Mr Maas, in your discussions and talks you are frequently confronted with expectations and hopes that other countries associate with Europe – especially with regard to topics like trade, climate protection and migration. What role can the community of European states fulfil in international relations today?
People from outside out continent sometimes perceive more clearly than we do just how valuable Europe really is. They very plainly see our European achievements: not only peace and democracy, but naturally also prosperity, innovativeness and social security. That’s why they also expect us to ensure that Europe will not look inwards, but play an active role in the world. That is urgently needed. Only by working together can Europe wield the necessary weight to successfully champion fair trade, sustainable climate protection and common, equitable rules on migration worldwide. When the European Union speaks with one voice it is heard all over the world.
What are the most important tasks that Europeans need to address together?
Opportunities for joint action in Europe occur especially where nation states face global problems. That is because one country alone is too small to solve such challenges; this can only be done by working together. We will only be able to deliver on our promise of prosperity for our continent if we develop a socially oriented European economic and finance policy. That’s why we must continue efforts towards the long-term stability of the eurozone. Equally urgently, we need to achieve an international distribution of burdens and responsibilities on migration. Lastly, at a time when the rules-based order overall is being called into question, we must finally be able to act on foreign policy as a continent. This means we must take greater responsibility for our security, work for stability in our neighbourhood and put our combined weight into the balance in negotiations, especially with difficult partners.
Which approaches appear promising in the field of economic and financial policy?
As the world’s leading exporter, Germany benefits from the euro and the single market more than almost every other country in the European Union. The economy is growing and people’s prosperity increasing, also thanks to the EU. That’s why we must permanently strengthen and reform the eurozone so that the euro is better able to withstand global crises. For example, we must improve the European Stability Mechanism. In concrete terms, we also need greater investment in young entrepreneurs and must decisively combat youth unemployment. There must not be a “lost generation” in Europe. When it comes to trade policy, I support free and fair trade that creates prosperity and simultaneously protects social standards. That’s why it’s so important to maintain and strengthen the multilateral trade system with reliable and binding rules for all.
Migration policy is one the most urgent issues for many European countries. Will the borders in Europe remain open?
We must not allow the migration debate to cause a rift in Europe. If some countries refuse to accept refugees, then they will have to do more in another area – for example, in combating the root causes of migration, a topic that we urgently need to address with greater determination. We must also further improve the protection of our external borders and not leave this to Italy and Greece alone. Furthermore, we must continue to support countries outside Europe that take in refugees, such as Jordan and Lebanon. As the world’s second largest humanitarian donor, Germany is aware of its responsibility here. For me, however, one achievement is non-negotiable: the borders in Europe will remain open. They are the strongest and most tangible symbol of freedom for the citizens of Europe.
How can Europe succeed in showing greater unity and strength in foreign policy? What concrete proposals do you have here?
The United States has made it clear – and not only since the inauguration of President Trump – that in future we Europeans will have to assume more responsibility for our own security. The prevailing feeling at the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2018 was that an external order is being lost. That is why we need to strengthen the European Security and Defence Policy. The goal is a European Security and Defence Union – as the European pillar in the transatlantic partnership that enables Americans and Europeans to continue depending on one another in the future.
What advances are now being made in this far from new debate?
The first important steps have already been taken here – for example, the establishment of Permanent Structured Cooperation for the joint development of military capabilities. However, civilian crisis management is the central element of European foreign and security policy. We are working towards binding undertakings by EU member states to strengthen their civilian capabilities. Alongside the existing advisory and training missions, we want to establish a European Stabilisation Corps. And when it comes to decision-making processes in Brussels, we should also consider introducing qualified majority decisions on foreign policy matters.
What else is needed to enable Europe to assert itself and its values in a world that is increasingly radicalised and polarised by nationalism and populism? Must Europe reform?
First of all, European policy should make it clear that globalisation – in other words, also the erosion of structures of governance – is not a natural phenomenon to which we must helplessly succumb. We can shape it – and do so in such a way that people experience tangible improvements. That is the best answer to the simple and hostile recipes of the populists that rely on isolation and division. We must take a stand against that together, which takes courage. I believe the cohesion of Europe is the key. Only internal unity will give us external strength and sovereignty. If our internal situation is healthy and characterised by mutual respect we will be able to address international challenges. We need a magnanimous Europe that does not differentiate between larger and smaller states, between centre and periphery. When it comes down to it, one country on its own is too small to make a difference.
