Dear friends, what is a man supposed to say after all this praise? First of all, thank you so much for this great honour, it really touches me and not sure I deserve it, but I accept it with humility.
My first remark has to be about the freedom of the press. What for so many years in the free world we thought was self-evident, namely that a democracy cannot function without a fully independent and free press, is now in too many countries put to the test. Partly because the economic circumstances have changed for the worse: it is more difficult to attract advertisement, it is more difficult to build your newspaper, especially if it is print, on advertisement. Partly because people have taken a different attitude towards news. I see it with my own children. The concept that news is something you pay for is completely foreign to them. They think they can get all the news they need via internet. But partly also because there is increasing interference in many countries. By economic actors, who think to have friendly media is good for business. But also by political actors, that think that friendly media is good for elections. And I want to state here very clearly: the pluriformity of the media, ruthless adherence to facts, is of essence in any democracy that wants to continue to be a democracy.
I would take you one minute outside of Europe, to the United States. If I have seen one development which fills me with optimism over the last year or months, especially the last couple of months, is that the journalistic profession has regained its sense of mission. It has regained the feeling that they are essential to help democratic institutions strengthen themselves and survive. It has regained this feeling that journalism is about reporting about the facts, analysing the facts, and then helping readers understand what is happening. The illiteracy of the modern world is not the incapacity to read or write. The illiteracy of the modern world is the incapacity to critical thinking. And the modern world, with all its temptations and the social media, etc., is a challenge to critical thinking and I believe that as parents we have the great responsibility to educate our children into critical thinking. Only those people who challenge their own beliefs, challenge their own assumptions and are willing to listen to people who do not agree with them, can come to the right conclusion. If democracy in our nations is reduced to dictatorship of the majority, then we all lose, even those who today are in the majority. Democracy can only function if there is a clash of visions and ideas. If there is openness to even reconsider your own options, your own ideas on the basis of what others tell you. It makes us better nations, it makes us open, it makes us ready to embrace the future.
In the last couple of years in many of our nations democracy is reduced to a zero-sum game. If I win an election, whatever the margin, once I win those who lose no longer count. If I win an election, I get to say what the rules are. I get to say what the constitution says. I get to say how the state should work. That is not the way I believe society can function in a proper way.
One of my favourite poets is a Pole. His name is Czesław Miłosz, I hope I pronounce it right. Czesław Miłosz is arguably one of the most inspiring and best poets of the twentieth century, but he is also a writer. And one of his books, which is sort of a strange auto-biography, it is a collection of essays. It is called 'Native realm' in English. 'Native realm' describes the situation in the 1920s and the 1930s and one, when you read it, and I think it should be perhaps on the curriculum of all schools in Europe, when you read it and what he writes about people having lost faith in institutions, people opting for radical politics. And especially all the people of good will in the middle had a loss of what to do. You know, you get this feeling that not everything we experience today is new.
What I am trying to say is this: if we do not know our history, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. And knowing our history is not digesting the political interpretation of history. Knowing our history is reading the writers, looking at the paintings, being aware of the culture. But especially applying critical thinking on everything that went before us. This is how I believe European society can find the strength in itself for its future. Now you know that I have been in a difficult discussion with the Polish government over the last year or so, about the rule of law. Now let me remind why I believe the rule of law is so important. Is it because it is written in the European Treaty, and we as guardians of the Treaty should make sure that countries abide by the Treaty? Yes, of course. But it is much more important than that.
Our democracies, after the end of the occupation or oppression, so for Poland after the end of the European divide. By the way, the most important event in my lifetime is the end of the European divide. And I will fight to my dying day to not let what was won by healing Europe, get lost again. We were very lucky to grow up on the right side of the Iron Curtain. My father was very lucky that Polish soldiers shed their blood for his freedom and never got, these soldiers, to experience that freedom themselves. Most of them never saw a free Poland. So we were lucky. But we also learned, the end of the 1940s, the beginning of the 1950s, you see it in the Council of Europe, that democracy cannot survive just by itself, on itself, by just saying: the majority takes all. We have learned through painful experience that democracy needs law as its guiding principle. That the rule of law means that nobody is above the law. Not a president, not a parliament, not a government, not a judge, not any institution. The law is what is above all institutions. And this goal should be based on the constitution or on constitutional principles and should also contain full respect for human rights. So the tripod upon which our community of values is built, is democracy, the respect for the rule of law and respect for human rights. As I said, before the war there were countries where they said that through the democratic vote they could set aside the rule of law. Under communist regimes it was the other way around. They said, well we have the constitution and the constitution says that we do not need democracy, so we are fully applying the rule of law.
You cannot use the rule of law against democracy. But you cannot use democracy against the rule of law. That is such a fundamental principle for the organisation of our societies, that it is not just an element of a European Treaty. It is the fundament upon which our societal structure is built, and it becomes more important now that our societies become more diverse. They become more diverse in development, in political views, in structures, in expectations of people. So you will see in any diversity in the end of the day, what protects people is the law. And not a law with a whimsical interpretation of the powers that be on that day. So if the constitution says that you should publish the rulings of the Constitutional Tribunal, as a government you do not get to say: "This one I like, I publish. This one I do not like, I do not publish." That is in clear violation with the rule of law. If the constitution stipulates the way judges should be elected to the Tribunal, you do not get to say: "Now I have a majority, I want to do it differently."
