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Speeches, Interviews

28.01.2006

Opening address by Federal President Heinz Fischer at the conference "The Sound of Europe" in Salzburg.


 

Address by the

Federal President Dr Heinz Fischer

28 January 2006

Check against delivery!

 

 

Ladies and Gentlemen!

Let me begin by expressing my admiration and appreciation for the marvellous music performance yesterday. I congratulate everyone involved in planning, organising and carrying it out. Please accept my sincere thanks.

I should like to start straight away by telling you about an experience that made a lasting impression on me.

I experienced my strongest emotional bond with Europe, the strongest feeling of my European identity, almost 32 years ago in autumn 1974, when I was travelling in the Far East with my wife. We arrived via Moscow, Irkutsk and Pjöngjang in China, just as it was emerging from Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution. There was hardly any tourism there at the time. It was a completely different China to the China of today. Whenever my wife and I met somebody from, say, the UK or Sweden – which didn’t happen very often – we met each other as Europeans and had in common this fact of being European. Nationality was a subordinate issue. What actually constituted this specific European identity?

The fact of geographically belonging to the west of the Eurasian continent? 

Religious or cultural influences?

A shared history?

Or something else?

At the time, of course, I did not formulate those questions so clearly, nor could I have answered them.

Now I reflect a great deal on these questions, because comprehending the common “Sound of Europe” is of enormous importance to the future prospects of the European project, and I realise that the threads of a European identity reach far back into the past and are irrevocably intertwined.

The mythology of Europa, which - as we know - was originally neither a geographical nor a political concept, begins with the tale of a young princess with whom Zeus, the father of the gods, fell in love when he caught sight of her on the seashore with her friends. He transformed himself into a bull and abducted her over the sea to Crete.

But this girl Europa was not a European in the modern sense; she was the daughter of a Phoenician king from Asia Minor. And Zeus was not the divinity of a monotheistic religion of the type that is predominant in Europe today, but the father of the gods of a polytheistic pantheon.

But Christianity, too, which is the main religion in Europe today, has its roots close to the homeland of the Phoenician princess and first began to develop in the regions around the Mediterranean Sea, which are absolutely not identical to the Europe of today. Europe was much smaller then and at the same time much larger. 

The picture is the same when we take a look at the cultural roots:

Europe owes its numerical system to the Arabs. The beautiful epic of “The Iliad”, which had such a strong influence on European culture, concerns the battle for a city in Asia Minor, and Prometheus who, according to the myth, brought divine fire and knowledge to mortals although it was forbidden, was shackled to a rocky crag in what is now Georgia.

The Museion of Alexandria, the most prestigious seat of learning of the time, a kind of Harvard of the ancient world, was in Egypt.

In other words, many sources of inspiration of the blossoming European culture and science are not located in Europe in the modern sense of the term, or at least not in countries of the European Union.

It was the sum of all these sources, these seeds of cultural diversity, the schools of thought of Asia Minor, Judaism and Christianity, the migration and mixing of the peoples, Indo-Germanic and Slavic influences, humanism and enlightenment, which gave rise to that European culture, that European model of thought and way of life, that catalogue of human rights, i.e. that modern concept of Europe to which we are now trying to give political shape.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen!

More than 150 years ago, in 1849, Victor Hugo said in a famous speech in Paris: "A day will come when you France, you Russia, you Italy, you England, you Germany, you all, nations of the continent, without losing your distinct qualities and your glorious individuality, will be merged closely within a superior unit”.

This was still a very long way off, however. 

It was not until after the unprecedented dictatorship of the Nazis and the devastation of World War II that this seemingly unattainable vision became an imperative necessity.

The time was ripe for the great rivals of European history to join forces, and lay the foundations for the common European house by signing the Rome Treaties in 1957.

I do not need to talk to you about progress since then on the “building site of Europe”, but the most recent enlargement with ten new member states in 2004 made it possible to speak not only of enlargement, but of the reunification of a continent that had been divided for decades: ‘That which belongs together, grows together’.

Over the last few years, however, we have been witnessing an example of a perspicacious observation by Berthold Brecht, which runs: 

"When the difficulty
Of the mountains is once behind
That's when you'll see
The difficulty of the plains will start."

This is precisely where we are today. In the struggle of the European plains, which seems to be causing us much greater difficulty than the initial slope and final ascent to a common Europe.

I admit: the construction of the common European house is not proceeding according to the architect’s blueprint. As we have seen in the course of the last five decades, the common Europe is work in progress.

