This interview appeared in the Stuttgarter Zeitung on 29 January 2011.
Minister, what role can Germany play in calming the situation in North Africa?
Germany is on the side of freedom of opinion. As the evidence in North Africa shows, those who claim that civil liberties lead to destabilization are wrong. On the contrary – it is when people are denied their civil liberties that countries become unstable. That is why we have explicitly offered Tunisia assistance on its road to democracy. I have also told Egypt that we expect to see respect for civil rights – for freedom of assembly, of opinion and of the press.
Is it not something of a foreign policy dilemma for the West that Mubarak of all people has previously been a reliable partner in negotiations on the Middle East?
We recognize the constructive role Egypt has played in the Middle East peace process. However, it is nonetheless important for us to be openly and actively committed to democratic rights. I expressed that commitment in the very first talks that I held in Egypt at the beginning of my term in office.
What can Europe do to help?
An opportunity has presented itself in Tunisia to start along the road to a stable democracy. We can offer advice as well as concrete assistance to help Tunisia, for example, establish an independent judiciary. The same goes for strengthening civil society. And this is something I will campaign for among my fellow foreign ministers in Europe.
Another subject which is high on the agenda at the moment is the stabilization of the euro.Why is your party, the FDP, against making changes to the euro rescue package?
It is precisely our patriotic loyalty towards Europe which makes us want to see the opportunities offered by this crisis used to stabilize the EU for the long term. It is the reason why we are urging member states to return to national economic policies which involve less debt. We need to improve the EU’s competitiveness. We would be gravely mistaken to believe that the debt crisis in Europe could be solved by yet more and more debt. Now is the time to make the long-term structural changes which the crisis has shown to be necessary. Introducing mechanisms like the German debt brake could smooth the road for states towards greater budgetary discipline. I welcome the fact that similar instruments are being considered in many euro-area countries.
What possibilities are there for compromise in the dispute over the rescue package?
It is perfectly normal for argument to arise in a community of 27 governments and just as many parliaments. However, arguments need to be conducted responsibly and led in the direction which is going to prove most constructive. Hectic, short-sighted action is wrong. What we need to do is make things stable for the long term. For that reason, given that less than ten percent of the euro rescue package are being used so far, we see no need to speculate right now about extending that package.
Prime Minister Juncker of Luxembourg used the word populist to describe the debates within your party.What is your response to that?
It worries me when someone believes it possible to solve such a debt crisis by taking on new debts. For related reasons, eurobonds are not the way to overcome this crisis either. The moment debts are made a collective responsibility, the discipline needed within individual members states to take on less debt will become less strict. Reducing debts, however, must be our main aim.
Your MEPs seemed very open to the idea of issuing eurobonds ...
There are more facets to that discussion. I have made my position on eurobonds clear.
What you are doing is read in other countries as a bid to “dictate” conditions to the whole of the EU ...
It is right to show solidarity, but we must tie it into the right regulatory framework if we are to avoid more crises in the future. Anyone can now see that the 2004 decision by the SPD-Green coalition to dilute the Stability Pact was a mistake of historic proportions. There have been 22 excessive deficit procedures begun in the EU so far. Not once have the consequences involved sanctions. That is why we need to use the current situation to have greater authority granted to the Stability and Growth Pact. Anyone who accumulates too much debt and does not budget soundly should in future have to fear sanctions, and they should be imposed as automatically as possible instead of being subordinate to political opportunism.
Is there anything that is taboo for you in the rescue-package negotiations, any lines you will not cross?
We are in the middle of negotiations, and I want to achieve good results. Publicly announcing prices or declaring what lines one will not cross is not the way to do that. I have defined two objectives: strengthening the stability pact and promoting budgetary discipline through such instruments as the debt brake. The EU states also need to be made more competitive. Investment must have precedence over consumption expenditure. Research and education need to be seen as opportunities for development. Our social security systems need to be adapted to the changing age structure of our societies. If people in Germany are only going to retire at 67, it is not very understandable for other countries to stick with a retirement age of 59.
Has Finance Minister Schäuble been a great help to you in the last few weeks?
If you have questions for the Finance Minister, I suggest you ask him directly. It is the Government’s joint position that there can be no question of extending the rescue package at the moment. There is also a lot of agreement on this in the coalition parties.
Interviewers: Armin Käfer and Thomas Maron