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“Confidence will only return when debt levels go down” (Interview)"

21.07.2012 - Interview

Minister Westerwelle talks to the newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt about the debt crisis in Europe, energy policy, the situation in the Middle East and German-American relations. Karsten Kammholz asked the questions.

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Hamburger Abendblatt: Minister, Europe has been living in crisis mode for four years. How optimistic are you now that we will emerge from the throes of this crisis stronger than we were before?

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle: As long as we keep working at it with stamina, strength and the necessary dose of optimism, we will do just that. The debt crisis has become a crisis of confidence, and confidence will only return when debt levels go down.

Do you still have confidence in Greece? Athens needs an unplanned bridging loan, while the next payment from the rescue package isn’t actually due until September.

We want Greece to stay in the euro area, but it’s really up to Greece. We will not consent to any substantial change in the agreements that have been reached. I can only beg the Greek Government to take that position very seriously.

Is there a third German-sponsored rescue package on the cards, as far as you are concerned?

We aren’t faced with that question right now. However, I am seeing indications that some people in Greece want to renegotiate things from scratch and substantially re‑examine the country’s obligations to reform. That, I can only say, is not an option. That’s a line we are not going to cross.

Is Greece arriving at a point where it needs to consider leaving the euro?

Greece can’t simply pay lip‑service to wanting to keep the euro; words need to be backed by clear reforming policies and adherence to what has been agreed. I would decisively oppose any attempt to suddenly invalidate agreements which have allowed for the provision of enormous amounts of money. Conduct negotiations, close deals, accept help – and then say the agreements don’t count any more? Things can’t work that way.

Help is something the Government’s new direction on energy, its signature project, also seems to need at the moment. Energy prices are going up, grid development is slow, the North is worried about difficulties in connecting the off‑shore wind farms. Is this another area where we need more Europe?

The more Germany’s shift to green energy can be supported by European policy, the more successful it will be. Energy policy isn’t a purely domestic issue any more; we need joined‑up policy at EU level. Boosting Europe’s energy market is the kind of thing that can become a major driver of growth in the EU.

How might common European energy supplies take shape?

We have been getting our gas from Siberia in giant pipelines for decades. Why then should it not also be possible to build solar power plants in Mediterranean countries and transport energy to Germany from there? I know there are technical obstacles. But we have made a start on the initial projects. There is enormous potential there. We also need more diversity in our domestic supplies. We need a broad range of sources.

Syria has been in the grip of civil war for 16 months. UN estimates put the death toll of the conflict at more than 17,000 so far. Do you feel impotent in the face of this tragedy?

When so many people are dying, and news keeps arriving of so many people suffering, you always feel pretty powerless. But you mustn’t allow that to make you give up. If we stopped working on a political solution, we would be giving up on the people of Syria. We’re not going to do that.

Some of Bashar al‑Assad’s closest associates have been killed in an attack. Is this the beginning of the end for the Syrian President?

We shall see. The violence has now returned to its point of origin, namely the Assad regime in Damascus. The international community needs to take decisive action and inject Kofi Annan’s peace plan with the necessary authority to see it implemented, which includes imposing sanctions.

But UN sanctions are still not going to happen, thanks to Russia and China and their veto.

I am disappointed at the way Moscow and Beijing have acted. Their obstinacy in the Security Council has given backing to the very people who want to keep on escalating the violence.

Can you understand why Russia and China are propping up the Syrian President?

It may be a question of protecting their own strategic interests. What the Russian Government hasn’t realized though, is that their policy is turning the entire Arab world against them.

Does the international community need to look for some other way to put pressure on Assad?

There is still no reason to speculate about military intervention. We want to use political means to help enable a credible transition process and a democratic new beginning for Syria.

Following the attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, Israel’s Government is pointing the finger at Iran. What do you know about those who carried out this attack?

We know no more than anyone else. The attack was reprehensible and particularly callous. I find it most especially tragic that so many young people were caught up in it.

The attack was carried out on European soil. Do Israeli citizens need to worry about travelling in the EU?

When Israel’s citizens visit Europe, they have to be able to feel safe and enjoy their stay without being afraid. We will do everything we can to prevent attacks – but what Burgas demonstrated is that there is no such thing as 100% security.

Israel is planning a tough, decisive reaction. What should we be expecting?

I have heard the Israeli Government’s response. Isn’t it completely understandable that people in Israel are shocked, and that their Government reflects those feelings? Just imagine what Germany would be going through if something so appalling had happened to holiday-makers from here.

Israel’s right to exist is a fundamental tenet of German policy. Does that still stand if Israel attacks Iran?

I share President Obama’s view that what we want is a diplomatic solution. We are prepared to negotiate with Iran about its nuclear programme. If we don’t see any progress on that front, then we’ll carry on with our sanctions policy. Iran has the right to use nuclear energy for civil purposes. And we are prepared to offer Iran technical support to help it do so. What we cannot accept is for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. That would not only pose a threat to Israel and the region but also jeopardize the global security architecture as a whole.

Would an Israeli pre‑emptive strike have Germany’s political support?

I understand that journalism requires you to ask such speculative questions – but I hope you will also understand if I counter with a useful principle from the field of foreign affairs: we cross our bridges if and when we come to them.

The United States is in the grip of election campaigning. Four years ago, you spoke of a victory for democracy when Barack Obama became President. Are you hoping he’ll be re‑elected?

I can tell you freely that the liberal in me was naturally very pleased when Barack Obama won the last election. But given my position in government, I will of course be keeping out of the party-political contest in the United States. Quite independently of any election, German-American relations are sound and healthy.

Have they improved under Obama?

We and President Obama work very well together. Speaking frankly, I wasn’t happy about a number of the foreign policy decisions taken by the Bush administration. But as Foreign Minister, I feel more strictly obliged to be reticent about my personal opinions than I did as an Opposition MP in 2008.

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