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More exchange and closer interaction

06.05.2013 - Interview

In an interview with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung Federal Foreign Minister Westerwelle spoke about such issues as German Swiss relations, the bilateral taxation agreement and ways out of the European debt crisis.

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Switzerland has invoked the safeguard clause to restrict the influx of migrant workers, including migrants from Germany.Do you perceive that as an unfriendly gesture?

Let me put it this way – I am glad that next year freedom of movement will apply without exception. In our changing world more exchange and closer interaction is what we really need.

But the safeguard clause is a factor that puts more pressure on the already tense German Swiss relationship.

Some contributions to the debate in Germany and in Switzerland in the past months have not exactly been good for bilateral relations. But I have faith in the common sense majority in both countries.

You hoped for a common sense majority in connection with the taxation agreement. That didn’t work. Did the Federal Government not fight for it hard enough?

To my knowledge Switzerland, too, has experienced times when looming election clouds have darkened the skies. I welcome the assurances of my Swiss counterpart Didier Burkhalter that Switzerland remains open for talks. It is in the interests of Switzerland, as a well known and established financial centre, but also in Germany’s interests that all those who have illegally transferred money abroad be held to account. Relying on random discoveries through copies of stolen data neither corresponds to the rule of law, nor is it a convincing approach.

Do you think it is feasible that the CDU/CSU FDP coalition government – if it is re elected in autumn – could try to reopen negotiations? Or has the agreement finally died a death as far as Germany is concerned?

The Federal Government and the majority of the German Bundestag have rightly shown their clear support for the agreement. It was then blocked by a coalition of the SPD, The Greens and DIE LINKE (The Left) in the Bundesrat.

But the Bundestag elections won’t necessarily change the opposition’s blocking majority in the Bundesrat.

They will, because these campaign strategies will be over after the Bundestag elections. We have to make a second attempt to find out how much leeway there is. This was also an issue I discussed in Switzerland. I advise everyone to cherish German Swiss relations like a precious jewel, and not merely in the interests of good neighbourliness. I say also to my fellow Germans that there are sound economic reasons for maintaining these relations. The volume of trade with Switzerland is greater than trade between Germany and Russia.

The competent Swiss authorities see no grounds for abandoning the concept of a final withholding tax. Against this backdrop is there any sense in holding talks on a new taxation agreement?

An agreement is reached when two sides willingly come to an arrangement. We managed this by offering rational, sound solutions.The resistance from the German opposition in the Bundesrat prevented us from using this arrangement to detect all old cases and avoid the expiry of the statute of limitations for countless others. My hope is that a new attempt will succeed after talks, which should take into account the latest developments worldwide and within the European Union. In any case, it is inappropriate to use this important issue for electioneering purposes.

Has the German Government already proposed to Switzerland a concrete framework for any new negotiations that may be necessary?

We haven’t got that far yet. But it is true to say that developments have accelerated noticeably both globally and within the European Union. That is something I specifically welcome, and I hope that firm agreements will soon be reached in this area.

But we get the impression that in the wake of the Hoeness incident the issue of tax evasion overshadows all rational discussions on taxation.

Not everyone who wants to call in the cavalry is speaking for Germany. I for my part have come in peace, by plane, and I haven’t brought any horses, sabres or trumpets with me.

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But the Swiss are under the impression that faith in taxation and the state is growing almost everywhere in Europe.

All those states which have incurred too much debt for too long are now plagued by mass unemployment. In contrast, the Federal Government (...) put a stop to the policy of debt funded spending as soon as it came to power. That is one crucial reason why Germany is in such a good position at the moment.

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But you face considerable resentment in Europe, which is in part directed against Germany’s economic success.

It isn’t acceptable for a young hothead to draw a Hitler moustache on a photo of the German Chancellor, but you mustn’t take that as the view of the majority in our neighbouring countries.

We aren’t just talking about young hotheads. The French governing party, the PS, has explicitly accused Germany of selfishness.

I spoke with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius recently on this issue. He assured me how constructive the French Government regards cooperation with Germany. After all, it isn’t the first time that Germany and France have been governed by different political families. François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl achieved great things after getting off to a bumpy start. However, there are some in Europe who would like to see a return to the old debt policy and who therefore hope for a change of government in Berlin. We intend to dash those hopes and thus make the best possible contribution to long term success in Europe.

In Europe many people expect to experience this success through debt induced growth.

Where does growth come from? Certainly not from new debts. Rather through increased competitiveness. I have just returned from a trip to three successful countries in Africa. New centres of power are emerging not only in Asia and Latin America but also on our neighbouring continent. If Europe doesn’t want to become a fossil and still intends to play a leading role in innovation, quality of life and economic success, we have to work on our competitiveness. Europe needs an Agenda 2020.

But there is no question of that happening in Europe. France’s President Hollande and the new Italian Prime Minister Letta want to go back to the old ways and have nothing to do with austerity policy.

German policy doesn’t just consist of budgetary discipline, but rests on two other pillars. The first is solidarity – Germany has made available to the eurozone credit guarantees equalling the complete annual federal budget. The second is growth – and that in turn rests on competitiveness. We are therefore pleased to see that Europe is increasingly recognizing the advantages of the dual training system, for example. Europe has to set priorities in education, research and the energy sector. Using subsidies to conserve the past may give us a smooth political ride for a time, but younger Europeans will pay a high price if we don’t focus more attention on competitiveness.

You speak of Europe as a community, but in the euro crisis the nation states acquire prominence, and especially the differences between them.

We have to find a new justification for Europe. That is the task facing today’s political generation. Of course, Europe remains the answer to the world wars and the darkest chapter of German history, but today it is much more the answer to the tectonic political shifts in the world. In the last century the rise and fall of societies has been seen within a period of 50 years. Today, five or ten years can decide on the success or failure of economies and societies. And whereas continental drift is incredibly slow in geology, today’s political shifts occur in no time at all.

Published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 4 May 2013. The questions were posed by Eric Gujer. Reproduced by kind permission of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

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