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“The Franco-German friendship is our most precious jewel”

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in an interview on Franco-German relations. Broadcast on Deutschlandfunk on 15 January 2013

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We must not take the Franco-German friendship for granted, says Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (FDP) in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the two countries drawing closer together after the Second World War. For him, European, French and German people form a community with a shared culture and common destiny.

The Franco-German friendship isn’t something you need to learn, it’s in the genes” and these are your own words, Federal Foreign Minister Westerwelle, during your first visit to Paris after taking office three years ago. It is no longer enmity being passed down through the generations but friendship and friendships need to be nurtured. Where do you think needs are greatest?

As I see it, young people in particular must not take our Franco-German friendship and the maturity and intensity of this friendship for granted. We grew up in the 1960s and 70s, as the first generation unmarked, as it were, by personal experience of the Second World War. And today’s young generation is of course so far abstracted from the first half of the last century that they do not have the same memories. After all, we heard from our parents how things were during the war, how the war came about and how the period after the war saw the first tentative efforts to forge the Franco-German friendship. And my advice would be for young people in both countries never to take this special friendship between Germany and France for granted but to see it like any other friendship, that is, one that must be nurtured each and every day.

It is interesting to see that in the joint survey conducted by Radio France, arte, Deutschlandradio and ARD, this war and post-war period played less of a role and was more seen as a given. Nevertheless, you need to feed such friendships. Where do you see specific possibilities here? Where do you want to get involved to lend further shape to this shared Europe, perhaps together with France?

For me, the best result of this survey is that people see the need for the Franco-German friendship not just because of our history, but primarily because of the tasks we will face together in the future. We are living in a world of change and seeing breathtaking shifts in the world, new powerhouses in Asia, Latin America and Africa. The fact that we Europeans, we the French and we the Germans can only hold our own in this world of change together, as a community with a shared culture and common destiny, is an amazing realization that is clearly widespread in both countries.

We also asked the listeners and viewers how exceptional and special this relationship is. How exceptional do you think it is, Foreign Minister?

The Franco-German friendship is the most precious jewel in our European crown and yet I would urge us not to forget our important eastern neighbour, Poland, and to involve this neighbour more and more in our talks and consultations. But, not wanting to belittle others, France and Germany are without a doubt key pillars of the European Union. And given their size but also their outlook, turning to the world, accepting and taking globalization seriously, it is important that Germany and France engage in the closest of coordination. Occasionally, I hear talk of disagreements between Germany and France – I don’t see them. What I do see occasionally are differences of opinion between governments from different positions in the political spectrum. But that has nothing to do with discord between two states or two peoples, it is a completely normal political process and not something we are seeing for the first time. François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl spring to mind. They were heading different political families but nevertheless managed to chalk up historic achievements not least German unity itself.

Taking this further, there has been a change of government in France and it does seem that the Franco-German motor is not going to run quite so smoothly under this new Government. Are you now planning an initiative together with your French colleague Fabius to feed the desire also reflected in the survey, namely that people want a further deepening of Europe?

Laurent Fabius and I consulted together in the Future of Europe Group that I created. And we presented proposals, for example, on how to further develop Europe successfully by means of practical, concrete steps. I, for example, could well imagine having joint leading candidates across Europe for each party family in the next elections to the European Parliament. I would be delighted if those wanting to shoulder responsibility in Europe had to do so not just at home for their own electorate but if they had to present their ideas, their election manifesto and indeed themselves all across Europe. That would also be a step towards integration. So, far below the level of major treaty amendments or new institutional shifts, we can even today do more for European integration and we should seize the opportunity. After the election to the European Parliament, I believe it is sensible and indeed necessary to talk about appointing a convention to look at the further development of Europe in terms of institutions and treaties. After all, no matter how delighted we are about the Franco-German friendship, we mustn’t forget what we have learnt in the last three years of the debt crisis in Europe. We have seen that decision-making mechanisms in Europe are not transparent enough and lack democratic legitimacy and efficiency, some things just need to happen faster. We should see this as a shared task and I’m sure Germany and France will end up heading the debate. We won’t always absolutely agree – we never did nor do we need to – but we do have the same goal of enabling Europe to hold its own in the world.

Mr Westerwelle, is there not a risk here that Germany takes on the role of bully and doesn’t negotiate and talk even to France as an equal?

That would be a dangerous development. Germany’s standing in Europe, but also, as this study shows, in France, has improved. And yet I would urge us in this strong position to act with respect and the required modesty. I’m against blowing our own trumpet just because Germany is doing well at the minute. In the long term, even Germany won’t be in good shape if our European neighbours aren’t. And we mustn’t forget that just over a decade ago it was Germany that was the sick man of Europe. We struggled hard with mass unemployment. Happily, we managed to get through this difficult time, all together, everyone in Germany. But we mustn’t now conclude that we no longer need to bother talking to others as equals because we are currently in a strong position. Let’s keep talking as equal partners and treating one another with respect – Europe is a community of equals.

Foreign Minister, as we draw to a close, allow me to a ask you a personal question ignoring the political agenda for a moment. What was your first contact with France and how do you yourself feel about the country? Do you stand in adoration or do you see the whole thing as a pragmatic relationship? Be honest.

I like France a lot and have done since my youth. I grew up in the Rhineland and the Franco-German Youth Office was based there back then so when I was at school it was something I knew about. My first really significant encounter with France is one I’ll never forget. I headed off for a camping holiday in Brittany with my mates when I was 14 or 15. I went to a little corner shop with two friends and wanted to buy some bits and pieces for our holiday. It was the mid-1970s and the woman behind the counter was considerably older than us. She looked at us, realized we were German and went into the backroom where we heard her cry. A while later, a much younger woman came out and said to us, “Boys, it’s nothing to do with you. It’s just that my father, her husband, the husband of my mother, was killed by Germans in the war.” And when you remember that it really isn’t all that long ago that this all happened, then you have to say it is a stroke of luck that the Franco-German friendship has come so far and developed so well. This is something we should see as mandate and realize even when there are differences of opinion that we are only really strong together.

Allow me to ask one final question, Minister. Have you listened to French music in the last year, read a book by a French author or perhaps watched a French film?

Yes, I have. I have always enjoyed reading books by French authors, also when I was young. But I have to admit that I always read the German translation. I have to hang my head in shame and admit my French is so awful that I don’t want to offend anybody with my mangled attempts at speaking the language. If I’m out and about with friends then I bite the bullet occasionally because then I don’t need to worry so much about the grammar rules. And then of course it doesn’t really matter if it sounds awful. But the French culture, the French way of life, the wonderful melody of the language which I understand a little but unfortunately cannot speak well, this is something wonderful and is music to my ears. And we just had a great concert here in the Federal Foreign Office. A New Year concert with music by Debussy. The wealth of French culture is amazing.

Merci – vielen Dank, that’s all that remains to be said!

Avec plaisir!

Questions: Burkhard Birke. Reproduced here by kind permission of Deutschlandfunk.

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