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Ladies and gentlemen,
Today, we have reason to celebrate! I am truly honoured to welcome you here at the Federal Foreign Office, at what is finally the launch of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture.
I first heard about ERIAC two years ago. Most of you have been committed even longer to this marvellous project. And it is true: ERIAC is overdue, because the visibility of Roma Arts and Culture and their contribution to our diverse European heritage has been forgotten, or even neglected, for far too long.
It was a great pleasure working with you during the last years. Our cooperation can continue now, as concrete projects are launched all over Europe. I am very much looking forward to it, and you can count on the continued support of my ministry.
First of all, let me thank some people. Mr Romani Rose, who first approached me and asked for my support for ERIAC. Zeljko Jovanovic and the Alliance, for all of the inspiring exchanges, and for the idea to establish ERIAC’s headquarters in Berlin. Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland, for making it a truly European project, thanks to the support of the Council of Europe. I also want to thank the Open Society Foundations and Mr George Soros personally for their commitment to strengthening our European model of open, liberal, diverse and inclusive societies, and in particular for their support of the Roma as an indispensable part of this model.
Why was I immediately convinced about the need to support ERIAC?
Firstly, dealing with Roma issues as Minister of State for Europe has shown me there is a great lack of visibility concerning role models. These role models are key to overcoming the prejudices that exist in most societies all over Europe. Antigypsyism unfortunately can still be found, and causes discrimination and exclusion, in far too many places all over the continent.
Particularly as a German, I know about the challenge of assuming responsibility for one’s own history. I also know how much this is necessary. Germans must examine the past and acknowledge the facts related to the suffering Nazi Germany brought on all of Europe. Genocide was committed. The people whom Hitler wanted to exterminate were not strangers. They were neighbours, friends and colleagues – fully part of our society. Bearing this in mind, I think it is unquestionably important to acknowledge the affected groups, and to highlight their contribution to our common heritage. The majority societies must be taught how enriching – not endangering – this diversity is.
Prejudices and discrimination often force Roma and Sinti to neglect their identity and their origins. This is why projects such as ERIAC are important for encouraging Roma and Sinti in Europe to not feel ashamed, but instead proud of belonging to this largest European minority. Belonging to and being integrated in a society should never mean cutting ties with your roots – especially in Europe, where diversity, exchange and migration have been not the exception, but rather the norm.
Secondly, I was thrilled by the emancipated approach of ERIAC. It is not a project given to the Roma community, but a project by the Roma community. This is what our liberal and democratic societies should be based on. I am sure that all of you working on ERIAC projects will be proud ambassadors of this principle.
Thirdly, arts and culture always have an immense potential to build bridges between people. They help us to see beyond the surface, broaden our horizons and improve our understanding of others. They also help us to confront our own contradictions, as well as to question our prejudices and political choices.
Furthermore, arts and culture have always been a driving force for Europeans, shaping our cosmopolitan worldview.
This is where I would like to get to my fourth and last point: I see ERIAC as a contribution to the Europe that we must protect these days, given the rising tide of populism and renationalisation. A trend towards building new walls, fences and borders seems to be a new part of the political mainstream. Our diverse, open and liberal, as well as values-based, societies are under threat. Freedom, which is also supposed to protect fundamental rights, is restricted in too many places across Europe.
Democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, protection of minorities, a free press, and freedom of expression and opinion are all hallmarks of Europe; they are part of our core identity. This places a special responsibility on all of us. We risk losing our own credibility if we do not protect these values from within.
Timea Junghaus, who today is head of the cultural programme, previously curated the Roma Pavilion at the Biennale in 2007. She called it the first truly European Pavilion. The Roma communities do not think in terms of national borders. Roma people have probably overcome what Europe is struggling with these days. This is the Europe I dream of – a Europe without boundaries, in which nationalities, or belonging to a certain minority, are irrelevant – because we all are Europeans.