I am very glad that this debate has been scheduled because there is no better time to discuss the importance of our collective history in order to build our shared future.
In the run-up to and in the aftermath of the European elections, there has been a lot of debate about what the European Union is, and what this concept means to our citizens.
The thing is, the European Union is not just a concept. It is the largest and most tangible political, legal, economic and social project that defines our lives on a daily basis.
If you can travel freely today across borders, if you can call abroad for the same price as at home, if you can study at a university in another Member State and have those credentials recognised – that is because the EU makes this happen.
In order to truly appreciate these freedoms and these opportunities, we need to understand where they come from. We need to keep remembering.
You see, these accomplishments didn’t fall from the sky. They were hard fought and hard earned!
This year we commemorate 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and more than 60 years since the establishment of the very foundations of our common market and union.
This Union was built on the ashes that fell over our continent in the aftermath of what happened 80 years ago and which opened a dark chapter in European history: the signature of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union on August 23rd 1939, dividing our continent and creating suffering for many Europeans under totalitarian regimes.
Today we enjoy many different freedoms: to travel without barriers, to speak, to write, to protest, to follow any profession and to live or visit wherever we desire.
These rights and freedoms were earned and imparted to us by the huge endeavours of a generation that witnessed first-hand the ravages of two catastrophic wars, and suffered their dreadful consequences.
We should not forget that us living and growing up in the EU as we know it today are the only generation that hasn't experienced a war.
We need to continue paying tribute to the struggles of our predecessors. It is vital to fully appreciate the meaning of the fundamental values on which the European Union and the European democracy is built – and never to take these for granted.
In recent years, several challenges have cast a shadow over Europe: The financial crisis, migration, terrorism, disinformation campaigns against our elections, Brexit – to name a few. Our citizens are rightly worried.
Unfortunately, these challenges become a pretext for populists and nationalists to gain more ground, claiming that it is by closing ourselves off that we can overcome them.
What a naïve, irresponsible, dangerous approach. If we have learnt one thing from the past – both the distant and the near one – it is that we can only face them together, in trust.
The European Union was not built on isolation, on “us against them” or on the idea of the “surivival of the fittest”.
It was built on the basis of solidarity, of working together, of sharing responsibility, and of caring for and protecting the more vulnerable, the weaker.
More than ever, we need to remember these lessons from the past. Because if we ignore history, we are at risk of repeating past mistakes. This is why we need to stimulate activities that keep the memories of the past alive as a means of moving beyond the past and towards building the future, together.
This should never come at the cost of one’s own country or community. We can be both Europeans and patriots at the same time. This is why we should always strive to reach out to others and make diversity an asset.
It is only through collective, European actions that we can address citizens’ concerns and meet current challenges and most importantly maintain, uphold and strengthen our common European House.
But this should not always come from the governments necessarily. We want to empower our citizens and civil society to get engaged too.
The European Commission has been in the vanguard with its “Europe for Citizens” programme which promotes peace, EU values and the well-being of all.
It was set up for the first time in 2004 with the aim to bring citizens closer to the European Union.
It offers funding for projects on the ground in which the citizens can reflect on the past, participate in shaping the future and engage.
Remembrance, as one of the strands of the programme, supports initiatives to reflect on the causes of totalitarian regimes and to commemorate reference points in Europe's modern history. Raising awareness of remembrance, the common history and our own EU values is critical.
Projects encourage tolerance, mutual understanding, intercultural dialogue and reconciliation as a means of moving beyond the past and building the future.
Around 100,000 citizens are directly involved every year in European remembrance projects. In 2019, 45 European remembrance projects were selected for financial support for a total amount of 3 million EUR.
The selected projects will address priorities such as: civil society and civic participation under totalitarian regimes, antisemitism, anti-gypsyism, xenophobia, homophobia and other forms of intolerance, democratic transition and accession to the European Union.
They will also commemorate major historical turning points in recent European history such as the 1919 peace treaties bringing World War I to an end.
An example is the "Memorial de la Shoah", a project from 2018.
Thanks to the Europe for Citizens grant, it has evolved into a truly European reference network on the Holocaust and other genocides.
The Memorial receives more than 250 000 visitors per year. The essence of our programme is to connect citizens.
