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“Traditional Western ideals have lost none of their significance or topicality”

Interview with Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on transatlantic relations and the situation in the European Union. Published in the Hamburger Abendblatt et al. (22 February 2017).

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Very different noises are coming from within the new American Administration. Are you relying on Donald Trump, or rather on Vice-President Pence?

I am very gratified that, speaking in Munich and Brussels about transatlantic relations and about Europe, US Vice-President Pence took a calming, indeed reconciliatory, tone. This tone was reflected in the positive talks we had with him and with Secretary of State Tillerson. In the first instance, however, we Europeans should rely on ourselves. We will only be taken seriously – by China, Russia or the US – if we stand together. Europe must become stronger – in our common foreign policy and – as a consequence, not as a hurried preliminary – in our common defence and security policy. Above all, we need to ensure more growth, jobs and employment in Europe.

You like using Twitter yourself. What do you derive from Donald Trump’s style of communication?

If it’s done well, tweeting can inform about policy and send messages to people who would otherwise be hard to reach. And certainly Twitter messages can be a bit caustic or pointed. But Twitter cannot, must not and will not replace politics. We shouldn’t take everything that comes out of Washington at face value. We are focusing on what we hear from the new Administration in confidential, personal discussions. But no-one should simply assume that things will always be as comfortable for us in Europe as they might once have been.

What’s the worst scenario you associate with Trump?

“Hope for the best and prepare for the worst”: we mustn’t keep going on and on about the negative scenarios, but of course we have to think them through. That is no reason, however, to be paralysed by shock, far less to feel the need to bid farewell to the idea of “the West”. On the contrary: traditional Western ideals – democracy, the rule of law and the separation of powers, shouldering responsibility for each other, the freedom of the press and freedom of opinion – have lost none of their significance or topicality. These are not mere favours, but the foundation of transatlantic relations and of a partnership between equals.

Do you see any alternatives to the transatlantic relationship?

Acting with foresight in politics demands that we move forward in areas that are crucial for us and our future. Not without reason do many people call this a Pacific century. My talks in Bonn at the G20 showed that our Asian and Latin American partners’ interest in increased cooperation with Europe is much greater than their uncertainty about the future course of the US. On all sides, then, we can only gain. Good transatlantic cooperation based on trust is and will remain the key to our common security and to a liberal, open world order. It cannot be replaced, and most certainly not overnight. That Europe needs to do more for its security has long been a truism, long before Donald Trump. And we are doing more, with a sense of proportion, but not out of blind obedience.

What is your aim?

In 2014, we agreed in NATO to “aim to move towards the 2% guideline within a decade”. That goal still applies, and we stand by it. Security, however, is about much more than stocks of military hardware; above all, it is about conflict prevention, work to stabilise fragile states, development policy and humanitarian assistance. Aid organisations report that millions of people in the Horn of Africa, in Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan and elsewhere, are in acute danger of starvation and death. 1.4 million children are currently in acute danger of starving to death! The pictures are horrifying. In Iraq, food rations for people fleeing IS will have to be cut if the international community does not provide more funding. As a result of the bloody conflict in Yemen, two-thirds of the population are dependent on food aid.

What exactly does that mean for Germany’s defence budget?

We have hugely increased our commitment to humanitarian assistance over the past few years, thank goodness, and are already pleased to see regular budget figures in excess of a billion euros. Now some people are talking about an increase in the defence budget of 20 billion or more – annually, mind you. We are already hearing the first calls for arms expenditure to be funded by cuts in welfare spending in Germany. That will not happen with the SPD. If it is true that we really do not have a problem with such an increase in the defence budget, as the CDU Finance Minister says, then there should also be money for the millions of refugees and displaced persons and their children, to provide them with food and drink, and to give them prospects in their home countries. That would be security policy in the very best sense.

What should Europe as a whole do?

We need to prove to ourselves and to the citizens of Europe that we are willing to shape our continent and that we are capable of acting. I see five areas for a stronger, better Europe: common foreign and security policy, protection of Europe’s external borders, cooperation for enhanced internal security, the resolute revival of the promise of prosperity in Europe, and reform of the internal market. This is a powerful agenda for Europe, sending a message both internally and externally. Only as a strong, united continent will we retain our clout and voice in the world.

There’s little sign of unity in the EU – not even when it comes to stabilising the single currency...

It is high time we got back to an objective debate. If there’s one thing Greece isn’t, it’s an appropriate object for orthodox ideologies. That is why it is good that the technical negotiations on the reform programme are getting underway again in Athens. Athens should stick to the agreements it has made and we should work together to do everything possible to ensure that the country and its hard-hit people finally get back on their feet, in economic and social terms – and within the eurozone. I think it is obvious that a large, strong, stable country like Germany must do all it can to keep Europe together. This is much more than an act of solidarity; it is in our own vested interest.

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Interview conducted by Michael Backfisch and Jochen Gaugele

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