Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in honour of Klaus Iohannis, President of Romania, at the presentation of the Emperor Otto Prize

14.10.2020 - Speech
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the presentation of the Emperor Otto Prize in Magdeburg Cathedral
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the presentation of the Emperor Otto Prize in Magdeburg Cathedral© photothek/ Ronny Hartmann

“Europe has a single heart. A heart beating for all, uniting us from east to west, from north to south.”

Spoken some time ago by Klaus Iohannis in a speech to the European Parliament, these words are summed up in the motto of the European Union: “United in diversity”.

As Romania’s Head of State, Klaus Iohannis knows about diversity. A land of ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic diversity with 20 recognised minorities, Romania is “a mini Europe”.

As a member of one of these minorities, namely of the Transylvanian Saxons, who have lived in present-day Romania for over 800 years, Klaus Iohannis knows how important diversity is.

This is perhaps one of the reasons why he so passionately supports the European idea and why he is deeply committed to the common values that unite us in Europe, and for which he is being awarded the Emperor Otto Prize today.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We are extremely lucky to be able to gather here in Magdeburg today, and not only because the COVID-19 pandemic has made events like today’s very rare in the past six months. Any trip is a special occasion at the moment. But for me as a West German, a visit to Magdeburg would have been almost impossible until 31 years ago.

And it was even more difficult for people to travel from East to West.

Just a few days ago, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of German unity.

As such moments, one sometimes loses sight of the fact that this joyful German occasion also involved Europe, in not one, but two ways, firstly, because it would scarcely have been possible without the earlier events in other Central and Eastern European countries; and secondly because the tearing down of the Iron Curtain meant that not only Germany, but also Europe as a whole, could unite as the large and diverse cultural territory that is so much older than our present-day nation states and whose roots are also found here in Magdeburg.

After all, this is where one finds the cradle of the Magdeburg Law, a set of standards and legal concepts that granted citizens of towns a certain amount of freedom and self-determination for the first time as far back as 800 years ago.

At the time, this was so revolutionary and so successful that the Magdeburg Law was adopted all over Central Europe, including in the southeast and your hometown of Sibiu, or Hermannstadt, as it is called in German, President Iohannis, where you got your political career off to a flying start as Mayor.

The origins of what is now the European Union are found to some degree in the Magdeburg Law.

A sort of community of law linking Europeans across linguistic and cultural borders – doesn’t that sound incredibly familiar?

And every town that applied the Magdeburg Law thus made clear where exactly it stood as regards values and standards and where it wanted to belong – to this community of law. To Europe.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Viewed in this light, Bulgaria and Romania’s accession to the EU in 2007 actually resembled a centuries-late recognition of this belonging to Europe. It is very fortunate indeed that this could come to pass because now in particular we need a strong, united and large Europe in order to overcome the challenges currently facing us, which are being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. These challenges include:

  • the rise of right-wing nationalists and populists all over Europe
  • the threat disinformation poses to our democracies
  • the crises surrounding Europe
  • and last but not least, the growing rivalry between the US and China that threatens to undermine Europe.

Our response can only be a European one – as was the case 30 years ago.

We need more internal solidarity so that Europe can assert its values and interests abroad with greater confidence.

Ladies and gentlemen,

None of this can be taken for granted. I was born in western Germany in 1966. I grew up in peace, freedom, democracy and the rule of law in a country with equal opportunities and protection for minorities. I didn’t have to fight for any of this myself. I sometimes have the impression that we are living at a time when people, and not only from my generation, take all of this for granted. But it is not a matter of course. That becomes particularly clear if one travels a lot. There are currently some 70 million refugees in the world. We will not be able to solve these people’s problems on our own – but when one asks them where they would like to live, most of them say “in Europe” because nowhere else in the world does one find so much peace, freedom, democracy and rule of law. The European Union is the reason for this. That is why we must value this at times like these and actively support these values in our countries and in the European Union. President Iohannis is one of the people who takes on responsibility for this in a truly exceptional way.

Despite all the difficulties, we have shown in the past few months that we can demonstrate solidarity in Europe – one good example being our agreement on an unprecedented package of aid measures jointly backed by us all.

However, these measures will only be successful

  • if they are based on modernisation and cohesion
  • if they have an impact where the pandemic has hit the hardest – from the Bay of Biscay to the Black Sea and from Andalusia to the Baltic Sea
  • and if the public benefits from them, for example, through a reserve we set up in Romania for medical equipment.

These are the tasks now ahead of us, the tasks we need to carry out in the remaining months of our Council Presidency along with the member states, the European Parliament and the European Commission.

Ladies and gentlemen,

To achieve this we need the same confidence, the same energy with which the people in Central and Eastern Europe fought for and won unity and liberty 30 years ago. We need to “take our heart into our teeth”, as people say in Romania when someone is brave and daring.

You, President Iohannis, are someone who has always taken his heart for Europe into his teeth.

Regardless of whether it was as Mayor of Sibiu or President of your country and a staunch supporter of Europe, your actions have always been founded on the conviction that Romania’s development and prosperity are inextricably linked with Europe’s.

You have always been aware that this conviction can annoy those who constantly seek to blame Brussels or somewhere else for their own shortcomings.

However, you are willing to accept this state of affairs for the sake of your beliefs.

I experienced that for myself during a visit to Bucharest two years ago, when your country was in the throes of a domestic crisis.

My talks with you, coupled with your integrity, calmness and commitment to your principles, meant that I felt far more optimistic on my return to Germany than I had on arrival in your capital. I can’t say that for every trip I take! But it was certainly true in your case.

Above all, however, I was struck by your clear commitment to Europe and to what Europe means, namely democracy and the rule of law, and to the values that unite us as Europeans.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We Germans know that unity does not always mean consensus.

We sometimes still need to learn to recognise our different backgrounds and lives as diversity and to perceive them as a strength.

In this regard, Klaus Iohannis has much to teach us. And that is why we are grateful, Mr President, to be able to count on your support and to hear your European heart beating alongside ours.

We are expressing this gratitude today by awarding the Emperor Otto Prize of the City of Magdeburg to a very deserving winner, a great European and a close friend of our country, to President Klaus Iohannis. Congratulations!


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