Interview with Michael Roth, Minister of State for Europe, in the Frankfurter Rundschau (16 September 2016)
Mr Roth, is the European Union still fun?
So you like an alliance of states that seemingly is no longer able to resolve any crises? Let me take you through the list: banks, Greece, Ukraine, migration, Brexit, to name but a few.
So do you think a nation‑state can solve these crises going it alone? But it is really difficult just now. However, the EU remains our life insurance policy in times of crisis. We haven’t yet managed everything that needs done, but Europe should take itself more seriously and hold its head high. Outside the EU, people still see us as a unique project representing peace, freedom and democracy.
The disharmony in the EU is currently louder than the harmony. Alongside Brexit, nationalist tendencies are becoming more pronounced.
All across Europe, we have a concert pitch that is playing a strongly nationalistic tune. For many, withdrawing into their national shells is a solution. But since the Brexit vote if not before, we know that these campaigns based on fear‑mongering and falsehoods ultimately collapse like a house of cards. Relying on nationalists and populists will get you nowhere. Nevertheless there is a major gap in the EU between rhetoric and action. There are concrete proposals on the table to increase cooperation - for example in refugee or security policy or indeed in monetary and economic policy. So far, what we have been lacking is the readiness of all to tie this together in a viable and tenable blueprint.
How come hardly anyone is saying anything positive? For example: Yes, we’ve understood that there are deficits, i.e. in citizen participation or also in economic policy, but we’re changing that.
Europe has fallen prey to fear and despondency. Many are lining up with the so‑called mainstream. Europe is out of fashion. Those criticising or rejecting Europe have a receptive audience - unfortunately! What I find lacking is courageous input from the heart of civil society, from academia and culture, making clear that we are not going to give Europe up to the nationalists and voices of doom.
What criticism do you allow?
Any constructive criticism. I am a passionate European yet I am criticising the EU. My focus is however more on the national capitals than on the EU institutions. Those in the capitals preventing trust growing again in Europe are making our work difficult..
The strength of the naysayers, for example in refugee policy, is the weakness of the advocates.
You’re right. But I was pleasantly surprised that after the Brexit vote people want to focus on topics where the EU has not yet progressed far enough. Youth unemployment is still too high. The social and economic upheaval in some EU states is a disgrace to us all. There are good approaches on migration policy but they need to be implemented. We have of course agreed on ambitious strategies on climate protection but we now need to realise our targets. Until we manage all that, for many people the EU remains part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
During the banking and economic crisis, some people advocated fiscal equalisation between EU countries. What do you think of such demands?
In the eurozone, we need first and foremost binding agreement on social, employment and labour market policy. We need to correct what we got wrong in Maastricht. We have a single currency but we have too few instruments in the EU to tackle social and economic disparities. We need to move closer here, we need convergence.
In many crises, Germany has taken on the leading role. On occasion, the criticism has been very loud. Has Germany in part abused its influence?
No country has benefited from Europe as much as Germany. Given our export-driven economy, we are the most vulnerable country at the heart of Europe. This bestows a special responsibility on us. This is a responsibility we need to shoulder. But that doesn’t mean Germany should throw its economic weight around. Europe remains a team‑game. With the Social Democrats taking on important responsibility, the Federal Government has managed to ensure that we are seen once more as a reliable and honest broker in a difficult environment.
In the Greek crisis, Germany was often criticised for insisting on austerity. Does Europe not need to forego its austerity policy and invest more - for example to combat youth unemployment?
There hasn’t been a straight austerity policy in the EU for a long time now. We managed to bring about a situation where we now have a three‑track approach with socially balanced budgetary policy, with structural reforms and with public and private investment in infrastructure, innovation and education. That can be seen not least in the Strategic Agenda that the European Commission and all heads of state and government have agreed. There has been a clear change in policy here that has been brought about by having more Social Democrats in government.
At the G20 Summit, some were annoyed that Britain has to negotiate bilaterally with other states following the Brexit vote to build up their own relations. Some states no longer know who to turn to - to Brussels or the capitals? Is the EU in danger of being sidelined?
I can only hope that Brexit serves as a wake‑up call. Many are saying that national solutions would be better for a country. The opposite is true. We will all be weakened. The world is not waiting for Europe. Some even have a vested interest in a weak and disintegrated EU.
Who do you mean?
Not all countries in the world share our European understanding of values focusing on liberal, inclusive and open societies. We need to stand tall in this debate. In the EU, everyone has to make a clear commitment to our values. At the current time, some are not showing enough readiness to do so.
Interview: Andreas Schwarzkopf.