President of the Federal Republic of Germany

Speech made to the Assembly

Wednesday, 26 January 1983

Thank you very much, Mr President, for your kind personal words of welcome to me here in this great Assembly. I was grateful for your suggestion of how to spend any future spare hours that I may have in updating my book on the Council of Europe, published some thirty years ago. It is an idea to which I shall give serious consideration. I should like to thank all of you for the invitation which President de Areilza extended to me in your name.

It was a great pleasure for me to accept that invitation. My visit is an indication of the respect which we Germans have for the Council of Europe, and underscores the fact that the Federal Republic of Germany has linked its fate with free Europe. All of the parties represented in the German Bundestag support this position, and the Federal Government has made it the guideline of its foreign policy. My visit is also intended to demonstrate my own personal commitment to Europe.

I belong to a generation that experienced the suffering and horror of two wars. After 1945, I and many of my contemporaries were determined that never again should there be war between the European brother nations, and convinced that the most certain way of maintaining peace in Europe lay in European unification.

It has been a great privilege for me to be able to work towards the realisation of this idea for the past thirty years. It began with my appointment as my country’s first representative at the Council of Europe. Strasbourg was the place where we Germans regained acceptance in the community of European nations, and where we took our first steps again in international politics. In later years, when my work focused on the European Communities, I none the less maintained my links with the Council of Europe, both as State Secretary of the Federal Foreign Office and as a member of the German Bundestag. In 1977, as President of the Bundestag, I had the honour of taking part in the dedication of your new building.

The history of the Federal Republic of Germany is closely intertwined with that of the Council of Europe. Both of them came into being in May 1949. It was then that the Statute of the Council of Europe was signed and the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany proclaimed.

The founding members of the Council of Europe hoped, by rediscovering the roots of European culture, to create the foundation for a free and unified Europe.

In those years, the will for unification was so strong that the citizens of European countries joined together and acted on their own. At the Congress held in The Hague in 1948, where proposals were drawn up for the unification of the European states, it was recognised that Germany should be included from the outset in the process of European unification.

It was in the relationship between the neighbours France and Germany that there was the most to be done, as Konrad Adenauer, from the Rhineland, and Robert Schuman, a native of Lorraine, knew, who immediately set about the task. Precisely because neither nation took the matter lightly, a friendship developed which up to the present day has formed the foundation of the stability and continuity of European politics. Four days ago, both of our countries commemorated the Elysée Treaty, which was signed by Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle in 1963. The treaty sealed the reconciliation and created an institutional framework for co-operation between our nations.

Today I should like to express my gratitude to the city of Strasbourg, which has dedicated its great cultural tradition and its long and often painful political experience to the European cause. I should particularly like to thank Mr Pierre Pflimlin who, as mayor of this city and a French statesman, has earned our appreciation for his contributions to German-French understanding and European unity.

The founders of the Council of Europe were faced with the question of what Europe actually means. They came up with an answer that was not abstract, but very concrete, making protection for human rights and fundamental freedoms the focus of this oldest and most comprehensive European organisation. In so doing, they caught the essential aspect of the European concept of man. St. Thomas Aquinas summed it up like this: “Liber est qui sui causa est” – he is free who is his own man. The dignity of man requires that should he not be regarded as an object. What is true of the individual also holds true for peoples. Every nation has the right to determine its own destiny.

It is one of the great achievements of the Council of Europe that it has always clearly and effectively supported this conviction. For many, the Council of Europe is today synonymous with protection for human rights.

On this foundation, the Council of Europe has been able to make progress in the development of international law, which—like all law—is ultimately intended to serve each individual human being. In the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the signatory states accept an obligation towards their citizens. Yet they go one step further, a step which remains unique today and which I am tempted to call “revolutionary”: they grant each individual citizen the right to take recourse to a supranational instance, if he believes that his rights have been infringed upon by his own state.

Thus, the barrier set up by the classical concept of sovereignty, which completely isolated the individual from the community of international law, was broken down. Each citizen became a subject of international law. It is encouraging to note that in every sphere the fate of the individual is being given more and more attention in international discussion and agreements. The most recent example of this is the Final Act of Helsinki.

