Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the opening of the German and European Law degree course at the Hanoi University of Law
Rector and Deputy Minister of Justice,
Mr Le Tien Chau,
Fellow members of parliament,
Honoured members of the delegation,
And, above all, esteemed students!
First of all, it is with regret that I must admit that my Vietnamese leaves much to be desired! This is why I will speak to you in German. I hope that you can understand me clearly through your headphones.
It goes without saying that I did a great deal of preparatory work for my trip to Viet Nam. I read comprehensive dossiers, which were put together for me painstakingly by my staff. About the history of your country, the current political situation and the development of the economy. But I did my most important prep work elsewhere – I watched videos on YouTube and Facebook, and not about Halong Bay or the Bada Pagoda, but about the traffic in Hanoi!
I arrived here in Hanoi yesterday – and now I know what the traffic feels like in real life. I can only say that I’m grateful that I don’t have to take the wheel myself here…
Those of you who have been to Germany before probably know that the traffic situation is a little bit more orderly there. Generally speaking, pedestrians stay put when the traffic lights are red, even if there are no cars for as far as the eye can see.
But that’s not why you are here today. I presume that those of you who will now be studying German law aren’t doing so because of German traffic regulations, but that you have other, more important, motivations in mind. We want to talk about these reasons today.
So let me start by asking you a question: how many of you are law students? Thank you. And how many of you are members of the first class to study German and European Law, the degree course that we are opening today? You’ve made good choice. And I hope that, by the time I’ve got to the end of my speech, I will have convinced all the other law students in this room as to the benefits of this new course…
Now let me tell you a little secret: I also studied law myself. German law, of course.
You have all pondered the question that I also asked myself back then. Why study law?
All of you have your own individual reasons for doing so. Career plans are surely among them – earning good money in the business world, for example. Or perhaps a career path in politics or administration. Or if I may, in my capacity as Foreign Minister, add another option: perhaps some of you will become diplomats? Good lawyers are needed in that line of work too! Ms Ngyuen Thi Hoang, the previous Ambassador of your country to Germany, was also a lawyer, and has, incidentally, just been appointed as a Supreme Court judge. As you can see, you have many exciting opportunities at your feet!
I myself opted to take a course of legal studies many years ago for extremely pragmatic reasons – I wanted what we call a bread and butter profession. However, during my studies, I learned to appreciate other things about the law. Allow me to tell you a little about this now.
When I was putting the finishing touches to my PhD, for which I had shut myself away in my little attic room for several months, something quite extraordinary happened in my country: the Berlin Wall came down. Divided Germany was reunited.
Why I am telling you about this here in Viet Nam of all places? Because you, here in Viet Nam, are not unfamiliar with the things that happened after the fall of the Wall. It wasn’t just two German states that encountered each other, but also the Cold War blocs. The Federal Republic, where I come from, informed by the West and the liberal market economy, and the GDR, a socialist state that belonged to the Soviet Eastern Bloc. Two ideologies faced each other at the Berlin Wall: one that revolved around the ideal of freedom, and the other, the socialist model, which sought to place the ideal of equality, the collective, centre stage.
After the fall of the Wall, intensive discussions were held in Germany as to how these two halves of the country should grow together, of course. And I, as a doctoral student of law, gave a great deal of thought back then to the constitution of the reunited Germany. And I realised that the mere concept of the law, the concept of the rule of law, encapsulates the link between freedom and equality. While during the Cold War some set the value of freedom against the value of equality – as if one could only be had at the expense of the other – in law and the rule of law, one is necessarily part and parcel of the other. Because the law enshrines and protects the freedom of the individual – the freedom to develop, the freedom to set up a business, the freedom of speech, etc. But, at the same time, the principle that everyone is equal before the law is also part of the rule of law. The fact that one individual’s freedom may never be enjoyed at the expense of another, and that the freedom that is accorded to one person must always be enjoyed by the other. This is, I believe, what makes the rule of law so strong. And this is also the reason why our constitution, the Basic Law, and the freedoms and the idea of equality before the law that it enshrines became the basis of a reunified Germany.
What does this have to do with the here and now, and with you here in Viet Nam? Your country is all too familiar with the confrontation of competing ideologies. Viet Nam didn’t experience the chill of the Cold War, but the heat and bloody violence of conflicts. And the difficult balance between freedom and equality also plays a role today – your country is undergoing a reform process that seeks to reconcile socialist traditions with liberalisation. And as the rule of law unites both values, freedom and equality, we came to the conclusion a number of years ago that Germany and Viet Nam should talk about this topic. We should compare notes on our experiences of law and the rule of law. Incidentally, it was the Communist Party that took the initiative at the time. This gave rise to the so-called German‑Vietnamese Rule of Law Dialogue, and this dialogue paved the way for the idea that was the degree course for German and European law that we are officially opening today.
