“I am a friend of Switzerland”

24.08.2012 - Interview

Foreign Minister Westerwelle talks to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung about the German-Swiss taxation agreement and the situation in Europe. This interview was published in the 24 August 2012 edition of that newspaper.


Minister, you are known as being a friend of Switzerland. Does that friendship stand?

Yes, I am a friend of Switzerland – and I’m not going to change that for the populists of either country. Quite apart from anything else, being a liberal means I have a big soft spot for the Swiss ideal of free thinking.

Not everything that people in Germany are saying about Switzerland sounds very friendly. Is there more to the attacks on our position in finance than electoral rhetoric?

That kind of unedifying talk about the German-Swiss relationship comes from people trying to create publicity for themselves domestically, and you’ll hear the same sort of thing in Switzerland too. The vast majority of people in both countries know that we are not only good neighbours but friends as well. And that’s what we should take as the basis of our relations, in our actions as well as our words.

Many people in Switzerland feel under attack particularly from members of the opposition in Germany. Can you understand their feelings?

When they were still in government, some of those politicians wanted the cavalry saddled up and ready to ride into Switzerland. I called at the time for maintaining friendly and good-neighbourly relations. Now, as foreign minister, I issue that call more strongly than ever. Switzerland does have a lot still to do when it comes to cooperation on fiscal matters with Germany and other countries. The Swiss government acknowledges that – which is why the taxation agreement was drawn up. It is a good agreement, and its principle effect is to promote tax honesty.

The opposition thinks otherwise, at least in part. How do you rate the agreement’s chances of being ratified when it goes to the Bundesrat?

I can’t make any predictions, any more than my counterparts in Switzerland will be able to predict the outcome of a referendum if it comes. Both our governments are calling for the agreement to enter into force soon because it will bring a lot of advantages to both our countries. It will improve tax honesty. It will improve international cooperation between the various authorities. State coffers, especially those of the German Länder, will see funds streaming in to the tune, we can suspect, of billions of euros. And it will create a legal situation which will render obsolete all those unsavoury deals with German authorities buying stolen data.

If the agreement brings nothing but advantages, why are some leading members of your party calling for negotiations to be reopened?

I don’t see any need to renegotiate the substance of the taxation agreement. I don’t even think that we could, at this stage in the ratification process. If we tried, I’m afraid the whole thing would fall down, which would be to the detriment of Germany’s finances and honest taxpayers. If, during the implementation process, any opportunities arise to improve things in our mutual interest, then we will use them.

So would we be entirely wrong to take the most recent things being said in the FDP as evidence that there are differences of opinion within the coalition?

What members of Germany’s FDP have been saying is not intended to scupper our taxation agreement with Switzerland. The aim is to get the opposition on board, an opposition which plays a crucial role in the Bundesrat. It would be wrong to see that as a move to distance ourselves from the taxation agreement.

Is there something that could make the Länder governments change their minds?

This is a good agreement. I am for ratifying it as it stands. And I don’t really imagine that German politicians will want to turn their backs on so many billions of euros just to score points with the home crowd. That money could be used to do so much for education, for young people’s training and for families. I therefore call on everyone to be rational and put party politics aside in this issue.

The most recent damning statements have been fuelling fears that relations between our two countries will be left with long-term damage.

I am here in Switzerland in part precisely to counteract those statements. I remember there being much more heated debates when I was still in opposition.

German-Swiss relations are considerably worse than they were in the eighties and nineties.

When the current government took office in 2009, there were a number of areas needing work. On my first official visit to Switzerland, I clearly expressed my intention to do all I could to solve those problems. Since then, we have negotiated a taxation agreement as well as an agreement on Zurich airport. The German government, without a lot of fuss, helped Switzerland free the Swiss hostages in Libya. That’s the kind of thing that shows how seriously we take our German-Swiss friendship.

