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"We cannot allow playing with fire when it comes to the foundations of the European idea"

09.02.2016 - Interview

Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the Italian daily newspaper “Corriere della Sera” (9 February 2016)

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Minister, the Spaak Report laid the foundations for the Common Market 60 years ago. However, if we look at the state Europe is in today, there don’t seem to be many reasons to celebrate.

It is not about congratulating ourselves. What is far more important is how we manage to overcome the fundamental crises facing us in Europe. The fact of the matter is that even after the inconceivable horrors of the Second World War, European visionaries had the courage and the far‑sightedness to begin the European integration process. The fact that we have actually succeeded in Europe in reuniting the European continent peacefully is an incredible gift. We now have a responsibility to ensure that Europe emerges from the crisis in one piece.

During the refugee crisis last summer, the German Government decided to adopt a “culture of welcome”, which was praised by many people and criticised by others. Now this policy has been adjusted. Will it be possible to come up with a genuine European answer?

The forces pulling us apart in Europe have become stronger – and it is for this very reason that we must recognise that Europe is more than the sum of 28 sets of national interests. We founding members have a particular responsibility. The current crises have given a boost to Eurosceptics and right‑wing populists. We cannot allow this dangerous playing with fire when it comes to the foundations of the European idea. We need to fight for Europe again. Europe is not the cause, but rather the solution, for example as regards the flow of migrants. We have drawn up an action plan with Turkey that will now be implemented step by step. Proposals for truly effective European border protection are on the table. We are also supporting the countries on the transit route. I am not denying that many things are taking too long and creating frustration and scepticism as to whether Europe is in a position to come up with an answer. Nevertheless, we need a European solution. No country can solve the refugee crisis on its own. But it is also the case that these large numbers of people would have come to Europe and Germany in their flight from violence and terror even without a “culture of welcome”. This is why we are also doing our utmost to bring about a political settlement in Syria. I remain proud of the many Germans who – like people in many other countries – are doing so much to look after the refugees.

What do you currently see as the greatest threat to the survival of the European Union?

I do not doubt that the European Union will continue to exist. The question is simply what Europe will look like in the future. After 25 years in politics, I don’t get rattled easily and I remain fairly optimistic. But what worries me most is that young people in particular, who have the most to gain from European integration, are turning away from the Union in some countries. Much will also depend on whether we manage to overcome the refugee crisis together.

In a recent interview with the German newspaper “FAZ”, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi complained that every European initiative starts with a bilateral meeting between Federal Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande. He said Italy felt it was faced with “faits accomplis”. How can the impression be avoided that Franco-German consensus comes at the expense of other European countries?

Think about our history – enduring friendship and great trust have grown out of animosity and mistrust as a result of hard work. We cannot praise this great achievement highly enough. And it does not come at the expense of other European partners. On the contrary, France and Germany share the European vision and the firm belief that we are strongest when Europe stands together and is united.

And yet we recently saw disagreement and differences between Italy and Germany on several European topics, ranging from the budget to energy projects. In which areas can our two countries work together to lend new impetus to their relations?

Like Germany, Italy is a founding member of the European Union – this makes the level of trust particularly high. I was able to experience this at first hand as recently as last year when I visited Italy. Obviously, friends can also see things differently. However, the main thing is that they are headed in the same direction. Our current focus is naturally on resolving the refugee crisis – and we are lobbying together for a European solution.

Are you concerned about the possibility of a Brexit, that is, that the United Kingdom might leave the European Union?

What is important is that we make progress on the key issues and challenges facing the European Union. We have to see ourselves in Europe as a 28‑member team that plays together. And it is of no relevance whatsoever whether we come from larger or smaller Member States. All members play their part. Without the United Kingdom, we would be missing a strong player. I don’t like the thought of that. The EU would be poorer, weaker and less open‑minded. This is why we are working on a European compromise – one that does not call the European treaties into question.

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