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Dear President Steinmeier, excellencies, friends,
Thank you for the extraordinary honour to speak on this occasion. I feel a great responsibility in speaking after you, Mr President, dear Frank-Walter, and after the beautiful words you just said.
Today we celebrate not only a great man, but also one of the fathers of the European Union. Helmut Schmidt was not from the generation of our founders – like Schuman, Adenauer or De Gasperi, who moved the very first steps towards a united, reconciled, peaceful continent - but the moment he lived in was perhaps even more difficult.
We have heard it from President Steinmeier just a moment ago. The years of terrorism. The years of the great oil crisis and global recession. The years when Europe was at the centre of the struggle between the two super-powers of the time.
And yet in those very years, the European project took some of its most impressive steps forward, thanks to Helmut Schmidt and other statesmen. It is an immense honour for me today to be able to participate at this celebration.
Helmut Schmidt had the reputation of being a pragmatic man. He used to say that “in politics, emotion and passion should have no place – aside from the passion for rationality.” And that indeed sounded very German, especially to an Italian.
But I believe we would need his “passion for rationality” in times like ours – when political decisions too often seem dictated by the mood of the moment, by the latest trend on Twitter, or the fluctuations of opinion polls.
But in spite of his famous quote - “A man who has a vision, he should see a doctor.” - I believe that Helmut Schmidt had a very clear vision about the future of Europe and the responsibility we have as Europeans.
A German journalist once told him: “You present yourself as a technocrat, while pursuing a vision as bold as a unified Europe. You seem to have dreams – but you understand Germany well enough to never admit this.”
His pragmatism was always at the service of strong principles and values. He used to talk about politics as “pragmatic action towards moral purposes.” As a reader of Max Weber, he believed that a politician should always balance an “Ethic of Responsibility”, with an “Ethic of Moral Conviction.” Pragmatism with a conscience. Realism with ambition. And this is the heart of what we, Europeans, are at our best.
This pragmatic man was behind some of the boldest steps towards a united and peaceful Europe, some of the boldest and most visionary steps towards our unity. Together with Valéry Giscard D’Estaing, he gave to the citizens of our Union the possibility to elect for the first time their representatives to the European Parliament. Something we have achieved thanks to him and should always cherish, as we approach the next European elections.
He set up the original architecture of our monetary union. His name was the first signature under the Helsinki Final Act, creating a security architecture for Europe that was based on cooperation and shared principles. And that Helsinki Final Act is today still at the basis of inspirations that can be useful for other regions of the world.
Through his entire life, he never stopped making the rational case for a united Europe. His 2011 speech at the SPD convention represents one of the most compelling arguments for a strong European Union in the twenty-first century.
He realised that European nation states are simply too small in the world of today – both in terms of population and economic power. I often say we have two kinds of Member States: we have the small ones and the ones that have not yet realised they are small. Even Germany is small in comparison to China, the US, India, or the growing countries of South America and Africa.
After World War Two, Europe hosted 20 per cent of the world’s population and 30 per cent of the global wealth. But by the middle of our century, Europeans will only make 7 per cent of humankind, and produce 10 per cent of the global GDP. Still not bad, but the trend is clear.
Helmut Schmidt concluded that “if we cherish the notion that we Europeans are important for the world, we have to act in unison. As individual states, we will ultimately be measured not in percentages, but in parts per thousand. That is why the European nation states have a long-term strategic interest in their mutual integration.”
In times when some see our European integration as a "loss of sovereignty", his words should sound as a wake-up call. It is together, as a Union, that we can regain and effectively exercise sovereignty in today's world.
Giorgio Napolitano – another great European, a good friend of Frank-Walter, and someone I consider personally a mentor – commented that Helmut Schmidt has never lost the pride of being European. We started the celebrations this morning with [Frank Sinatra's] My Way - I think that is a reference to doing things our way, the European way - it's always cooperative, based on our history, culture, values, but also our interests.
I heard many of you speak how Helmut Schmidt had a lot of self-confidence and courage and ambition, the sense for doing things our own way. I believe this is a reminder that there is a European way and that we have to be proud of being Europeans. His realistic assessment of the situation never led him to believe that there was nothing we could do, and that we should just accept an inevitable decline.
Schmidt and also Napolitano remind us that – together, as Europeans – we can still give “our unique contribution to building a new world order, where our welfare and the achievements of our civilisation can still be safeguarded.”
Rethinking Europe means, first and foremost, to make sense of our role in a new reality, our joint place in a new world that we like or not. Sometimes you don't have the luxury of choosing the time you live in as you can't change geography nor history, but there is always something you can do to have an impact on the times you live in.
Last week, at the Munich Security Conference, we discussed a situation of great power competition and global disorder. Probably the times we live in are not the ones we would like to see. Power is much more diffuse than ever, which in itself is not necessarily bad news, there is a growing number of medium-sized powers and even private companies with the budget of nation states. The fundamental rules of international relations are being systematically questioned, and this is bad news. Too many leaders only speak the language of power politics and confrontation. International law and multilateral agreements are perceived more and more as an obstacle for the powerful than a guarantee for all.