Let me be very clear, the constitution is not something that is set in stone. The constitution is a product of democratic process. And if you want to change the constitution, there are processes in every country to do that according to democratic rules. And everybody is in its right to change the constitution. But then go through that process. You cannot change the constitution, de facto, through a political act using a majority. But more than that, the rule of law also entails the separation of powers. The separation of powers means that the judiciary can act without political interference. Is there no political involvement? Yes there is, of course. But there are always checks and balances. It is a principle in any free nation, based on the rule of law, that the judiciary has a strong say in its own organisation. To change that balance and to make the judiciary an instrument purely directed or strongly directed by a political authority or a legislative authority, goes against the grain of all developments in all free nations across the world. It is like somebody driving on the wrong side of the freeway and then wondering why all these people in other cars are driving the wrong way. This is not the way the world is developing, the free world. So these are the issues, I believe, we need to put on the table in discussing with the Polish government. I do this in an open and non-confrontational way. I believe this is a case where we can use a debate to perhaps clarify some of these issues. And I hope this is something that in the Polish society resonates.
The European Union is a product of the member states and its citizens. I strongly believe that there is something like a European citizen. We are all European citizens. If the Dutch press writes about me, if the regional press, I am from the Dutch province of Limburg and when the regional press writes about me, they write: "Frans Timmermans, from Heerlen", that is where I live. When the national press from the Netherlands writes about me, it is: "Frans Timmermans, from Limburg", my province. In Brussels it is: "The Dutchman, Frans Timmermans," or also in Warsaw: "The Dutchman, Frans Timmermans". And in the United States it is: "The European, Frans Timmermans". And it is every time the same person. So our identities are layered. This is also one of the beautiful lessons Miłosz tells us. If you like his poetry, if you like his books, please reread them. Can I give you this modest advice as a foreigner to Poles?
He develops this concept. He did not want to be boxed in some form of nationalism. His attachment was to the trees he saw in his native Lithuanian town near the sea. It is the smell of the morning greens. It is the sound of the voices and the language spoken by his Polish compatriots. That is why he felt at home. As he said: "Language is my home." And I believe a true patriot has enough self-confidence not to look down on other nations. Nationalists need to look down on other nations. Patriots are proud of their nation, want to share their nation with others, are curious about diversity, are curious about other people. Never fear that one or two thousand or five thousand or seven thousand people with a different culture are a threat to their own culture. How much lack of self-confidence should one have to think that only a few thousand people can influence your culture?
I think there is not a single citizen of this country who does not understand how strong Polish culture is. I think there is not a single citizen of this country who has lost its curiosity of other Europeans, of other fellow Europeans. I think there is not a single citizen of this wonderful country who does not understand Poland's historic mission and its destiny. Poland is destined to lead in Europe. But I do not believe in predetermination. I believe in free will. So even if your destiny is to lead in Europe, if you do not grasp the opportunity of that destiny, you will not lead in Europe. Sulking in the corner is not fulfilling the destiny of the Polish nation. Leading in Europe is fulfilling the destiny of the Polish nation. We, fellow Europeans, need your leadership, your participation, your wisdom, your strength, your attachment to your roots. That is what is going to make us Europeans strong. If we all respect our differences, are curious about each other, laugh about each other on occasion and about each other's idiosyncrasies. But also embrace each other's differences as a sign of strength.
Now I was told I should not speak too long. And I do not want to overstay my welcome. I do not want to run the risk they will take it back. But I have to end on a very personal note, and I will try to do this without being too emotional. About twenty-two years ago, when I worked for the OSCE, I had the privilege to have a wonderful Polish colleague. He was raised in exile in Canada, but everything about him was Polish. He was funny, hilarious, loud, hugging. And we got to know each other and as colleagues in the office he kindly invited me to his home. Where I met his wife Maka and his two sons, Krzysztof and Marcin. And they made me feel, from the very first moment, at home in this Polish home, Polish community, whatever you want to call it. Raised in Canada, living in the Netherlands, but no doubt one second that they were Polish to the core. Guillaume Siemienski, Wilczek for his friends, devoted his life to international peace and solidarity, and sadly in this devotion he was struck down and killed in Haiti, seven years ago in January when there was an earthquake and where he worked for the United Nations. I wanted to mention this because Maka is here tonight. I wanted to mention this because this is what for me the essence of Poland is, the Siemienski's. And I wanted to mention this because somehow I believe that on his cloud somewhere beyond, Guillaume, Wilczek, is now laughing his beard of, looking at me standing here in Warsaw, talking to all of you. And he would have liked this. And in accepting this prize, would you accept that I share this with Guillaume Siemienski?