The rule of law, freedom and equality – allow me to cite a few examples in my address that illustrate why I believe that this bond is such a great achievement.
Let me start by being quite specific – the law guarantees each and every one of you the freedom to develop. And that starts with education, of course! I admire the Vietnamese ambition to learn – which, incidentally, we are also familiar with in Germany among the population with Vietnamese roots. You, esteemed students, are seizing this educational opportunity with extra-special enthusiasm! With your legal studies and your German language skills, you are acquiring excellent career opportunities. And this brings us to the topic of economic freedom. Perhaps some of you will study or work in Germany for a time. Or you may want to go it alone and set up your own company. All of this depends on important fundamental rights: the choice of profession, freedom of travel, the freedom to set up a business.
The economic freedom, self-advancement and success that I mentioned also require a number of preconditions, namely systematic ones. If you talk to a German business representative here today after this, then perhaps ask them what a company needs if it intends to invest in a country. You’ll be sure to hear one thing – namely a functioning legal system! Investors require legal certainty, and have to be able to depend upon a functioning administration. Which brings us back to the rule of law! Prime Minister Phuc has already established priorities for modernising your country’s government administration – and I believe that the Prime Minister is going to need your help with this! During this course, you will have the opportunity to acquire specific tools that are required for modernising Vietnamese society – topics such as transparency, tackling corruption and increasing efficiency. The fact that these improvements are inestimably important for Viet Nam was demonstrated when, just a few days ago, the General Secretary held discussions with voters in Hanoi and heard just how keenly these issues are preying on people’s minds. The General Secretary said publicly that these issues are important for Viet Nam, and you can now focus on the nitty‑gritty of these issues during your studies. As you can see, law is not dry and abstract, at least not all the time!
Efficiency and smooth workflows are not everything, however. We must take a wider view when talking about successful modernisation. In Germany, we have learned that a modern state also takes a modern civil society – with the inherent civil liberties.
Allow me to mention an example of this from my own country’s history. Protection of the environment and nature would not be the priority that they are today in Germany if it hadn’t been for the grassroots movements of the 1980s, which constantly pointed out shortcomings, so tenaciously and for such a long time, until the majority opinion gradually shifted and policy‑makers changed tack. I’m not talking about this for my own gratification, but rather I have heard about the heated discussions in Viet Nam surrounding the mass killing of fish caused by the Formosa steel-mill. While no one can turn the clock back on this disaster, it is important for the investigations into the incident and for the lessons to learn from this for the future that citizens and policy‑makers discuss this issue together. I realise that the Vietnamese administration is not familiar with dealing directly with criticism from the Party, Parliament and the immediately affected population, but I believe that it will be helpful. Having an open ear for shortcomings in the region makes policy‑makers better able to act – and, incidentally, also more legitimate in the eyes of the people. And this is why a successful state under the rule of law is simply inconceivable without civil liberties or without the freedom of opinion. And this is certainly not just about criticising undesirable developments, but also about people being able to develop ideas that they can try out. I can hardly begin to imagine just how many innovative ideas there are in this room alone – the rule of law means that your ideas won’t go unnoticed, but that they should be given the chance to see the light of day.
It is for precisely these reasons that civil society has been involved in our rule of law dialogue since day one. The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, for example, the German Academic Exchange Service and Ms Anke Stahl, the head of the Regional Office in Hanoi, as well as the universities of Berlin, Frankfurt, Gießen and Passau, have helped to make this degree course a reality. I would like to thank all of you, as well, of course, as Prof. Simon, the programme coordinator, most sincerely for this! I would also like to express my gratitude to the Vietnamese Government for supporting this initiative; I hope that it will be continued for many years to come.
I believe that the Vietnamese state has come to realise how important it is to strengthen the civil society elements of the body politic. This is also spelled out by a study entitled Vietnam 2035, which turned heads at the most recent party conference, and which I would encourage you to add to your reading list. The fact that the Ministry of Planning and Investment has published this study is a positive and modern signal.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Law is just as important when widening our focus still further – to the international level and to the relations between states.
If I again start by mentioning the economic aspect, then that takes us to trade. Trade agreements between countries and regions are a particularly hot topic of discussion right now back home in Europe! Such agreements ultimately come back to the question of freedom and equality.
On the one hand, this is about economic freedom that extends beyond national borders – about the free exchange of goods and services between countries and regions. This freedom is also not something that can be taken for granted, nor is it a minor detail, but it is key to the survival of many national economies. And, by the way, most especially in Germany, where prosperity and jobs are more dependent on exports than in practically any other country.
