Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the think‑tank “Progressistes Bretons”
Thank you very much for your warm welcome. Jean-Yves just pointed out that this is in fact my third trip to Brittany, the last time I was here it was for a football match. It is the epitome of Breton hospitality that Jean-Yves didn’t mention the result. It was during the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the German team were knocked out by the Swedes in Rennes. So I am pretty confident that I will take home happier memories of today’s visit.
Jean-Yves asked a few weeks ago if I would come here this morning and I didn’t need long to decide. Let me tell you why.
First of all, if a friend invites you to his home turf, you don’t say no. I can assure you I’m pretty choosy with the label “friend” in this Facebook era where people can select friends with a click of the mouse. Maybe I’m just really conservative on this but I really do believe in true friendship, friendship based on trust and reliability. And as Jean‑Yves is my Breton friend, I didn’t even consider turning down his invitation to come here today.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Jean-Yves has outlined that we are trying to use the trust we share to permanently upgrade the Franco-German relationship and Franco-German cooperation. At international conferences, we often sit side by side – France and Germany are pretty close in the English alphabet. I very much like this image of Germany and France sitting shoulder to shoulder on the international stage. But we don’t just sit together but in fact what we say is rooted in great trust, in the need for close cooperation and it is on this basis that we endeavour to influence global developments. And I believe that we can do this much better together than on our own.
The second reason I was happy to come here today is my interest in and support for what you are doing here. I think you have hit the target with the Breizh Lab. The number of citizens getting involved in debates about big issue politics has not got bigger – that is at least what we have seen in Germany. I believe this is connected to the fact that we are living in an era of polarisation in society where everything is black and white, exacerbated incidentally by the role of the social media. At such times, talking to one another gets more and more important, also, by the way, across party lines.
We Germans were very interested to see the French Government unrolling its “grand débat national” a few months ago. And I believe that we in Germany could learn a thing or two here.
The third reason why this is now my third visit to Brittany this year is pretty simple. It is a real privilege for a Foreign Minister to see and get to know a country – particularly France, a country I visit so often – away from the capital and away from government buildings.
I read on the plane this morning, that Brittany is home to the most contented French people. This is confirmed by 75% of the Bretons according to a study conducted by the Institut Montaigne. To be honest, I figure there must be something behind it. I would like to know what and perhaps also take something back with me to Germany. Because no matter how good things are for the Germans, they are always pretty reluctant to admit they are happy.
For Germany, 75% contentment is hard to imagine. And that is why I hope to use this visit not just to talk to you about Europe and the Franco-German friendship but also to find out more about the Breton brand of happiness.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I’m not joking actually. After all, being contented with your situation is above all else the best immunisation against the propaganda and half‑truths with which the populists and nationalists are currently poisoning our countries.
We are seeing these attacks in Germany and in France alike. In Germany, a right‑wing nationalist party, the AfD, is now the largest opposition party in the Bundestag. This would have been inconceivable in Germany just a few years ago. In France, this phenomenon goes back further. And the ever more radical movements on our streets and the violence against foreigners, Jews and Muslims that we are seeing in Germany demonstrate just how much anger and resentment is simmering in parts of our societies, sentiments which can all too quickly and easily be focused on minorities. We must not stand idly by here.
Despite all the concern this triggers, there is something we must not forget. It is a point that is very important to me and that I keep trying to emphasise in the debate in Germany: Those who are shouting and stirring up hatred are, of course, making a lot of noise but they are a minority. And we can no longer let this radical minority dictate the questions on our political agendas.
In Germany recently, there has been one topic dominating the debate, namely displacement and migration. Needless to say, this was and remains a central challenge for our country and of course also for a united Europe. But what else is changing people’s lives currently, what is worrying them? Digitalisation, the growing divide between town and country, concerns about affordable housing, unemployment or pension poverty?