In addition to its function of protecting human rights, the Council of Europe has made a valuable contribution in harmonising the domestic legislation of its member states. In the past thirty years, more than one hundred multilateral agreements have been concluded to that end. They deal with the free movement of persons as well as with legal aid, extradition, guest workers and data protection. I know from my own experience how much work has gone into these results. It would have been next to impossible to achieve these objectives through bilateral agreements; it has been observed that this would have required more than 20 000 such agreements.

Besides protection for human rights and the harmonisation of the domestic legislation of the member states, the Council of Europe also focuses on cultural work. Its exhibitions are exemplary, presenting various artistic trends and eras – Romanesque, Gothic, Rococo, and most recently the Renaissance – which have had an impact on the entire continent. They create an awareness of the unity of the European region and combat still-existing myths and prejudices.

The younger generation undoubtedly has the most relaxed attitude towards Europe. If young people were asked: “Do you think a Frenchman, Englishman, Belgian or other European of your age and occupation has the same problems as you?”, most would answer affirmatively. It is therefore only logical that the Council of Europe has set up a European Youth Centre as a meeting point for European youth organisations. The many invitations issued to youth organisations to visit the Council of Europe encourage them to devote stronger and more conscious efforts to the common European cause.

In this connection it is, in my view, of foremost importance to make increased efforts to learn the European languages. I wish to congratulate the Council of Europe on its contribution. Here, too, the Council of Europe makes a substantial contribution through the exchange programmes between universities. In the final analysis, however, the main responsibility lies with national institutions and ultimately the individual. I think that every European student should, in addition to his mother tongue, know at least two other European languages.

The day-to-day work of the Council of Europe – of which I have been able to cite only a few examples – may be less than spectacular, but it has the advantage of being tangible and comprehensible to all.

In this abundance of activity, the Parliamentary Assembly – you, Ladies and Gentlemen – is the driving force of the Council of Europe. In addition to the innovative system of protection for human rights, it was the Parliamentary Assembly itself that represented a second creative contribution made during the founding years of Europe. For the first time in history, an international body composed of parliamentarians was created. Its members are both national parliamentarians and active in the international European sphere. They know their own country and they have international experience. The advantages of this combination of a national and a European mandate are evident, as long as the European mandate, as for example in the case of the Parliament of the European Community, does not take up the entire time and energy of the parliamentarian.

Your Assembly is the most comprehensive forum for political discussion in Europe. Parliamentarians from twenty-one member states exchange views and pass joint resolutions. I do not agree with those who feel that discussion and resolutions without legal force are ineffectual. That opinion is based on a mistaken view. It would be a total misunderstanding of democracy to see it merely in terms of voting and implementing majority decisions. Rather, such decisions must be preceded by the willingness to hear the opinions of others, to take them seriously and perhaps to accept them as well. And nowhere is democratic Europe, in its immense variety and broad spectrum of political opinion, better heard than in your Assembly. Your debates on the great problems of our time render a great contribution to European politics and make clear to the world Europe’s position.

Your Assembly – and the Council of Europe as a whole – has maintained its significance even after the creation of the European Community, to which first six, later ten and, I hope, soon twelve European states will belong, all of which are also members of the Council of Europe.

From the standpoint of the Federal Republic of Germany and its interests, the bond provided by the Council of Europe will remain vital in the future. In our view, all members of the Council of Europe are part of Europe. We respect the reasons of those who do not feel that they can become members of the European Community. We have particularly close relations with some of them, as shown by my visit to Switzerland and the visit of the Austrian President to the Federal Republic of Germany, both of which took place in 1982.

The Council of Europe will continue to be the organisation which includes almost all free states of Europe, and 385 million people. I mean that not only in an organisational sense but more profoundly: for the citizens of the European Community as well, the Council of Europe guarantees protection for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Here the cultural and spiritual unity of Europe in its greatest variety becomes visible.