You once said in a speech that Europe’s answer to “America First”, the maxim of US President Trump, must be “Europe United”. How can Europe find a new unity? After all, there are many differences of opinion at the moment, and Brexit is coming next year. . .
I clearly believe it is high time to reappraise the partnership between Europe and the USA: we want a balanced partnership. The Atlantic has widened politically, but America is more than the White House. That’s why we must now invest even more in relations with the USA in order to renew and preserve them. We want to take more responsibility and bring greater weight to bear in the areas where America is pulling back. The European Union must become a pillar of the international order as “Europe United”, a partner for all those who are committed to this order and believe in progress through multilateralism. The European Union is predestined for this; our successful struggle for common positions, unanimity and compromise has made us strong. An important test is the nuclear agreement with Iran, which we want to defend as Europeans.
A country will be leaving the European Union for the first time in its history as a result of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom in March 2019. Surely that cannot be a good omen.
I regret enormously the decision by the citizens of the United Kingdom to leave the EU. I consider this a lose-lose situation, although the consequences of Brexit will certainly be felt more strongly in the United Kingdom than in the remaining EU. Now we have to make the best of it: on one hand, the cohesion and the further development of the European Union, especially in the single market, have top priority for us; on the other, we are striving for a close and ambitious partnership with the United Kingdom after its withdrawal – there can be no doubt about that.
What can Germany do in concrete terms to mend the rift that runs through Europe?
Germany would like to strengthen cohesion in Europe and overcome divisions. For that to succeed, Germany must also move. We have certainly not always done everything right. We must never abandon our principles. At the same time, we must learn to see Europe more through the eyes of other Europeans. This applies, for example, with regard to the countries of central and eastern Europe. I understand that people there react sensitively when they see their newly won sovereignty and identity affected – for example, on the subject of migration. The countries of southern Europe also have their own perspective. They are still suffering from the effects of the financial crisis and high youth unemployment. We need to understand these viewpoints if we want to mend the rifts in Europe. We don’t need moralising finger-wagging, but intelligent proposals for a balance of interests and a European policy that is not only accepted by ordinary people, but also brings tangible improvements.
As the two largest countries in the European Union, Germany and France are frequently expected to act as the “engine” of Europe and undertake strong joint efforts. President Macron is calling for reforms. What initiatives are there at present and what is being planned for the near future?
The picture of the Franco-German engine will continue to be correct if we act as motivators, not finger-wagging schoolteachers. Reforms in the EU can only succeed in close coordination with France. Other countries will only follow if Berlin and Paris have the courage to work together even more extensively than we have in the past on economic, financial, energy and security questions. That’s why Germany and France sketched out a timetable for pending EU reforms in a joint declaration in June. It includes a strengthening of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Furthermore, Germany and France support a European solution on migration: we want to cooperate with the countries of origin and transit countries, protect external borders and develop a common European asylum system based on responsibility and solidarity. When it comes to the economy, we want to further improve the European Stability Mechanism. And we are working on a new Élysée Treaty. We need to stand shoulder to shoulder with France more resolutely than ever before in support of “Europe United”.
In the next two years Germany will have a voice in the United Nations Security Council as a non-permanent member. How much will that also be a voice for Europe?
We will make our seat in the Security Council as European as possible and thereby contribute to a sovereign Europe supporting multilateral solutions worldwide. When we speak in the Security Council, we want to be a mouthpiece for all member states – even though the nameplate says “Germany”. That means we will coordinate our activities even more closely with the other member states and represent a common European position even more clearly than before.
Which European achievements are especially close to your heart?
For me the greatest achievement continues to be that war in Europe has become inconceivable today. At the beginning of my degree course in Saarbrücken, which lies directly on the border with France, the university president at that time advised us to travel to the battlefields of Verdun, which are not very far away. I took his advice. Anyone who has seen Verdun will understand the immeasurable value of peace and reconciliation for Europe. Today, after two world wars and years of division, eastern and western Europe are free and united: that for me is Europe’s greatest achievement and greatest joy. This achievement should motivate us every day to not take peace and democracy for granted, but to fight for our European values.
Minister, thank you for this interview.
The interview was conducted by Janet Schayan.