Following a referendum, Saarland joined the Federal Republic of Germany 60 years ago, on 1 January 1957. To mark this occasion, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Justice Minister Heiko Maas gave an interview on the state of Europe to the “Saarbrücker Zeitung”. (Interview published on 27 December 2016).
Mr Maas, to what extent did Saarland’s French past influence your life?
Maas: It had a great impact. I grew up in Saarland, right on the border. French was the first foreign language we learned at school. It was absolutely normal that our lives played out on both sides of the border. France always feels like home to us, too.
Does Saarland’s late accession to the Federal Republic continue to have a negative impact today?
Maas: No, but Saarland has its own identity that developed from its eventful history. My grandmother lived her whole life in the same town, the same street and the same house – but she constantly had different nationalities. The people of Saarland experienced what it is like to be shunted back and forth between two countries. And as a result of this experience, they always stuck very closely together. Our special attitude towards life, Saarland’s identity, certainly resulted from this. People outside Saarland continue to be amazed by this identity.
More people than anywhere else belong to an association or political party. And people in Saarland are closer to one another than they are anywhere else in Germany.
Steinmeier: The people of Saarland had to change nationality eight times in the last 200 years. Saarland is like a magnifying glass of European history, which was in part a history of national rivalries, wars and conflicts for far too long. This is probably the reason why the people of Saarland have benefited more than anyone else from European integration and why they are more aware than almost anyone else in Europe of what 60 years of peace and stability mean.
France accepted the result of the referendum in Saarland immediately in 1955. How important was this for Franco-German understanding?
Maas: It certainly played an important role. Franco-German friendship became a pillar of European integration. It is a role model for all of Europe when two countries that were previously sworn enemies can see each other as partners.
Would Franco-German friendship be able to withstand a President Le Pen?
Steinmeier: I have great trust that the vast majority of the French electorate believes in Europe, so I am not particularly worried by this question.
Is Europe in crisis?
Steinmeier: Europe is certainly in a period of upheaval and needs to reposition itself soon. Brexit has caused us turbulence and doubts about Europe’s effectiveness and ability to act are growing louder.
The important thing now is to give Europe shared prospects for the future once again and to make headway on topics such as European security, migration and economic growth. And that certainly won’t be possible with those who see the retreat to the nation state as the solution to absolutely everything.
The Treaties of Rome, which laid the foundations for European integration, were signed 60 years ago. Where has the vision of that time, the hope, gone?
Steinmeier: I sometimes have the impression that peace, freedom and prosperity in Europe are seen as something to be taken for granted today. We saw just how uncertain these things are when the question of war and peace suddenly resurfaced on our continent with the conflict in Ukraine. And with regard to growth, we here in Germany in particular, who owe our prosperity to open borders, must know that this prosperity would not be guaranteed if we lived in a Europe and a world of isolation and nationalism.
What practical steps can one take against growing nationalism?
Steinmeier: Firstly, Europe needs to answer the questions it hasn’t answered yet, in particular the question of how we will deal with migration and refugees in the future. Secondly, we need to take people’s concerns seriously, especially those involving questions of internal and external security. And thirdly, we will not be able to convince the doubters if we do not make progress on employment and the economy. Compared with other countries, Germany is in a pretty good position. But you won’t find much enthusiasm for Europe in countries that have youth unemployment of 50 percent or higher.
Doesn’t Hungary’s approach to the refugee issue and Poland’s stance on freedom of the press show that Europe’s shared foundation of values has become weak?
Maas: European integration didn’t focus enough on this in recent years. Many people think of European integration purely in terms of an economic community. However, this is not enough. Peace and democracy are the driving forces behind Europe. We want to be a community of shared values.
Justice, the rule of law and all forms of freedom, such as freedom of the press, are an intrinsic part of this. We need to make this clear.
Does it help this community of values if it upholds the possibility of EU accession to Turkey?
Steinmeier: The Turkish opposition is urging us not to cut off Turkey’s chances of accession. Particularly those who are close to us hope this process will not be buried. Responsibility for whether Turkey continues to move closer to Europe or wants to look towards the East must remain in Turkey. But one thing is clear: the introduction of the death penalty under discussion in Turkey would send an unambiguous message against the accession process.
As Foreign Minister, have you had to be somewhat more guarded in what you say to autocrats?
Steinmeier: Wrong. As Foreign Minister, it is important to know the place for an open and honest dialogue. That place is not always at a microphone. The truth is that it doesn’t take much courage to issue a rigorous press statement a few thousand kilometres from the events. You need courage in one-to-one talks.
Maas: Diplomacy is not primarily about talking with the good guys. The important thing is to speak clearly with those who are difficult. We in the Federal Ministry of Justice conduct intensive dialogue in particular with countries where the rule of law and human rights are being undermined.
There was also a referendum in Crimea. Why can Europe not accept this in a similar way to how France accepted the vote in Saarland in the past?
Steinmeier: There is absolutely no comparison. The conditions were completely different. Saarland was not part of France under the constitution, but Crimea was part of Ukraine’s national territory. In addition, the Ukrainian constitution does not have any provisions on referendums. Everyone knows who the “little green men” were and who sent them to Crimea. There were no free or fair conditions, and independent international observers were not granted access.
How can this conflict be resolved some time in order to normalise relations with Russia again?
Steinmeier: We can certainly not resolve the Ukraine conflict by accepting what happened in breach of international law after the act. This is why we are focusing on the very difficult implementation of the Minsk Agreement, which has ensured that the conflict did not escalate further. This agreement is also the basis for political negotiations, on which we are unfortunately only making very slow progress. However, I don’t see what else could replace this difficult process.
What are your hopes for international politics in 2017?
Steinmeier: In my time in politics, I have never experienced a time when there were as many unanswered questions as there are now. 2017 will be about the future of Europe after Brexit and the future of security and stability in Europe after the unresolved Ukraine crisis, but also about the future and stability of transatlantic relations after the elections in the US. The conflicts in the Middle East are also taking far too long to resolve. My hope is that the close transatlantic ties will continue as a foundation of the West, that the conscience of the world will be moved by the humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo, and that there will be a path to political negotiations on the future of Syria. And my hope for Europe is that after the elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany, we will have governments that support Europe and do not allow the European integration process to be reversed.
Maas: My hope is that we in Europe will succeed in finding joint answers to the public’s most pressing questions. To this end, we will also have to defend our common basis of values against right-wing populists. Since 1949, the aim of the Basic Law has been a “united Europe”. Overcoming nationalism was the great lesson of two world wars on German soil. Isolation and nationalism are not the answers to globalisation and the spread of digital technology in our world.
Interview conducted by Werner Kolhoff