Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talks to the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about the consequences of the European Parliament elections, the crisis in Ukraine and relations with Russia (interview published on 30 May 2014).
Minister, in many places in Europe people have voted for extremist parties – on the far-left and far-right as well as populist groups. They are all sceptical, if not hostile, towards Europe. What lessons are there to be learnt from these European elections?
First of all, it is appalling that these extremist parties performed so well in the elections. In campaign speeches, I repeatedly said: do not hand Europe over to those who oppose it! I called on people to vote. In places where voter turnout is high, extremists and populists have less of a chance. Unfortunately though, turnout for the elections fell in most countries – in Slovakia only 13 percent of the population voted. I am therefore all the more pleased that voter turnout rose in Germany. Yet it did not manage to prevent populist, eurosceptic and even extreme right-wing parties from Germany gaining representation in Strasbourg and Brussels. There are of course various reasons for this – in some places it serves as a warning to national governments, in other countries it is a consequence of the crisis in Europe which has been ongoing for more than four years now, as well as a reaction to economic stagnation and rising unemployment.
In this country, alongside the “Alternative für Deutschland” (Alternative for Germany) party, some bizarre splinter parties have obtained mandates. Is this not a result of the ruling of the Federal Constitutional Court?
I do wonder whether it should be unacceptable forever to consider a minimum threshold for entry into the European Parliament, when some candidates and parties are standing in elections simply to make fun of election, voters and politicians alike the very next day...
...do you mean Martin Sonneborn’s satirical party...
That is not the only joke party, even if the fact that for instance the far-right NPD party gained seats in the European Parliament is far more serious in political terms. Yet parties which have fun entertaining the public by withdrawing the day after the election, are not contributing to democracy – quite the opposite. In fact I have my doubts as to whether small groups dedicated to a single topic gaining seats in the European Parliament really increases the degree to which the German political landscape is represented in Strasbourg. We must, however, acknowledge that the Federal Constitutional Court rejected the five percent – as it did our subsequent suggestion of a three percent – threshold.
Is that a plea for European electoral law?
Absolutely! We need a Europe-wide understanding on what the pre-requisites for and functions of a working parliament are. We cannot knowingly walk into the same situation in five years’ time, especially given the likelihood that, due to dozens of splinter groups, the European Parliament will not have proven its ability to function. If it is not possible via national law, then perhaps we should consider whether some form of minimum threshold could be established at the European level.
The Front National has become France’s strongest party. Surveys show that its voters do not only reject the government in Paris but also Europe as a whole. President Hollande has to deal with this. Will France now be a more difficult partner?
The Front National’s success is alarming. This is not just France’s problem, but one affecting its neighbours and indeed all of Europe. Nonetheless, when I attended a French cabinet meeting recently, I left with the impression that following the cabinet reshuffle, the government is determined to continue to reform and to guide the country back to a path of economic growth, thus taking the wind out of the sails of right-wing nationalists.
The Parti Socialiste has already called for a U-turn back to left-wing policies and the party’s original manifesto...
Following the elections, Prime Minister Valls made it clear that the government does not think the election results give cause to take a left-wing, populist course but rather to continue with the reforms which have been initiated. I think this is the right way forward.
The Euro crisis demands more Europe whilst citizens clearly want less – how can we address this contradiction?
One cannot lump everyone together. I have seen that here in Germany, the majority of citizens want more Europe, something which is evident in surveys and reflected in the election results. Germany is Europe’s anchor of stability – with good results for pro-European parties, strong growth in our economy which is pulling our partners up with us and also a labour market with the capacity to absorb more people. But of course this also means that expectations of Berlin are now even higher. But, yes, you are right: in the countries where the economic crisis hit hardest, it is our duty to canvass renewed support for Europe and to ensure that not only are the economic figures changing – which they already are in many places – but that people’s prospects are improving with them, particularly those of young people. That also means that we must use European resources to help successfully tackle youth unemployment.
Does that mean that treaty changes, with which Berlin is striving for more coordination of economic policy, have been put on the back burner?