All these topics have fallen by the wayside somewhat in the debate in Germany recently. They have also been somewhat neglected in the public discourse in Europe. The reason is that the radical elements in our society have very much dictated our agenda. They manage to do so when the majority fails to speak up.
When I’m abroad, people often ask me: “What on earth is going on in your country?” when people walk the streets in Chemnitz giving the Nazi salute, when right‑wing extremists launch an attack on a synagogue in Halle and people are killed. But this no way reflects the opinions of anything approaching a majority in Germany. On the contrary, we are talking about a small but radical minority and this minority is loud. But we, who think differently, who want to live in globally‑minded countries in which people are treated with respect, need to face up to one fact when complaining about the vocal nature of such a minority: a minority can only make itself heard if the majority stays silent. The louder we are as progressive forces, the easier it will be to readjust the societies in our countries and to reveal the nationalists and populists for what they are: fake giants. Incidentally also because their campaigns based on hatred and disinformation are disproportionately amplified in the echo chambers of our digital world.
If we want to counter the populists and nationalists, then we need to win back our role in determining the narrative – for example, when it comes to terms such as Heimat (home). In Germany, the right‑wing populists have hijacked this word. They make a point of reducing it to descent, blood and soil. We must not allow such terms to be redefined. Because we know, particularly we in Germany know, where that can lead.
Jean-Yves mentioned that I am from the Saarland. I grew up pretty much at the Franco-German border. And this German Land has had a very special history in the last century. After the First and Second World Wars, it kept being shifted between France and Germany. My grandmother lived from 1902 to 1978. She spent her whole life in the same town, in the same street and even in the same house – and she had five different passports during her lifetime. Saarland was administered by Germany, then by France and then again by Germany. After the Second World War, we even had a phase as a Protectorate under international law. I reminded Jean-Yves of this yesterday. After the end of the Second World War and until 1955, the Saarland even had its own national football team, we paraded into the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Helsinki with our own team. In 1953, we were even in the same football World Cup qualifying group as West Germany. That is why there was a home and an away leg of Germany versus Saarland. And it is only because we Saarlanders let them win the second leg 3:1 that Germany even qualified for the World Cup which they then went on to win.
All this goes to show that nationalities can sometimes be pretty random. What I learnt from all this is that it makes sense to cooperate closely, above all with our neighbours, to pay attention to what is happening in other countries and also to take their interests and values seriously. And above all else as Germans because we know that these shifting borders seen in Europe always had something to do with war, occupation and oppression. And part of the reality is that in most cases, Germany was the initial perpetrator.
That is why it is important not to forget history. Because remembering the past makes plain the true value of our united Europe. Even though war in Europe is, thank goodness, unimaginable for the people in our countries today, nothing is irreversible. Nothing can be taken for granted. I was born in 1966 in West Germany. I didn’t have to fight for what I needed for a good life: peace, freedom, the rule of law, relative prosperity, unlike the generations that went before. Some paid a very high price. Some even paid the ultimate price. And many in my generation take these achievements for granted because they have never known things any other way. But nothing can be taken for granted any more.
Those looking at the world, even those looking around Europe, have to admit that peace, freedom, democracy and the rule of law are exposed to forces of disintegration from within and from without. Brexit is causing us major problems in Europe. Also in Italy we have just seen what it means when eurosceptic populists assume power in a founding member of the EU. And the disputes of recent years – about the euro rescue package, the financial crisis, the distribution of refugees, rule‑of‑law shortfalls in countries such as Hungary and Poland – all these have opened up major rifts in the EU. Nothing can be taken for granted any more.
And that is why, particularly for a German politician, for Germany that has caused so much suffering, so many rifts and so much division in Europe, our most important task has to be to close the divides which are currently opening up again. Also because we, the people of Germany and France, know that only a united Europe has a voice in the world.
It is now 55 years ago since the Élysée Treaty set the seal on the historic reconciliation of our two countries. The message back then was: no to war and destruction. Yes to friendship and Europe.
