“Especially in difficult times, solidarity is one of the cornerstones of the European Union.”

27.03.2020 - Interview

Interview with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera on European cooperation in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas speaking with members of the press (file photo)
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas speaking with members of the press (file photo)© Felix Zahn/photothek.net
Minister Maas, after some early mixed messages (I refer to the decision to stop exports of face masks and other personal protective equipment that was later reversed) Germany is now sending a clear signal of solidarity to Italy in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. What additional aid are you planning to provide?

Helping each other in Europe should go without saying – for us all. Especially in difficult times, solidarity is one of the cornerstones of the European Union. However, if you look at the migration crisis, we have not always managed to put this principle into practice, also with respect to Italy.

I was deeply touched by last week’s images of military vehicles needing to transport coffins. That is why I am very happy that we can provide tangible help. Last week, there was the first partial shipment of seven tonnes of aid supplies, which included ventilators and anaesthesia devices. More aid will follow – and we are currently in contact with the Italian Government to figure out exactly what is needed. More importantly, on early Tuesday morning, the university clinic in Leipzig took in two intensive care patients from Bergamo. German clinics have meanwhile offered a total of 63 intensive care beds. Those are 63 lives that we are going to try to save. I am in constant contact with Luigi Di Maio so that we can together discover how to step up our cooperation.

Do you not think it is time, considering the risks posed by pandemics, to establish a European public health coordination mechanism?

The coronavirus is one of the greatest challenges the EU has ever faced, and we must employ all of the instruments at our disposal to fight it. The virus’s effects, after all, are not only being felt in the sphere of health policy; it is having an economic, social policy, and foreign and security policy impact, as well. That is why I proposed during the EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting on Monday that the solidarity clause, or Article 222 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, be invoked. This could provide a common platform for all of the various processes that are under way to slow the spread of the virus. The aim would be for each member state to make available, in a coordinated way, personnel and material that is currently not required and can be spared. A Europe based on solidarity must ensure that all of the means that exist within the EU are rapidly sent to the locations where they are most urgently needed. I’ll give you an example from Germany. In only a very short time, we have set up a database in which clinics can enter, on a voluntary basis, all of the ICU beds and ventilators they have at their disposal. Some 60 to 70 percent of clinics have already done so. Why should this not be possible at European level? In the medium term, we must also think about bringing production capacity for strategic items such as personal protective equipment back to the EU from third countries. This, too, must be a coordinated, EU effort, so that we can avoid duplication.

Some are also talking about political signals that are being sent in Europe’s direction with regard to aid that is being provided by China and Russia. Is there geopolitical competition behind the provision of aid?

In this crisis, solidarity and international coordination are what we need right now – so aid is a good thing. The EU, too, provided aid to China and the people in Wuhan during the early stage of the Covid-19 outbreak. This pandemic is a global challenge. We will not meet it with an “everyone for himself” attitude. Instead, our motto must be “one for all, and all for one”. That way, we will succeed.

But your question brings me to another important point: What I am more worried about is the dissemination of false information and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. In Germany, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution is currently registering a sharp rise in such disinformation originating in third countries. Clearly, there is a desire to undermine the general public’s trust in our crisis management capability. We must uncover who is behind the shameful and irresponsible spreading of such disinformation. For that, we need intensified cooperation in this sphere, as well.

When the discussion turns to solidarity and finding common answers, there is currently a heated debate about what economic means Europe will need in order to overcome this crisis. Except for the decisions taken by the European Central Bank, and the Commission’s aid package, all of the response to the coronavirus has been national. Today, Mario Draghi proposed novel ways for pooling debts and also drew the comparison between this crisis and a war. Prominent leaders of German economic institutes have clearly stated (in the FAZ newspaper) that they support the issuing of eurobonds. Will the German Government ultimately accept this solution, after both the taboo of a balanced budget and that of a check on public borrowing, which is laid down in your Basic Law, have been broken?

What’s needed now is EU solidarity. We can also show solidarity with the means currently at our disposal – that is, with the funds of the European Commission, the European Investment Bank and the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), and with the tremendous unused lines of credit totalling 410 billion euros. What is important is that, in this crisis, we also need to show financial solidarity. We must help where help is needed most.

Interview conducted by Paolo Valentino



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