'A Timeless Canon of Values' German President Makes Plea for More Europe
German President Joachim Gauck made a passionate plea on Friday for greater European integration in the most important speech of his term in office thus far. He called on Britain to remain in the EU and said that Germany does not want to impose its will on the rest of its EU partners.
When it comes to the European Union, many in Germany and around the 27-member club think first and foremost of mind-numbing bureaucracy in Brussels and the never-ending crisis facing the Continent's common currency. Citizens feel powerless, helpless and oftentimes ignored.
Such were the sentiments that German President Joachim Gauck acknowledged right at the beginning of his highly anticipated keynote address on Europe, delivered on Friday in Berlin. It was the first major speech of his 11-month-old presidency, and it comes at a time when euro-skepticism is widespread -- most notably in Britain, but also in Germany and across the EU.
Gauck, though, quickly moved on from the laundry list of complaints that are often directed at Brussels and from the fears felt by those countries in crisis. In the rest of the speech, he delivered an eloquent and passionate defense of the European idea.
"We can travel from the Neman (River) to the Atlantic and from Finland to Sicily without at any point having to dig out a passport," he said. "We can use one and the same currency across much of Europe, and we buy Spanish shoes and Czech cars without paying extra customs charges . In a very positive way, more Europe has become part of our everyday lives."
Gauck, who, like Chancellor Angela Merkel, spent his formative years in the former East Germany, was quick to call for "more Europe" when he was first sworn in last March, following the ignominious resignation of his predecessor, Christian Wulff. But Friday marked the first time he provided greater insight into his vision of Europe. First and foremost, he said, Europe needed to develop a common identity.
A Source of Identity
"It is still hard to pinpoint what it is that makes us European, what it means to have a European identity," he said, before attempting to provide a solution to the riddle. "Europe does have a source of identity: an essentially timeless canon of values which unites us at two different levels, both in our profession of respect for them and in the action we take to uphold them."
Gauck is particularly well-liked in Germany. As a pastor in East Germany, he became a leading member of the New Forum, a citizens' movement that ultimately played a key role in the GDR's rapid switch from communism to democracy after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Gauck also became the first head of the authority tasked with managing the files collected by the Stasi, East Germany's secret police. In his current position, Gauck holds no political power, but German presidents have traditionally been viewed as representing the conscience of the nation.
On Friday, Gauck seemed well aware of the attention that would be paid to his speech. "European identity is not about excluding those who are different," he said. "Rather, European identity grows out of our deepening cooperation and the conviction of those who say we want to be part of this community because we share common values. More Europe means making diversity more genuinely part of our lives and allowing it to unite us."
The German president noted the difficulties currently facing the EU and warned that further integration is needed in terms of financial and economic policy as well as foreign and defense issues. When it comes to the need for reform, he said, "We are in the midst of this discussion, not at the end" and urged that "We must prevent anyone being driven into the arms of populists and nationalists by uncertainty or fear."
A European Germany
It quickly became clear where Gauck believes disillusionment poses the greatest threat to Europe. Toward the end of his speech, he made a direct appeal to the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. "Dear people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, dear new British citizens! We would like you to stay with us!" he said. "During the Second World War, your efforts helped to save our Europe -- and it is also your Europe . More Europe cannot mean a Europe without you!"
Finally, Gauck addressed the skepticism toward Germany that has become widespread in Europe as the euro crisis has progressed, particularly in those countries laboring under onerous austerity programs. "I want to assure all citizens of neighboring countries that I cannot imagine any of Germany's policymakers seeking to impose a German diktat," Gauck said. "It is my heartfelt conviction that, in Germany, more Euorpe does not mean a German Europe. For us, more Europe means a European Germany."
Gauck received a standing ovation at the end of his speech. And then he quickly left the stage.