Interview with Federal Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on the European debt crisis and Germany’s role in Afghanistan. Published in the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung on 11 November 2011.
Crisis in Greece and Italy; Germany and France leading opinion: Is a divide growing in Europe between the strong and the weak?
There will always be stronger and not so strong countries in Europe – the same is true in Germany with its federal states. But in the face of emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil, and the rise of countries such as Mexico, Viet Nam and Turkey, we in Europe cannot afford to backslide into being feuding little nation states. Germany makes up just one percent of the world’s population. Europe, if it is wise enough to stick together, makes up seven percent. Only so can it remain globally competitive.
Former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has called for the creation of an “avant-garde” of the 17 euro countries, which would de facto deprive the EU 27 of much of their powers. Do you support these calls?
The 17 euro zone countries are already working together in a separate framework. I talked about the need for more differentiated cooperation in Europe months ago. And I have already launched an initiative to enhance cooperation in the field of defence and security with my Polish and French counterparts.
So Joschka Fischer is just jumping on the bandwagon?
It isn’t important who came up with the good ideas first. What’s important is learning the right lessons from the crisis.
Britain’s criticism was not well received at the latest EU Summit in Cannes, since the UK doesn’t even belong to the euro area …
All countries are welcome to join us on the path towards a stability union. But any that don’t want to should not be allowed to stop the others from making progress.
Do you think the crisis offers an opportunity to advance political integration?
The crisis has to be used, definitely. It’s not enough to discuss the technical details of the rescue package. We have to talk about politics, about a common constitution. If this is drawn up one day, I would like it to be voted on in a Europe-wide referendum.
Back to Greece. The FDP politician and Eurosceptic Frank Schäffler believes the Greeks will only have a future if they leave the euro. How much influence does your backbench rebel have?
If Greece fulfils its obligations, it will be able to count on our support and stay in the euro. If not, not. As regards Frank Schäffler, his analysis is clever, but he doesn’t come up with any solutions. Germany was in recession for two years following the Lehman bankruptcy in 2008. If we were to let entire countries go bankrupt willy-nilly, it would cost Germany far more than any rescue package. There are good reasons to defend Europe now that it’s being put to the test. It is important that we have limited the guarantees under the Euro rescue mechanism to 211 billion euro, and that we will create the possibility for an orderly sovereign default.
The Chancellery and the Finance Ministry are taking the lead in this round of European crisis management. Why don’t we hear the Foreign Minister’s voice on this issue?
Teamwork is vital on this issue. The Foreign Minister’s task is to advance European integration and to pave the way for the treaty amendments. The relaxation of the terms of the Stability Pact by the SPD-Green Government was a historic mistake and we are feeling its consequences today. This Pact has been violated 37 times, without action ever being taken against the miscreants. That’s got to change. We need effective sanctions at long last.
What does that mean in practice? Do you want a European “stability commissioner”?
Yes, I think that’s something we should discuss. In Germany, if a local authority becomes overly indebted, and doesn’t manage to improve its finances on its own, the state government or regional administration will send in experts to assist and provide oversight. That’s how it should work for European debtors, too. Anyone who wants help will have to surrender some of their sovereignty in return. It’s also vital that those who breach the deficit rules can be brought before the European Court of Justice. In December we will launch a debate on establishing a convention to discuss the necessary but limited amendments to the European treaties, as well as possible sanction mechanisms. This is not something that can be put off indefinitely; it should be broached decisively now.
The Americans are getting impatient with Europe, for not sorting its problems out. Ignoring the fact that Washington has enough problems of its own, would you say that the debt crisis has driven a wedge between the US and Europe?
No. The transatlantic partnership is still important, and is still functioning very well. But differences of opinion do exist. Due in no small part to the arguments we put forward, the prevailing opinion in Europe is that a debt crisis cannot be combated with new debt, but only with budgetary discipline. This is the right position and we are roundly asserting it at international level, too.
Minister, one last question concerning Afghanistan. When are the German soldiers coming home?
Our deliberations are progressing well. We will soon submit a mandate for consideration by the German Bundestag, which will provide for the first time for a reduction in troop numbers, in a responsible manner, as was promised in the previous mandate. Our new strategy is being implemented. The handover of responsibility for security to Afghanistan is under way. The high point of our engagement has been reached. All combat troops are to be withdrawn by the end of 2014.
Interview conducted by Beate Tenfelde. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung.