For me as Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Europe has a meaning that goes far beyond geography. It is a synonym for a new beginning, new hope, the rule of the "better me" that exists in all of us. It's an expression of prosperity, progress, and justice. Perhaps these words sound exaggerated to cynical ears. But they clearly express the changes that Europe has witnessed over the past half-century, changes for the good that all Czechs now want to secure for themselves, having been denied the fruits of European peace and prosperity for so long.
Throughout its history, Europe saw countless bloody conflicts; peoples and states clashed, with the Czech lands often the bloody crossroads of these battles. The disasters of two world wars, and the half-century of Cold War, pushed Europe to embrace cooperation and integration in order to avoid another suicidal battle. Those far-sighted Europeans who set Europe on its road to peace through unification deserve our heartfelt appreciation.
Simply put, the idea of European integration transformed our continent. The open economic space and the principle of solidarity helped ensure that economically less developed countries that joined the European Economic Community and, later, the European Union, progressed at an astonishing pace, enhancing the living standards of their peoples. Nowadays, indeed, instead of deepening disparities in standards of living in Europe, which was the historic norm, differences are actually blurring as the quality of life everywhere in Europe rises.
Yet this prosperous and peaceful Europe is not idyllic; sometimes Europe is not at all an easy place for its citizens to live, as the tumultuous Balkan Wars and painful postcommunist transitions of the past decade demonstrated. But even in hard times, every European knows deep down that European integration has delivered peace with clear prospects for broadening Europe's zone of peace and stability.