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I’m a true frontier worker – simply because of my job. In the last four weeks alone, my travels as Minister of State for Europe have taken me to France, Belgium, Hungary, Romania, Croatia and Slovakia. You will know this from travelling yourself: these days in Europe, and especially in the Schengen area, crossing borders is mostly not only uncomplicated, but has often become routine and barely noticeable.
Still, this Europe at peace and without borders that we live in today should by no means be taken for granted. “Borderline – Frontiers of Peace”, the photo exhibition that we are opening here today, serves as reminder of this. I am particularly pleased that Valerio Vincenzo, the artist who has taken these great pictures, is here with us today. My sincere thanks go to Regine Feldgen of Frontiers of Peace, as well, without whom this exhibition would never have happened.
Last but not least, I want to especially welcome the pupils of the Beethoven Gymnasium in Berlin Steglitz-Zehlendorf and of Gustav-Heinemann-Oberschule in Berlin Marienfelde. Your visit to the Federal Foreign Office today is part of a European project day. I am happy that right after this opening event we will have an opportunity to talk about our Europe without borders.
Currently, the atrium here at the Federal Foreign Office brings into focus Germany’s foreign and European policy. If you take a look, you will see that in addition to “Borderline – Frontiers of Peace”, there is a second exhibition, “#StrongerUNited – Germany in the UN Security Council”.
It gives an overview of our two-year membership of this body that started at the beginning of the year. As of 1 April, we will also assume the Presidency of the UN Security Council for one month.
We want to use our Security Council membership to make progress on important issues that can only be effectively tackled through a joint effort.
This includes climate protection, women’s participation in peace processes, human rights, disarmament and arms control, as well as increased protection of humanitarian aid workers.
At the same time, we expressly want to give our Security Council membership a European face. We want to think and shape it in a European way. The fact that Germany and France are the first countries ever in the history of the United Nations to take a joint approach to their back-to-back Council Presidencies highlights this in a special way.
And that is where the exhibition “Borderline – Frontiers of Peace” comes full circle. When you look around, you will see that the UN Security Council exhibition is more or less encircled by the borderline exhibit. To be honest, this layout is coincidental and simply how the two exhibitions happened to be set up.
But it could hardly be more symbolic. The fact that these two exhibitions focussing on our major priorities are being held simultaneously very much symbolises how Germany can best work to promote an international, rules-based order, namely through Europe – by ensuring that Europe is both internally strong and capable of taking effective action in the wider world.
There is probably no better way to express the dream of a united Europe without borders than with the works of Valerio Vincenzo. In your photographs, you, Valerio Vincenzo, capture the invisible, that which we can no longer see, and you show us that what was once only a vision has long since become reality. Today, European borders no longer divide. Today, we benefit from this borderless Union, from its openness and freedom in our daily lives. We go to a neighbouring country to study, work and shop, and may even fall in love there. To me, that’s what Europe is about!
It was not always that way. I myself grew up in north east Hesse, not far from the former border between East and West Germany. When I was a child, I had a good view of the border wall, fences and self-firing weapons. Because beyond the far horizon to the east, you couldn’t simply go on, like in the Udo Lindenberg song.
For a long time, I found it unimaginable that this reality – quite literally cast in concrete – would ever change.
Luckily, things did change. Nearly three decades after the fall of the wall, we today live not only in a unified Germany, but Europe, too, has grown together more and more ever since. My home in north east Hesse long ago stopped being at the frontier to East Germany and is now in the heart of Europe.
You, too, travelled a great deal as a frontier worker. Over the past ten years, you have retraced more than 20,000 kilometres of borders between the countries of Europe – documenting your experience with your camera. Thirty of these works are now on display in this exhibition.
Your photographs draw us in. And that is not just because they are great works of art. No, they exude a very special beauty and peacefulness – precisely because, in them, what separates us has vanished. They form an impressive contrast to the images of borders that we see in the media – pictures of border fences, walls and guard towers that are often even patrolled by soldiers and tanks.
In Europe, we don’t want to see such images any more. That is why, for me, one of the most impressive images is the photo of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This image is a clear reminder that this border must continue to remain open! Otherwise, there is a risk that 20 years of peace will be lost. That is why, in talks with the UK Government, we are insisting that Brexit must never jeopardise the achievements of the peace process.
The photographs of Valerio Vincenzo send a message of peace and mutual understanding. Let’s take this message seriously, especially in a day and age when we are dealing with destructive forces in Europe and when our values are massively under threat around the world.
I know that a Europe without borders, an open and free Europe, is not to everyone’s liking. But to all of the nationalists and populists, I will say this: it is here to stay. We will fight for it! Let us overcome borders, refuse to put up new walls and build bridges instead! And let us do so together, in a spirit of solidarity.