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“Reforms and competitiveness, solidarity and growth”

23.12.2013 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in an interview with the Luxemburger Tageblatt newspaper on Germany’s policy on Europe. Published on 23 December 2013

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Dr Steinmeier, how would you describe bilateral relations between Luxembourg and Germany?

They couldn’t be better. If there are two states in Europe which have a good understanding at all political levels then it’s Luxembourg and Germany. The friendship between Jean Asselborn and myself is an expression of these good relations.

You talk of your friendship: how would you describe Jean Asselborn as a person?

If he wasn’t there, he would have to be created (laughs). Even during my first stint as Foreign Minister, it was clear that Jean Asselborn exerted considerable influence on the debates in the Foreign Affairs Council. For he doesn’t simply promote his own country’s interests. He’s also concerned about the fate of people in North Africa, the Middle East or in Afghanistan. Jean was a very close partner in the field of foreign policy from the outset. And he became a friend over the course of the years.

Jean Asselborn recently gave you a bike as a present. What happened to it?

I really do use it. Every time I go on a bike trip, I report back on how far I’ve just ridden and at what speed (laughs).

In your new office, you shoulder great responsibility and have a busy schedule. How much time do you have for your family?

It would be a mistake to assume that my time as chairman of the SPD parliamentary group was quiet. That job also involves a great number of appointments, also in the evenings, talks and public appearances throughout Germany. Unfortunately, therefore, my family is used to my not having much time for them. I’ve already said that nothing much will change.

You’ve said you intend to launch a “process of internal reflection on German foreign policy’s future prospects”, which is to take place in a dialogue with civil society and academia. Where did this idea come from?

It’s a great advantage to know the Federal Foreign Office and the ins and outs of foreign policy when taking over the helm again after a four year break. My work in the Bundestag has made me aware of the fact that people here in Germany expect foreign policy to be explained to them. My former Norwegian colleague Jonas Gahr Støre told me during the award ceremony for the Willy Brandt Prize how Norway subjected its foreign policy to a critical self-assessment. Other countries have also done that. I thought that was such a sensible idea that I suggested we do something similar.

How worried are you about scepticism towards Europe, or the rise of populist forces with an eye to the upcoming European Parliament elections in 2014?

We have to take the scepticism towards Europe very seriously. During his visit to Berlin, I had an in depth discussion with Jean Asselborn about how we can tackle the European crisis. This is not only about economic issues but about much more, namely the alienation from Europe which reaches deep into the world of politics and society. The emergence of anti European parties in many countries is only a symptom. In my own life, I have experienced Europe as a source of hope and confidence. If far too many young people, especially in the South, regard Europe as a threat, then we have to act.

What’s your assessment of the state of European integration and how much more integration should be achieved in Europe?

European integration is a unique success story. Freedom of movement and travel, the single market as well as the single currency are regarded as a given but they didn’t happen as a matter of course. These achievements are the result of farsighted political decisions. However, we then got caught up in a serious economic crisis which has also turned into a political crisis. The European Union has political shortcomings. It lacked the courage to take further reaching political steps in good time, to control the markets effectively and to grow closer together. We mustn’t make do with simply managing the crisis. That’s necessary but not enough.

Which priorities would you like the EU to set so that it can better perform its role as a foreign and security policy player in future?

Europe’s foreign and security policy is better than its reputation. We are taking action together around the world. We have shouldered joint responsibility in stabilising the Balkans, in combating piracy off Africa’s coasts, in preventing weapons smuggling off the coast of Lebanon. We’re making use of the broad range of European instruments – both military and civilian – in Mali and elsewhere in Africa. However, we can – and indeed must – do better. Anyone keen to strengthen Europe’s place in the world, to defend our values and safeguard our interests, will realise that Europe’s foreign and security policy has to be vigorously continued. We’re going to work on that now.

European diplomats are calling on Germany to pursue a more moderate European policy. The Frenchman Laurent Fabius calls this making it possible for Europeans to love Europe again, while Jean Asselborn of Luxembourg is calling for less censure and more understanding. Have these appeals been heard in the Federal Foreign Office and how do you intend to live up to these demands in political terms?

People all over Europe must feel again that our cooperation offers genuine value added for a prosperous future. The changes in the world have led to anxiety, while the crisis in Europe has made the limits of the old models painfully clear to many. However, the first hopeful signs that we are overcoming the crisis are now visible. We have reason to look to the coming year with greater confidence. There are indications that the worst of the economic crisis is now behind us, even though the outlook for growth in many parts of Europe isn’t yet sufficiently stable. Reforms and competitiveness, solidarity and growth – we have to keep on fighting for these. In the course of this process, we Germans want to stress once more what we consider to be the core of the European Union: understanding and confidence.

How big a say does the Federal Foreign Office have in the policy on Europe today when one considers that Chancellor Merkel and Finance Minister Schäuble have taken over key areas of European policy in the last few years?

The day to day work in the European Union is a task for the entire Federal Government, not of any individual department. The policy on Europe is largely a part of domestic policy at the European level. This task is usually not spectacular but necessary. The Finance Ministers are still busy rectifying earlier mistakes in the construction of the single currency. However, the policy on Europe is also about looking at the bigger picture. How can Europe remain strong and fit for the future? What’s gone wrong? Where can we change track? How can we improve? Finding answers to these questions, to our strategic challenges, building the Europe of the future is, as it were, the task par excellence within the policy on Europe. The Foreign Ministers and our diplomats are the key players here. You may rest assured that this will be a central element of my policy for the coming four years.

The questions were put by Dhiraj Sabharwal.

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