70th anniversary of the Basic Law: open and anchored on firm principles

16.05.2019 - Article

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the German Basic Law. Published in the Frankfurter Rundschau and elsewhere.

The Federal Republic is turning 70. If we think back to the circumstances surrounding its birth, that is almost a miracle. The birth certificate, tentatively christened “Basic Law”, was just a promise printed on a piece of paper. We have its mothers and fathers to thank for the fact that a success story encompassing the whole of Germany has grown out of that provisional arrangement. With the images of dictatorship and fanatical racism in their minds, they built a political system which, with its stability, openness and acceptance, is without precedent in our history.

It encourages identification. Everyone has equal rights, everyone can pursue their own individual path. Yet freedom also means granting that same freedom to others. The values enshrined in the Basic Law are principles that apply to everyone – whether newly resident or born and bred here. Anyone looking for a force that binds our country together will not find it among those who harp on about national interests and fatherland. They will find it in our constitution. In times of increasing polarisation and polemical talk, that is a great asset. More pride in the constitution and less Germanomania – that is what I would like to see in the debate on homeland and community. I feel a sense of home and community where the law protects freedom. This homeland is a place of diversity – thanks to the Basic Law.

Our constitution is both open and anchored on firm principles. Open where our values shift, for example on the question of how to define marriage and family. Open, too, where conflicts require Germany to take part in international peace missions, for example.

To promote world peace – this task is mentioned in the Preamble. And how to do this is also clear: “in a united Europe”. What a visionary statement! The fact that today, just a few days before the European elections, it is those who want to destroy Europe who are invoking the Basic Law, reflects the blatant cynicism of the nationalists. The mothers and fathers of the Basic Law knew that national go-it alone efforts would lead to destruction. Only together, as Europe United, can we assert our values and interests in the world.

That depends on everyone in the European Union respecting democracy and the rule of law. There can be no concessions in that area. Anyone who enjoys the benefits of the EU also has to embrace Europe’s values. Only then can Europe maintain its credibility in the international arena. In the next EU budget we therefore ought to make funding dependent on compliance with rule-of-law principles.

The Basic Law is anchored on firm principles where our very humanity is at stake. It places human dignity above all state power. This central assurance applies to everyone, not just those with German passports. When nationalists try to incite hostility towards migrants, we just need to take a look at Article 1: human dignity has nothing to do with origin. Anyone who robs others of their dignity because they look or speak differently or were born in a different place is an enemy of our constitution. We need to do everything in our power to counteract that tendency. For as far-sighted and wise as our constitution is, its existence depends on our defence of it.

The obligation to respect and protect human dignity doesn’t stop at our borders. It is the basis of Germany’s foreign policy. That doesn’t mean that we should impose our own moral values on other countries. Diplomacy begins where others do not share our values. That is where we need to stand up for what we believe.

Yet where human dignity is trampled underfoot, dialogue alone is not enough. Then we have a duty to act. That is why we imposed sanctions on the regimes in Syria and Venezuela, who are unmoved by the suffering of their people. We helped to put a stop to the genocide of the Yazidis in Iraq – through political, humanitarian and ultimately also military means. And in the United Nations Security Council we are campaigning for the victims of sexual violence in conflicts worldwide.

Openness and adherence to principles – this combination has made our Basic Law a top export: Take Afghanistan, for example, where for the first time the state now has a duty to ensure that fundamental rights are respected. This stems from a central tenet of the Basic Law: citizens are not the servants of the state, rather, the state is there to serve its citizens. A country that lives according to this principle and whose people work to defend its Basic Law still has a healthy constitution, even at 70.

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