Everyone in Germany is familiar with Willy Brandt’s phrase: “What belongs together is now growing together.” We tend to assume that it refers to the reunification of our country 30 years ago after it had been split in two by walls and barbed wire. But if you look more closely, you could start to wonder whether Willy Brandt was really only thinking of Germany when he spoke. For only one day after the Wall fell, he talked of “parts of Europe growing back together.”

Germany’s unity and European integration are and remain inextricably linked. In Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden and in many other East German towns, people demonstrated for freedom in their hundreds of thousands. But all over Central and Eastern Europe, too, men and women took to the streets and in their desire for freedom tore down walls and barbed wire. We will not forget this. And without the trust that our European partners, the USA and the then leadership of the Soviet Union placed in a peaceful, European Germany, reunification would have been politically impossible. Our gratitude for German unity thus remains inextricably linked with our firm conviction that Germany’s future can only lie in a genuinely united Europe. That is the only final answer to “the German question” with which Europe was so painfully and repeatedly confronted in the last century.

“More Europe” is by no means the price we Germans had to pay for reunification – it was an additional historic achievement. It is thus only logical that the words “with a view to establishing a united Europe” now stand in our Basic Law in the very article that once gave expression to our pursuit of German reunification.

The milestones we have since passed are well known: the creation of the European Union by the Maastricht Treaty, the Economic and Monetary Union, the present Treaty of Lisbon and above all the accession to the EU of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, whose energy and desire for freedom provided the crucial impetus for greater European integration – not just as an enlarged single market, but also as a community of shared values.

30 years after reunification the challenges have changed. The COVID-19 pandemic is not simply another crisis to list beside problems such as the pan-European rise of right-wing nationalists and populists, the growing rivalry between the US and China, and the threat disinformation poses to our democracies. The pandemic amplifies and exacerbates these other problems. We have to find a genuine European answer to them all – as was the case 30 years ago. The answer is the same as it was after the reunification of our continent: we need internal solidarity so that Europe can uphold its values and interests abroad with confidence. Solidarity and sovereignty are two sides of the same coin.

We have shown in the past few months that Europe can act with internal solidarity – the most recent example being our agreement on an unprecedented package of aid measures jointly backed by us all.

And we want to take this yet further during our EU Council Presidency and beyond: in our efforts to strengthen Europe as whole, a Europe that needs to be caring and innovative; in our efforts to shape a sustainable European economy with ambitious targets for climate and environmental protection; and in our efforts to adopt the next EU budget – on the basis of our community’s values.

In this way, a Europe will emerge which is able to defend its values and assert its interests in the world – from the procurement of medicines and vaccines, to crisis management in its neighbourhood and playing a more active role in forging the digital transformation.

In all these fields, “more Europe” means more shared sovereignty, more effective means of action, and more influence in tomorrow’s world.

To achieve this we need the same confidence, the same energy with which the people in Central and Eastern Europe fought for and won unity and liberty 30 years ago. For this reason, too, we want the Conference on the Future of Europe to begin its work before the end of our Council Presidency. This will enable the citizens of Europe to come together to discuss ways out of the crisis and consider the Europe we want in 2025 or 2030 – frankly and without shying away from controversy. For unity does not emerge from a state of pre-existing consensus. It is precisely our diversity that is one of Europe’s strengths, provided we do not forget what unites us – namely our values. We Germans know how hard it is to grow together. But we also know that it is worth every conceivable effort. That is why we now champion Europe’s unity just as passionately as we did German unity 30 years ago. So that what belongs together can grow together.