Milan - Palazzo Reale 16/10/2014

Toast by the President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano on the occasion of the Gala Dinner in honour of the Heads of Delegation of the ASEM Summit

Prime Ministers,
Dear friends,

I am especially pleased to welcome you to Italy and to Milan on the occasion of the tenth Summit of Heads of State and Government of the member countries of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM): an exercise that continues to grow in strength and importance, not least through the entry of new countries in both regions.

I wish, therefore, to extend a particularly warm welcome to the new members today officially joining ASEM, Croatia and Kazakhstan, which I am sure will provide valuable input to the organisation.

This tenth session of ASEM coincides with one of the most complex and problematic periods in the history of international relations in the last decades. The challenges and opportunities of the increasingly interconnected world in which we live have multiplied and become evermore closely intertwined.

The agendas of governments and international or supra-national organisations reflect a growing number of global issues of common concern. Nowadays, therefore, an exceptional effort is required to analysis and select, to compare and discuss our respective assessments, and to act together in a timely, effective and concerted manner.

In this effort we are, naturally, encouraged and facilitated by the broad range of initiatives that have unfolded since ASEM was founded in 1996 - and not just meetings like this one, at Heads of State and Government level. The fact that the 18 years since the creation of the ASEM have brought unpredictable developments in the world's economic and political situation confirms the extraordinary foresight of those who decided at that time, in Europe and in Asia, to embark on this unique shared exercise.

We definitely left the past behind our shoulders. The imperial visions and colonial strategies of the major European powers until the middle of the last century carved out a deep furrow between Europe and Asia. The second, devastating war that broke out in the heart of Europe and spread to become what was truly a world war swept through both our continents to lacerating effect. But since 1950, the Europe of the great thinkers who conceived of a pathway of pacification and integration has acknowledged the errors and faults of the leading classes of the "old continent", the limits that must be recognised and the responsibilities to be assumed to build a peaceful, more just and more prosperous world.

And as the cold war too gradually began to thaw, not only did the peoples of the East and the West come together again in the European Union, but Europe itself understood the need to open up and take a broader view based not just on its essential trans-Atlantic relations. It understood the need to open up to other, more distant but great realities that were embarking on tremendous transformation processes.

That was the significance of the birth of ASEM, even before the shift in the centre of gravity of global development and the extraordinary growth of the emerging countries, Asia first and foremost, became clear, and the reduced "weight" of the European countries as a whole became equally evident.

This underlying trend, and the asymmetries and divergences in the performance of the economy that have emerged in these early years of the 21st century between our two continents, should give rise, in a united Europe, not to a sense of fatal decline, but to a strong determination to build on its best traditions and its potential for innovation and competitiveness. And over all, what can and must prevail in both Europe and in Asia, is an awareness of the inter-dependence that links us and of our historic common task of addressing it in the interests of peace and development : in this overwhelmingly globalised world of ours.

In the complex and worrying framework of international relations that I referred to at the outset, our absolute priority must necessarily be to make an intense and coordinated effort to stamp out the seedbeds of war and tension, to overcome armed conflict and the threats of violence with which we are all too familiar. Conflict and threats that we have recently seen emerge in forms of unprecedented aggressiveness and barbarity, with the offensive of the so-called ISIS. None of us can shirk from the need to provide the firmest possible response to these impending threats, or to patiently weave together political and diplomatic solutions to old and new disputes between states and to internal clashes that risk causing the very disintegration of a number of states.

At the same time, the most burning imperative that today requires the greatest effort from ASEM is that of overcoming the damage and persisting effects of the global financial and economic crisis that began in 2008, and to remove its causes and the risk of seeing it repeated in the future.

In recent years, the most dynamic Asian countries, the countries showing the strongest growth, have provided a valuable counterweight at the global level to the sovereign debt crisis and its consequences for the euro-zone, and to the recession and the fall in production and employment seen in many parts of Europe. But the European Union most certainly now has a responsibility to embark on policies more conducive to growth, not least because - notwithstanding the undoubted differences within the continent - it is Europe as a whole that is suffering the effects of the trend towards stagnation, if not deflation.

The goal we must pursue together is, therefore, the "New Comprehensive Asia-Europe Partnership for Greater Growth" which was reiterated - after the first ASEM in Bangkok - at the Seoul meeting in 2000, and which must be continually enriched with new, concrete content.

Of primary importance is the on-going political and cultural dialogue between us on the values to which our cooperation in all fields must be anchored, within that great framework of the inspiring principles of the United Nations. A dialogue that extends into the wider network of people-to-people relations that we want to see grow and flourish between Europe and Asia. That spirit of "equal partnership" that we have taken as our guiding principle is made up of ever-growing mutual knowledge, reciprocal recognition and respect between the unitary identity that has emerged - albeit in diversity - in the history of Europe, and the great civilisations that since remote times have characterised that vast group of peoples and cultures that we have often perfunctorily labelled "Asia". But whose historic hallmark is, rather, that of an irrepressible "multiplicity".

And in those people-to-people relations we must seek, on both sides, to move on from simplifications and clichés. We need, therefore, to keep firmly in mind the words written years ago by Professor Amartya Sen, when he intervened in the dispute on Human Rights and so-called Asian Values: "There is a lot that we can learn" - he wrote - "from studies of values in Asia and Europe, but they do not support or sustain the thesis of a grand dichotomy... Contemporary ideas of freedom and political and personal rights have important antecedents in Asian as well as Western cultures."

All discussion and research by and between us on these great questions is welcome. Let us therefore continue on the road that we opened up together by founding ASEM: let us continue together in a spirit of confidence and hope.

It was with confidence and hope that Italy submitted its bid to work so hard for the Universal Exposition of 2015, under the banner of "Feeding the Planet: Energy for Life". That is the next new appointment we would like to make with you, who are today with us as ASEM representatives, and with your countries' delegations - here in Milan, starting in May 2015.

In this spirit, and in true friendship, I raise my glass to wish you well-being and prosperity and to toast to the success of this great shared enterprise of ours in the service of the peoples of Europe and Asia.