“The pandemic has taught us how susceptible our globalised system of capitalism is to dysfunction”

05.07.2021 - Interview

Foreign Minister Maas in an interview with Spanish online newspaper “El Diario

You have headed the Federal Foreign Office for three years. In that time you have experienced a devastating pandemic, Brexit, the end of the Trump era and the challenge of relations with Russia and China, among other things. How has the world changed between the beginning and the end of your time in Office?

To sum it up in one sentence – our world has become more vulnerable, more fragile. The pandemic has taught us how fast our normal life can fall apart, how susceptible our globalised system of capitalism is to dysfunction. And at the same time it has made a much greater threat increasingly apparent: human-induced climate change. It is no longer a question of abstract doomsday scenarios in the distant future. We are seeing the changes here and now. We need to take action – together, as an international community. This is probably the greatest challenge in human history. And it is not least a challenge for foreign policy. It is both a privilege and a heavy burden to work in foreign policy these days.

The controversial anti-LGBTI law in Hungary has shown us once again that the EU is divided. Was the EU too lax, allowing its own member states to violate the rule of law and human rights?

I think it is a simplification to say that the problem is with Brussels alone. All of us bear responsibility for it. Democracy and the rule of law are absolutely essential to the functioning of the EU as a community of states. These core values must be practised and respected everywhere. It is first and foremost the duty of the individual member states to ensure that this happens in their countries.

But the member states should also keep an eye on one another – in a transparent procedure, on a level playing field. This is the aim of the peer review mechanism that we introduced during Germany’s Presidency of the EU Council, which will allow the member states to evaluate one another in turn. This should make it possible to correct undesirable trends early on and foster consensus around shared fundamental values.

And then, of course, there is the European Commission’s role as “Guardian of the Treaties”, with legal instruments such as infringement proceedings. We used our Council Presidency to introduce a new instrument in this field, too – the rule of law conditionality for access to EU funds. It has genuine teeth. Failures to uphold the rule of law could be very expensive in the future.

The national elections in September are being described as a pivotal moment. Merkel is leaving after 16 years and the rise of The Greens seems to have broken the long-standing partnership between conservatives and social democrats. Her party, the CDU, has insisted that it will reject any “cooperation” with the populist AfD, while the government is warning of a dangerous rise in right-wing extremism. Do you think that the German approach to tackling this is an example for Spain to follow?

Across the EU nationalist and anti-democratic voices have been growing louder, including, sadly, in Germany. And so we must confront them throughout the EU – each and every one of us. There is no magic solution, but democratic parties must not leave room for any doubt that there is a stable defensive wall against anti-democratic forces.

In September, the Commission proposed a Migration Pact which southern European countries including Spain criticised for its “lack of balance” between solidarity and responsibility, but no progress has been made. You recently advocated for an update to the EU’s cooperation with Turkey. Is this the way forward? More than five years after the original agreement was made, thousands of refugees are still stranded on the Greek islands, or indeed being illegally returned to Turkish territory, according to numerous complaints.

We urgently need a uniform European migration policy to share the load evenly and do justice to the humanitarian standards that we in the EU set ourselves. This is not only in the interest of the countries in the south that see the majority of new arrivals, but in the interest of the EU as a whole – and of course of Germany too, as one of the countries that ultimately take in the greatest number of people. Unfortunately, we have been seeing for years how difficult it is for us to find a joint European response. We must break the deadlock on the reform of the Common European Asylum System so that the tragedies of recent years do not continue in a never-ending cycle. This requires all sides to be willing to compromise.

We must also take into consideration the foreign policy dimension of migration and, in particular, continue to expand our cooperation with countries of origin as well as transit and host countries. We completely agree with the Spanish Government on this point, too. Turkey hosts the most refugees of any country worldwide and it is also in our interest to ensure that the burden is distributed evenly. The EU should therefore continue this cooperation. However, it goes without saying that in return we expect Turkey to adhere to the EU-Turkey Statement and not to instrumentalise refugees for political ends.

The US has said that the construction of the Russian pipeline Nord Stream 2 is its main point of contention with Germany. It calls the pipeline a “geopolitical project that threatens European energy security and potentially undermines the security of Ukraine and other countries in the region.” What is your position?

We are of course familiar with the criticism of Nord Stream. But our assessment remains the same – Nord Stream 2 does make sense in terms of energy policy. We have endeavoured from the outset to reach a viable compromise, one that also takes into account the legitimate interests of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe – especially Ukraine. This is precisely what the 2019 gas directive seeks to achieve. Germany has worked extremely hard to try and ensure that gas transit through Ukraine remains and will continue to do so in the future. We are engaged in very in-depth talks on this issue, including with the US.

The German Government has acknowledged that the massacre of thousands of people by the army of the German Empire in Namibia at the beginning of the previous century was a “genocide”, although the calls for reparations made by some parties were rejected. Why has this taken so long? What steps should Germany and other EU countries take to acknowledge their colonial past and provide restitution?

The crimes committed during German colonial rule have long troubled our relations with Namibia. It’s no surprise that we were unable to reach an agreement overnight. Our aim was and remains to find a shared path towards genuine reconciliation in memory of the victims. As part of these efforts, we now officially refer to the atrocities committed between 1904 and 1908 on the territory of modern Namibia as what they were from today’s perspective: a genocide. As a gesture of recognition of the immeasurable suffering caused, we want to support Namibia and the victims’ descendants with a substantial programme worth 1.1 billion euro for reconstruction and development. The Namibian side will help decide exactly what this programme will look like.

Inequality has shaped the global distribution of COVID vaccines, while COVAX, the mechanism which the EU is relying on, has not yet reached its goal of ensuring equitable access – not least because countries with more resources are hoarding doses. Have we failed? Germany opposed the TRIPS waiver, although a major power like the US changed its mind. Why? You’ve argued that this would not be a rapid solution, but it’s a proposal that has been on the table since October, and its supporters say that it could help in the medium to long term and that there needs to be a technology transfer.

This debate is certainly not a taboo for me, and the proposal is among the options that we should discuss. But a TRIPS waiver would do little to ensure rapid worldwide provision of vaccines. What’s important now is to quickly produce sufficient quantities. And so I can only encourage all countries to do away with trade restrictions. The EU exports 45 percent of the vaccines that it produces. That makes us the world’s leading vaccine exporter. And the EU and its member states will provide one billion euro to establish production sites in African countries, including South Africa and Senegal. Last but not least, we are also endeavouring to ensure fair global distribution of vaccines. We are the second-largest donor to the international vaccine initiative COVAX, which has already delivered over 90 million doses. By the beginning of 2022 we want to reach 30 percent of the population in developing countries.

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