Check against delivery – video here
Good evening and thank you. If you allow me, I will address you as friends. You cannot imagine the emotion I feel by addressing you all tonight. I would like to thank you for the invitation: it is a special honour for me to open this seventieth edition of the Frankfurt Book Fair.
I want to be very sincere – I am always, but tonight I will put an additional element of “personal touch” in what I will share with you. My first thought, when I received this invitation, has been: “What an honour!” But immediately afterwards, the second thought that came to my mind was: “Why me?”
There are two reasons that are self-evident. The first one is that wherever Georgia is a guest of honour that is the right place for the European Union to be. And the second one is that wherever human rights are celebrated, promoted, protected, that is the right place for the EU to be. And we will continue to be there on the same page, which is this wonderful page we have together produced 70 years ago.
Then I started also to reflect on what connects the work of the person that is called to shape, serve and represent the Common European Foreign and Security Policy, with books. What connects my private life with this event is more than clear to me personally: since the age of six, I think there has not been even one single day of my life when I was not reading a book. The single thing that is never, never missing in my suitcase, is a book – a novel, to be precise. And I can share with you a secret, my secret dream has always been to write.
But I guess you are not here to listen to my literary preferences. I guess your expectations are slightly different, because indeed, yes, the wise people that organise this wonderful Book Fair are right: there are links between my job, our Common European Foreign and Security Policy, and books. Actually, there are two very strong links.
First, here is our identity. The books we read and write tell who we are – our culture, dreams, fears, our history and our stories, our language, food, music, our cities, rivers, mountains and seas, the ones that divide us, the ones that we share, the ones that unite us. Books tell who we are. And the first, basic question you are asked, when you relate to others in the world, when you do foreign policy, is this: “Who are you?”
Only afterwards comes the question everybody focuses on, which is: “What do you want to achieve, or to avoid?” – or using the diplomatic alphabet, which is probably less beautiful than the Georgian one, but still it is our daily work: “What is your policy?”
But the very first question you cannot skip – in international relations as well as in human relationships – is about your identity. It is the starting point: the name tag, the identity card; it is your credibility; it is the telephone number Kissinger was asking for to call Europe. The real question was not: “What is the phone number?” but: “Is there one Europe to call? Is there a someone to relate to, an identity?” Because without an identity, no policy really matters.
Now the first question anyone doing my job asks himself or herself every single day is this: “Who do I represent? Is there an identity that we can express, on the global scene? Who are we, the Europeans?” I believe the answer is here, in this Book Fair and in the books that we read and we write.
I was told that this Book Fair is as old as printed books are: over five centuries. Yet the Book Fair was re-born, as you said, after the World War II, in 1949. And that was just a few months before Schuman proposed to create a common authority between France and Germany to oversee the production of coal and steel. And we know how it ended: it ended well.
From that idea was born for the most successful regional integration project in history. That was the turning point in European history: we realised collectively that making war, as we had been doing for thousands of years in Europe, was not smart and was much less convenient than having an economic and political cooperation – and finally integration.
It took us the biggest catastrophe one could imagine, the World War II, to define our European identity as a cooperative one – as a common, shared European identity. But let us never forget how that catastrophe had started. It started with books being burnt on the streets. It started with professors being banned from universities because of their Jewish surnames – exactly 80 years ago, in our own countries, here in Germany, in my own country in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.
And books tell us that using the right words is important. So let us use the right words: nazism and fascism wanted to destroy the millennial diversity of European peoples and cultures, and impose one Volk and one ideology. But fascism and nazism were defeated back then and after immense suffering, we Europeans made a clear choice about who we are, about our identity. We said clearly: “My identity will never deny your identity.” We said clearly: “I will never again define who I am, my identity, against someone else’s identity, but only in positive terms, for who I am.”
We discovered that we were strong enough – because this is the strongest sign you can give, not to be against anyone, but to be with the others. And we have realised that every single individual has a complex, composed, layered identity. That no one is like the other, and that different elements of our own personal identity can live together without conflicting with each other. We re-discovered somehow complexity and we affirmed that our choice was clear and simple: respect, for human beings and for this charter.
This Book Fair re-opened and it rose to being the largest in the entire world. And in the same years, the dream of European integration started to become reality, driven by the idea of unity in diversity. We finally embraced our diversity as the true strength of European culture and European identity.
The European culture, the European identity, is not what comes on top of – not to mention in contradiction with – our national or local cultures and identities. We are and we will always be proud Germans, proud Italians, and the list continues with all the Member States we have. And even more, because I am not just a proud Italian, but I am also a proud Roman, and in Rome I am proud of my own neighbourhood – and here again the list can continue.
We have and we will always have our own histories, cultures, literatures, alphabets. Yet we know that what made each of our countries, cities, villages, neighbourhoods great, also belongs to all of us, to the whole of Europe. And that there is no contradiction – and there will never be a contradiction – between being a proud Roman, a proud Italian, and a proud European. This is even more true today, when all of us have multiple identities, and when all of our societies have become more diverse than they used to be some seventy years ago.
