“We want a European Union which is politically and economically strong whilst also socially just.”

09.01.2014 - Interview

Before his trip to Athens, Foreign Minister Steinmeier spoke to the Greek daily, TA NEA. Read the interview, published on 9 January 2014, here.

What can Europe and Greece expect from the new grand coalition in Germany? Why are things different with the SPD this time?

Our message to Europe and to our partners in Greece is: we believe that you will succeed! We are standing by you! We have been through a tough period. We have embarked on far-reaching reforms in Europe and have great respect for what Greece has undertaken in its own country. However, we are not yet out of the woods. In these difficult times, our European partners can count on Germany’s support, that is the leitmotif of the new Federal Government and indeed it is what the SPD stands for.

Is there any hope that German policy on Europe will change, that more weight will be placed on growth and employment and less on harsh austerity policies? On the whole, this is certainly what people are expecting from the SPD’s participation in the new Government. Is Germany considering a fundamental change of policy in the eurozone?

We want a European Union which is politically and economically strong whilst also socially just. The two go hand in hand, because as much as our European competitiveness is important in light of fierce global competition, we must not lose sight of the internal cohesion both within our societies and between the countries of Europe. The feeling of being part of a community of values and of living standards in Europe has been lost to too many people. Significant efforts have already been made here, we must now reinforce them, we must be more creative. I am thinking particularly of our commitment to raising employment levels. Youth unemployment and accompanying lack of hope that this brings to a whole generation could be the greatest danger facing Europe, and it is vital that we use our European policy to counter it.

Greece has undertaken an exceptional reorganisation of its public accounts, with measures totalling 70 billion euros within a period of three and a half years (which equates to 35 per cent of GDP). However, the harsh austerity measures have polarised the population and seen the coalition’s majority eroded to three votes. Does that not worry you?

Greece truly has implemented unprecedented and courageous reforms and austerity measures. Everyone in Europe acknowledges this and of course we are also aware of what this means for the people in Greece in their daily lives, and that after so many difficult years, scepticism runs deep. We must particularly keep in mind those who are vulnerable to suffering most due to the crisis – young people who deserve the prospect of finding employment, people who have lost their jobs, older people as well as small and medium-sized enterprises in trouble.

Is a discussion about further debt relief not due soon given that Greece is expected to show a primary budget surplus? What is happening with the discussion on the need for a third programme?

Greece is on track to getting its public finances back on an even keel. We look at the great progress that Greece has made in just a few years – from a budget deficit of over 10% to the possibility of seeing a primary budget surplus over the past year. In the upcoming months we will consult our partners in the Eurogroup to see how we can further help Greece to stabilise its public finances on a truly sustainable basis. Greece’s current rescue programme runs to the end of 2014, there is no point at this stage in speculating on the further funding requirements for after then. I welcome the ambition of Prime Minister Samaras and Foreign Minister Venizelos to end the rescue programmes as soon as possible and to make an independent return to the financial markets. And I see light at the end of the tunnel – thanks to the Greek Government’s committed reform policy, after many years of bad news there are finally – for the first time since the start of the crisis – many promising signs that Greece will see a return to growth and higher levels of employment. That was the precise aim of the European rescue packages.

Are you concerned about the high levels of anti-German sentiment in Greece? How does this compare to the anti-Greek feeling in Germany, particularly in the German press? Greece has often denounced expressions of extremism within the country. Do you think that Germany has done enough to condemn its own voices of extremism?

Greece and Germany are close partners, Greeks and Germans good friends. We are linked by values and beliefs as well as by close social ties. We should not set too much store by exaggerations in the media, they do not represent the feelings of the majority of people in either country. Nevertheless the line must be drawn when things become offensive or turn violent. I am thus grateful for the swift and decisive reaction on the part of Prime Minister Samaras and Foreign Minister Venizelos to the attack on our Ambassador’s residence in Athens. One thing is clear – the perpetrators will not succeed in damaging relations between Germany and Greece or between the Germans and the Greeks.

Why is Germany afraid of taking on a leading role in Europe? Why are you not doing anything to accelerate the process of integration? Are you afraid that eurosceptic and populist movements could triumph in the upcoming European Parliament elections? If so, when the pro-European majority changes will it not already be too late?

Germany is aware of its responsibility for Europe and for the process of European integration. For us, Europe is not one of many options, it is the result of the lesson learnt from our history and the only future that we have.
This is exactly why I have no intention of concealing the fact that I am concerned about the state that our union is in. On the one hand because despite all the progress made, the economic crisis is far from behind us. Yet on the other hand, because the economic crisis could unleash centrifugal political forces which would be dangerous for the European Union as a whole.

In 2014, precisely one hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War, we must once again remind ourselves that the European project is more than one large market, a common currency and the allocation of budgetary funds. It is about ensuring that we can all live in peace and security, that we have good work and prosperity. We must continue to make this clear, especially now in the run-up to the European Parliament elections. We should not eschew arguments with populists, nationalists, those who are sleepwalking, calling themselves “eurosceptics” and voicing crude stereotypes which play to a nationalist agenda without offering their own solutions. We must actively engage in debate and convince people time and again, not with words but with action, that Europe is the basis for progress and provides grounds for confidence.

Looking back on the onset of the crisis in the eurozone and the mistakes which were made, what do you think could or should have been done differently?

It would be bad form for the new German Foreign Minister, who has only just taken office, to pass brash judgement on how the crisis was dealt with. We must always remember that combating the European debt crisis demanded extremely difficult decisions to be taken under highly complex circumstances as well as under great time pressure. In the dialogue with our partners in Europe, we Germans must more strongly express what comprises the core of Europe to us, and what we ourselves were granted, even in difficult economic times: understanding and trust. We enjoyed both at a time when the economic situation in our country was extremely threatening, just over ten years ago now. Both gave us the support we needed to implement the necessary reforms in Germany.

Do you agree with those who say that Greece should never have been accepted into the eurozone in the first place?

In reality, such questions do not help anyone. Greece is part of the eurozone, and this will remain the case. What is important now is for us to do our homework, in order that in the future, we can avoid such serious setbacks as the debt crisis.

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