Mrs President, Mr Prime Minister, ladies and gentlemen,
On behalf of the Governing Council of the Theophano Foundation, I welcome you to today’s event and to the ceremony to award the inaugural Empress Theophano Prize to the European Union’s Erasmus Programme.
We are inside a unique historical landmark in a city with centuries of history, in order to highlight, via the Empress Theaphano Prize, that our common cultural roots – the roots which shaped contemporary Europe – are interlinked and have continuity.
The city of Cassander, which carries the name of his wife who was also Alexander the Great’s sister, Thessaloniki has been a great commercial and intellectual centre for south-eastern Europe for over 2300 years. Our city stands out for its uninterrupted urban continuity, from the Hellenistic period through to the contemporary era. Through the centuries, here lived and ruled every person who shaped the Europe of today.
We feel genuine enthusiasm that we are all here today to celebrate Europe, not just as an idea and an ideal, but as a living reality; a united Europe, which is our common homeland; a Europe that despite its flaws has today ensured peace, prosperity, creation and collaboration on our long-suffering continent. We certainly have much to celebrate and a lot to be proud of. The strong conviction that those things which unite us are more numerous and more important than our individual differences continues to resonate stronger, especially among young people, which is indeed wonderful.
The Empress Theophano Prize aims at strengthening this same feeling. The idea came from leading European personalities who wanted to showcase the common historical and geographical roots of our large homeland and to promote the contemporary European identity whilst focusing on the key contribution to the core of its creation of the peoples of this particular region – the former Eastern Roman empire.
The choice of naming the award after Theophano, a Byzantine princess of the 10th century who went on to become Empress of the West Roman Empire, building bridges in culture and contact, as well as Thessaloniki, the principal Byzantine city, as the seat of the award, both certainly send out a very strong message. We are truly elated.
This city, such an old but at the same time such a youthful city that is today rife with life, has been through the centuries a meeting point for Christians, Muslims and Jews. It has always been the junction between East and West, between the Balkans and the central European hinterland with the Mediterranean. Our city experienced the tragedies of the 20th century profoundly and dramatically. It welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees and saw its Jewish community perish in a cruel holocaust. In the first few post-war decades, it found itself right next to the Iron Curtain and then, after 1989, welcomed thousands of Eastern Europeans again, once the borders were open. The history of Thessaloniki is, we believe, the history of Europe, and the perseverance of Thessaloniki is the perseverance of Europe to overcome all of this for good, to never again allow such tragedies to happen, to move forward.
So, we are all here today in this imposing monument to award the new prize. Again, we are enthused, we are proud of our inaugural recipient. We regret that issues surrounding the pandemic have prevented, at the last moment, the President of the European Commission, Mrs Ursula von der Leyen, from attending today’s ceremony as planned, and from accepting the prize in person. Vice-President of the Committee, Mr Margaritis Schinas, will accept the prize on her behalf. She will, nevertheless, join us via the internet to give her speech.
In conclusion, I would like to thank a leading European who is also a friend, Herman von Rompuy, who kickstarted the idea for this award. Herman is a true European statesman in the tradition of the great political leaders who put in place the foundations for the Europe of today. Today’s event would not have been possible without him and his worthy associates.
I would also like to thank on behald of us all, in equal measure, the Prime Minister of our country, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who stood with enthusiasm behind this initiative from the very start and strongly supported it throughout its stages.
Let us all wish the Empress Theophano Prize a fair wind in its sails!