Now, in light of the election results, decisions need to be taken as quickly as possible regarding the new personnel of the European institutions. Then we need a debate on how we can further improve our ability to function and take decisions in Brussels, above all with regard to economic and financial policy. Anyone who wants to do this cannot fundamentally rule out treaty changes. How we can achieve this as well as which political and legislative paths we will need to embark upon in order to do so are crucial questions for Europe’s future, and we must address them following the new formation of the European Commission.
Is Berlin not confronted with quite different demands? Some say that Paris is calling for the Federal Government to launch a 50 billion euro investment programme.
The only thing I’ve heard of that is what I read in the papers! Neither the government in Paris nor any other government has made such a demand of us. How we should overcome the crisis has been the subject of hot debate over the past four years. Even when we were in opposition we argued that we needed a policy combination of disciplined spending, a focus on growth and structural reforms. This seems to be showing its first signs of success in the very countries which were at the centre of the crisis. Giving up now, when the hardest part is behind us, and accumulating new debt is something I would view as a grave mistake. We should concentrate on the optimal use of the resources which we have, including the six billion euros for a programme on combating youth unemployment which have not yet been fully disbursed. In addition to this, Europe must reflect on how to make the best use of European-level investment in diversifying our energy sector and in developing supply networks.
Martin Schulz, the Party of European Socialists’ nominated candidate, did well in Germany. At the European level however, your political family are behind the European People’s Party. Is there a prominent place for Schulz in the personnel package which EPP candidate Jean-Claude Juncker is trying to put together?
Martin Schulz is a passionate European. In Germany he actively campaigned for the Social Democratic Party, he generated new interest for Europe and he greatly helped to mobilise the German voters. But that’s not all! Martin Schulz also campaigned actively in neighbouring European countries. All of this distinguishes him as someone who has a justifiable claim to a leading position in Europe and that is something that the social democrats will naturally demand.
During the election campaign, SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel implied that Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel would be dealing a great blow to democracy in Europe if the next President of the Commission was not one of the two nominees, Martin Schulz or Jean-Claude Juncker. By doing so, did he not create expectations which are now likely to be disappointed?
Sigmar Gabriel’s comments were not made offhand, but rather with reference to an agreement between the main political groups in the European Parliament...
...the old Parliament, the new one has not yet been formed...
...but it does have a significant influence. Heads of state and government in Europe will indeed have to deal with this stance.
Would you agree with the assertion that we are on the right track in terms of European policy and that we should continue along it?
Yes, we are heading in the right direction. Imagine what would have happened if we had listened to those proposing quick – fix solutions at the height of the crisis in Europe – out with Greece, out with Ireland, out with Portugal, get rid of the euro and let’s return to the Deutsche Mark! Quite apart from the fact that it would have been economic suicide for us Germans, where would Europe be today, if we had given in to seemingly simple remedies? Especially now, in the midst of the greatest foreign policy challenge we have faced since the Berlin Wall came down. I can hardly bear to imagine how a Europe, fallen apart and in disarray, would be capable of responding effectively. Despite all justified criticism on individual points: our Europe proved itself during the economic crisis and its unity is proving its mettle once again with the crisis in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, the presidential elections were won by Petro Poroshenko, which the Federal Government has described as progress. Yet Russia is sending contradictory messages. Can we continue letting them lead us down the garden path?
I’m sorry but that is an entirely false perception. Things are not as they were before. There is mostly radio silence between NATO and Russia, between the European Union and Russia. The efforts of the few who are trying to prevent this radio silence from leading to a direct confrontation with even more dramatic consequences should not be understood as them going about business as usual. Nevertheless they are necessary if we want to avoid a new and lasting division of Europe from arising.
Do the presidential elections mean that we’re out of the woods?
The election in Ukraine did not resolve the crisis, but still, a few weeks ago no one even thought that they would take place. I am pleased that people had the chance to vote, that nearly all polling stations could open, voter turnout was high, that the election day passed peacefully and that the end result was so clear. The fact that Petro Poroshenko could attract many more votes, in all parts of the country – including the east, than any other candidate is a first in the history of Ukraine and is a strong sign of the country’s unity. This election has nudged open a door, which we must squeeze through in order for Ukraine to have a chance at achieving political and economic stability.
Does Russia also view things in this way?
