Key-note speech by Prof. Dr. Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the European Parliament

 

It is a great pleasure and an honour for me to be here today for the launching of the BELA Foundation. This is without doubt a major initiative and an outstanding adventure that is starting today and I want to thank you for inviting me to take the floor on this very special occasion.

Already two years ago Barbara-Maria Monheim and Alexander Graf Lambsdorff had informed me about their project to establish this new foundation with the aim of promoting interaction and better understanding between the new generation of young European leaders from the new and the old member States of the European Union.

And right from the start I was very enthusiastic about this initiative, which now, today, is becoming a reality. And indeed you could not have chosen a better time for the launch of the Bela Foundation! We are now in the run-up to the Slovenian Presidency of the European Union, which will start on 1 January 2008.

Slovenia is the first of the new Member States that joined in 2004 and 2007 to take over that critical responsibility for the European Union. I am convinced that this first time for a new Member State to be at the helm of our European Union will certainly be a turning point in the minds of people and in the way the European Union is perceived by the citizens all over the European Union.

But the launch of the BELA foundation this year coincides also with another noteworthy, even historic event: The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the European Communities. Although some may see this as a mere coincidence, I think that this coincidence is indeed particularly relevant for us today.

When hearing of the creation of a new Foundation in Brussels some might probably think: Why launch just another new foundation here in Brussels? We have already got so many think tanks and foundations doing valuable work. One might even say that the capital of Europe is becoming a sort of capital of foundations, most of the time bringing together people from inside Brussels in Brussels.

So, what could, what will be the added value of the BELA foundation? To answer this question, allow me to take you back in time for a moment.

Over the past 50 years our European Union has broadened the scope of its work to achieve peace, prosperity and stability from what were originally six States to 27 Member States with now almost 500 million citizens. Without fear of contradiction we can state that, from the perspective of European history, we have - in a short period of time - achieved an immense amount for the people of our continent. However, we should not just look back at the 50 years of stability, prosperity and progress enjoyed in the free part of our continent: Our continent was divided until 1989!

The miracle of our generation was indeed the reunification of our continent.

If somebody had told me back in 1979, when I was first elected to the European Parliament - let alone in 1957 as a child - that today we would be part of a political community and decision-making process that includes three nations that were occupied by the Soviet Union - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - as well as the Warsaw Pact countries of Poland, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia), Hungary and Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia), all being part of the European community of values and equal members of the European Union, and indeed that Germany would be united - if somebody had told me in 1979 that this would come to pass in our lifetime - my answer would have been "this is a hope, this is a vision, but this is unfortunately not something that is likely to happen in our lifetime".

I always genuinely believed that one day Communism would fall, because Communism, like National Socialism, was and is against human nature. The attempt to create a 'new human being' was in the long term bound to fail. So I always believed that one day change would come, but not in my lifetime.

It is of great spiritual importance that the idea survived and persevered that human beings are created with personal responsibility for themselves - and with a responsibility towards their community - and that consequently those totalitarian systems failed. This was a great victory for our values. And I do believe it has a lot to do with the concept of European Integration.

The English mathematician and father of modern sciences, Isaac Newton, once said:
"We build too many walls and not enough bridges."

Now that the walls have fallen in the European Union, it is time to build many solid bridges and to develop strong political and human ties between the peoples of Europe - from the old and the new Member States alike.

Already in 1950, Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the Community, declared: 'Our aim is not to unite states but to unify people'. People must take centre-stage in European unification. And this is the task that the BELA foundation has assigned to itself.

This project is not designed to create just another think-tank. The BELA Foundation is about uniting people.

It is unprecedented in and essential for the enlarged European Union. Because indeed, our continent is reunified - and we are even removing borders on the land and extending the Schengen Agreement to nine new Member States next month.

But we still have to remove the borders in the minds - to create a more integrated environment psychologically and to strengthen the European Union by overcoming the lingering perception of "old versus new" Member States.