For instance, in early April this year, we held, under my auspices, the high-level event “Europe for Citizens-History Defines our Future”. More than 300 participants from both the general public and the programme attended it.
Together with my colleagues Commissioners Jourova and Cretu we debated with them a range of topics that are crucial for citizens to engage with Europe.
One of them was the diversity of memories in the European Union.
Some countries have indeed gone through specific experiences with colonialism or totalitarian regimes.
While there are the facts, there is no single truth in the experience of an individual or a community.
How can we reconcile differing memories, how can we build on this diversity and make it an asset for strengthening the European Union?
I have trust that supporting remembrance will remain a priority for the new Commission.
In May 2018, the Commission proposed a new instrument the Justice, Rights and Values Fund.
This Fund will include the Justice programme and a new Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values programme where funding is foreseen to continue supporting work on remembrance.
Thanks to the very good cooperation, a partial political agreement was reached with the European Parliament and the Council on the programme on 6 March this year.
The budgetary aspects and some related horizontal provisions of the future programmes are subject to the overall agreement on the EU's next long-term budget, proposed by the Commission in May 2018. The new programme will guarantee the continuation of the activities of the current Europe for citizens’ programme.
I will also increase the EU’s potential to promote and protect rights in the European Union and the European values by encouraging the engagement of all citizens in all aspects of their lives, enabling them to participate in the construction and consolidation of an ever closer Europe and Union.
We, the Commission and me personally, remained consistently committed to a policy of values and historical responsibility.
This is the only way for all Europeans, leaders, parties and citizens to work together in the future.
Thank you, and I look forward to what promises to be a very interesting discussion.
Thank you for this lively and interesting debate, which proved itself very timely.
As you know, every year the Commission marks 23 August as the day when we honour the memory of the millions of victims of all totalitarian regimes.
Totalitarianism is not about ideology nor color. it is about an authoritarian mentality, practice and methodology. Totalitarianism is an enemy of democracy, freedom and human dignity. our duty is to keep those memories alive to inspire and guide new generations in defending fundamental rights, the rule of law and democracy.
We firmly stand together against whatever threatens the values of our European democracy.
I see here in this house a collective and democratic commitment to defend and uphold our dedication to safeguard the European project.
This European project was started in the aftermath of the Second World War, where wise and determined leaders – despite the fresh memories of divisions – took a historical decision to create a wider space of liberty, peace, democracy and stability.
It is exactly what we, Europeans, are enjoying today but we should never take this for granted. It is our duty to take this project forward.
Today we know that certain challenges are putting the European Union into question.
Now is the moment to show leadership towards our citizens. We must never forget both the privilege and the responsibility that we have inherited from our founding fathers.
This is why it is paramount not only to remember, but also to ensure that history is not repeated.
If we ignore or don’t understand or read history, we cannot draw lessons from the past. This is the biggest threat to our future that we are facing.
This was the consequence of the past, when History was indeed ignored.
Today’s debate gives me hope, because I know how committed this institution is, together with the European Commission.
Together we must uphold our duties towards our citizens. And while some may try to make us believe that our citizens are losing faith or the connection with the European Union, we know the opposite is true.
In fact, we have data telling us that on average more than 70% of citizens feel they are EU citizens whilst at the same time being attached to their homelands and their nations.
This figure has been steadily increasing even since 2012, when it was at 61%.
We need to continue working together towards making all citizens of this Union feel like European citizens.
By working together, I mean involving the whole society from all corners and strands.
Fortunately, cooperation is in our European spirit and synthesis is at the core of democracy. Because being European is not just a pleasant motto.
It is the essence of tolerance, pluralism, and solidarity.
It is the recognition of our common values and humanity as well as our common desire to live in a fair, free, and peaceful world.
It is the embracement of diversity, multilingualism, the respect for different cultures, identities and traditions;
It is to care for each other, to love our own nation, to respect our neighbours, to share the spirit of belonging to our European family.
I hope that these efforts will be sustained with your support for a Union that remembers its past but does not revert to it, a Union that shatters silos, empowers unity and shines as a global beacon and as a unique paradigm of solidarity among citizens, communities and countries.