“Greece, Europe, Democracy and Freedom” – Speech by President Charles Michel to mark the 40th anniversary of Greece’s accession to the EU

Madam President,
Prime Minister,
President of the European Parliament,
Dear friends in Greece and everywhere in Europe,

Thank you very much for inviting me to this commemoration today.

It marks a double renaissance.

Your accession to the European Community represented a return to the fold for the people of Greece. But the other people of Europe also experienced it as a return to their origins.

Europe was born in Greece.

And I am not only thinking about the princess taken away by Zeus to the beautiful island of Crete, that princess who gave her name to our common project and our common currency: Europe and the euro.

As Byron said, ‘the best of prophets of the future is the past’.

As is often the case with teenagers, one of my teachers made a huge impression on me: he taught ancient Greek and Latin. His name was Jean Lamotte.

And by expressing my heartfelt thanks to him today, here in Athens, I am expressing an appreciation of the unique place which classical Greece holds: not only in my personal identity,

but also in shaping European consciousness.

I am reminded of this by a figurine of Socrates I brought back from my first trip here as a young man, which has never left my library since: my Socrates reminds me every day that Greece is the cradle of reason, freedom and democracy.

And that is what the preamble to the draft Constitution for Europe wanted to remind us of in 2003, in the text prepared under the leadership of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who signed your accession treaty.

The preamble began with Thucydides (I quote):

‘Our Constitution … is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the greatest number.’

This is of course our lesson number one: freedom and democracy are the foundations of our European project.

It is these inviolable values that must guide our actions.

And nothing can replace reason in the choices which we political leaders make in the service of our fellow citizens.

We can see clearly in the world today that freedom, democracy and even reason, 25 centuries after Socrates, must be at the heart of our work.

The first things we associate with ancient Greece are thought and democracy.

But there were also the interminable quarrels between the cities, interrupted only by the Olympic truce – quarrels which would get the better of democracy in the end.

Even so, the Greeks’ bent for thinking did not fade away.

The author of the Acts of the Apostles noted that when Paul travelled to Athens,

‘all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing’.

The author’s tone was disapproving.

But mine is not: discussing and actively listening to others’ arguments requires strength and courage.

It also requires great patience and mutual respect.

This is our lesson number two. And it is my daily inspiration in my role as President of the European Council: debate, which generally starts with disagreement, is collective intelligence in action.

Without collective intelligence no unity is possible. Without unity there can be no common project.

This is undoubtedly the most extraordinary achievement of the European Union: what are we but a union of 27 cities that, having for centuries tragically quarrelled, now forge and re-forge unity?

With each debate giving us strength to master our common destiny?

It is hard work – as you well know, Kyriakos, my friend. But if it works, it works because there are people like you around the leaders’ table, imbued with reason and conviction, patience and determination, openness to dialogue and will to succeed.

And I thank you for that from the bottom of my heart.

Deprived of freedom, Greek civilisation persisted through the following centuries. Through Rome, it conquered Europe. The fragile idea of democracy survived… elsewhere. It was strengthened from the Renaissance, which enabled Europe to experience a first rebirth in the spirit of Greece.

Greece itself was enduring dark and difficult times. Until democratic ideals returned – with Byron – to inspire the Greeks who regained their freedom, victorious in their independence.

In Greece, as in Europe, freedom and democracy would pass through many horrors and wars, often only surviving in the minds of idealists.

We have all, you and the rest of Europe, experienced the worst with the First and then the Second World Wars.

Across the Continent, only a handful of countries came through them as stable democracies.

You yourselves had to undergo a new ordeal: a despicable dictatorship synonymous with torture, death and exile.

Some of you experienced it personally. In democratic Europe, we sympathised with you, but did we respond adequately to your calls for help?

The dictatorship was overthrown by the strength of Greeks alone. And it was the Greeks themselves who earned their right to join the community of free and democratic nations of Europe.

This is our lesson number three. Freedom is a small, fragile flame. At times, it is reduced to a barely glowing ember.

But it is never extinguished without having been passed on to others. Freedom is an inextinguishable value, because it beats in the heart of each one of us.

Since your formal accession to our common Europe that had always been yours, you have experienced the best years of your history. They set you definitively on the road to peace and prosperity.

Not without difficulties. Not without controversies. Because democracy and freedom also mean having the right to say ‘όχι’ (no).

European construction follows a path marked out by ‘noes’, which we need to discuss in order to move beyond them to irreversible ‘yeses’.

That is what happened when you restored your unity by transforming a ‘no’ into a firm ‘yes’ to the euro and Europe.

And when Europe maintained its unity by repeating its ‘yes’ to Greece, standing shoulder to shoulder with the country through the crises of recent years.

This is lesson number four. The European Union is built and reinforced in stages – sometimes crises – when irreversible action is taken. The creation of the single market, of the area of free movement, of the single currency… these creations have been not weakened, but strengthened, in the course of debt crises, the migration crisis… and now the COVID-19 crisis,

which has led us to take extremely strong and unprecedented decisions.

Decisions which have given us more powerful tools to exercise solidarity and converge towards greater prosperity, towards greater cohesion.

And towards personal and collective well-being, ‘beyond GDP’. That, in my view, should be the prospect offered by the shift we have started to make in our development paradigm, with the climate and digital transitions.

It is, I believe, the core around which we and our 450 million fellow citizens must together renew our European social contract.

And it may well be the most essential task for the Conference on the Future of Europe.

What better way to pay homage to the tradition of debate and reason, which we owe to Greece!

Collective intelligence in action.

Europe has been shaped by Greece, much as Greece has been transformed by Europe.

We cannot exist without you, just as you do not want to exist without Europe.

Inspired by this strong and indissoluble bond, and by our shared confidence in our ability to move forwards towards a promising future, I am happy and proud to proclaim with you:

“Ελλάδα, Ευρώπη, Δημοκρατία, Ελευθερία !” *

* Greece, Europe, Democracy, Liberty