Broadening the understanding of the different interests and values which contribute to unity in diversity is a major challenge that faces the generation of leaders in the enlarged Union. It is by promoting the exchange of young people and encouraging a new generation of young leaders that we will be able to strengthen the bonds and unify our continent also in the mind of its citizens.

Therefore we need houses of encounter such as the one being established in the Bela castle. In that context, I wish to underline the fact that it was the European Parliament that managed in the framework of the negotiations on the financial perspectives for the period 2007-2013 that funding was increased for the exchange between young people.

By bringing together young leaders and tightening the bonds between them, the BELA Foundation will contribute in another major way to better preparing our common future in the European Union.

The scale of what the European Union has achieved in the five past decades has taught us to be optimistic and ambitious in approaching the future. Political visions and leadership paid its dividends. We need to develop the same vision amongst the new generation.

By working together at an early stage, developing trust and synergy, the leaders of tomorrow will have a greater ability to tackle the big challenges ahead of us - and that will make our continent stronger. This is the core of what the Bela Foundation will be doing: Developing synergies in order to build close partnerships for tomorrow's Europe.

Indeed, the future young leaders will face an unprecedented range of challenges in the years ahead. Allow me now to look forward and to point out a couple of them, which I consider of great importance.

One major priority is certainly for the European Union to become more knowledge-based and more productive in order to fully use the chances of globalisation. The question is therefore for us: How can we develop all the skills and the will to successfully face a future of great change?

Here the factor education is essential. Yet, the overall spending on higher education in the European Union is still too low compared to international standards. Our continent offers too few attractive jobs for researchers and has difficulties in attracting and retaining talents. We urgently need to invest more in people and in the education of the future generation. Of course education fall in the remit of the Member States, but we can promote this thinking at European level through European programmes for studies abroad and the exchange of best practices.

Another increasingly pressing challenge is how to tackle climate change and promote a sustainable development. Climate change is not only scientifically proven, its effects are accelerating. Yet the worst effects of climate change are still to come and it is the young generation that will mostly have to bear the consequences in environmental, health, economic and financial terms. We have a moral responsibility towards the future generations on this planet to tackle climate change now.

The European Parliament - with my strong commitment - has been a front-runner on this issue. In May this year, the European Parliament established a special committee on climate change, which drafted Parliament's input to the UN Convention on Climate Change in Bali.

We can still avoid the worst consequences of climate change, but we have to move quickly. We cannot miss the occasion of the Conference in Bali to reach a broad and compulsory international agreement to seriously curb emissions worldwide.

Tackling climate change is ultimately about education, leadership and responsibility between generations: It is about developing a new way of thinking.

Thirdly, there is also an urgent need to build bridges between cultures. I believe that peaceful co-existence between cultures and religions both around and within the European Union is of absolutely central importance to our future.

Next year, under Slovenian Presidency, I will have the privilege to join the Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council to launch the European Year 2008, designated Year of Inter-Cultural Dialogue. This is a major initiative, because today we are faced with the realities of mutual misunderstanding. The implications are both domestic and international. We must now learn to respect each other and work together.

Our long-term aim should be to build intellectual and cultural bridges across the Mediterranean to the Middle East and beyond - bridges whose foundations would consist of mutual understanding and shared values.

All these challenges - and I only named a few - will require commitment, endurance and patience. They are all suited to the contribution and leadership of a new generation of leaders. It is important that young people commit to these projects.

The motto of this year's celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaties of Rome was "Together". Over the next half century, a new generation of young leaders will be leading Europe and shaping its destiny. Fifty years from now, in 2057, I hope that the leaders of tomorrow - who got to know each other and who learned to trust each other also in the seminars and events of the BELA Foundation - will be able look back and say: "We made a difference: Together we have removed the mental walls. The reunification of the European continent has become a reality also in the heads of our citizens."

I want to thank the BELA Foundation in advance for its future contribution to building a more united, successful and humane European Union. I strongly and passionately support these objectives and wish you all a lot of success in this great adventure.

 

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