In a moment I understand we will listen to a young writer, Nino [Haratishvili, Georgian novelist], who was born in Georgia and writes in German, correct? She is one of many Europeans who do not have just one home, one language and one identity. Or rather – we are all in the same situation. We all have layered and complex identities. Diversity is part of us and is who we are.
Embracing diversity does not mean giving up to our identity – on the contrary, it means being true to our identity, to our culture. Exactly as being open to dialogue, mediation and win-win solutions does not mean being weak – on the contrary, it means being strong and confident enough of your own values, your own ideas, your own interests, culture, identity and not to be afraid to lose them once they get in contact with others.
This is who we are. And what we write and read, our books, our stories, the ones we find here, tell us of this richness, of this strength, of our diversity. There is a European identity, a European culture, a name tag, a unity of purpose of us, the Europeans, that comes even before our common policies, and that can and must be represented in the world. There is not only a telephone number to call, but someone picking up that phone – and I guess it is me – who is able to say: “We, the Europeans.”
This is the first reason why I believe being here makes a lot of sense. Here is where you find the answer to the fundamental question: “Is there a European identity one can represent?” The second reason why it makes a lot of sense for me to be here is that culture is an integral part of our European foreign policy.
We are by definition, as Europeans, a soft power. And even now that we are investing more than ever in developing our hard power – that sometimes is needed – our European Defence, our strategic autonomy that sometimes might be needed we continue to be a cultural superpower. Let me say, the cultural superpower in the world.
I definitely don not need to convince this audience about the importance of cultural diplomacy. European countries have always understood the power of international cultural relations – first of all for our economies, but also for our international relations. And now, with our European Strategy on Culture in External Action, the same is finally true also for the European Union as such.
Our goal is not to replace national cultural diplomacy. On the contrary, we are trying to give it even more strength, joining forces at the European level. For instance, we are starting to build “Houses of European culture” around the world, as a home for all European cultural institutes and a way to give voice and visibility to all European national cultures abroad. In these few years, we have already shown the power of culture for peace, security and economic development.
When I proposed to work on a Strategy for culture in our external action, some around me were saying that given the state of the world today – with conflicts and crises all around us – it was definitely not a priority, it would never gain attraction, and “you have more important things to deal with”. As for Italians, as Germans, as many Europeans, for us culture is not something minor, it is our DNA. Two years after we adopted the strategy and we started to implement it, we are engaged in cultural diplomacy with over one hundred countries around the world, as European Union.
Starting inside our own continent, in Europe – I would not mention all the work we are doing with Georgia, which is substantial -, let me make one example that exemplifies how this work is important for peace, security and reconciliation: during the wars in the Balkans, places of worship became a regular target; might remember that very well.
The European Union is now restoring churches, mosques and synagogues all around the Balkans, as a step on the path towards full reconciliation. And we are building a cultural route all across the region, to show this unique history of co-existence. Again, the richness of our diversity, the roots of our complex identity. This is about culture, but this is also about peace and security.
And still today, all around the world, culture continues to be a battlefield. When terrorists allied with Al-Qaeda conquered the city of Timbuktu in Mali, they destroyed ancient libraries and mosques. When the terrorists of Da’esh took Palmyra in Syria, they razed temples and statues that talked about the city’s history. A history of diversity, as the crossroads between the Roman empire, the Gulf and the Far East, the crossroad between different cultures and religions.
And the same terrorist of Da’esh disseminated landmines inside the University of Mosul, so that young Iraqis would pay for education with their life. And think of Boko Haram, literally meaning that books are prohibited.
Education scares terrorists. Why? Because it empowers people. Because it is the most powerful instrument a person can have to change her own life, her own community. In the words of Malala, I quote: “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world”.
So for us Europeans, who base our identity on our culture – a culture that values diversity – it is only natural to intervene whenever and wherever we see that culture is attacked. We intervene to de-mine the University of Mosul; to restore the Timbuktu manuscripts; and to preserve the memory of destroyed heritage through the most advanced technologies at our disposal and to protect writers and journalists under attack everywhere in the world.
Where others destroy, we rebuild. Where others see education as a threat, we see it as our best investment and hope. When others – as some said before – turn a blind eye on something that is unpleasant, we insist – we will never close our eyes. When artists are persecuted, we work to empower them, to protect their freedom, and make sure that all their rights are respected. When a writer is unjustly detained, we will never get tired of working for his or her liberation, even when it is unpleasant and diplomatically difficult to do so.
Our work on culture shows who we really are, and what we believe in. It shows our values, and our vision of the world. It is our identity card. We have inherited a great European culture from our history, from our fathers and mothers. But the future is built, it is not inherited; it requires hard work, commitment and determination, and sometimes a certain dose of courage.
European culture is a living thing, it is what we make of it. It is an enormous opportunity, and an enormous responsibility for all of us, collectively, especially in this moment when the rest of the world is looking at Europe for guidance. Europe is what we make of it. Let us always be true to ourselves, to who we are, and never, never waste the potential we have.