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Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the Königswinter Conference 2018: Leaving old certainties – Defining the road ahead for UK-German relations

12.04.2018 - Speech

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Dear Boris, thank you for your warm words of welcome.

Sir Michael Arthur,
Ambassador Horstmann,
honourable guests,

Thank you for the invitation. I am honoured to be invited to speak in this distinguished forum in these impressive surroundings here in Oxford – one of the world’s oldest and most respected institutions of learning. While it is young by comparison, the Königswinter Conference can draw on strong traditions. This annual conference was established in a period when the atrocities of the Second World War were still fresh in the memories of our two peoples. I can only imagine how challenging it must have been to set up this conference, at a time when so many British towns were still in ruins, scarred by German bombs. Almost 70 years have passed since then. Königswinter has become a solid cornerstone of the friendship between our two countries.

This bond is all the more precious today in times of Brexit. Clearly, we Germans would have much preferred the United Kingdom to remain a member of the European Union. However, you decided to leave. We accept that you have chosen to take a different path. But there is no denying that this decision has burdened our relationship. Having said this, I am relieved that the last EU summit has brought real progress: with the political agreement on a transition period in place, we can hopefully turn a page and start to engage more positively on the future of EU-UK relations.

Of course, there is still work to do. The most important issue is surely the question of the Irish border. As mentioned, I was in Ireland this morning and heard a lot about the Irish perspective on Brexit and the worries that exist there. I made it clear that Ireland will have our full support when it comes to avoiding the reestablishment of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. It was exactly twenty years and two days ago that the Good Friday agreement was signed, which brought to an end this violent and bloody conflict. We are committed to supporting all efforts to secure the achievements of the Northern Ireland Peace Process.

Brexit is a fact -  and we take it as such. The United Kingdom will be a country outside the EU. This will affect our bilateral relationships fundamentally. By definition our exchanges will not be as regular, frequent and intense as they are now.

To give you a simple example: Boris and I met for the first time just a few days after I took office -  on the margins of the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels. We were able to jump right into a friendly and substantial conversation, and he invited me on the spot to come here. In future, no British minister will be able to meet his German, French or Swedish counterpart as naturally, regularly and frequently as is the case today.

You will leave the EU, but you cannot escape geography, and of course you will not leave Europe – you yourselves have made this point time and again. And speaking here in Oxford, it is also clear that it is not just geography that will continue to bind us together: the British contribution to what we call “the West”, not least the spirited protection of these values in times of trouble, cannot be underestimated. We Germans share these ideals: the rule of law, democracy, human rights, free speech, free trade, the market economy, social and environmental responsibility and, more generally, support for a liberal rules-based international order. Our two countries will continue to work alongside one another, promoting these common values on the global stage. This is not a simple question of choice or affinity: We need to work together as allies, because we face common challenges and have many shared interests. To name just a few:

- Both the UK and Germany want to preserve and nurture the partnership with the US that has been such a success story. We must work together to this end; in particular we need to do everything to avoid a conflict over trade.

- Similarly, both our countries want to keep the US on board when it comes to preserving the JCPoA. The nuclear deal with Iran was an important milestone in fighting nuclear proliferation. It substantially contributes to peace in a region that is deeply troubled as it is.

- The terrible chemical attack on the people of Douma by the Syrian government over the weekend emphasises once again the need for the UK and Germany to work together towards solving the wars on Europe`s borders. We are committed to bringing about an end to the fighting and horrible suffering of civilians, including many children.

- Russia’s aggressive actions pose a threat to security in Europe. We reacted strongly and jointly to the attempted murders in Salisbury. We are alarmed by the use of chemical weapons, cyberattacks on our institutions and the ongoing violence in Ukraine. This is unacceptable and we want to find common and effective responses. At the same time, it is in both our interest to keep channels of communication open.

- Our countries are deeply committed to fighting climate change and protecting the enivronment.

- We cooperate closely in the framework of NATO and the G-7 and other international formats. And we hope that Germany will join the United Nations Security Council for  2019 and 2020. This will give us another opportunity to jointly tackle challenges to global peace and security.

By the way, G7 and NATO also give me opportunities to meet with my British counterpart.

But our relations go further. Boris and I agreed today to establish bilateral links for the post-Brexit era. It is time to define the road ahead for our relationship. To this end, we want to launch a Strategic Dialogue on Foreign and Security Policy and to work towards a Joint Compact on Global Responsibility.

Government-to-government relations can only ever be one element, of course. We must capitalise on the existing strong people-to-people links and foster youth exchanges, academic cooperation, town twinning, and cultural projects. We can build on the good work already done in this respect. The royal visit to Germany last year, for example, was a great success and highlighted the strong bonds between our societies.

With the UK outside the EU, our interactions will be less natural and less frequent. More of an effort will be required. That is a fact. Still, I am certain that the German-UK relationship will remain close and strong on the basis of our shared values, our interconnected economies, and our interlinked societies and cultures. Thank you.

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