“We cannot give free rein to the fearmongers in Europe”
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas talks to the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper and others about the European elections.
The conflict between the United States and Iran on the nuclear agreement is becoming more and more acute. Is there a threat of escalation?
The situation is very serious. Both the United States and Iran insist that they do not want a military confrontation. The danger is that unforeseen events could also lead to a spiral of escalation. We have already witnessed the acts of sabotage on ships in the Gulf of Oman and the damage to a pipeline in Saudi Arabia caused by a drone. In the current tense situation, this could lead to further escalation and a military conflict. De-escalation is now more essential than ever. We expect all parties to work towards this goal.
US Navy ships are heading for the Persian Gulf. How serious is the threat of war and conflagration in the region?
There are a number of crises and conflicts in the region, ranging from Iraq and Syria to Yemen. Just one of these conflicts could set the entire region ablaze. All parties ought to be aware of the threat of escalation.
Can Germany play a mediating role?
We are already playing a mediating role. We are holding talks with the United States, Russia and China. We are also engaged in intensive discussion with Iran. We are promoting a sense of common purpose in the European Union together with France and the United Kingdom. We are assuming clear responsibility in this area and doing everything in our power to help bring about a de-escalation. No misunderstandings must be allowed to occur which could lead to further tensions.
But so far there has been no movement between the parties ...
We should be under no illusions: one year after the withdrawal of the United States from the nuclear agreement with Iran, it will not be easy to save the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The agreement is an expression of our concern about Iran having nuclear weapons. The world is safer with this agreement than without it. We still cannot understand the unilateral withdrawal by the Americans. The economic benefits that Iran hoped to reap from the agreement will be very difficult to achieve following the United States’ departure. However, it is precisely because we do not trust Iran that we will work to uphold the agreement, in spite of the challenging situation. At any rate, the JCPOA is currently the safest way to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. It goes without saying that we will fulfil our obligations, but we also expect the same from Iran.
Iran’s President Hassan Rohani has accused the European parties of giving in to pressure from the United States ...
The opposite is the case. The European Union spoke with one voice. That worked. Even under the considerable pressure imposed by the United States. We stand together.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cancelled his visit to Berlin at short notice. Would it not have been better to coordinate closely in view of the crisis?
I coordinate frequently with Mike Pompeo. We actually spoke on the phone on the day of the planned visit. He recently also cancelled his trip to Moscow and came to us, the EU partners, in Brussels. Any criticism of the cancellation of his Berlin trip is a sign of a totally overheated debate. The current plan is that he will now visit Berlin on 31 May. We agree on our goal: We want an Iran without nuclear weapons. We want Iran to abandon its destructive role in the region – in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. And we want Iran to cease its ballistic missile programme and its threats against Israel. However, we Europeans are firmly convinced that a strategy of maximum pressure will not get us anywhere. We are focusing on dialogue rather than rhetorical armament.
There are doubts about how serious the threat posed by Iran and its nuclear programme is. What’s your view of the situation?
We will study the independent reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency in detail to see whether or not Iran is sticking to the commitments it made. These commitments remain the benchmark. Our expectations of Tehran are crystal clear: Iran must continue to implement its commitments under the agreement in full. No concessions will be made.
Mr Maas, the European elections will take place in a week’s time. The election campaign is sluggish. There doesn’t appear to be much interest in the elections. Do you have any idea why?
The delayed interest perhaps stems from the fact that more and more people are leaving it until just before the elections before deciding who to vote for. For this reason it is now crucial, in the last few days before the elections, to emphasise once again what is at stake.
There is a risk of a rift in Europe. Will this vote determine Europe’s fate?
In these elections, more is at stake than ever before. Nothing less than the future of Europe and the European Union. All of us have a choice on 26 May: we can vote either for Europe or against it, either for international cooperation or for a step backwards to nationalism. My position is clear: We cannot give free rein to the fearmongers in Europe. There have been enough alarm calls. Anyone who isn’t awake now must be dead to the world.
But populists and nationalists are evidently gaining ground ...
We have come to a point where we are taking all the achievements of the European Union – peace, freedom, democracy – for granted. But they are by no means a given! We can see that at the moment in Europe and in a world ridden with crises. We need to realise that our European values are coming under heavy attack from populists and nationalists. On 26 May there is more at stake than who will be the next Commission President. The EU’s capacity to function and act is in danger of being seriously compromised if the European Parliament’s internal capacity to act is weakened by right-wing populists as well as by the international forces of disintegration from outside.
Is Europe standing at a crossroads?
This is about the future of the European Union. We cannot overstate the contribution that Europe makes to peace, freedom and democracy. We need to take a critical look at why we are not sufficiently able to make people realise how important Europe is – even in view of all the challenges we face. Climate change, digital transformation, migration – no country is in a position to resolve any of these issues single-handedly. They need to be dealt with at international level, and for this we need the European Union.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron has questioned the principle whereby the lead candidate of the strongest parliamentary group in the European Parliament after the elections becomes the EU Commission President. What do you think?
We shouldn’t be calling into question the principle of the lead candidate now, just before the elections. Anything that helps strengthen the Parliament is a move in the right direction. At the end of the day, the priority will be to find a political majority in the European Parliament.
President Macron is calling for comprehensive reforms within the EU. Where is Germany’s support for this? Shouldn’t the Federal Government be assuming a leading role in this area?
I am often asked why we are not getting more involved in Europe. But only by people in Germany. In other countries, the concern is that we should not be overenthusiastic with regard to our leadership role in Europe. What we certainly need to avoid is pursuing a European policy that wags its finger at others. Instead, we should be offering an outstretched hand. We shouldn’t be giving the impression that the reform agenda for the European Union is a purely Franco-German affair. It’s no good if Germany and France agree but the others get the impression that we are creating a first and second-class Europe.
The euro crisis divided the north and the south, the debate on refugee policy alienated the east. In Poland and Hungary, the rule of law is in jeopardy. How can further division be prevented?
Where our fundamental values are at stake, there can be no compromise. An independent judiciary, the separation of powers – these are essentials on which no concessions can be made. I am firmly convinced that many of these countries have a great interest in the European Union. Also because they benefit from it. But it comes with obligations as well as rights.
British Prime Minister Theresa May intends to hold another Brexit vote in the House of Commons right after the European elections. Are you prepared to predict the outcome?
No, I’m no longer prepared to utter any predictions on how MPs will vote. A deadline has been set for the end of October. A solution must have been found by then. A disorderly Brexit should be in nobody’s interests.
The Basic Law is turning 70. How will you be congratulating it?
With thanks for peace, freedom and civil rights. This masterpiece has been a crucial factor in Germany regaining its place in the international community. And in being perceived as a reliable partner and friend. The mothers and fathers of the Basic Law knew that national go-it alone efforts would lead to destruction. Only together, as a united Europe, can we assert our values and interests in the world.
Interview conducted by Andreas Herholz