There is no better place to be on Europe Day than a European university in a double city right at the heart of Europe.
Just a few metres from here, 18 years ago, I – like a great many people in these two cities, in this wonderful double city – experienced a very special moment. On the eve of 1 May 2004, we stood with hundreds of other people on the Oder bridge, listening to our European anthem, the Anthem of Europe. Just like today, it was a beautiful day – or, more accurately, a beautiful night, with stars in the sky, fireworks and Europeans gathered together on the bridge – when Europe reunited in its heart. The then German Foreign Minister and the Polish Foreign Minister shook hands across the border. That night, we celebrated the accession of eight countries of Central and Eastern Europe to the European Union.
For each and every one of us, that moment was not about an abstract treaty and its provisions; it was a moment of profound friendship. It sealed the end of the division of our continent. And, above all, it re-created something at once shared and new – a common Europe of peace, freedom and democracy.
That night, as the fireworks lit up the sky and crowds of people celebrated, one felt to some extent, though not yet fully, what a privilege it is to be able to live in such a Europe. I found myself thinking about my grandfather and about what he had experienced in exactly the same place, over sixty years earlier. In January 1945 he came from the east to what is now Słubice and then to Frankfurt (Oder). On the retreat, a defeated soldier from a country that had brought unimaginable suffering to millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe in a horrific war of annihilation. Shortly before he died, my grandfather left me and his many grandchildren, mainly granddaughters, a short book he had written about his life. In it he had written: “You cannot imagine how I felt then, or what tore me apart. But there is one thing I can tell you: how incredibly lucky you are not to have to go through a war.”
And yes, it is true. Our generation was indeed incredibly lucky to be able to grow up in peace. But it is not only a stroke of good fortune; rather, it imposes a duty and responsibility on my generation to nurture this privilege that is a peaceful, free and democratic Europe – and especially to defend it, for our children and grandchildren.
And yet I will say this quite frankly: neither that night on the Oder bridge, nor even when I took office as Foreign Minister a few months ago, would I ever have thought how serious this duty might one day become.
On 24 February, the Russian President brutally shattered Europe’s peace. Today’s conference is looking at social and political fractures. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine marks just such a dreadful fracture. Russia’s aggression is destroying the European order of peace that we have built up together since the end of the Cold War – together with Russia. Now a powerful state is trying to subjugate its smaller neighbour with absolute power. It is bombarding residential buildings, hospitals and schools. Its soldiers are raping and shooting civilians in the most brutal manner.
Russia’s war negates all that the Europe built up after 1945 and 1989 stands for: peace and freedom, democracy and human dignity. In his famous declaration of 9 May 1950 – exactly 72 years ago today – the then French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman, described the essence of European integration as it remains to this day: to make war “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”. And for us Germans, remembrance of the end of the war on 8 May 1945 and of Germany’s crimes in the Second World War remains both a warning and a reminder of our duty: to advance the European peace project and reconciliation with our eastern neighbours. President Putin, by contrast, is abusing the memory of the victims of the National Socialist war of annihilation in Central and Eastern Europe in order to justify aggression and crimes.
We are resolutely countering this, in cooperation with our partners in the EU, NATO and the G7. We are providing Ukraine with massive support in its fight for liberty – with funding and humanitarian assistance, and also with heavy weapons. Because at this time we must stand with the victims and not with the aggressor. And – I want to stress this, because many here today are from our neighbouring countries to the east – we stand firmly by our allies in Central and Eastern Europe. When I was in the Baltic region recently, I saw for myself what a difference it makes when the threat is not as abstract as it might feel in a lecture hall in Frankfurt (Oder) or in central Berlin. If the border with Russia is eight kilometres away, then the threat is very real and concrete, for all generations and for all societies. And that is why my country, Germany, is shouldering its responsibility, not least by sending more Bundeswehr soldiers to NATO’s eastern flank.
At the same time, I am firmly convinced that military means alone will not bring peace. Our Europe’s strength goes far beyond military, economic or political means. If we take seriously Robert Schuman’s words about making war unthinkable and materially impossible, then we need economic, but in particular societal interconnections, mutual and sustainable ties. That means that Europe is not merely an economic union, but above all a union of shared values – and it is these values that hold us together. It also means that everything we wrongly believed over the past few years, the illusion that economic ties alone will bring democratisation and values, was fatal. This war of aggression has made that very clear.
