Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the Matthiae-Mahl hosted by the Hamburg Senate

28.02.2020 - Speech

It is a great honour and joy for me to be here this evening. That’s how almost all of my speeches begin. But this evening it is particularly true. There are various different reasons for this, ladies and gentlemen. I’ve come straight from New York, where I spent two days with the United Nations Security Council. I debated with my colleagues there on Syria, on Libya, on disarmament, on human rights violations. And I’m grateful for the change of mood I can now enjoy in a city with the most sensible voters in Germany.

Congratulations, Peter!

But there are also other reasons. One of those is that it is really impressive to be at such an event, in such an environment. And a look around this truly unique banqueting hall is enough to feel honoured, for what we see here embodies everything that Helmut Schmidt once described as this Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg’s “ceremonial pride in tradition”.

And there is yet another reason why I’m always happy to be in Hamburg: I’m a Hamburger Sportverein supporter! I know that won’t endear me to everyone, even in Hamburg. But dear Uwe Seeler, I can tell you that I’ve been a fan for more than 40 years, ever since Kevin Keegan played for Hamburg. And a lot has happened in that time. I think, Uwe Seeler, we can both say that. As far as football is concerned, I am an absolute arch-conservative, because I stick to the motto: one life, one team. So as you see, there are many reasons to be in Hamburg that are especially important for me personally.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The dinner this evening is more than a mere bow to tradition.

From the outset, as the First Mayor just pointed out, its purpose was to establish the position of this city in the world, with an element of self‑reflection. For that reason, “representatives of the powers that are well disposed to Hamburg” were invited.

Deputy Secretary General,

NATO is undoubtedly one of these well-disposed powers. For more than 70 years it has been the foundation of European and German security. For this we are exceptionally grateful, especially in times like these.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The self-reflection I just mentioned is at least as necessary today as it was 664 years ago, when this event was held for the first time.

In international politics, only one thing is currently certain, and that is uncertainty.

European integration is in turmoil – and Brexit is not the only recent example of this.

Some are reducing the transatlantic alliance to a mere cost‑benefit analysis.

And even democracy, the rule of law and human dignity are not set in stone for all time, and exceptions are not just far away on the other side of the globe.

Only last week in Hanau, we were once again made horrifically aware of how worryingly deep the rifts now are in our society, too.

That is despite the fact that peace, freedom, civil rights and the idea of a united Europe were always something the people of my generation took for granted. Yet the time of taking things for granted appears to be over. I was born in West Germany in 1966. I had everything that makes life worth living: peace, freedom, the rule of law, civil rights, relative prosperity. I didn’t have to fight for any of it. And time and again I see that in my generation, but probably not just in mine, many people who have never known anything else are under the impression that all this can be taken for granted.

Yet if we look at the world and Europe today, we realise that this is not the case. We enjoy rights and freedoms today in times when simply enjoying them is not enough. We also need to defend them. And in view of the events in Hanau I want to emphasise this once again.

That was the third right‑wing extremist attack in Germany within the space of one year. My colleagues abroad are asking me: what on earth is going on in your country? And many are following the discussions on social media – for nowadays we all communicate by digital means.

Sometimes when I look at these social networks, even I am no longer sure whether those who spread hatred and abuse are the minority or the majority – for what we are seeing and hearing there is extremely loud. And yet I still believe that the vast majority of citizens in Germany want this country to be a globally minded and tolerant place where people’s behaviour towards one another is characterised above all by one quality: respect. Nonetheless, many people are currently anxious. Nonetheless, many people are retreating from public debate, particularly from so‑called social networks, because they otherwise quickly become victims of vitriol, hatred and abuse. In many cases these are people who speak out in defence of minorities, for others.

One priority we should therefore all share is to ensure that both within and outside Germany no one gets the impression that the vociferous minority is a majority. A minority can only make itself heard if the majority stays silent. And we are the majority! If we don’t make our voices heard in the times in which we live, a false impression of reality is portrayed both inside and outside Germany. And so I say: speak up! And make it quite clear that this is our country and not the country of the rabble‑rousers and hate preachers.

Ladies and gentlemen,

“The freedom that the elders have achieved may the afterworld strive in dignity to preserve”.

These words are inscribed in Latin on the large arch through which we all just passed to enter this city hall. And that really sums up everything I have just said and ought to be embraced by everyone who passes through it.

Yet this statement also applies with regard to security in Europe, which is currently a topic of so much discussion, not least among the NATO allies.

It is a fact that the focus of the United States has shifted from our continent towards Asia – and incidentally, we shouldn’t deceive ourselves here – not only since Donald Trump has been installed in the White House.

But our response to that cannot be to declare the transatlantic alliance brain‑dead. The decoupling of European and American security would be highly dangerous for all of us in Europe, and particularly for us in Germany.

These days it has become fashionable to say that we must formulate disruptive policy models and then we will attract the necessary attention in the media. But given the reality, and given our past, German foreign policy should never be disruptive. On the contrary, it must offer an alternative to the disruptive reality.

That is why we have launched a so‑called process of reflection, together with Jens Stoltenberg, to hold open, honest and blunt discussions free of illusions on the state of the transatlantic partnership and NATO. But with the goal of developing them further, because we are firmly convinced that we need them.

