Washington, DC – Wilfried Martens (1936-2013) was a man who valued democracy because he saw in his own life its power to change the world around him for the better. Born in 1936 in interwar Belgium, Martens spent his early childhood watching Allied forces liberate his native Flanders and then push back and finally destroy German Nazism and Italian Fascism. In the rebuilding of Europe that followed, he saw that with the cooperation and assistance of the United States, democracy could take root, grow and prosper wherever it was allowed to do so on the continent. This was a lesson that stuck with him and helped to define his long and storied political career.
In domestic politics in Flanders and then later in Belgium as a whole, Martens developed and honed the unmatched skills of leadership, negotiation, mediation and consensus-building that defined his later political life. Starting as a young firebrand in the movement to protect and defend the rights of Belgium’s Flemish population and rising to the office of chairman of his home party at the age of 36, Martens demonstrated a remarkable capacity to both stand firm on crucial principles and find a way to bring diverse political counterparts to compromise – skills evidenced in his leadership of a total of nine Belgian governments from 1979 to 1992 and in his leadership of the European People’s Party (EPP) from 1992 until his death.
Viewed from the United States, Martens stands in a class with the political giants of Europe in the 1980s. As prime minister of Belgium through the terms of presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the United States, Martens held firm to the Atlantic Alliance and its decisions when this could easily have cost him his own political career, because he believed that democratic Europe and democratic America share more in history, values, culture and interests than do any other two regions of the world. Just as President Reagan could not have imagined a successful and prosperous America without a free and growing Europe, Martens chose to stake his leadership on a Europe united and integrated, working closely on the major issues it faces with its cousins across the Atlantic.
In a speech in Washington in 2011 to a conference organized jointly by IRI and the Center for European Studies, of which Martens was president, he said, “We have jointly defeated Nazism and Communism. We have made great progress in fighting jihadist terrorism. Together, we have created the richest and freest societies in the history of mankind. And we are now tackling unprecedented global challenges. We need each other more than ever. United, we are still the strongest force on the planet. Divided, we will fail the test of history.”
Under his leadership, the EPP worked tirelessly to ensure that the blessings of democracy were extended not only to the people of the small number of original member states of the European Union, but also to all the other nations on the continent that faced longer struggles for democracy. He led the EPP to broaden its view and incorporate the center-right parties of the new democracies of Spain, Portugal and Greece in the 1970s, as each emerged to take its place in democratic Europe, and then in the 1990s to extend the same invitation to those nations that gained their freedom after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Even as he managed the challenging business of leading a large and complex party at the EU level, he never tired of supporting the establishment and stabilization of democracy and democratic institutions from Berlin to Belgrade and from Tallinn to Tbilisi. In Ukraine, for example, Martens and IRI Board Chairman Senator John McCain worked together over many years pressing the case for imprisoned former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko. And the mutual cooperation of the EPP and IRI, with a number of parties in Europe and on Europe’s doorstep, has contributed a great deal to the success of the democratic transformation there.
But Martens’ vision never stopped at Europe’s borders. He made the intellectual and personal commitment to the idea that the nations of the Middle East and North Africa deserve democracy just as much as the peoples of Europe. Here he began long ago to do the conceptual and political legwork with emerging democratic forces in a number of countries in the Muslim world long before the Arab Spring, taking the long-term view there just as he did in domestic issue in Europe and in relations with America. This is yet another common vision IRI and the EPP shared, and one in which IRI will continue to work together with the EPP. President Martens himself said it best, “It cannot be repeated too often. We share the same fundamental values – freedom and responsibility, human rights, democracy and the rule of law. And even if our views may differ on some particular questions of policy, we have a joint responsibility to stand up for these fundamental values in a world that is becoming more complex by the day.”
More than at any other point in modern history, America and Europe are tied together by cultural, economic, security and political bonds that extend to almost every corner of life for the citizens of both continents and that are a model for people elsewhere in the world who have not yet had the chance to taste democracy. That America and Europe have come so far together since the dark times of the middle of the 20th Century is a tribute to the vision, energy, commitment and life’s work of former Belgian Prime Minister and EPP President Wilfried Martens.