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Ladies and gentlemen,
The 60th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising of autumn 1956 was celebrated just a few weeks ago. In the Cold War setting of 1956, the world watched and held its breath in shock at the military intervention by the Soviet Union against democracy in Hungary.
The feelings and ideals expressed by protesters in Hungary at the time were shared internationally. Hungarian democrats were welcomed as refugees in Western Europe, the United States and Canada. And similar protests took place in many eastern European countries. Examples range from the uprising in East Germany three years previously, in 1953, to Prague in 1968 and Solidarnosc in Poland, and all the way to the “Monday protests” in the GDR in 1989 that lead to German reunification. Hungary’s contribution to the fall of the Iron Curtain is still very present in our memories.
Europe was divided for more than forty years. But people all over Europe shared a common dream, a dream of a peaceful and free continent based on cooperation, democracy, the rule of law and citizens’ rights.
This very dream was the key driver of European integration and shaped the European Union as we know it today.
When the Iron Curtain fell, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe expressed their interest in joining the European Union. And the member states at the time were glad to offer them this prospect and to support them on their path to democracy and the rule of law.
Nowadays, the story goes that some countries in Eastern Europe only joined the EU to benefit from the financial and economic assistance they were about to receive from the other member states. This perception of what happened is not only misleading, but also very dangerous.
The pan‑European movement of 1989 was united by its ideals of participation, democracy and freedom. No one thought about subsidies at that time.
Europe is much more than a free trade zone or an economic venture. It is a robust political project to the mutual benefit of all. Europe is first and foremost a union of values.
These common values form part of its continuing appeal to neighbouring countries that are keen to join the Union. Values, not just money, are what really matters!
Our common values are not just idle talk or nebulous ideas. They are factual, concrete and tangible principles that are enshrined in the EU treaty. Furthermore, in the early 90s the EU made clear in Copenhagen that becoming a member requires, among other things, respect for the rule of law, a stable democracy and respect for human rights, including for people belonging to minorities.
Every member state that joined the EU knows that it is still under obligation to respect these values today.
Nevertheless, we have seen that some of these values are under pressure right now. The basic consensus on a pluralist model should, in any case, no longer be taken for granted. And differences of opinion exist not only between governments of member states, but also within member states. We have never been one homogenous society in Europe. And no one wants Europe to be that way.
We have always been multi‑religious, multi‑cultural and multi‑ethnic. That is what makes us strong, but also vulnerable in the eyes of right‑wing and populist movements.
They are gaining ground all over Europe; they are exploiting fear and poisoning the political debate with half‑truths and lies.
I am very concerned about right‑wing movements in my own country and all over Europe.
We have, even in Hungary, reason to be concerned about how the Government handles the rule of law, the separation of powers or checks and balances, and the independence and freedom of the media.
The campaign in the run‑up to the recent referendum here in Hungary was not a best-practice example of non‑discrimination and solidarity. This poses a threat to European unity.
It is therefore difficult to deny that we are confronted with a set of developments that are challenging our union of values.
And let me be quite clear when I say that there is no harm as such in having different perceptions on the overall scope of certain values. We have to accept that different interpretations may exist. However, we shall never cease to communicate with each other. We need a constant and honest dialogue. A frank, but constructive exchange of views.
This should, of course, not just be a dialogue or even argument between the governments of selected member states’ governments or remain at the level of European institutions. We need a broad‑based dialogue also in civil society and across borders on where there are different interpretations or priorities regarding these values. At the level of institutions, we have dozens of instruments and monitoring systems in place in the EU to check member states’ performance on issues such as budgets, debt and their economic situation. But we only have very few instruments to verify the rule of law of member states – even though this is a basic principle that all member states subscribed to and one of the reasons why they wanted to join the EU in the first place.
One of the few instruments that do exist is the annual political dialogue on the rule of law among all member states within the Council. It was set up with the Council Conclusions of December 2014. It is important that we strengthen this dialogue and show that we really take it seriously.
This dialogue is the best instrument that member states currently have for discussing the rule of law and fundamental values in the EU in a non‑discriminatory way. This includes a dialogue on cross‑cutting issues that concern all member states.
Moreover, the rule of law and respect for fundamental rights stem from the common constitutional traditions of all the member states, and this is how they found their way into the EU Treaty. Its institutions are therefore fully committed to these principles.
The traditional principle of non‑intervention in internal affairs does not apply in the EU, given what the EU is, and given the principles that the member states have bound themselves to. We therefore have a duty to talk frankly among friends. All of us are held accountable as the EU against the principles that we have committed ourselves to.
Fulfilling these principles starts at home. But I do not want to neglect to mention the fact that I am concerned about certain developments also here in Hungary that I mentioned just now – in particular with regard to constitutional issues, political pluralism and free media, which are at the basis of a functioning democracy.
It also worries me how the EU is sometimes portrayed in national politics. The national referendum on migration in Hungary cannot change the EU’s legal framework. And the Brexit referendum in the UK perhaps shows what happens if national politicians use “Brussels” as a scapegoat year in, year out.
I firmly believe that none of us wants to imagine what our continent would look like if the process of European integration over the past sixty years was undone.
Europe is complex, but reality is complex too. We must not fall for populists and their seemingly easy answers. And the values European integration rests on still are the right lessons from a troubled past. And they are principles that other countries strive for.
A pluralist democracy means that society is able to tolerate contradictions and complexity. Compromise and dialogue are strengths, not a weakness. Europe is part of the answer to challenges our countries face. Europe is our life insurance in turbulent times of globalisation. And the rule of law, with all of its facets, is part of Europe’s identity.