Sommaire: Remarks to the General Assembly of the European Jewish Congress by Benita Ferrero-Waldner, European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy (19 February 2006: Vienna)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
First let me thank Dr Muzicant and the European Jewish Congress for this opportunity to talk to you.
I last met some of you at your Annual Dinner in Strasbourg last December, where we discussed relations between Europe and Israel. Today, in addressing your General Assembly, I would like to focus on events since then, particularly the increased tension in the Middle East since the start of this year.
Let me begin by emphasising the fundamental importance of interfaith and inter-cultural dialogue. It is a subject Europe has struggled with throughout history. In Vienna's Judenplatz stands a statue of Gotthold Lessing, a man whose religious tolerance and open-minded spirit was ahead of his time. It's worth recalling the lines in his play, The Jew. One of the Christians proclaims, "O how estimable would be the Jews, if they all resembled you," to which the Jew replies, "And how estimable would be the Christians, if they all had your fine qualities."!
The European Union was born out of the cataclysm of intolerance that swept twentieth-century Europe. It stands today as a testimony to Europe's religious, linguistic and cultural diversity. We are a community of values, united by our diversity. European Jews have made, and are making a great contribution to the European Union and to the causes of pluralism, peace and tolerance.
Religions and communities of conviction will continue to play an important role in defining Europe's identity, and in reaching out to Europe's citizens. The furore over the publication and re-publication of the Danish cartoons reminds us forcefully that we must constantly work to improve understanding between different cultures and religions, both within the European Union and around the world. We very much appreciate the work of the European Jewish Congress and of Jewish communities across Europe in promoting better inter-community relations.
Recent events also remind us of the fundamental principles which should guide our actions: respect and understanding. As the President of the World Jewish Congress wrote in The Times earlier this month, "Mutual respect and understanding between members of different religions is the key to ending hatred and creating a better world".
Freedom of speech is central to Europe's values and traditions. It is not negotiable. But its preservation depends on responsible behaviour by individuals. And it does have limits - defined and enforced by the law and legal systems of the Member States of the European Union. Freedom of religion is also not negotiable. It is a fundamental right of individuals and communities and entails respect for the integrity of all religious convictions and all ways in which they are exercised.
Are these two principles in conflict? And if so, what should be the outcome? These are sensitive issues which preoccupied philosophers like John Locke and Voltaire in their day just as they preoccupy us today. The precise contours of an acceptable outcome change with time and circumstance. But two elements are clear. First, it is unacceptable that any one group in society - Christian, Muslim, Jewish or secular - seek the sole right to fix the parameters. And second, that respect and understanding are the keys to any acceptable outcome.
Certainly the sort of violent protest we have seen in some parts of the world is not the way to resolve any presumed conflict of principles. Peaceful demonstrations are an integral part of free speech and a fundamental right in any open society. But violence cannot be tolerated and has to be clearly condemned. And it certainly cannot lead to understanding.
As President Barroso said last week, "It is through a vigorous but peaceful dialogue of opinions under the protection of the freedom of expression that mutual understanding can be deepened and mutual respect can be built. Violence is the enemy of dialogue. We must not allow the minority of extremists to win. Let the best of our values win against the worst of prejudices".
Yet it is clear we need to redouble our attention to dialogue between the major faiths, and between faith groups and secular societies. That is why European Commission President, Jose-Manuel Barroso, met prominent leaders of the three monotheistic religions last year and will continue to foster dialogue between cultures and with religions. I know you are also working to improve your dialogue with Islam and I very much support you.
As Dr Muzicant knows well, I am deeply committed to inter-faith dialogue and in my previous capacity as Austria's Foreign Minister I made the Dialogue among Cultures, Civilisations and Faiths one of my priorities. I will continue to do so through my work as the EU's External Relations Commissioner and member of the special group of Commissioners dedicated to protecting fundamental rights. We must, as a matter of urgency, prevent what is currently a "clash of ignorances" from mutating into a genuine "clash of civilisations".
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The violent scenes across the Middle East and other Muslim countries is only part of a troubled picture in this region since the beginning of 2006. Like everyone in the international community, the EU is looking at the region with increasing concern. Let me focus my remarks today on two areas, Iran and the Middle East Peace process.
President Ahmadinejad's comments about Israel and the holocaust were met in Europe by a wave of shock and condemnation. These comments are completely unacceptable. The attacks of Iranians to the European embassies in Tehran, in particular the Austrian embassy and the Austrian Cultural Institute, have to be totally condemned. As I and others pointed out at the time, Iran has certain responsibilities as a member of the United Nations. And a race to the bottom with regard to religious tolerance (I am thinking of the Iranian newspaper's contest for holocaust cartoons) does no service to any of us. In Mahatma Gandhi's words, "An eye for an eye and the whole world is blind".
