying a word or two about our perception of ourselves in Europe. Many journalists often ask me right now whether increased levels of migration are changing the notion that is “Europe”.

I believe that our European project depends on the fact that it changes, that it sees itself in both geographical and universal terms.

This is already evident in Europe’s founding myth, according to which Zeus abducted the Phoenician king’s daughter from Sidon to Crete – that means that Europe originated from what is now Lebanon! That alone says a great deal about how closely we were, and are, linked.

Migration has been a very real mainstay of Europe’s history.

I was moved by how the Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves emphasised this recently in a passionate appeal for greater cooperation in the refugee crisis. He talked about his parents, who fled the Nazis to Sweden, in a speech to the European Parliament:

“I say this as the son of refugees,” he said. “Which is why I have this accent. And I hope that, in a few decades from now, there will be a president of a democratic Syria who speaks Arabic with a German accent.”

Ilves’ family history shows that Europe and migration, flight and displacement are part of European history, and also the history of successful and less successful processes of integration.

Ilves’ story also reveals something else however, which is the fact that spilt blood – and not only in the Danube that young Fanni writes about – continues to have an impact on our lives in Europe to this day. This is the painful legacy of Europe’s wars and civil wars.

Our response to this was and remains the European peace project.

This is a project that does not spare us from disputes, but which channels them into a necessary, and hopefully productive, debate with each other – a debate about what constitutes the European dream today and what we must do to make it more of a reality. We can build on a fundamental European experience in the process – entirely in keeping with this year’s conference title: while it may be arduous and there may be many setbacks, borders can be overcome, both in the realm of culture and politics.

The voices of Europe’s authors carry a particular weight especially at times such as these. They stand for a Europe that remains united rather than allowing itself to be divided; for a Europe that does not squander what it has achieved; for a Europe that does not cease to question and overcome borders.

With this in mind, allow me to wish us all a bold, intelligent and unifying European Writers Conference 2016.

Thank you very much.

Related content


Top of page