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“We must see Europe as a team game”

Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth in an interview with the “Frankfurter Rundschau” on 13 September 2017. Issues discussed: dealing with rightwing populism, FrancoGerman relations, Brexit, Poland and Hungary’s stance within the EU, and Turkey.

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Mr Roth, are rightwing populists no longer a threat in Europe? After numerous election defeats such as in France and the Netherlands, hardly anyone is talking about this issue at any rate, even though rightwing parties are in government in a number of countries. 

Europe isn’t out of the woods yet by a long stretch. Some things have improved. The number of unemployed people has gone down overall, for example. We shouldn’t, however, allow ourselves to be taken in by the CDU’s unambitious EU policy of just muddling through. We must devote ourselves creatively and vigorously to the EU in order for it to remain our life insurance against crises. 

A new theory holds that Germany and France will whip the EU into shape once President Emmanuel Macron has finished reforming France. What’s your take on this?

We would be well advised to seize the outstretched hand of this proEuropean French President. It is also important to us for our neighbouring country to return to greater economic and social stability. However, in order for this to happen, we have to know what shape our cooperation with France ought to take. And yet the Federal Chancellor is refusing to be drawn on this issue before 24 September. That is absurd! 

What’s your suggestion?

We must take advantage of President Macron’s courage and overhaul the economic and monetary union. Europeans are suffering as a result of excessive social and economic imbalances. If the eurozone were to cooperate more intensively and reliably in social and economic terms, then we would be more independent from financial markets. 

The UK was an obstacle to many of the points you mentioned. Will it now be easier to achieve these objectives thanks to Brexit?

Nothing will be easier. The British people themselves will have to pay a high price for leaving the European Union. But perhaps the Brexit negotiations will now show everyone that nothing gets better when you withdraw from the EU. So I hope that the EU develops a dynamic in which, at long last, it learns from the mistakes of the past. 

One reason for Brussel’s tough line of negotiation is to discipline the EU member states. Not all EU member states are on the same page as far as democracy is concerned, however. What can be done about this?

We just need to take a look at the EU treaties, which spell out what the European Union is. It is not simply a single market, but a community of shared values, albeit one without a homogeneous vision of society. Europe is open to various ethnicities, religions and cultures. A heated debate is currently under way in Europe on this matter in the course of which we must fight for the values of the Union. It’s easier to identify and impose sanctions on countries saddled with excessive debt by using economic and fiscal indicators than to call countries violating the principles of democracy to task. It is also infinitely more difficult to measure whether and to what extent the rule of law is being restricted or weakened. And so I am grateful to the European Commission for raising this issue resolutely time and again. Increasing numbers of countries are being sensitised to this also within the Council of Ministers. This is badly needed, as we would otherwise lose credibility.

Do you sometimes want to see stronger sanctions against Poland and Hungary?

Sanctions are not necessarily the way forward at the end of the day. You have to rely on the strength of a good argument in a team such as the EU. Politicians cannot constantly attempt to discredit the EU while having almost all of their public investments financed out of the EU budget at the same time. That’s not how things work. Relying on nationalists and populists will get you nowhere. Increasing numbers of people are coming to realise this. 

It is difficult to enforce the EU’s values within the Union. It is even more difficult to enforce them vis‑à‑vis Turkey. How much tougher would you like talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to be?

The EU must speak with one voice. We must not let ourselves be divided. Having said that, Germany has a particular responsibility. We maintain close relations with Turkey, not least because three million people with Turkish roots live here and enrich our lives. We have tried for years to speak the language of diplomacy, but to no avail. However, nothing is gained from breaking off all our contacts and tearing down all our bridges. On the contrary, Turkey is a deeply divided country. Erdogan didn’t win a majority for his constitutional referendum in either Istanbul or Izmir. The majority of young people in Turkey are on the side of democracy and European values. We must also bear them in mind.

Germany’s voice is becoming ever more important within the EU. Will it carry even more weight after Brexit? Are you worried or pleased about this development? 

Neither. Germany make a particular effort, however. We mustn’t constantly throw our economic weight around and must see Europe as a team game in which everyone has a role to play, no matter their country’s size. Germany is needed above all as a bridge-builder. I continue to see major, also emotional, differences between Eastern Europe and the south. Germany has always considered itself to be a guardian of the interests of small EU member states.

Interview conducted by Andreas Schwarzkopf

 

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