We’ll see. It took a lot of work to get to where we are now. Indeed we have diplomatic initiatives from our country to thank that at least some initial steps towards a cautious de-escalation of the conflict were possible – the OSCE mission, Geneva, the national dialogue and the round tables, Wolfgang Ischinger’s countless talks, visits to Ukraine... If nothing else, Moscow changed its tune regarding the elections and the new political leadership in Kyiv. Three weeks ago Russia was openly questioning the legitimacy of the elections; now, after election day the results are at least said to be respected. Above all we have seen a willingness to be open to cooperating with the newly elected Ukrainian President. We will soon see whether this is actually the case once he has been inaugurated on 7 June.
Is that not just the continuation of Moscow’s double game? Cold War veterans are not the only ones who say that only harsh statements get through to Putin, your predecessor Joschka Fischer does too.
It is not a question of choosing between tough treatment and a soft touch! Strong and weak have not proven themselves to be very good criteria in terms of foreign policy, what really count are prudence and the will to stop conflicts from spiralling out of control. That is why I’m sometimes simply irritated by criticism that our foreign policy is supposedly weak, because this gives far too little thought to striking the right balance between exercising political pressure and making use of the necessary instruments for conflict de-escalation. We need both!
It does not however even look as if Russia is interested in stabilising eastern Ukraine.
Intense fighting over the airport in Donetsk, heavy weapons used by the separatists, a growing number of deaths and injuries, no respect for the work of OSCE observers – all of this shows a new dimension to the violent clashes in Donbass, and for newly-elected President Poroshenko this presents a huge challenge. Our clear expectation of Moscow is for it to use its influence on the different separatist groups and, together with the new Ukrainian leadership, to stop fighters and weapons from making their way over the border between Ukraine and Russia.
Given fears in eastern Europe, has the time come to debate the deployment of NATO troops to the military alliance’s eastern border? The NATO Secretary General has started the discussion.
Following the outbreak of the crisis, I was one of the first to travel to the Baltic region and eastern Europe in order to signal that we will stand by our partners and that we are aware of the particular situation of the countries in Russia’s neighbourhood. I know that Estonia and Latvia are particularly concerned about the effects that the crisis in Ukraine could have, even from afar, given their sizeable Russian-speaking minorities. That was why we were willing to participate in increased NATO activities, for instance in the field of air policing in the Baltic region or naval exercises in the Baltic sea. And I might add that not every comment made by NATO in Brussels in the past few weeks was helpful.
In this issue, as in the question of sector-specific sanctions, we saw rifts within the EU. Should we not be concerned that Germany is once again perceived as being influenced by its special relationship with Russia?
It comes as no surprise to me that, in light of varying distances from the Ukraine conflict, differing perceptions and historical experiences with Russia, debates have been and still are arising. Nevertheless Europe has shown terrific unity in this crisis. We have sent out clear signals whilst at the same time taking care not to fall into political automatisms, which could put us on the path to economic warfare, as we ramp up political pressure. We have opened up paths back to a political process with every decision we have taken. I hope that we have now reached a point at which decisions to implement measures which we have prepared...
...by which you mean third-tier economic sanctions...
...can be avoided. In any case, the election in Ukraine is an opportunity rather than the political solution to the crisis – we are still a long way away from that.
Is Russia undertaking a consistent change of course?
We are without a doubt in a new phase in East-West relations. It is not yet clear what this will mean over the next 20 or 30 years. A lot will depend on whether the current crisis can be overcome or whether the question of Crimea and the situation in Ukraine remain a source of ongoing conflict with Russia.
The Chancellor recently told this newspaper that a close partnership with Russia should be continued in the medium to long term. How does this statement fit in with the message that there will not be a repeat of the situation following the war in Georgia, in which the conflict over Abkhazia and South Ossetia froze over and shortly afterwards we saw a return to business as usual.
When Washington says: we are not seeking confrontation with Russia but rather – if possible – cooperation, then that is the same message. No one who I speak to is interested in breaking off relations with or dangerously isolating Russia in the long run. We want cooperation, if and as far as it is possible, but Russia needs to give us the opportunity to overcome the current crisis. Then we can work out what prospects we have for future cooperation. However, it’s too early for that now.
The conversation with the Foreign Minister was conducted by Günther Nonnenmacher and Majid Sattar. Reproduced by kind permission of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.