“The time is ripe for free trade”

04.02.2013 - Interview

Foreign Minister Westerwelle spoke to the Handelsblatt newspaper about transatlantic political and trade relations in an interview published on 4 February 2013.


Minister, the superpower that is the United States is more interested in Asia these days than in its old ally, Europe – which is hardly surprising, given that Europe is expecting growth of 0.4 percent in 2013, next to Asia’s 6.5 percent. Is our global importance declining?

That’s up to us. After all, Germany is also, as a trading nation, turning its attention to the rising centres of power, and doing so successfully. I’m not just talking about Asia here, but also Africa and Latin America. Besides which, I might point out that forging new partnerships doesn’t necessarily imply forgetting old friendships.

The old friend isn’t forgotten, but he is getting considerably less attention than he used to.

Interest in Europe has actually gone up again recently, and there has been growing recognition of the determined measures we have been taking to combat the debt crisis. That was the clear message which Vice President Biden brought with him when he visited Germany.

But that just means Europe is being seen as a trouble spot.

The United States absolutely respect the way we have been managing the crisis. Those who predicted that the euro would fall have been wrong so far, and they will stay wrong.

Are you referring to the hedge fund manager George Soros?

The scaremongers underestimated our political will. We are more than a single market and more than a shared currency. The EU is a political and strategic community which we have chosen as a way to stand together and defend our values on the new globalized world stage.

The EU is hoping for a comprehensive free trade agreement with the United States, partly so as to retighten the transatlantic bond. After everything you’ve heard here in Munich, is Washington going to enter negotiations on this?

Vice President Biden said in his speech that he supported our proposal. More free trade is in the interest of both sides. It would speed up growth, creating new jobs and greater prosperity, without the need to accumulate debt. The time for this is ripe.

But how realistic is such a mammoth agreement? Previous attempts failed because of the many conflicts of interest that we have – whether it’s chlorinated chicken or whatever else.

There is momentum now that we should use. Of course both sides will need to show some flexibility in the negotiations. The US will have to take action on regulating and establishing technical standards, for instance, as the EU will in the agriculture sector.

A common market would be strategically significant for the EU in view of the growing competition from Asia.

Not just for us – it would be important for the US as well. A transatlantic single market would be an assertive act, economically and politically, in these times of profound change that are seeing us challenged by new global players.

So it would be a message to China?

We sometimes focus too much on China; it’s a long time since it was just about China, the BRICS countries or even the G20. There are other centres of power which are demonstrating breathtakingly dynamic development and which are on very few people’s radar here – just look at Viet Nam or Colombia.

The ECB’s interventions have calmed the markets. How great is the danger that Governments, particularly those in southern Europe, will now lean back?

Governments’ reform efforts must not let up in view of the return of market confidence. After all, what the markets are expressing is preemptive confidence in the Governments’ willingness to keep reforming. The German Government will be emphatically urging all concerned not to let up now. The path of reform mustn’t be abandoned halfway.

The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, is with you on that score. But Cameron also wants to dismantle parts of the EU’s structures; to what extent can the German Government’s position accommodate that viewpoint?

Well, a lot of the points Cameron raised are on our agenda too. Germany wants more transparency, competitiveness and subsidiarity too. Where our views diverge is on our visions for the future of Europe. For us, Europe is more than a single market. We are bound together by a common destiny; this community is our life insurance policy in an age of globalization. Of course the British people have the right to decide whether or not to stay in the EU. But it wouldn’t constitute progress if it led to years of fresh insecurity in Europe.

The German Government wants to deepen political integration. How does that fit in with Cameron’s ideas for shrinking the EU?

Let’s take an example. It is ridiculous that the European Commission wants to prescribe gender ratios for Germany’s management boards right down to every little company in the Swabian Alps. That kind of thing only tarnishes the European idea. Such issues can be better dealt with by member states individually. The Commission could find better things to do, such as combating tax evasion and money laundry – tasks that we can only tackle together. And the pay structures in Brussels could certainly do with some scrutiny.

President François Hollande travelled to Mali at the weekend to celebrate the Islamists having been pushed back. Is the war already won?

No, and the French President knows that too. Terrorism is a phenomenon of our times that will take a long time to fight. And I would add that this isn’t a clash of cultures – it’s a fight between civilization and barbarism, between right and wrong.

Tensions are rising in Egypt. With the never ending clashes between President Morsi and the opposition, is the country at risk of collapsing?

Of course we are worried about Egypt. However, I would advise against writing off its democratic revolution. In fact, now is precisely the time to be doing our bit for that revolution. Just as President Morsi has been criticized for things he said before he came into office, it should also be acknowledged that he did stand and face critical questions in Parliament and in a public discussion when he visited Germany.

Will the US offer breathe new momentum into the negotiations? Or should we be expecting a military strike?

In Munich this weekend, I appealed to my Iran counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, to accept Washington’s offer for talks. Foreign Minister Salehi on Sunday expressed new willingness to engage in talks. I am counting on serious and constructive talks coming out of that. 2013 is a crucial year. We have to use this time to find a political and diplomatic solution.

Mr Westerwelle, thank you for your time.

This interview was conducted by Till Hoppe and Markus Fasse and reproduced by kind permission of the Handelsblatt newspaper.

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