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“Europe has learned a lot”

29.06.2020 - Interview

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in an interview with the DPA on Germany’s Council Presidency, the transatlantic partnership and the UN Security Council

Expectations are high for Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU. Will this be one of the most important Presidencies of recent decades?

It would have been a very important Presidency even without the coronavirus. The pandemic has led to a further increase in member states’ expectations and created additional pressure. We are certainly taking the challenge very seriously. We need to bring the European Union out of this crisis stronger than it was before.

What three objectives does Germany have to achieve to be able to call the Presidency a success at the end of the year?

We need to resolve the funding issues, by which I mean the coronavirus recovery programme and the medium-term financial framework up to 2027. Secondly, we need to successfully complete Brexit. And thirdly, we have to succeed in positioning Europe as a united entity in the global great-power rivalry between the United States, China and Russia – an ever-more unpredictable arena. Only by standing united as Europeans do we have a chance of holding our own in that environment. Otherwise we will become the plaything of others. 

The EU did not make a good impression at the start of the crisis. Borders were closed without coordination, each country first of all taking care of itself. Might something like that happen again?

Europe has learned a lot in this crisis – about our failings but also about our strengths. We have improved coordination and helped one another in solidarity, at a speed and on a scale beyond anything previously achieved. We cannot rule out the possibility of borders having to be closed again, if the rate of infection is significantly higher in one part of the EU than in another. But that would need to be agreed and coordinated at the pan-European level.

One of the intended highlights of the Presidency was going to be the EU-China summit, which has been postponed because of COVID‑19. Some people are now saying it should be cancelled altogether in view of China’s policy on Hong Kong...

Cancelling a summit would not change anything, neither in Hong Kong nor anywhere else. China is on the one hand a systemic rival, but on the other it is also an economic partner. We therefore need dialogue, though that dialogue will sometimes be uncomfortable. In light of all that, I still think it is right to hold this summit once conditions allow.

Germany’s relations with China’s great-power rival, the United States, are also being sorely tested at the moment. Do you agree with those who say that relations are worse than they have ever been?

Our transatlantic relations are exceptionally important, they remain important, and we are working to ensure that they have a future. But in their current state, they are no longer fulfilling the expectations of either side. Something therefore urgently needs to be done.

Will everything get better if Donald Trump is voted out in December?

Anyone who thinks the transatlantic partnership would return to the way it was if the Democrats won the Presidency underestimates the structural changes that have taken place.

Germany is also assuming the Presidency of the UN Security Council in July. Will the coronavirus pandemic be a defining topic there too?

We intend to start another attempt to reach a common Security Council position on the coronavirus pandemic. It reflects very poorly on the Security Council that this has not yet been possible.

Why have previous attempts failed?

The chief reason is a conflict between the US and China. It may not necessarily be possible to settle their disagreement with a resolution, but there are nonetheless many areas in which the international community shares the same objectives. China and the US need to put their differences aside when it comes to a topic of such global dimensions. The Security Council simply cannot remain silent while the whole world is facing such a pandemic.

Doesn’t this case demonstrate a fundamental problem with the Security Council?

It does. This is another example of how close the Security Council is to incapacity. In the major ongoing crises like Syria and COVID‑19, the Security Council is no longer living up to the expectations we ought to have of it. It is in a permanent state of deadlock – now caused by one side, now by the other.

And yet all attempts to reform it in the last ten years have failed...

The way the Security Council is presenting itself shows the need for reform is more urgent than ever. But baby steps are no longer an effective way forward on this.

Is Germany still seeking a permanent seat on the Security Council as part of that reform?

That is one of several goals we have.

Just as Germany assumes its double Presidency, 1 July could bring the start of Israel’s planned annexation of Palestinian territories. What is in store for Germany?

With our Presidency in the EU and on the United Nations Security Council, we will have a chairing role on that topic. We need to try to reconcile some very, very different positions in both institutions. In situations like that, the presiding country is required to provide mediation, but generally in the institutions themselves rather than on the ground. Nevertheless, we will continue to seek direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. That remains the only possible way that annexation might still be averted.

Another conflict in which Germany has assumed an important mediating role is Libya. The goal set at the Berlin summit in January to end outside interference in the conflict is more distant than ever. When will the countries responsible be named and shamed?

I think it will come to that. More political pressure needs to be put on those breaking the arms embargo. We cannot refrain forever from publicly naming those countries. Willingness to do so is growing continuously in the EU.

Can you imagine a follow-up summit being held at some point?

That is assuredly not around the corner. But if the goals set have been achieved, or there is at least a plan in place for them to be achieved, then I could definitely imagine it. That will certainly take a long time yet, however.

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