To be sure, Europe as a spiritual and cultural unit goes beyond the borders of the twenty-one members of the Council of Europe. We Germans know that from day-to-day painful experience. We are striving for a state of peace in all of Europe which, we hope, will enable us one day through free self-determination to overcome the division of our country. Even today, we are making all efforts to realise the European ideal of the dignity of man and the freedom of the individual in every part of Europe. This was also the meaning of our signing the Final Act of Helsinki. The contribution by the Council of Europe to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and its follow-up meetings serves the same purpose.

The ideas of the dignity and freedom of man, and of the moral foundation and limitation of power, were conceived in Europe. Outside Europe, these ideas have been steadily and convincingly realised in the country which, after Great Britain, is the world’s oldest democracy: the United States of America, which is allied with thirteen member states of the Council of Europe and plays a vital role in guaranteeing the security of Europe. I am thus gratified that you seek dialogue with the parliamentarians of the United States and the other democracies outside our continent and invite your colleagues to what President de Areilza refers to as the “Strasbourg conferences”.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the vigour of the post-war years, when barriers were torn down, has long since abated. It is in danger of giving way to disappointment. Europe had become accustomed to the fair weather of economic growth, and today it is having difficulty standing up to the ill winds of today’s world.

Unemployment, our most pressing problem, has reached the levels of the first post-war years. It is a result of long-term developments, and for the most part it can be overcome only on a long-term basis. We Europeans failed to adjust early enough to the new situation we saw approaching. No country can completely absolve itself of the blame. The path to lasting jobs calls for competitive industry. For this reason, we must strengthen the heart of the European economy, the international market created by the European Community and the European free trade zone. But we must not cut ourselves off from other countries.

Politically, it may not be easy in individual cases to reject the call for protection. A return to protectionism, however, would prevent necessary modernisation and have a detrimental effect on our export capability and, ultimately, on our standard of living. This also applies to subsidies. If competition between our countries’ budgets is allowed to replace competition between businesses, Europe will be reduced to a second-rate economic region. The Council of Europe has no set of economic instruments at its disposal – none the less, however, it is involved in this discussion, and perhaps we might expect it to provide guidelines for the future.

We must not ignore the social, psychological and ultimately political consequences of lasting unemployment. Moreover, we must recognise that, in addition to the world-wide recession, other structural causes have led to the current level of unemployment.

Automation and rationalisation of the work process result in the loss of jobs. Granted, new jobs are thereby created somewhere else, but they often fail to appear simultaneously or in equal numbers. In addition, they frequently require a different kind of vocational training. Our countries are thus confronted with profound and serious questions which must urgently be discussed in more depth.

The discussion, however, should not be limited to economic questions; it should also include society and the social order, and time and again call attention to the importance of equity.

The generation of those who founded the Council of Europe views the present in terms of the war years. Seen in this light, the present may be judged positively. The younger generation is marked by the experience of economic growth and prosperity an the 1960s and 1970s and tends to base its judgments on an idealised view of the future. Using this standard, the present leaves much to be desired.

However, there is also a great deal that unites the generations, particularly the responsibility they share for the future – a responsibility which goes beyond national borders.

Environmental protection, new technologies, the energy supply, the safeguarding of peace, solidarity with the developing countries – all of these are topics of central importance. None of them can be confined to the territory of one country. Decisions in these matters will have repercussions for our children’s children.

Opinions may differ as to the proper ways and means to tackle these problems. On one point, however, both generations and the European nations should be agreed: in the democratic ideals on which the Council of Europe, too, is based. Democracy is open to change. It rejects any absolute doctrine, any explanation of the world from one narrow standpoint, any Utopia prescribed by the state. It accepts the contradictions, imperfections and errors of human beings. This acceptance is in the European tradition: it places confidence in the rationality of each citizen and at the same time respects his freedom. Freedom includes the possibility of error and guilt, but it also means the responsibility of each individual for his future. We Europeans should constantly remind ourselves that our future depends, first and foremost, on ourselves.

I wish all of you the strength and courage you need in order to fulfil in difficult times your profound responsibility as politicians, and I thank you all for the attention you have given to my speech.