“We are small in the world”
Interview with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on the French presidential elections, the debate about national border controls within the Schengen area, Germany’s role in the European debt crisis and the future of Europe. Published in “Die Zeit” on 26 April 2012--------------------------------------------------------------------
Mr Westerwelle, thirty per cent of the French electorate – especially lots of young voters – voted for Europhobic right and left-wing extremist parties.How dangerous is that?
I share the concern underlying that question. But times of crisis in Europe have always brought out anti-European populists, whether from the left or the right, and not only in France. So far this has been of no real threat to Europe. Usually the impact of these political tendencies returns to normal level after a few years. People realize that seemingly simple answers to crises don’t bring any solution at all.
You have warned against re-nationalization. What exactly do you mean by that?
Think about the last Danish Government’s regrettable attempt to reintroduce permanent border controls at the German-Danish border. Freedom of travel is a great European achievement. It would be very damaging to call it into question.
Does that criticism also apply to the suggestion by Interior Minister Friedrich and his French counterpart that it should be possible to put national border controls in place for up to 30 days?
We need to be careful not to send the wrong message. For me, freedom of travel and freedom of movement are non-negotiable. What previous generations could only dream of, we have made a reality: Schengen means that the united Europe is open to all its citizens on an everyday basis. The removal of the barriers, that crucial step towards integration, must not fall victim to electioneering. Of course we need the correct balance between freedom and security. That’s why it’s our job to make Europe’s external borders so secure that there’s simply no need for individual countries to go it alone.
Anger is growing in Spain, Greece and Italy about Germany forcing austerity on everyone.Does that worry you?
I’m travelling round Europe a lot just now to try to convince people it’s not true Germany only wants austerity and nothing else. We are committed to budget discipline because you cannot fight a debt crisis by making it easier to take on more debt. However, we are also committed to economic growth through improved competitiveness. There is a fundamental difference between us and the opposition in Germany: they still believe it’s possible to create economic growth by incurring new sovereign debt. But we’ve seen that that just doesn’t work.
But your policies aren’t working either. The Spanish are seeing right now that increased budget discipline doesn’t create jobs.
That’s why the Spanish Government is right not just to make savings, but to commit to structural reform as well. But it’ll take more than a few weeks to see results! It was exactly the same with us. Ten years ago, Germany was still considered the sick man of Europe.
Germany has become Europe’s bogyman. Does the way we conducted our debate about the crisis have something to do with this bitterness?
I wish I could say you were wrong. But unfortunately you’re right. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. These stereotypes – Greeks relaxing under the trees with their olives and a bottle of retsina while the Germans are working hard – are the stupidest things. And that comment, that Europe’s now speaking German …
… which came from Volker Kauder, chair of the CDU parliamentary group…
... was meant in a completely different way, but it came across wrongly. The perceived claim to power that is read into comments like that is hurtful to many people in the countries concerned.
But you’ve said a few things yourself …
I’m not saying that I have always expressed things well. But as far as I’m concerned, the most important political decision I’ve taken as Foreign Minister is to respond to the crisis with a clear pro-Europe approach.
So are you saying the Federal Government’s policies have nothing to do with Europe being so unpopular today?
From the outset the Federal Government’s entire strategy has been solidarity for solidity. I will keep on trying to persuade other countries in Europe seeing similar demographic developments to us to make the kind of changes to the retirement age that we’ve decided to make in Germany. Unfortunately, many people in Europe are on a difficult path, walking barefoot on broken glass. That’s something we should feel respect and sympathy for. But the necessary reforms which have now been launched, reforms which were neglected for so long, are the only possible way to make Europe’s economic and social situation stable again in the long term.
Could it be that Germany’s right, but that Europe will still fail in the end?
The key historical question is this: are the centrifugal forces being exerted in Europe during this crisis stronger than the political power of integration? A raw wind of re-nationalization is blowing right across Europe. Increasing numbers of people in most countries in Europe believe that, in an age of globalization which is perceived as confusing and frightening, you can simply retreat into your own little biotope. But with this approach we take the axe to the very root of our prosperity. How do you hope to persuade an investor in Asia to invest in Europe when we Europeans are giving off signals that we don’t actually fully believe in our own future?
And so that’s why we have to retain the euro at all costs?
Sometimes I’m speechless in the face of the refusal to accept reality that dominates the debate on these questions in Germany. Germany is relatively big in Europe, but relatively small in the world of the 21st century. That’s why we need our European partners and our fellow European citizens. Do we really believe we could reverse European integration without doing any damage? What we’re dealing with is the will we Europeans have for economic, political and cultural self-determination. There is a European way of life we have to defend. One aspect of this is that the individual counts for something, not just the collective; and we treasure not only material but also post-material values: individual freedom, social security, freedom from fear, cultural diversity, an eco environment.
Now you’re talking like a Green!
No, like a Liberal for whom it’s not good intentions that count, but the best social and ecological results. A young Brazilian can indeed be successful and rich in Brazil. But he can’t be sure of being able to walk safely and easily along the street after dark in Latin America. A young Chinese woman in Chenyang might do well economically, but there are greater restrictions on her self-fulfilment there than in Europe. Sometimes I think we Europeans don’t realize how lucky we are. And we Germans all too often forget that this privileged life is the fruit of our roots in Europe.
What should the EU be like in ten years’ time?
It is not enough merely to draw conclusions from the crisis for financial policy; we need to find structural responses too. One question is whether today’s rescue mechanisms, the EFSF and ESM, should one day morph into a real European Monetary Fund, an EMF. Another question has to do with our democratic decision-making mechanisms. Perhaps we can agree to allow more majority decisions below the level of treaty amendments as well. I could imagine more permanent presidencies instead of the current double presidencies, and I would have a President of the European Union directly elected by the people of Europe. As soon as European politicians start canvassing for their ideas and themselves throughout Europe, they become known across Europe. This reduces the gap between political decisions and the way the people experience Europe. And if I could just say this: too many people duck out of the European debate because they are afraid of getting a blast of the wind of re-nationalization in their faces.
You seem to be finding it easier to be a passionate advocate of Europe now that you’re no longer leader of the party.
I had passion before as well, but not so much time. The fact that I can now concentrate on being Foreign Minister is good for the office and hopefully good for me too.
Interview conducted by Jörg Lau and Matthias Krupa. Reproduced by kind permission of Die Zeit.