However, trade agreements increasingly deal with questions of equality – with social rights and standards. When nations trade with each other, then both sides must stick to the same rules – that production workers are protected, for example, or that the environment is protected and intellectual property is respected. I believe that it is entirely legitimate that such requirements be made of modern trade agreements in order to create a level playing field for globalisation. It is right and proper that this be discussed in public. Global competition must not be at the expense of employees or the environment. This is something that such agreements must safeguard. And it is certainly true that not all trade agreements do this in the same way. The free trade agreement that the European Union has negotiated with Viet Nam takes these requirements seriously, however. This agreement encompasses both measures to dismantle trade barriers, as well as those that strengthen employee rights, environmental protection and intellectual property. It is one of the most ambitious agreements that the European Union has ever concluded with an emerging economy country. It has the potential, I believe, to send a signal that we can shape globalisation and that we can establish clear rules for it, also between Europe and Asia.
But this agreement will also turn up the pressure to act in Viet Nam. The high standards stipulated by it will require a policy of reform. And, once again, you can help work on this one day! After all, the German and European Law degree course hones in on environmental, labour and copyright law. You can help to shape your country’s path towards the global economy!
Last but not least, esteemed students, I cannot, in my capacity as Foreign Minister, talk about law and international law without talking about that most important good: peace.
You and I know that there is currently a great deal of discord in our world. Back home in Europe, and in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood, bloody conflicts are raging. Growing tensions are also coming to the fore in your region. Powerful countries and actors are competing for supremacy and flexing their muscles.
I believe that, also in this situation, we must call to mind the principles of law. International law, too, is, after all, founded on the dual principle of freedom and equality. All states are free and sovereign and have the right to chart their own destiny. And all states – both large and small – enjoy the same protection of this sovereignty. International law, the great achievement of our civilisation, substituted the primacy of power for the primacy of law. States that infringe international law and the sovereignty of other states jeopardise the great triumph that is the peaceful order, which the world achieved through the United Nations after countless wars.
And international law not only establishes an order for peace, but also provides a practical framework for resolving tensions and opposing interests peacefully in the event of conflicts. I would like to offer you another example, and it is no coincidence that this has to do with the law of the sea. Has anyone heard of the Ems‑Dollart Treaty? No one? Any other response would have surprised me... We’re talking about a 400‑year‑old conflict between Germany and the Netherlands whose maritime border was - in some areas - a matter of dispute. You might find it surprising, but Germany and the Netherlands had unresolved border issues until quite recently. So we sat down with legal experts, that is to say with people like you, and we found a solution. In the end, this wasn’t a matter of taking a ruler and drawing a border on the map, but about arriving at a legal agreement together on the joint use of these waters.
Now I know that there are tensions over maritime areas in your region that are slightly more consequential than those in the North Sea. But the question as to how these tensions can be resolved both legally and politically remains. Perhaps one or two of you are looking for a topic for a seminar paper or master’s thesis and would like to examine this example from my home country in a bit more detail.
For us, and also for Viet Nam with its important and expanding role in ASEAN and the United Nations, one thing is clear at any rate, which is that peace can only be safeguarded if international law and governments play ball. International law aims to channel power into accepted courses, which, in turn, must be accepted by those exercising political power. The most recent ruling, based on the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, was an important legal step. The task now is to ensure that, step by step, the ground breaking elements of this ruling become practice in international law.
Coexistence requires rules, both internationally and nationally. Independent courts must decide on the application of these rules. This is the only way to ensure that it is the strength of the law, and not the law of the strong, that counts.
At the beginning of my speech, I talked about how I was quite impressed by the traffic in Viet Nam… But that is, of course, not the only thing that springs to mind when driving through the streets of Hanoi. I am struck by something else, and this is far more important, namely by the number of young people out and about! Two‑thirds of the Vietnamese population are under the age of thirty – and, by the way, no one can say the same for Germany, where you’re more likely to spy my hair colour on the streets…
Here in Hanoi, I have the impression that this country belongs to the young people! And that, esteemed students, is a great opportunity! The future belongs to you. You will shape your country, and you can prove that it is possible to reconcile freedom and equality – in a society in which the individual is free to develop and where the community is also strong. That is a big task for which I wish you every success... – but your degrees come first, of course. Allow me to wish you all the very best for your studies. I hope that you will discover an interest in German law – and if that is the case, then don’t just content yourself with studying legal clauses, but cooperate with us in Germany in the future! We would be delighted!
Thank you very much.