At the same time, there is deepening concern about Iran's continuing refusal to cooperate with the international community over its nuclear programme. The prospect of nuclear escalation in the Middle East is terrifying. So I welcome the fact that, in reaction to Iran's decision to recommence uranium enrichment, an overwhelming majority of countries, including Russia and China, now stand firmly behind the decision to report Iran to the UN Security Council.
Tehran should have no illusions about the international community's resolve. Iran should really not isolate itself, it should re-engage with us. The door remains open for a negotiated settlement through diplomatic channels. Russia's proposal to enrich uranium outside Iran is still on the table. If Iran can reach a deal to suspend its enrichment activities, we may yet be able to avoid the Security Council. Time is short, and the outcome depends entirely on Iran's willingness to compromise and engage with the international community.
For the time being we must prepare ourselves for either outcome. The International Atomic Energy Association Board meets here in Vienna on 6 March. In the light of that meeting and Mr El Baradei's report a discussion may take place in the UN Security Council, where options for further actions will be considered. If, however, Iran pulls back from the brink, then we must be ready to re-engage, offering Iran incentives for renewed engagement with the international community.
But for that we will need to see signs that Iran is behaving responsibly, which means ceasing its inflammatory and racist discourse. We are sending clear signals to the Iranian leadership and people that this is both unacceptable and counterproductive.
2) Middle East Peace Process
2006 also started with new opportunities but also dangers for the prospects of peace in the Middle East. There have been fundamental shifts in the political landscape in both the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
Prime Minister Sharon's illness shortly after the New Year left us all shocked and saddened and our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family. His political courage and pragmatism over Israeli policy towards Gaza last year are duly recognised by the international community. This significant contribution to peace is a legacy of which he and his family can be proud. His departure from power understandably leaves a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety in Israel but Acting Prime Minister Olmert, whom I just met again in Israel in January, has proven a worthy successor. I have every confidence in him demonstrating equal pragmatism and courage in the future.
But of course much will depend on the outcome of the Israeli elections next month. The withdrawal from Gaza last year was an important contribution to peace. But it is just the first step. Israel must do more to secure the end-goal of two viable democratic states living in peace and security with one another. Of the agreements following the Gaza withdrawal, only the Rafah border opening has been implemented. Free movement and access are still major problems. And the illegal construction of settlements continues.
Our hope has been, and continues to be, for two leaderships ready and able to inject new vigour into the peace process.
But we now stand at a critical moment.
On the one hand, the Palestinian Authority elections are an important step for democracy, and in many ways for the EU's support to building up the infrastructure for a future democratic Palestinian state. The Palestinian people have embraced democracy and the vote was free, fair and peaceful.
However, the result of the election was clearly unexpected by the international community. The democratically expressed will of Palestinian voters must be respected. But democracy is about more than elections, it goes hand in hand with respect for the rule of law and human rights. That also means acting as a responsible member of the international community, and working with other members of that community for peaceful solutions to conflicts.
So the Quartet sent a clear message to Hamas and the Palestinian people on 30 January. Any future assistance will be considered against their government's commitment to the principles of non-violence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the Roadmap.
This was a message that I had already made clear during my trip to Gaza, the West Bank and Israel in mid-January, prior to the elections. I said that the EU was ready to work with any government that worked for peace by peaceful means.
The international community remains firmly behind that position. Only last week at the EU-Troika with Russia, here in Vienna, we spoke to Foreign Minister Lavrov about the Russian government's approach to Hamas. He confirmed that Russia is fully in line with the Quartet's position and is acting in support of its principles.
We must now wait and see what shape the Palestinian government will take and what their platform will be. For the time being we must continue our support to President Abbas, a man of peace, who is genuinely committed to working with Israel to find a permanent solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Yesterday, President Abbas asked the Parliamentarian Majority to abide by all agreements concluded with Israel. He literally said "All signed agreements have to be strictly respected" and he requested a negotiated solution with Israel.
In the future we hope we will be able to continue our work with the Palestinian Authority to build up the infrastructure for democracy and so help the two-state solution become a reality. The ball is largely in their court - if the PA's leaders behave as responsible leaders of government and meet the international community's criteria we are ready to honour our commitments.
The first tasks for any Palestinian government will be to put reforms back on track, stabilise the fiscal situation and deal with the PA's mounting security problems. If the Palestinian leaders are pragmatic, it is our responsibility to be pragmatic too. Others also have responsibilities - the Arab states who have promised assistance. And Israel, which must also honour its commitments, in particular by not unduly delaying tax transfers.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
2006 has not begun easily. We face renewed challenges to peace and security in the Middle East, and to fundamental rights both at home and abroad. There are no straightforward solutions. But it is clear to me that, at the most basic level, mutual respect and understanding provide the key.
Let me conclude with the words of two famous sons of this city, Martin Buber and Viktor Frankl:
Martin Buber said: "The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable: through the embracing of one of its beings".
And, in the words of Viktor Frankl: "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way".
Let me thank you once again for this opportunity to address you. I count on your support in building good inter-community relations and in ensuring that "the best of our values win against the worst of prejudices".