Foreign Minister, what does the EU flag mean to you?
The future and freedom. I see the EU flag as a banner of the free world today.
The US has always been seen as the guarantor of the free world. Do you really want to compete with it for this role?
The EU’s aim should be to lead on freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. When I look to the North, South, East or West, I see that people all over the world envy us for our European system.
Can you be specific? What does Europe do better than Trump?
We support free and fair world trade. That means we oppose punitive tariffs. We do not have the death penalty. But we do have workers’ rights and health insurance. And despite all the difficulties in the EU, we always kept the focus on humanity and human rights during the debate on the refugee situation.
Germany, France and the UK have just failed in the conflict on the nuclear agreement with Iran.
I see that differently. Donald Trump did not manage to divide us Europeans or to push us into withdrawing from the agreement. All EU member countries unanimously support our stance.
But now Iran has threatened Europe with withdrawal. Was Germany wrong to take Iran’s side rather than America’s?
On the contrary. The main reason we need the agreement is because we do not trust Iran. At any rate, the agreement is currently the safest way to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. You achieve more with clear rules and inspections than by threats alone. That is why we still firmly believe that the world is safer with the agreement than without it. Along with our European partners, we must do everything we can to prevent military conflict.
Are we being tough enough on countries that violate the principles of the rule of law?
Countries that enjoy the benefits of the European Union certainly cannot be allowed to undermine the rule of law. Europe can only be strong and credible internationally if it practises its own values. There must be consequences for violations of Europe’s fundamental values. We are currently negotiating the EU’s next financial framework. We should look for ways here to make funding dependent on adherence to fundamental principles of the rule of law. Germany and Belgium have already launched an initiative on an annual rule-of-law monitoring mechanism in all EU countries.
There is a risk that populists and EU opponents will win the European elections in two weeks’ time. Has Europe failed?
Definitely not. Nationalists and populists want to make us afraid of diversity, minorities and refugees. But what makes me feel optimistic is the fact that most Europeans want a liberal and tolerant Europe. To a certain extent, we may have forgotten how to stand up for that, perhaps because Europe has become something that many of us simply take for granted. That makes it all the more important that Europeans vote on 26 May. There is no excuse for staying at home. Those who do not vote are endangering Europe and our future!
Surveys show that Salvini’s right-wing populists are the strongest party in Italy. Is Germany partly to blame for Euroscepticism because of its refugee policy?
However, 70 percent of Italians are against leaving the EU. But yes, the situation in Europe is also the outcome of a misguided European policy conducted by Germany in recent years. We can’t sugarcoat that. For far too long we left Italy to cope on its own with the refugee situation. The discussions that resulted from this certainly didn’t do the right-wing populists any harm in Italy.
Your predecessor, former Social Democratic Party leader Sigmar Gabriel, finds the German Government’s engagement in Europe disappointing. Is that right?
This debate is primarily conducted in Germany. In Europe, people tend to discuss the opposite, that is, whether Germany’s position in Europe is too hegemonic. We Germans should take care that we are not perceived in Europe as the country waving its finger and telling everyone else what to do.
Germany will take on the EU Presidency in 2020. What do you personally want to achieve?
I would like to make the fight against anti-Semitism one of the priorities of our EU Presidency. When we talk about European values, the fight against anti-Semitism is a key issue for me. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is on the rise all over Europe. Germany in particular cannot tolerate this. We need to promote tolerance and to educate everyone, including people who come to live in Germany. Every migrant must be actively made aware that anti-Semitism is not tolerated here. And all those who behave in an anti-Semitic way must be aware that anti-Semites have no future here.
Were we too tolerant towards Arab refugees?
We know that many people were confronted with anti-Semitic and anti-Israel ideas even as school pupils in their home countries. It is a mistake to think that people will automatically adopt our position of zero tolerance for hatred of Jews as soon as they cross the German border. However, we should certainly not pretend that anti-Semitism only comes from abroad. Neo-Nazis march on our streets, we hear right-wing populists shouting “Germany, Germany above all” once again, and according to the latest figures, there are over 12,000 potentially violent right-wing extremists in the country. That must sound an alarm bell for us all. We must not underestimate the threat of right-wing terrorism.
You say that you went into politics because of Auschwitz.
What mainly fosters anti-Semitism is indifference. The vast majority of people in Germany do not support anti-Semitism. But in the internet in particular, radical minorities and their loud hate speech too often make it seem as if they are the majority. If we say nothing and simply let this hate speech continue, we are supporting xenophobia and anti-Semitism. That’s why it’s vital that people speak up and oppose these views.