Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier on the occasion of the celebration of the Day of German Unity in Bratislava

03.10.2016 - Speech

Miro, my friend,
Esteemed Members of Parliament,
Ladies and gentlemen,

For 26 years today, Germany has been reunited!

For us Germans, this day is a day of joy and celebration. Thanks to all of you for celebrating with us, and thank you, Lisa Bassenge and the AirFOURce Jazzband, for the fantastic music!


For me as Germany’s Foreign Minister, there is no place I would rather celebrate this day than here in Bratislava!

“Really…?” You might ask. “Wouldn’t you rather celebrate at home?”

Well, first of all: There are enough parties in Berlin all year long, trust me!

It’s good to get away sometimes…

But more seriously: Bratislava is a place that matters deeply for us – and it especially matters today, as many things in our European Union are not moving in the right direction!


In my speech, I want to tell you why it is important to me that we celebrate here today.

First of all – let me say it loud and clear: Germany’s unification would not have been possible without the Slovak people and the people of Eastern and Central Europe!

In March 1988, people here in Bratislava lit candles on Hviezdoslav square, and the light of these candles spread across Eastern Europe! The spirit of the Velvet Revolution encouraged all those hoping for change, including in the East of Germany.

That is why Germany is thankful to the Slovak people. But it’s more than that: Just like back then, the peaceful revolution depended on the courage of the Slovakian people, so today the future of our European Union depends on the contributions of Slovakia and the other Visegrad countries!

I know that Slovakia is ready to take on that responsibility! Miro, tonight you represent the Slovak presidency of the European Council. I want to pay my respects! It is good that Slovakia is at the helm of the EU at this critical moment. Thank you for steering us through turbulent times!


Here is my second thought: 1990 wasn’t just the end of an old and broken system. It was the beginning of a new era. It was the dawn of a Europe united by the promise of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

When Alexander Dubcek and Vaclav Havel, in November 1989, stood on a balcony over Wenzel square in Prague, they knew that –I quote- “these thousands of people down there […] would help freedom to its final victory”. So Dubcek wrote in his memoirs. And he was right! In 2004, Slovakia and its neighbors joined the unified Europe.

And today, all of us enjoy the living reality of that freedom – People are coming to Bratislava, and people from Bratislava move over to the Austrian side to build a home – or a “Hütt’n” as they say over there. I know that the fast train to Vienna is taking a little bit longer to build, but be assured: Once you have a fast train, Berlin will have an airport!

Or take the freedom of movement all across Europe; take the many young Slovakians who travel to Berlin to study…or maybe to enjoy those parties I was talking about…

who knows? It’s their freedom…

But, today, it is also our common duty to defend the promise of freedom!

Freedom and human rights are under attack in many parts of this world, most of all in the terrible conflicts in Eastern Ukraine, in Libya, Yemen, or in Syria. We, the European Union, must act together and stand up for freedom and human rights, especially for the most vulnerable people fleeing violence and war.

But let’s be honest: There are also developments within our own borders that question our heritage of freedom and the rule of law, and there are populist voices all over Europe who outright violate this precious heritage. So let’s defend Europe’s promise of freedom –outside of our borders and within!


Here is a third parallel: The years around 1990 were a watershed moment for Europe. Today is also a watershed moment for Europe!

In hindsight, we know how things turned out after 1990. In hindsight, you always know better…But back then, when those courageous people lit candles in Bratislava, and when the people of Leipzig and Dresden and East Berlin took to the streets: Nobody knew what the future would bring! What would come after the Iron Curtain? It was a time of great uncertainty, a time of confusion.

And just like many people were afraid back then, many people are afraid today! Yes, Europe’s neighborhood is aflame in conflict. Yes, a great number of people are seeking refuge in Europe. Yes, economic recovery is going too slowly in many places. Yes, many Europeans see the very fabric of our societies, our way of life at risk.

So, once again, we are living in a time of uncertainty. The future is open.

And we face a choice: We can work for solutions, even if they are difficult – or we can retreat into fear. We can work together – or we can retreat into national boundaries.

The people of the U.K. have made such a choice. They have voted to leave the European Union; and we, the EU-27, face the Choice how to go forward.


So my fourth and final point is the hardest: How do we go forward?

I say it again: Let’s look back at the peaceful revolution! The people who tore down the wall weren’t overcome by their fears. They stuck together. Maybe for the first time in history, a spirit of solidarity held the upper hand in Europe, and it even overcame that mighty Iron Curtain.

I think: That spirit of solidarity should be our way forward! I hope that here in Bratislava, at the recent summit, such a spirit was found – some have called it the “spirit of Bratislava”.

What does it mean? It means: not pitting one’s own national perspective against that of Europe. Not scoring points at home at the expense of European institutions. I am convinced: that will backfire in the end!

Of course, we Europeans don’t agree on everything. We have pretty big differences. But the question is: How do we deal with them? Europe has institutions designed to balance our differences. We even have courts, and everybody has a right to call on them! But we are all part of one framework, and we can’t take ourselves outside of it when it happens to suit us, like in yesterday’s referendum in Hungary. Instead, why don’t we all take responsibility for improving that framework, for developing Europe further?! The European Union was never just a German project or a Slovak project, never a Franco-German project or a Visegrad project. It’s a common project! It needs the creativity of all, and it needs some flexibility. Not everybody needs to do the same thing. Some countries may go forward, but the others should always be able to join in.

I believe: The “spirit of Bratislava” is a spirit of construction, not of deconstruction. Let me quote another famous Slovak, named Andy Warhol. He said: “They always say: time changes things. But, actually, you have to change them yourself.”

And I suggest we do that together!

By the way, Andy Warhol said another thing, too. He said: “One is company. Two is a crowd. And three is a party!”…How many are we here? We are so many that it’s truly a feast

…Thank you and enjoy the evening!

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