“After Munich, everyone knows where we stand”

22.02.2019 - Interview

In the interview, Foreign Minister Maas takes stock of transatlantic relations and the state of European foreign policy in the wake of the Munich Security Conference. Published in the Badische Zeitung and elsewhere.

Mr Maas, soon you will have been in office for a year. Given that these are rather dismal days for foreign policy, is it fun to be Foreign Minister, or more frustrating?

Fun is a big word in politics, but of course there are moments I really enjoy. I built up good relationships with very many colleagues within the first few months.

But it is certainly the case that things have not got easier in foreign policy over the past two years.

President Trump arrived in office.

That’s not the only thing. We are dealing with a whole series of new trouble spots, and at the same time working just as hard to find solutions to existing conflicts like in Syria, Yemen or Ukraine.

It is true, though, that we are currently also holding a fundamental discussion of how we want to deal with each other on the world stage. Is everyone just doing what he wants? We take a different approach: in a world full of problems that do not stop at borders, we regard it as misguided to withdraw into the national shell. We are committed to ensuring that international cooperation persists, that treaties are observed, and that you can rely on your partners.

That may sound obvious, but unfortunately it no longer is.

There was little mention of partnership in Vice-President Mike Pence’s speech at the Munich Security Conference.

Pence’s speech was not surprising if you consider everything Donald Trump has already said. But certainly the conflict came out in the open in Munich. Maybe that was a good thing; now we all know where we stand: we are facing a fundamental conflict of interest. This is a fundamental change to the international order, and we have to respond to it. So I was happy that the German speeches were positively received. The analysis that we are on our own in clinging to multilateralism is wrong. There are plenty of us who think the same, but sometimes we don’t speak out loudly enough.

But as long as Trump refuses to bend to the will of the international majority, the problem remains. So what is to be done?

Firstly, we must never make our relationship with another country dependent solely on who holds political responsibility. Instead, we are putting even more intense effort into nurturing our many political, commercial and civil-society contacts. Secondly, it is not true that we are at odds with the United States on all issues. We are still guided by the same values. America stands for more than just Donald Trump. And thirdly, we Europeans can definitely achieve something if we maintain a united stance.

Finally, the globalised economy means that we are dependent on each other, also in security matters. That necessitates compromises.
By judging European cars to be a security threat, the US Administration seems not to have noticed this mutual dependency.

On this, we have to speak frankly. When the discussion started, I said to my US colleague Mike Pompeo: You can’t be serious about this. German cars do not endanger the national security of the United States. German cars make US streets safer.

Has Washington stopped listening to what representatives of the German Government say?

I have good and trusting contacts with my colleague, and that’s how it should stay. Unfortunately, the influence on decisions made in the White House is not quite as we would like it to be. We had differences of opinion in the past as well. Then, though, people looked for practicable solutions. That doesn’t happen any more because decisions are taken differently in this Administration.

The end of the INF Treaty is bad for Europe’s security interests. Berlin nevertheless supported US withdrawal from the Treaty because of a breach by Russia. Was that an attempt to appease Trump on one issue?

Obviously we profoundly regret the suspension of the INF Treaty. It is much easier to terminate a treaty like that than it is to conclude. But we cannot escape the fact that the Russians did breach the Treaty by developing banned cruise missiles. This is, essentially, also about something else: neither Moscow nor Washington want to be tied down by something that does not apply to third parties who are happily developing missiles – I am thinking here particularly of China. The world is no longer bipolar, so arms control cannot be bipolar either. But that is a bad development for Europe.

What do you intend to do? At any rate Germany has been on the UN Security Council since January.

We need new disarmament initiatives which more states join than have done to date. These initiatives should cover not only nuclear weapons but also state-of-the-art autonomous weapons or cyber weapons – none of these are covered by an adequate international regime. All that must be put on the table. That is why we are hosting a conference here at the Federal Foreign Office in March to talk to military experts, scientists and diplomats about what arms control needs to look like in the 21st century.

When we take the presidency of the Security Council in April, we will be putting the issue squarely on the agenda. For far too long we have not talked about disarmament.

By contrast, there's been talk for a very long time about how Europe needs to speak with one voice to have weight in the world. And now there is greater urgency, which is why you are calling for majority decisions in the EU Foreign Affairs Council.

The EU must become more capable of action in foreign policy. We have to escape the curse of unanimity. We wouldn’t even need to amend the EU treaties in order to introduce the majority principle for certain foreign policy decisions. The Foreign Affairs Council could itself stipulate the areas in which it can agree by a qualified majority. What is needed now is European unity. Only recently, with regard to Venezuela, we again saw where things aren’t working well: for days and days I and my counterparts tried to persuade the one country that didn’t want to recognise Juan Guaidó as interim president to agree to a joint statement. It cannot be that one single country can completely put the brakes on an EU that is otherwise of one mind. In cases like that, it should be possible to outvote a country.

Interview: Christoph Reisinger and Christopher Ziedler.



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