"I want to assure all citizens of neighbouring countries that I cannot imagine any of Germany’s policymakers seeking to impose a German diktat,” Joachim Gauck said in a rare televised speech Friday in Berlin.
“It is my heartfelt conviction that in Germany, more Europe does not mean a German Europe. For us, more Europe means a European Germany.”
Gauck, whose role is largely ceremonial, acknowledged that Germany has “created much fear” since its 1990 reunification to become Europe’s biggest economy.
“We do not want to intimidate others, nor force our ideas on them. However, we stand by our experience and would like to pass it on to others,” he said.
Some 200 guests, from ambassadors to students to faith communities, watched the speech at Bellevue Palace, the president’s residence.
Gauck’s comments were highly anticipated because it was his first major comment on European policy since he was elected last spring.
He defended German Chancellor Angela Merkel against anger in some European countries for her austerity-led politics.
Protesters in other countries have compared her to a Nazi, trying to achieve the domination that Adolf Hitler failed to in the Second World War.
“I was shocked at how quickly perceptions became distorted, as if today’s Germany was continuing in the tradition of German great power politics, or even German crimes,” Gauck said.
The president acknowledged frustration around the EU, including concern about what is sometimes seen as German-French domination of the agenda.
“A lot of people at the moment have very different feelings about that when they, for example, open the German newspapers. There we find Europe reduced to four letters – euro – and read about crisis. Time and again, the stories centre around summit diplomacy and rescue packages. We read about difficult negotiations, and partial successes – but the main theme is a sense of unease, even unmistakable anger, which cannot be ignored,” he said.
He encouraged politicians to be more clear about what European union means and how it will look in the future, adding he believes closer financial and economic integration will lead to a stronger Europe.
Gauck also asked Britain not to turn its back on the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron is offering a referendum on whether to leave the EU.
“Even if individual rescue measures were to fail, the overall European project isn’t at risk,” Gauck said, outlining some of the advantages of the EU – a single currency, trade without customs, free travel and migration of workers.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle praised Gauck’s decision to make Europe the subject of his first major policy speech.
“He can give an important impetus,” Westerwelle told the Passauer Neue Presse.
“We should develop into a political union. But we should remain a Europe of homelands.”
Gauck a populist, popular politician
Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor and human rights activist, was elected president in March 2012, after Christian Wulff resigned in a scandal over financial favours.
He was raised in the Communist East, which disintegrated in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Gauck became a Lutheran pastor after other university courses were denied him because he was not a member of the communist youth organization.
He became interested in politics in the East after his father, also a pastor, was deported to Siberia for his civil rights activism.
After the wall fell, Gauck was made head of the body that investigated the activities of the Stasi, the East German secret police.
A charismatic figure with what some commentators have described as a “preacher-like emotionalism,” Gauck has also campaigned against both left and right extremist threats to Germany's democratic system.
As head of state, Gauck has had to tone down his activism, but many Germans still expect him to speak his mind and confront what he perceives as wrong, particularly if it involves political freedom and human rights.
Parts of his speech Friday seemed to answer some of those expectations, as Gauck encouraged all Europeans to not be indifferent and lazy, but make a contribution to European union.
“More Europe requires more courage from everyone,” he said to applause.
“What Europe needs now are not doubters but standard-bearers, not ditherers but people who are prepared to knuckle down, not those who simply go with the flow but active players.”