But the will to build this common house is not only a whim of political contemporaries.

It is an idea with a long history, it is a rational idea and it is a necessary idea.

From where, then, comes this strong headwind we are feeling, if the European project has so many good arguments in its favour?

I believe it is not the European project as such which generates such opposition, it is not the basic concept of European cooperation which draws criticism, rather it is certain specific experiences; it is the real situation on the ground in the European Union of 25 that is viewed with scepticism and meets with criticism from many quarters. 

Let me give some examples:

  • Again and again national interests are instrumentalised against Union interests.
  • Many citizens of Europe feel they are not being taken seriously with their concerns and that they are light years away from the decision-makers in Brussels and elsewhere.
  • There is a strong temptation to nationalise success stories and europeanise the unpalatable.
  • There is a feeling – and it is more than just a feeling – that the democratic model is not working, or not working satisfactorily, at the European level.
  • And to cap it all, there is the division between those already living in the European house who would dearly like to lock the door from the inside, and those on the outside who see the Union as the Promised Land, and who are knocking loudly on the door asking for admittance.

It is also true that the answers given to the approximately 20 million jobless in Europe today are not satisfactory.

The fate of these millions of people without work is a bitter reality.

That is why we must also take announcements and targets concerning cuts in the unemployment rates very seriously. I am convinced that confidence in Europe depends to a very large extent on confidence in the social stability of Europe.

What is more, in the final analysis, problems relating to migration, asylum or internal security also have a strong social dimension.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen!

The motto "Sound of Europe" is not only a reminder that the Mozart year has begun, but it is above all a reminder that, in addition to the economic foundation I have just been talking about, we must devote our fullest attention to the superstructure of Europe’s commonality.

It is my firm conviction that a common cultural consciousness – with due regard for national attributes and differences - forms a decisive part of a common European consciousness.

This European consciousness must have a strong, forward-looking dimension. It must take seriously its own goals in the area of science and research.  It must be open for curiosity and for the new sounds of this world.

And since this year is not only a Mozart year but also a Sigmund Freud year, may I say I concur with what Sigmund Freud said in September 1932 in a letter to Albert Einstein: "Whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war".

Europe, the culture project, is also a project against war, and vice versa. We must never forget that.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen!

The inhabitants of the European house, which we want to be a peaceful and safe house, also need a firm foundation of common European values so that a good household based on solidarity can develop. These values above all include human rights, and consequently also our common rejection of the death penalty, which is a product of the European debate. They also - and in particular - include a common understanding of the theory and practice of democracy.

The concept of democracy has existed in Europe since the time of Cleisthenes, i.e. for more than 2500 years; in the middle of the 1990s, Greece with right invited to a great celebration in Athens under the motto "2500 years of democracy in Europe". Yes, Cleisthenes and his contemporaries developed the model of democracy 2500 years ago. But this model was then suppressed and forgotten for more than 2000 years. In practice, there has been democracy in many countries for considerably less than 100 years. While the European Union is an association of democratic states, the idea of a pan-European democracy is still in its infancy. 

I strongly believe that the European Constitutional Treaty, for example, would bring progress in the development of a European democracy.

On the subject of the Constitutional Treaty, procedural questions are not paramount for me at this stage. Far more important is the question: What do we want?  Is it better for the future of the European Union to have such a Constitutional Treaty, or would it be better if it did not come about? 

For me, the answer is clear.

Europe and Europeans as a whole would be much better off with such a treaty than without it; it was and is a compromise document drawn up by a pan-European convention at the request of all 25 governments and also accepted by the European Parliament, and represents very concrete progress.

We should certainly take heed of what the European Parliament has to say on this subject.

The possibility of a pan-European referendum - which I personally consider to be a good idea although the related constitutional problems are extremely complex - would be a positive contribution to the concept of democracy in Europe.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen!

Discussing all these issues is an important, common task. New ideas are welcome.

And if we risk losing heart and becoming weary, we should not forget the trials Europe has overcome in the course of its history.

Above all, we should bear in mind the Chinese saying: In the struggle between the stone and the water, in time, the water wins.

In this spirit, not only have we learned that democracy, however vulnerable and imperfect, ultimately has a more promising future than the seemingly most rock-solid dictatorship, but we shall also prove that our humanist European values have more creative energy than can be destroyed by any national egoism. The European model is a model for the future. It deserves our confidence.

 

Date: 02.02.2006