Economic interests and values are extremely closely linked. That is why it is important to me that we as the European Union stand closer together at this time. Not just in the sense of defence, not just in the economic sense, but above all else on a societal level. Precisely at this time, it is crucial that we say: now is the time to further deepen Europe. Now is the time to stand even more closely together. That means continuing to build a clear foundation of values, not just expanding – this, too, is our commitment to the Western Balkans – but to work together to continue deepening relations, as conceived for many years now here at this university. This is also the purpose of the Conference on the Future of Europe, which deliberately brings together not only politicians, but especially citizens, and which is currently drawing to a close. The aim is to continue to breathe life into the European peace project for our children and grandchildren.
For our shared Europe lies not only in the hands of heads of government, ministers, diplomats and capital cities. Rather, it lies in the hearts of the people, in the hearts of double cities, where committed citizens, academics, students and local politicians put the European ideal into practice day in, day out. Not just on fair-weather days, but also when the outlook is gloomier, the situation more difficult. Those are the crucial moments when Europe needs its citizens. Those are the crucial moments when the citizens hold up the European house.
You demonstrated this again recently here in Frankfurt (Oder) and Słubice when large numbers of refugees arrived from Ukraine and both cities made it clear that they would of course take them in. It is a great strength to be able to learn from something which didn’t go so well a few years ago and to say: Now we know how it’s done – if we work together, if we work together to look after refugees and register them on arrival at the railway stations. I know a few people here and know exactly how many of you were on hand at the stations. In the very first days, when it wasn’t even clear what train was coming from where, the people here simply rolled up their sleeves and got on with it. For that, I want to say thank you. That is our Europe: a Europe that runs on humanity, that doesn’t first ask whether all the forms have been filled in, but simply gets on with the job. Thank you! Danke! Dziękuję! Дякую! That is our shared Europe!
That is why I was so delighted to come here today. There have been moments, particularly in the pandemic, when it has become clear that yes, we have learnt a lot. I remember at one point in the pandemic the border was suddenly closed again. RBB broadcast a report showing how people fell into each other’s arms when it was subsequently reopened.
Because it is only when something you have taken for granted is taken away from you that you realise just how important it actually is.
Life here, as in many other double cities, takes place on both sides of the river, or border. Every day, they bring people together. With the “Salute-Zdravstvo” project in the double city Nova Gorica-Gorizia, which looks after autistic children and their parents from Italy and Slovenia. With the German-Polish primary school sports championships here in Brandenburg and, on the Polish side, in the double city Guben-Gubin. Or when school pupils can complete their secondary education together across the border, like in Frankfurt (Oder) and Słubice. It is young people first and foremost who experience this Europe every day.
Yes, I know this work is not always easy. It needs Polish lessons on one side of the border. It needs less red tape. And above all it needs a particular attitude. However – and we mustn’t forget this when we’re at a conference talking about fractures – of course there is always also fear and concern. And I think it’s important to talk about this, not deny it, particularly now with a war going on. Because we have seen in this double city, on our long shared border, what it means when fear gains the upper hand. Immediately after eastward enlargement in 2004, we saw how people didn’t initially regard it as normal to be able to work across the border. On the contrary. We still remember the fear of the oft-invoked “Polish plumber”. Initially the situation drove many people into undeclared work. It took a while to recognise that cross-border work was actually a real economic strength that we could together harness.
Of course the past few years and decades have seen lives being turned upside down. And it’s important for this conference to address the question of how we can learn from what didn’t go perfectly. And how we can learn from the way civil society helped to heal many of these fractures. That is why it is so important that you are focusing at this conference on people, and particularly on those who are more vulnerable – just as the recovery plan for Europe did in the pandemic. This citizens’ conference meets a profound need to listen, to talk to each other, and not to say “I already have the perfect answer.” But rather to be ready to listen to others’ ideas and try to see things from their perspective. That is important at a time when we will and must work together to further build our European peace project.
It is not just a matter of protecting ourselves against war and violence, but of protecting the freedom of our lives. I believe this is a truly important point at this juncture. That the freedom and security of our lives means much more than an absence of violence, an absence of falling bombs. Rather it is the tremendous achievement fought for by many people especially in East Germany and Eastern Europe – that freedom means not only being free of violence, but being free to voice one’s opinions, to walk freely through the streets, to protest. That is precisely what the double city Frankfurt (Oder)–Słubice stands for.
And, just as I was back in 2004 on the Oder bridge, I am confident that our Europe of peace, freedom and democracy is strong. It will emerge even stronger from the current upheavals. Though that is not something that can be taken for granted: rather, we must continue to work together to build Europe, as we have done over the past few decades. And, above all, we have to bring it to life. Our Europe. Every day.
Thank you very much.