When I stand here I think of Empress Theophano who could never have imagined that people would commemorate her a thousand years later. In politics today, people forget more quickly! A Byzantine princess, later reigning empress of the Holy Roman Empire, symbolically returns to her native soil. We are also standing here in the Rotunda, which in her life of almost two thousand years has known many masters. Today it is the link between East and West, between countries, cultures and religions. The Rotunda connects tonight and does not divide.
But we are not standing by the Old Era. The Theophano Prize is awarded to the Erasmus programme enjoyed by millions of young Europeans. They live in peace and, compared to many others in the world, in prosperity. These walls of history welcome those young people.
Let me express it as a haiku poet:
Young people sing
The Ode to Joy
The empress cheers
In front of you stands a proud chairman of the Advisory Board of the Theophano Foundation. After a few hours, the members of the jury agreed on the first laureate. They have all assumed high responsibility in the leadership of their country, in diplomacy, in culture, in civil service, in academia.
The laureate is not an individual man or woman. It’s about men and women who entered their Erasmus years as inhabitants of Europe and left as European citizens. Studying or teaching abroad is not a purely intellectual experience but an existential one. It shapes someone, or rather it transforms someone. It is perhaps the European Commission’s most successful programme. That is why it is so important that the President of that Commission Mrs von der Leyen is here with us today, albeit in a virtual way, but at the very moment when we are gathered here. In passing, I would add a bold comparison: Theophano is the first empress of Germany and mrs. von der Leyen is the first female President of the Commission.
The new European budget provides new resources to expand the Erasmus programme. In times of fear such as this ‘annus horribilis’, we need hope. In times when some people want to entrench themselves in their tribe or behind their borders, we need to defend and promote openness. Only those who look to the horizon are inclined to think of the future and to do everything for it.
It was this message of hope that the Foundation, under the inspiring leadership of Stavros Andreadis, wanted to convey. It enthusiastically confirmed the proposal of the international jury. The Foundation has spared no effort to give the necessary lustre to this prize. It could also count on the personal support of Prime Minister Mitsotakis. Where could we be better, Mr. Prime minister, than in the region where Alexander the Great, his father and the greatest of all philosophers, Aristotle, lived. I take particular pleasure in mentioning this because I myself was brought up in Greek-Latin culture for six years. I would like to say: ‘I am a Greek’ or in German: ‘Ich bin Grieche’.
It is sometimes said that we live in a time of mediocrity, of eurosclerosis, of a lack of ideas and narratives. However, the European Union refutes these accusations. Where in the world are 27 countries working together almost every month to build their common future? Another example: there used to be a country with 19 currencies. Today nineteen countries have a single currency. On 21 July, the Union, under the impetus of the Commission, proved that solidarity is the Union’s way of life. Of course, the Union has its internal tensions and for each challenge overcome, a different one awaits, as it is in life, but we settle our problems through dialogue. In other Western countries there is hatred and deep bitterness. In the case of other global players, we do not know what people there think because they are not allowed to express it. We live in the spirit of Pericles on our continent ‘because influence on matters of state is not the privilege of the few but the right of the many’. The old European empires fell apart and we feel no nostalgia. Others in the world still dream of a world that is gone forever. Seventy years ago our continent was reinvented. From a battlefield, we became a great plain of peace, reconciliation and prosperity. Yes, one can dream in the Union. Those millions of young people who enjoyed the Erasmus programme know that. There must be more of them from all social and cultural backgrounds. Europe belongs to them. Europe belongs to us.
The major new conference on ‘the future of Europe’ should not be about new institutions, although they can always be improved and refined, but about the content of future policies: of, for and by people. How can we create a healthier environment for humanity to survive, inside and outside our continent? How can we ensure that the planet, with the beauty of its fauna and flora, is preserved and restored? How can we better protect our external borders without locking ourselves in the Fortress Europe? How do we ensure sufficient jobs in this digital revolution, which will also destroy many? How do we avoid new pandemics and better prepare ourselves in the event that it does occur. Do we realise that there is a direct link between climate change and the pandemic? How do we make Europe less dependent on other countries when it comes to the heart of the economy and of society? I am thinking of energy, defence, medicines and medical equipment, digital technology, agriculture, rare materials and so on. We must regain control of our future, not as a separate country but as a continent. How can we play a role in the world if we cannot stand on our own two feet. Geopolitics starts at home. How can we show more humanity in the rough and raw world in which we live again? Humanism must be the uniqueness of our civilisation. Young people, together with the British poet, know ‘no man is an island; every man is part of the main’. All these themes have to be addressed in that new conference. Ordinary people must be heard, young and old, but there must also be leadership through new ideas. Thoughts will guide the world.
The European caravan continues its journey with a new crew each time, but in the service of the same idea and the same conviction. It does not gallop because everyone has to be able to join in, but it has a destiny: more and more European cooperation and integration. Simply because otherwise we will not be able to solve the great problems of our time. There is no turning back because it is the right way to go. Europe is the big answer. But there is even a growing awareness that global problems require a global approach. Climate is the most obvious example. We should not be afraid to continue to opt for openness. The European Union is the only real defender of the international order. Others only pay lip service to it or are downright against it. Once again, I place a great deal of trust in young people who look to the future without nostalgia. We must know the past, sometimes cherish it but never be its slave.
We remember today this synthesis between old and new and let us revive it in this magical place, in the presence of European and Greek leaders, young Erasmians or potential Erasmus travellers. The Theophano Prize has a great future ahead of it. The Rotunda will have many memorable evenings ahead of it. But there can only be one celebration the first. And that is today.