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“Absolute, magnificent, and frightening”, was how the author Heinrich Böll described Irish rain. His “Irish Journal”, which has been read by millions, played a major role in shaping the image which Germans have had of your country since the 1960s. I didn’t find the rain “frightening” today – thanks to Apple.
However, weather forecasts and knowledge transfers weren’t always smart and digital. I’ve just had the privilege of admiring the Book of Kells and the library’s Long Room. I have to say that I’m not surprised so many people all over the world come here for the same reason.
Ireland as a whole with its traditions and history is fascinating – its continuity in change. These rooms, this cultural heritage, bear witness to that. It’s therefore an honour for me to be here today and I think I can say to you: even though you won’t be aware of it to the same degree in every lecture – those of you studying here are privileged. You have the opportunity to learn something which no-one in the world can take away from you.
But it’s about more than pure knowledge – if need be, we can actually find that on the Internet today. It’s about education and also culture. This is not something rigid, not something that you can simply learn by heart. Education and culture thrive on exchange and cooperation.
They thrive on “curiosity, openness, discourse and diversity”.
And that’s what we need more than ever today. For here in Europe, just as in other parts of the world, populism is trying to inject poison into our societies and to drown out science and academic research with fake news.
The achievements of cooperation, multilateralism and democracy are in jeopardy, for Europe is facing new challenges while old certainties seem to be dissolving to an ever greater extent. Especially today, we need more people to engage in exchange again.
You would think that modern technology makes it easy. But is it really? We may know everything, even at the same time – but do we also know what is truly important?
Has political debate become more transparent because it’s conducted via Twitter?
Do we know how to take advantage of the possibilities offered by technology, what kind of culture we want to create? Do we want a digital economy? Or do want a “social digital economy”?
And what does this mean for our prosperity and our society? In the light of the large-scale global interdependence, we can only answer these questions together.
I’m a child of the 1980s. I grew up in western Germany with a Comodore 64, Datasette and “Moonwalker” and I was the first pupil in my class to own a mobile. So I’m certainly not a cultural pessimist. However, I believe we should critically assess all the developments we take for granted today.
The more we know and are able to do, the more we should scrutinise them. That’s the only way we can change anything in this world. Especially if we don’t want to lose what has become dear and valuable to us.
This university has produced many clever minds – and some of their biographies highlight how European history connects.
I can imagine that studying in the midst of this history can be an incentive but can also engender respect. Perhaps it even raises the expectations that students have of themselves.
However, it also has to be said that those who went before us, before you, weren’t infallible geniuses who didn’t have doubts.
I’ve often thought about Samuel Beckett recently, especially in view of our theme today, namely Europe. He studied here and gained a first class degree – and yet at some point he was struggeling with his hometown Dublin, and finally moved to Paris.
He travelled to Berlin and met the artists of the Brücke movement, whose work was banned shortly afterwards. He also experienced the growing threat of National Socialism.
I’m convinced that it’s important to learn more about history if we want to learn the right lessons from the past. However, I mainly thought of Samuel Beckett for a different reason.
In Paris and already writing in French, Beckett created a work which we all know: “Waiting for Godot”. In the play, Estragon and Vladimir wait (spoiler alert!) in vain. They think about what they could do. For example, kill themselves. But they don’t do anything. The present is meaningless to them, for those who wait look for meaning in the future.
Interestingly, another figure appears who is supposed to think ahead and strings together fragments of learning and knowledge in a random and incoherent manner. He thus presents a kind of “scrap heap” of thinking.
At any rate, the play has become synonymous with absurd theatre.
Looking at this day and age and our Europe, however, I find this message very relevant today.
It’s not enough to wait.
The reality is that we can no longer take Europe for granted. We need to work closely together on reshaping Europe if we want to be able to meet the global challenges.
It seems to be obvious, but we should remember that we’re far too small at the global level to defend and assert our interests on our own.
And apart from that, Europe is the key project for peace in our time. After the terrible experiences of the 20th century, we should regard this project as an incredible gift.
That is why “Europe United” should become the motto of the European Union, and not just because of Brexit or Donald Trump’s “America First” policies.
Apart from the political will to take joint action, “Europe United” means standing up for effective multilateralism in Europe.
We must have the necessary means and instruments in order to be effective. And where they don’t yet exist, we must create them.
To put it simply, this means deciding whether we believe we can achieve more together or alone. I firmly believe that we achieve more together.
This special place prompts us to ask: why is the cultural and academic exchange today so important to the future of the European Union? Why is the exchange among you, young Europeans and students, so crucial? What does that mean for Ireland, Germany and our bilateral relations?
I believe you’ve already given the answer yourselves: 92 per cent of Irish people – indeed 97 per cent of the 18 to 25 year olds – want to remain in the EU. I’m convinced that this positive attitude is partly due to the fact that the Irish regard the European Union as a project for peace. Young people in our two countries can ensure that this remains so. That’s my great hope.