This approach goes against everything we, Europeans, have built, cherished and benefited from. It is the law of the jungle, where might makes right, and decisions are taken by the big powers at the expense of everyone else. In a time where power shifts very quickly - so you can be the powerful today, but then you can be at expense of this mechanism a day after - it's not convenient even for the powerful ones, as they might not be so powerful tomorrow.
It is also an approach that leads inevitably to instability and confrontation. If rules don’t matter and international agreements can be ignored, then conflict becomes inevitable. Because the system creates incentives to always manufacture new crises and new occasions to redefine the regional and global balance of power.
This mentality clashes with all our European values, and our history, but most importantly also with our fundamental European interests. History tells us that Europe and Europeans prosper when cooperation prevails over confrontation. At the end of the day, we started to do well in Europe when we realised that making business together is more convenient than making war - after thousands of years of wars in Europe. And this is something that Helmut Schmidt and his generation knew from personal experience.
Helmut Schmidt was certainly not naïve in his approach to peace and security. He understood the logic of deterrence. He knew the difference between dialogue and appeasement. Just think of NATO’s so-called “double-track decision”: it was a genuine offer to the Soviet Union for a mutual limitation of ballistic missiles, but it came together with the readiness to keep the military balance in Europe if necessary.
Helmut Schmidt stood by his position even though it split his own party and created him some difficulties. Sometimes - always, maybe - doing what you think is the right thing to do and comes before anything else. And this is also exercising responsibility with a vision.
Helmut Schmidt believed that peace could not be guaranteed through confrontation, and this is very European. He used to say that security could only be achieved “by means of partnership based on treaties, and by means of cooperation.” This is the core of our foreign and security approach in Europe. During the debate on euro-missiles, he kept repeating that disarmament and non-proliferation represented the only way to build a more sustainable security.
This was also the idea behind the Helsinki Final Act: that security in Europe required cooperation among European nations and global powers. He always had faith in the possibility to find common ground with other nations – based on certain universal principles, and on the shared interest to avoid a new and more devastating conflict.
He refused to see war as a continuation of politics through other means. Just like Immanuel Kant, he believed that war is not inevitable, but that peace will not happen without us, each of us - it's a call to responsibility that is still valid today.
In today's fragmented, chaotic, conflictual world, Europe is more and more an indispensable partner to preserve peace and build a truly sustainable security. I have a privilege of doing a job that brings me to all corners of the world, and I hear from our partners - from South America to Africa or far-east Asia - who see Europe as a point of reference, much more than sometimes we, Europeans, realise. I believe it is time for us to understand the responsibility we have in the world of today, in front of our partners and in front of our citizens.
Rethinking Europe means that we must also understand our potential and our responsibility in today’s world.
In our times, security is more complex than ever. Helmut Schmidt understood it perfectly, when he talked about the end of the era of nuclear deterrence. And our citizens understand it too. Three out of four Europeans support European integration on defence. This is a record number in times when European integration are words that are not popular. We have the instinctive perception that together we are safer.
Because only together can we face the challenges and the threats of our times. The European Union has a unique potential to respond to these threats – with our unique combination of soft and hard power, from development cooperation to conflict prevention, from mediation to diplomacy to trade, but also investment and climate change action, and all the way through the security spectrum, up to military operations. Not so many know that the European Union has 17 missions and operations deployed around the world.
Together, we are a unique global security provider. We are a reliable custodian of multilateral agreements, and of a cooperative approach to global issues. This in itself is being a global security provider. Together, we can resist the trend that leads towards more conflict and chaos, and eventually reverse it.
As Helmut Schmidt said, Europe is our best chance - our only chance - to have an impact on global politics, instead of standing by as decisions are taken elsewhere, and as the world becomes more chaotic. We can exercise our responsibility and live to our potential.
I think we all wished to live in easier times for global politics. Clearly, we cannot choose the kind of times we live in. What we can do, is to try and shape our times. Avoid the worse, sometimes this is already a contribution - but most importantly, build conditions for better times.
This is the collective responsibility we have, as Europeans. We have the potential to make an impact in global affairs, but we need to take the decision to use our potential, and do our part. Power is nothing if you are not aware you have it.
In his final years, Helmut Schmidt was often asked about the future of Europe, and how to change Europe for the better. He was a man who contributed to shaping the European institutions and our Union as we know it. And yet he always answered that it wasn’t primarily about structures and technicalities. It was essentially about political will, from European leaders and from European citizens. It was about courage and ambition.
I believe this is another call for our times, a call for responsibility and action. Because at the end Europe is what we make of it. And what we decide to make of it has a direct impact not only on European citizens, but on the rest of the world. In these difficult years, some have tried, are trying to find the courage and to demonstrate the ambition to make Europe a global point of reference, for cooperation, for multilateralism.
A call for responsibility and a call for realistic, pragmatic ambition. These are choices only we can make, like Helmut Schmidt did before us. A great lesson to be learned.