Europe – 25 year after the fall of the Berlin Wall

'This year – 2014 – is a year of anniversaries. A year in which to commemorate events of pivotal importance for Europe, as both a geographical and a political entity', said Minister Vidar Helgesen in his opening address at the Europe Conference 2014 in Oslo 2 September.

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Your Majesties, President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Norwegian Government’s annual Conference on Europe.

This year – 2014 – is a year of anniversaries. A year in which to commemorate events of pivotal importance for Europe, as both a geographical and a political entity.

100 years ago, the First World War broke out. A war that caused immense suffering, but also resulted in fault lines that affected Europe for decades to come.

70 years ago, courageous soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy, and made a decisive contribution to the Allied victory in the Second World War.

And 25 years ago, the Berlin Wall was dismantled. From the rubble arose hopes of a free, undivided and peaceful Europe.

Two million people joined hands to form a human chain from Tallinn via Riga to Vilnius. The Chain of Freedom.

Each of these events has marked Europe. A continent that has fluctuated between cooperation and conflict, between separation and integration, for centuries.

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‘Tear down this wall.’ This was President Reagan’s challenge to Soviet leader Gorbachev.

In the end, it was neither Reagan nor Gorbachev, but the people who were divided by the Iron Curtain who tore down the Wall.

People who wanted to be free from fear, free from authoritarian regimes. People with hopes of a united Europe, just like those people had at the end of World War II.

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And indeed, the fall of the Berlin Wall was the start of a period of wider integration in Europe – both in the EU, and between the EU and its neighbours.

Germany was reunified. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania regained their independence. They then joined NATO and the European Union, as did most of the former Warsaw Pact members in Central Europe.

The EU signed partnership agreements with Russia, Ukraine and other post-Soviet states, signalling a will to create a ‘ring of friends’ in its neighbourhood.

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Apart from the war that developed in the Balkans, there was a general feeling of optimism.

The political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote an book entitled The End of History and the Last Man in which he claimed that there were no longer any serious competitors to liberal democracy.

We thought we were witnessing the triumph of liberalism as the organising principle of political and economic relations.

Today – 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall – we know better.

This is not the end of history. On the contrary, the history we now see unfolding in Europe is one of conflict and division, notably in the eastern parts of our continent.

The historian Robert Kagan has even suggested that we are witnessing the ‘return of history’.

Yet again, violence has silenced people standing up for their democratic rights, and demanding to be part of the European family. Yet again, armies are crossing internationally recognised borders in Europe.

The Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing military operations in Eastern Ukraine are illegal and unacceptable. And they are putting the very idea of European integration and cooperation to the test.

Our response to this crisis will show who we really are, what we believe in and what we want our common European future to be.

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President Ilves is better placed than most to analyse the situation in Europe today, 25 years after the Iron Curtain was lifted. Born in Stockholm to Estonian refugees who had fled the Soviet Union during the Second World War, his personal history has been shaped by the strong currents of recent European history.

He was raised and educated in the US, but later returned to Europe, where he helped to transform the continent as a journalist for Radio Free Europe in the 1980s.

He then, finally, came home to a free Estonia. Eager to take part in shaping his country’s future, to working towards membership of the EU and NATO, he was soon appointed to various key posts.

As diplomat, Foreign Minister – twice – and Member of the European Parliament, Mr Ilves has played a key role in his country’s transformation from a Soviet republic to a cutting edge, high-tech society – probably one of the most connected in the world.

He took office as President of Estonia in 2006 and has since then been a strong voice for close European cooperation, not least in the field of foreign and security policy.

‘The road to Moscow goes via Brussels,’ he famously asserted when first elected President. What does this road look like today? Do our maps reflect the landscape?

It is a great honour for me to give the floor to President Ilves of Estonia.

His lecture will be followed by a session of questions and answers.