Interview with Martin Schäfer, Federal Foreign Office Spokesperson, on the panel discussion, What kind of Europe do we want?, in Schwerin on 23 January. Published in the “Schweriner Volkszeitung” on 20 January 2017.
The world is out of joint and Europe is in an identity crisis. Of all topics, what drives you to seek dialogue with the public on this not very promising question?
For many years, war and disorder were far away for us in Germany. Peace in Europe seemed like something we could take for granted. How this has changed in just a few years! Europe is under pressure, and people in Germany are also noticing this. We are more affected by crises and conflicts, such as in Ukraine, the Middle East and North Africa, and we are experiencing migration flows and Islamist terrorism. At the same time, we are also facing internal threats. Populists who want to turn back time and who oversimplify things are gaining ground – and this is also the case in Germany. This means it is all the more important that we seek dialogue with the public. We want to talk about what solutions we can find and what binds us together in Europe.
First the bank bailout, then the drama with Greece, and after that the refugee crisis – many Germans felt they were being made to pay for the transgressions of other EU members. How would you respond to this?
Germany is the largest country in the European Union, and in these difficult times it is also the strongest and most stable country. This entails responsibility. And everyone is looking to us. But Germany is also the country that still gains the most from the European integration process. Despite all the difficulties, we have always managed to find joint European solutions. These are often compromises, a matter of give and take. But they are never unilateral. This is a lengthy process and it can be frustrating at times – but it is always better than using violence or even the battlefield to deal with our conflicts, the way we did in the past.
If we look at the latest escalation in the Balkans, where Serbia threatened Kosovo with military action because it wouldn’t allow a train to pass, is it certain that there won’t be a return to the battlefield?
Who would have thought that we would only be able to prevent a large-scale military conflict in the heart of Europe in the past two years through great efforts? We are striving side by side with France to mediate between Russia and Ukraine in the Donbass and to prevent any form of escalation. We have made great progress in conflict management in the Balkans in the past 20 years, but there are now tensions once again. In this case, too, only the EU can repeatedly bring former bitter enemies to the negotiating table.
Grexit was prevented. Brexit was decided by the British. The new US President, Donald Trump, has predicted that other countries will leave the EU. How stable is Europe?
Brexit was a shock for everyone - including the British themselves, I think. However, it soon became clear that the remaining 27 members stand firmly behind the EU as a joint project of peace and liberty. When we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome in March, we want to present concrete results. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier very consciously wants to step outside the political bubble in Berlin and to talk with members of the public all over the country. His aim is to gather ideas that will then be included in our vision for the future of Europe.
Shortly before his death, former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt said that Europe hadn’t come off well in their handling of the Russia/Ukraine crisis. What has Europe learned from this?
In annexing Crimea, Russia did not only violate international law, but also undermined the cornerstones of Europe’s peaceful order. France and Germany’s endeavours to overcome the conflict in eastern Ukraine are complex and protracted. However, it did prove possible to agree on the Minsk road map, to prevent an outright war in the heart of Europe and to maintain a dialogue between the two parties to the conflict.
The EU has been criticised for not dealing adequately with Russia and for working with dubious protagonists in Ukraine.
It is exceptionally difficult to make concrete progress. Relations between Moscow and Kyiv are very tense. But we do not see any alternative to the Minsk agreement, no matter how challenging it is. That is why we are continuing to talk with both sides.
The European community of shared values was already severely tested by the financial crisis. It almost collapsed during the refugee crisis. Can a community so lacking in solidarity recover from this rift?
As in real life, times of crisis reveal whether solidarity is strong enough. The financial crisis and migration flows are a great test of this strength. And it is true that some countries have shown less solidarity than we had hoped. We are working on this. We responded to the refugee crisis in record-breaking time. Visible progress has been made as regards the protection of our external borders. We are working on the necessary Europe-wide standardisation of asylum law. I am confident that everyone recognises just how much we Europeans are a community with a common destiny – a community that should stand together and do its utmost to defend its diverse, tolerant and free way of life.
The EU institutions are facing a crisis of legitimacy. The European Parliament is regarded as an overpaid machine that just rubber‑stamps things, while the Commission is seen as a supreme government with no democratic mandate.
You mention widespread prejudices that I do not share. As an observer of many negotiations, I can assure you that talks with the European Parliament can be extremely tough. The MEPs do not simply rubber‑stamp things – they want to play an active role in decision‑making. And when you see that the Commission employs around 35,000 people for a population of 500 million, while the City of Munich has the same number of staff for a population of around one million, this puts the figures into context. Nevertheless, in this new situation, with a new US President, a difficult neighbour in Russia, crises at the continent’s borders and the internal dangers of populism and nationalism, Europe needs to reinvent itself to some extent and to create common awareness of what truly are the values and interests of our unique community.
What does the Federal Foreign Office expect from dialogue with the public?
We expect a lively discussion, critical opinions and involvement in Europe, which will give us new, creative ideas on how we can work together to develop the continent further. Europe has a future when people see their future in their Europe.
Interview conducted by Michael Seidel