One thing remains quite clear: only if we Europeans strengthen our ability to take responsibility for our own security will we be able to keep the Americans in the transatlantic alliance in the long term.

That is why building a genuine European Security and Defence Union in no way opposes NATO. On the contrary, it is a guarantee that NATO will continue to exist.

And at the same time, the establishment of a strong and sovereign Europe is the European policy task of the 2020s, which is why it will also be at the heart of our EU Council Presidency in the second half of this year.

All this will require compromise from us Germans, we don’t need to gloss over that. Both from a financial perspective and in connection with our willingness to do even more for our own security and for peace in our neighbourhood.

The words of Peter Struck, former Defence Minister, still apply: Germany’s security is also being defended in the Hindu Kush. Today, we need to add: and in Iraq, in Libya and in the Sahel – but equally, and we can’t afford to disregard this, at the negotiating tables in New York, Geneva and Brussels.

After all, without diplomacy, without political strategy, without efforts to strengthen local security forces, military operations alone will not establish peace. They can even have the opposite effect, as the events in Iraq and in Libya have shown us. That is why we always need both aspects: the commitment, the willingness to do more for our own security when we see that the United States is gradually withdrawing further and further from its former role as global policeman.

But it can’t be limited to that. We also need cooperative security approaches such as those we have always adopted in NATO.

These include arms control and dialogue, even in times as difficult as the present, even with Russia. Deputy Secretary General, I am particularly grateful to you for your exceptional efforts to ensure that communication channels between NATO and Russia remain open.

That has undoubtedly not become any easier following Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty. But walls of silence are no alternative.

During the United Nations Security Council meeting in New York the day before yesterday, we also called for a new dialogue on nuclear disarmament. Since last year, Germany has been a non‑permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for a two‑year term. Last year we put the issue of disarmament on the agenda during our one‑month presidency. What I didn’t realise myself is that this was the first discussion of the topic in the United Nations Security Council in seven years.

For this reason, ladies and gentlemen, even if this organ is limited in its capacity to act on issues such as Syria, such topics do belong on the table there. Because the nuclear‑weapon states sit at that Security Council table in New York. And they are the ones who bear the greatest responsibility in striving to overcome the worrying stalemate in nuclear disarmament – that is an extremely diplomatic way of putting it.

Ladies and gentlemen, on Tuesday this week in Berlin we put forward concrete proposals on how to achieve this – for simply making clever speeches on the subject is not enough. Not single‑handedly and condescendingly, but together with 15 other states with the same goals: Scandinavia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Argentina, Australia, countries from all continents of the world. And the number of countries joining this initiative is constantly growing.

For it is difficult for any one of us acting alone even to make our voice heard by the major nuclear powers.

But together we can ensure that the nuclear-weapon states do not shirk their responsibility for disarmament.

Incidentally, we are also receiving support from Hamburg in this endeavour, as the First Mayor just mentioned. During my last visit here to the Hamburg City Hall, we launched a project in cooperation with the Institute for Peace Research and Security at the University of Hamburg to research the impact of new technologies on the arms control of the future.

And I am delighted to welcome the Institute’s director here this evening.

Professor Schröder,

It is good that we can also count on the expertise from Hamburg in our efforts in the area of disarmament and arms control.

That takes me to the second Hamburg aphorism. It is inscribed over the door of the Turmzimmer to this banqueting hall and says: “Through harmony, small things grow, through discord, great things fall.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, was the idea we had when we established an Alliance for Multilateralism one and a half years ago. An obscure term that simply means that we need more international collaboration.

All the major challenges we are dealing with today – climate change, globalisation, digital transformation, migration – are very, very different. Yet they have one thing in common: they know no borders.

It is therefore sometimes not so easy to understand that we live in times when success is being reaped by political decision-makers in Europe and throughout the world who deny this and who want to make people believe that a return to nationalistic thinking and national decision-making authority is a more effective way of solving the problems we all face. But when we examine these challenges, we see that in future national solutions will no longer be possible.

We are living in an age in which we will not make any headway with “America first”, “China first” or “Russia first”. We will only be able to handle the challenges we face with more, not less, international cooperation and with more, not less, Europe.

Ladies and gentlemen, the uncertainty we are currently experiencing in the world is a double-edged sword: it can generate fear, which benefits populists and nationalists, who draw political capital from it. Yet it can also mobilise new forces.

The future is open and yes, it is uncertain. But that also means that we can shape it.

And to perform this task we need more than just states and governments.

We also need enterprises, NGOs, academia – and cities such as Hamburg, which are justifiably proud of their public spirit and global-mindedness.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is no coincidence that this city’s constitution states that “in the spirit of peace, Hamburg wants to be an intermediary between all continents and peoples of the world”.

Ladies and gentlemen,

That is the third Hamburg message I am taking away with me. A message that speaks of cooperation rather than isolation. Precisely what we so desperately need in Germany and throughout the world.

Whether the uncertainty of our times will lead us in this direction is unclear at present.

However, it is ultimately up to us. And incidentally, that doesn’t just mean the people standing at the lectern, but also the ones sitting at the table in front of it.

Thank you very much.


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