In an interview with deutschland.de, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talks about the significance of the European elections and his commitment to a better Europe and an active German foreign policy. Referring to the commemorative year of 2014, Steinmeier cautions that peace and prosperity in Europe must not be taken for granted.
Minister Steinmeier, in late May the citizens of the European Union’s 28 member states will be voting for a new European Parliament. What significance does this election have for Europe’s future?
Europe needs a strong European Parliament. And the European Parliament needs a strong democratic mandate from the citizens of Europe. That’s because the decisions we take in Europe together with the European Parliament and the European Commission have a direct impact on everyone’s daily lives. For example, thanks to EU legislation, we can make mobile phone calls from anywhere in the EU without having to look at our watches, and savings deposits of up to 100,000 euros are equally secure throughout the entire EU. Issues that affect us on a daily basis are the subject of lively deliberations in the European Parliament – just a few examples of these issues include data protection, climate policy, our strategy for dealing with refugees and measures to ensure social cohesion. So when we vote in the European elections, we’re not just voting on some abstract notion of Europe. Rather, our votes will have an impact on specific policy decisions.
Nevertheless, voter turnout for European elections is usually very low. Do EU citizens have a low level of appreciation for the increasing importance and the functions of the European Parliament?
To have a democratic Europe, we need a lively dialogue between voters and their representatives. That isn’t always easy. You can meet your local mayor at the market square, but what about parliament members who gather in Brussels or Strasbourg and who conduct their deliberations in over 20 languages? But each of the 750 members of the European Parliament represents a specific region – their issues are our issues! We have euro coins in our hand every day. Isn’t it crucial for us to be able to have confidence in the stability of their value? We regularly buy food from other European countries at our local shops. Don’t we expect the same consumer protection standards to apply in those countries as in ours? For the first time, the European parties will be nominating lead candidates for the 2014 elections, and I hope this will mobilise more voters. This is the first time that the European elections will “have a face”, so to speak, as is normal in national elections.
Forecasts indicate that Eurosceptics from the right and left, whose voices are especially loud in certain countries, could enter the European Parliament with over 20 percent of the EU-wide vote. Would that be a slap in the face of the European idea?
The crisis brought problems to light in certain EU member states. These problems were largely caused by the accelerating forces of globalisation, but they were blamed to a great extent on our common currency. And this has led to a marked loss of trust in recent years. This is a development that affects Europe, but you can see it in other countries as well. Public surveys make this clear: in several countries, public support for national politicians and institutions has suffered an even greater decline than in the EU. Eurosceptics are trying to play with people’s fears. But their seemingly simple solutions fail to do justice to people’s concerns. This populism is not only a slap in the face of the European idea, but also of all the reasonable efforts that are being made to improve European competitiveness while simultaneously safeguarding social cohesion.
What convincing arguments can be made nowadays for “more Europe”?
We have to take steps to ensure that the European Union is once again viewed as a solution to rather than the cause of problems. That doesn’t mean that you have to be satisfied with the Euruopean status quo in order to vote in the European elections. You can have an impact only if you get involved. I too think that the EU needs to become better and stronger. The Economic and Monetary Union needs further reforms in order to make the euro genuinely “future-proof.” On the other hand, Europe thrives on its diversity. Wherever things can be managed better at the national or regional level, the EU should pull back. A Europe that is close to the people must be able to incorporate this truth as well. We can make these arguments soundly and objectively, and with enthusiasm and conviction.
Despite the progress that has been made, the economic crisis in Europe has not yet been overcome. Southern EU member states in particular continue to suffer. Do you see light at the end of the tunnel?
The balance is tilting again towards growth. Reforms have been launched, and budgets have been consolidated. Yes, I do see light. But we must not let this weaken our resolve. Improved economic figures alone do not mean that the job is done. A lot of people have suffered in recent years. The crisis has caused damage to the European Union’s social structures. Now our priority must be to give the people in Europe renewed confidence that together we have what it takes to be a continent with a promising future. Cohesion and solidarity among the member states of the European Union are the equipment we need to carry us forward on this path.
Like Federal President Gauck, you recently called for Germany to play a more active role in international foreign policy. What do you mean by this specifically?
We should be prepared to get involved in key foreign and security policy matters both earlier and more decisively. Taking international responsibility always involves concrete action. Making comments from the sidelines does not help. Here’s one example of what I mean: Germany has offered to destroy residual waste from Syria’s chemical weapons at German facilities. This is a targeted contribution to the solution of a specific problem. Europe will be able to make a difference in the world only if European countries pool their collective strengths. This is something you can see in our joint European efforts to boost stability and the development of democratic structures in the countries and societies neighbouring the EU. In this spirit, we are also implementing concrete measures to support fragile states in Africa, such as Mali and the Central African Republic.
Does this mean the end of Germany’s long-standing emphasis on military restraint?
Germany will continue to exercise restraint. The use of military force must always and only be an instrument of last resort. However, we must differentiate between exercising restraint and sitting on the fence. Germany is simply too big to do the latter. What I want to do is use the toolbox of diplomacy more actively, creatively, courageously and comprehensively. It’s essential to engage in close cooperation with our partners and to develop creative, intelligent strategies for deploying our resources even more effectively.
In 2014, many countries are commemorating the outbreak of the First World War 100 years ago. In a widely read article, you reflected on the “failure of diplomacy” at that time. In view of the numerous crises that are currently smouldering around the world, is diplomacy smarter today than it was back then?
It is our good fortune that diplomacy today has other means at its disposal. Institutions for the peaceful balancing of interests – like the European Union and the United Nations – didn’t exist at the beginning of the 20th century. But even though we sometimes take peace and prosperity for granted in Europe today, we must not deceive ourselves! Just a few months before the July crisis occurred in 1914, most people considered the outbreak of war impossible. Today’s world is full of friction and conflicts of interest; it is vulnerable. In view of the current crises, it is crucial for us to realise: safeguarding peace and prosperity requires hard work. Smart foreign policy that respects the interests of partners and undertakes a level-headed assessment of potential consequences is more important than ever.
Reproduced with the kind permission of DE Deutschland Magazin. The interview was conducted by Janet Schayan.