When I started university in Saarbrücken, there was an opening lecture in the main lecture hall attended by 2000 students. The professor told the students: you can study whatever way you want here, take as much or as little time as you need, but you need to promise me one thing. While you are studying here, you need to someday travel on your own from Saarbrücken to Verdun and spend a day on your own in the cemeteries of Verdun. I did precisely that and I have never forgotten what the past experienced by Germany and France actually meant. That we spent most of the time killing each other. And when you see that sight in Verdun then, I believe, you become very aware once more of the responsibility – the responsibility borne by politicians but also the responsibility borne by each and every one of us – to ensure that this never happens again. And to see to it that our two countries continue to provide new momentum to ensure that the values that we share are also the values that shape our reality in Europe.
At the start of the year, we signed this message once more in the Treaty of Aachen. And being able to sign this Treaty is surely one of the highlights of my political career. Incidentally, also as someone from the Saarland for whom the fact of being German is perhaps nothing more than a twist of fate. We have forged the path to enable Germany and France to grow even closer together in many different spheres: security, defence, climate protection, digitalisation and innovation. In all the spheres which are defining our lives and where we face major challenges. And we put our friendship in the service of a strong and functioning Europe. A Europe that protects its citizens, as called for quite rightly by President Macron.
I understand that many people in France yearn for Europe to take an even more energetic approach, given what is going on in the world. We Germans share this will for change. We need to take care here to get others on board because otherwise we risk them getting lost along the way or turning perhaps to others who do not share our values.
Yes, we need to strengthen security and defence in Europe – in our own interest as Europe’s contribution to maintaining and strengthening the transatlantic partnership. And we have in part problems with President Trump and with what he does and says. Take the punitive tariffs imposed on Europe. That is something we would not have thought possible. Nevertheless, we believe that separating European from US security would be a sure way of driving a wedge through Europe because above all in Central and Eastern Europe there are countries who would not follow this route.
And yes, in the European Union we need more ambition, more progress and more change. The French Government is a driving force behind this development. It is good that the new European Commission is finally taking office and has set itself ambitious goals – on climate protection, internal and external security, digitalisation and on converging social standards. We will do what we can to support the Commission here.
And we also stand ready to move forward when it comes to shaping our future, for example, when it comes to defence cooperation, another topic important for France. And we need to move forward here because we can see for ourselves that the world around us is changing. And we need to try to move forward together. In Eastern Europe, some fear we will end up with a first and second‑class Europe. For me, that would be a gild‑edged invitation to the superpowers of this world whose sole plan is to divide Europe for their own advantage.
For this to work, we need above all else Germany and France. The metaphor of the Franco-German engine is used so often because it hits the target. Many think this engine only runs smoothly if we agree on everything in advance, if there is no friction. That is the secret of the Franco-German friendship and cooperation: talking about differences and then finding a solution. This has always worked well.
There is no denying that German federalism does not work the same way as the French state – a fundamental difference between us. There is also divergence in our economic structures. Also in our military traditions. The political landscape is also different and in Germany the situation is currently changing dramatically.
And yet time and again we manage to focus on what we share. We do so because we know that it is in our countries’ interest and in Europe’s interest. But not only that, particularly because our starting positions are often different, particularly because we think differently about some things, we find solutions which the whole of Europe can support. We have seen this time and again.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the true strength of the Franco-German friendship. And that is why I am not worried at all about us failing to find shared solutions and taking the countries of Europe with us on our journey.
I would like to mention just one example. In recent months, Jean-Yves and I have been working intensively to draw up proposals about how to make Europe more able to act in the field of foreign and security policy. We are exploring, for example, how a European Security Council can shape up in which we can pool our foreign and security policy work even more closely. And when we have developed these ideas further, we will discuss them with our partners in Europe. That is how Franco-German cooperation works. And I know that many in Europe are relying on its continuation.