Christian Lindner, the head of the FDP in North Rhine-Westphalia, is in favour of giving Greece more time to implement austerity measures. What do you think?

The Federal Government takes the position that the reform process has to continue and that there can be no watering down of the substance of the agreement. Christian Lindner pointed out that time had been lost as a result of the Greek elections – which simply amounts to stating an indisputable fact. We therefore intend to wait for the troika report.

Would the German government consider it acceptable to alter the timetable?

As I said, the reforms cannot be changed in substance. We ask that the Greek government take that position very seriously. Germany is prepared to demonstrate solidarity, and we are in fact practising exemplary solidarity within the EU. At the same time, however, we take the view that all of Europe needs to stop accumulating debts and pursue a policy that promotes growth and competitiveness.

Should Greece be prevented at all costs from leaving the euro, or is letting Greece go an option? FDP Chairman and Federal Economics Minister Philipp Rösler has said that, for him, “Greece leaving the euro is no longer something to fear.”

The entire German government wants the eurozone to remain united, because it would be extremely dangerous for it to start crumbling at the edges. That’s what makes it so important for all the countries which have agreed on assistance programmes to implement those programmes. The key to Greece’s future lies in Athens.

The governments in Paris and Rome are openly boasting that their policy is directed against Berlin. There are voices in the French and Italian media expressing anti-German attitudes. Is Germany just too strong for the monetary union?

We are getting a lot of support in Europe at the moment for taking the stance that you can’t resolve a debt crisis by making it easier to accumulate debt. I welcome the fact that the Italian government has made a serious start on its reform policy. I’m impressed by the determination with which Spain’s Prime Minister Rajoy is implementing the agreed reforms. I am pleased to see that the situation has improved in Ireland and Portugal following those countries’ far-reaching reforms. We need to look at each country’s problems individually, even though the symptoms may be similar. What’s more, all of us in Europe, not just in the EU, need to resist the irrational desire to return to more nationalism. We Europeans are a community of shared culture, bound together by a common destiny. If we can’t in this situation show the rest of the world that we possess the necessary will to assert ourselves as a group, then we risk being written off. We should finally be able to say that the times are past when the peoples of Europe looked at each other through the eyes of prejudice.

You may say that, but the anti-Germany stereotypes and prejudice being expressed in some newspapers are pretty unmistakable.

We are fortunate to have freedom of the press here in Europe. People don’t vote for newspapers; they buy them. The media, in the comments they make, don’t bear political responsibility for their countries. It is those who bear that responsibility who need to do everything to live up to it, including controlling their choice of words.

Is this really the right time, in the middle of a serious crisis for the currency, to be starting a fundamental restructuring of the EU, increasing integration and transferring more sovereign powers to Brussels? That’s what Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany has been calling for recently.

It would be mistake of historic significance if we failed to grasp the opportunities of this crisis. There have been failures ever since the euro has been introduced. The SPD-Green government’s decision to dilute the Maastricht Stability and Growth Pact, for example, was a colossal mistake with serious consequences. This crisis is also an opportunity to learn lessons from the mistakes of the past. That is at least as important as immediate crisis management. That’s why I have invited a group of EU foreign ministers to consider how our decisions within the EU can be made more efficient and how we can address the huge failing of a monetary union which lacks sufficient political union. The foreign ministers’ report is to be completed by the autumn.

If the transfer of sovereign powers necessitates a change in Germany’s Basic Law, should the German people then be given the chance to express their views in a referendum?

I think we should start work on drafting a European constitution as soon as possible. It should provide for more transparency and real democratic separation of powers. We need a European Parliament that has real supervisory powers. The Council of the member states should become a second chamber of parliament. The Commission should be given real executive powers. The Commission President should be directly elected by the entire EU, with all the people of Europe casting their votes. And if we agree on a European constitution, there will have to be a referendum on it.

Reproduced with the kind permission of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, this interview was conducted by Simon Gemperli, Eric Gujer and René Zeller.

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