Some 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is what the Irish rightly want it to remain: nothing more than a line on the map. Membership of both the EU and the Common Travel Area has made this island more peaceful, prosperous, indeed a better place to live.
Germany is working with Ireland to ensure that after Brexit all that’s been achieved is not put at risk and that a new border is not established. Ireland will be affected, both economically and politically, more than any other EU member state by Brexit.
We deeply regret the British decision to leave the EU. Just like the Irish, we’re keen for economic and political reasons to forge the closest possible ties with the UK after Brexit. Our solidarity with Ireland is steadfast: there cannot be a hard border in Ireland. It’s vital that the peace process isn’t endangered.
Foreign Minister Maas reiterated this once more during his visit to Dublin in his talks with Foreign Minister and Tánaiste Coveney this April, as well as in Berlin three weeks ago. However, the Brexit negotiations have made one thing clear: the EU can stand united and be strong together in difficult times.
We, the German Government, are taking these challenges very seriously and want, together with our EU partners, to strengthen the European idea and to stand up for our shared values and beliefs.
Culture has a very special role to play here. We have to counter populism, nationalism and isolationism with a common European culture which extends beyond the borders of nation-states. Instead of national representation, we’re placing our faith in co-production and exchange in our international cultural policy. We believe that cultural policy is always also work to foster peace.
International cultural policy is the third pillar in Germany’s foreign policy alongside traditional diplomacy and economic relations. The Cultural Department at the Federal Foreign Office will be one hundred years old in 2020. We’re already working to be more critical of ourselves.
We want to draft a new programme together with all our experts around the world. It is intended to provide guidance and orientation for a modern international cultural policy in a changed world.
Youth exchange, town twinnings, the promotion of artists and joint creative processes, coming to grips with history – all of this is already an important part of a foreign policy aimed at moving away from nation-state politics and towards civil society-based politics.
I have a concrete example of how this can be done: Heinrich Böll, who described Irish rain so beautifully, loved Ireland and his cottage on Achill Island.
It is still used today to provide a refuge where artists-in-residence from around the globe can stay for a short period to find inspiration and peace in the breathtakingly lovely landscape.
Its initiatives like this, often run by volunteers, which create protected spaces for artists and can inject new impetus into our relations.
For us therefore, cultural policy doesn’t mean “exporting” culture. We’ve opted for cooperation and collaboration. Language and curiosity are basic prerequisites for this. I’m therefore delighted that the Irish Government attached special importance to culture and the German language in a review of bilateral relations with Germany.
By the way, just under 60,000 Irish pupils are now learning German at school, while more than 4000 students are learning it at university. In the last Leaving Cert – there was a rise of 10 per cent in the number of pupils taking a German exam compared to the previous year.
The Goethe-Institute, for whose re-opening in Merrion Square I’ve come to Dublin today, offers language courses for more than 1000 participants each year.
These figures are impressive and I hope that we can work together with the Irish Government to increase them. The German-Irish Chamber of Commerce estimates that there are 2000 vacancies in Ireland at present for which people with a knowledge of German are being sought. At any rate, Germany has much to offer – especially Berlin.
There’s an amazing creative scene in the German capital today. What’s more, important social issues can be discussed, also from a cultural perspective, in the conferences run by re:publica, which have provided key public spaces for discourse in the digital sphere since 2007.
Last year, we helped re:publica to also organise “re:connecting Europe” conferences in Thessaloniki and Dublin. It should be no surprise that Dublin was chosen. Being home to the European headquarters of the world’s largest IT companies, as well as a number of start-ups, Dublin plays a key role in the spread of digital technology.
I was very interested to hear that Trinity College Dublin is leading Europe when it comes to training business people. I’m certain that we can learn a lot from each other in this sphere and that we can cooperate even more.
Academic exchange between our countries is already very close and diverse. There are just under 400 university collaborations. Trinity College Dublin alone has 30 partner universities in Germany. All in all, around 1400 German Erasmus students come to Ireland every year and around 500 Irish Erasmus students go to Germany.
I hope we can increase these numbers. They often result in lifelong friendships – or more: we estimate that there are already more than one million “Erasmus babies”. We can certainly say here that they didn’t wait. They just got on with it.
Students, ladies and gentlemen,
That is what counts. It’s not enough to do nothing. For we cannot do nothing. So we have to do our bit. That’s my interpretation and, at the same time, my key message to you.
Stay curious, critical and vigilant. To paraphrase Samuel Beckett: we have to do our utmost to plunge into the depths. For the surface is our enemy.
One thing is certain, after all: the world won’t wait for us – but we can shape it together.
The European election is an opportunity for this. So, don’t wait – vote!