This also holds true for other spheres – tax policy, economic policy and work to strengthen the monetary union. It applies first and foremost to social policy. We are determined to prevent a race to the bottom on social standards, for example by implementing a European minimum wage that is geared to the economic strength of the member states.
Ladies and gentlemen,
when we are working on strengthening Europe, when we talk about a sovereign Europe, Jean-Yves and I have one thing at the forefront of our minds: the geopolitical sea change, on the brink of which we are now standing.
The United States has withdrawn from its role as global policeman – and if we are honest, not just since President Trump took office. Now we are in a situation where the rules‑based order, that is the premise that everyone respects certain rules and legal frameworks and upholds international law, an order that the United States played a leading role in creating, is now coming under pressure and, regrettably, sometimes even from Washington itself. The United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and the nuclear agreement with Iran are two examples. Also in northern Syria, we have seen in recent weeks that US foreign policy sometimes presents us with a fait accompli.
Other actors will use the vacuum this creates: in political and economic terms, above all China. And in military terms, all too often Russia. And so, ladies and gentlemen, we need to cooperate closely, also with China and Russia – above all when it comes to solving international problems. In Syria for example, we need Russia if we are to finally end this war. And we need to realise that these countries, that a country like China, are also rivals when it comes to our values and our interests. That is why it is crucial that we in Europe also speak with one voice on these strategic issues. In the second half of next year, we will hold the EU Council Presidency and we will then stage an EU‑China summit because we want us to stand united in dealings with such countries. Thus, I was delighted when President Macron received the Chinese leadership a few months ago in Paris not on his own but together with the Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel. That is a clear signal and in future we will need many such signals.
Ladies and gentlemen,
last week I was at the G20 Foreign Ministers Meeting in Japan. Here, the Foreign Ministers of the major industrialised countries sit round one table. We talked there about international cooperation, about multilateralism. And everyone talked about how multilateralism was a wonderful thing, the rules‑based order, international humanitarian law. Listening to all that, you could actually just scratch your head and wonder why everything is so difficult right now. Therefore, I believe: in international politics, we don’t have a problem with understanding but with implementation. Here, too, Germany and France can provide key momentum because we must ensure that the lofty words are followed by actions because that is what we need.
That is also one of the reasons why we set up the Alliance for Multilateralism that Jean-Yves just mentioned. Journalists often ask us: What is that? Who goes to it? Is that just some idea of yours? At the United Nations General Assembly in September, as Jean-Yves said, more than 50 Foreign Minister colleagues took up our invitation. Now more than 80 countries have joined the Alliance. They have done so because they know that at this time we need more international cooperation not less. After all, the global challenges we are dealing with – globalisation, climate change, digitalisation, migration – are in their complexity all very different but there is one thing they all share: none of these challenges pays the least heed to national borders. These challenges can only be tackled using international responses, not with national solutions or a return to nationalist thinking, as the nationalists and populists would have us believe.
Ladies and gentlemen,
the longer I keep talking, the less opportunity I will have to find out today what is behind the Breton brand of happiness. And I’d like to take that with me this afternoon when I fly back to Germany.
The study carried out by the Institut Montaigne indicates that this brand of happiness has got something to do with roots. 77% of Bretons have a deep-rooted connection to this region. This figure is much higher than in other areas of France. Yet, during my three visits to the region, I always had the feeling that these deep roots, this identification with their home, are not to the detriment of the Bretons’ open-mindedness. On the contrary!
So if I can voice one wish for your work here at the Breizh Lab, it is this: show your fellow citizens in France and in Europe by what you do here that there is no contradiction in being a Breton, a French citizen, a European and a global citizen. Make plain to the world that there is no contradiction between a sense of home and global-mindedness.
Europe does not rob us of our identity. Far from it! It gives us an additional one, what is more, a shared one. And I am delighted to share this European identity with you, also today, here in Brittany.
Thank you very much. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.