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“Rectifying the design flaws in economic and monetary union”

25.01.2013 - Interview

On the occasion of his trip to Lisbon, Federal Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle spoke to the Portuguese daily Público about the European debt crisis, the situation in Mali and the future of the European Union. Published on 25 January 2013

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The German economy, Europe’s locomotive, is cooling off and the growth prognoses are very weak. European growth is stagnating. The southern European countries (Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece) remain in the grip of a major recession. Given this situation, would Germany be prepared to rethink its austerity strategy to overcome the euro crisis? Do you think we are now through the worst of the crisis?

We have put the worst of it behind us – but we’re not out of the woods yet. We need to regain the trust of the markets. That is what the triad of consolidation, growth and competitiveness is all about. There is no way round tenable public budgets. Portugal is making considerable efforts and I think the country is on track. With its growth and solidarity, Germany is helping stabilize the whole of Europe. The most important thing is to use smart reforms to create competitiveness all across Europe.

Thanks to Portugal’s efforts to fulfil the troika programme, Berlin has a favourable view of the country. But the prognosis for 2013 is not very optimistic. The economy will continue to shrink and unemployment will rise. The risk of a recession spiral, similar to what we have seen in Greece, remains. The sacrifices the Portuguese have had to make are now getting close to unbearable. How does Berlin see things?

Portugal is an important partner to us in overcoming the crisis. The international troika has paid tribute to the Portuguese Government’s reform efforts. Germany has the greatest respect for the work Portugal is doing. Success has already been achieved in many areas, such as privatization and the creation of an attractive investment environment. A return to the financial markets is now within reach. What we feel is important now is to stay on this road. Today, Foreign Minister Portas and I opened the first German-Portuguese Forum. There, too, we were talking about concrete momentum for growth, for example through increased cooperation between businesses and researchers or in the field of training.

You recently published a paper on the future of Europe which was penned by ten diplomatic chiefs from EU countries in the Future of Europe Group. One of the proposals is to strengthen European integration in the field of foreign and security policy by foregoing the need for unanimous decisions and by creating a European army. Some countries find these proposals difficult to stomach. They could even mean that Britain (a big player in European foreign and security policy) takes a further step back from the European Union. How do you assess this threat?

The crisis has shown that we need to rectify the design flaws in economic and monetary union. The future of the EU is a question that shapes the destiny of each and every one of us. After all, standing alone, no European country is strong enough to hold its own in global competition. We need closer cooperation, also in foreign and security policy. And we want Britain to remain a committed and constructive partner in Europe. But Europe à la carte won’t work.

Recently we have seen Germany taking a step back from French and British foreign policy. Germany abstained in the Security Council in the vote on Libya and will only provide logistic support for France in Mali. Is this never the twain shall meet? More institutional integration and more political divergence?

This week in Berlin we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Élysée Treaty in 1963. Germany and France want to and must keep cooperating very closely for Europe. With all our European partners, we share the determination to engage for a peaceful and stable Mali. Terrorism from the Sahara poses a major security threat to all of us in Europe. Particularly when it comes to foreign policy, European cooperation is key.

Your reflection paper also proposes other integration steps we should take, such as directly electing the President of the European Commission and strengthening the powers of the European Parliament. Do you believe the political backdrop allows such a major step? Do you believe it will be possible to make the necessary changes to the treaties to achieve these goals?

We need more democratic backing, more legitimacy, more transparency at European level. The Europe-wide election of leading politicians could be an important step forward as it would make European policymaking much more visible to the people. Of course, we need to look at what we can change on the basis of the existing treaties. But at the same time we cannot completely exclude the possibility of updating them.

Currently many European countries, primarily those with major economic problems, are viewing Germany as the real European power, also as a contrast to the loss of power in Brussels. Are you happy with this? Do you not worry about growing resentment amongst the people in these countries directed at Germany and in fact, we are already seeing such trends?

Europe is not a zero-sum game. What we need is all countries to do what they can to bolster a union rooted in stability. In recent years, Germany has done a lot on reform and consolidation. Through the European rescue packages, we are strong on the solidarity stakes. We Europeans need to make our way out of the crisis together. All countries have a responsibility to shoulder here to make sure our approach of solidity, solidarity and competitiveness works.

There is a clear difference of opinion between Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande on the best way to overcome the euro crisis and on the future of European integration. It’s hard to get anywhere in Europe without a compromise between France and Germany. Do you think this compromise will be found? Under what conditions? So far, Germany hasn’t been especially open to the French proposals. Is the idea of pooling debt – or even just some of it – still taboo in Berlin?

The Governments and Parliaments in Germany and France are well aware of the historic dimension of Franco-German cooperation and their shared responsibility for Europe. We have proven time and again that no matter what differences of opinion there may be on the small print, Germany and France do reach agreement on European solutions. The same goes for overcoming the debt crisis. For Germany, this means mastering the crisis through reform and competitiveness, not through more debts.

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