“We cannot save our way out of this Crisis”

04.06.2020 - Interview

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in an interview with the Italian newspaper “La Repubblica”.

Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio will be visiting you in Berlin on Friday. When are the Germans expected to be able to travel to Italy again?

It’s safe to say that many Germans can hardly wait. And if we continue down this positive route in containing the virus, then there’s no longer any reason to have a general travel warning in Europe. That’s why we want to return to country-specific travel warnings for Europe from 15 June onwards. From then on, tourist travel to Italy should also be possible once again – depending on the rate of infection in the respective region and, of course, with the necessary distancing and hygiene rules in place. We also know that what everyone needs right now is clarity – German travellers and tour operators, and also tourist destinations such as Italy. That’s why we agreed on a plan of action in the Federal Cabinet yesterday and are now moving quickly to implement this.

Relations between Italy and Germany reached a low ebb during the coronavirus crisis. The export ban on face masks in March has left deep scars. Surveys show that trust in Germany is currently very weak. How can this relationship be healed?

The fact of the matter is that Europe was not well enough prepared for this crisis. We were surprised, also in Germany, by how quickly it spread. It was like being on a plane. We first had to put on our own protective masks before helping others.

However, it’s also true that, in the course of the crisis, we all learned new things and increasingly sought joint responses in a spirit of solidarity. As of today, no region in the world has shown as much solidarity with one another as we have in the European Union.

We admitted seriously ill coronavirus patients from Italy to our clinics, some of whom were flown out of the country by the Bundeswehr. We delivered aid supplies such as ventilators to Italy free of charge and a team of doctors and nurses from Germany was deployed to the region.

And we will continue to show solidarity when it comes to the efforts to reboot the economy. We built Europe as we know it today together, which is why we’re determined not to leave any country behind in Europe now.

Europe will receive a boost from the European Commission’s recovery fund to the tune of 750 billion euro. What priorities will Germany set during its forthcoming Presidency of the Council of the European Union?

Crisis management is the number-one priority. We must keep the pandemic under control and at the same time get the economic recovery on track. This is the yardstick by which our Presidency will be judged. In addition, there are issues that are firmly on the EU agenda for the second half of the year, above all the negotiations on future relations with the UK. In normal times, this mammoth task would be quite enough for any EU Presidency – even without coronavirus. At the same time, we also want to make progress on strategically important issues such as climate change, displacement and migration, the rule of law and the digital transformation. Europe cannot afford to have a lost year.

Many fear German hegemony in Europe after the crisis, economically and, after Brexit, also politically. Is this on the cards?

That was never our idea of Europe – and never will be. We don’t want hegemony, but want to be part of a united Europe. Such fears are also far removed from the political reality of the European Union, because unanimity or a large majority of the member states is required here for all important decisions. Germany is not nearly as powerful in the EU as it is often perceived to be, especially in Italy. And Brexit – which, by the way, has been done and dusted in the EU bodies since 1 February – won’t do anything to change this. The UK has long since left the table and no longer enjoys any voting rights.

The “frugal four”, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, want to reduce the share of the recovery fund consisting of grants. Will Germany stick to this principle – and be able to assert itself – that the focus should be on grants here?

In the EU, we have already agreed on a package of over half a trillion euro for immediate crisis management efforts – in record time. I’m optimistic that we will be able to repeat this exercise when it comes to economic and social recovery now. We believe that grants are the most sensible way forward in this particular situation. We cannot save our way out of this crisis – we have to grow our way out of it. But it’s also clear that the large amount of money that we’re spending now must be invested wisely and sustainably. We must allow necessity to be the mother of invention and promote the environmental and digital restructuring of our societies. If we’re burdening future generations with debts right now, we must also invest these funds in their futures. Anything else would be irresponsible.

US President Donald Trump has announced that the G7 Summit is to be postponed until September but that other countries, including Russia, are to attend. Is that acceptable?

The US is hosting the meeting, which is why we’re now waiting for more information from them about exactly what format the G7 Summit is to take this year. What is clear, however, is that the reasons why we decided to continue the G7 Summits without Russia in 2014 – the annexation of Crimea in violation of international law – have not changed to date.

How concerned are you about the unrest that has broken out in the US following the murder of the African American George Floyd in Minneapolis? Trump is threatening local authorities with the “unlimited power of the military” and is calling for a crackdown on those taking part in the demonstrations.

The death of George Floyd is shocking and horrific. My thoughts are with his family and friends. Peaceful protest against the circumstances of his death is understandable and more than legitimate. I can only express my hope that these peaceful protests won’t be further overshadowed by chaos and violence – and that all sides will work to de-escalate the situation.

Trump has shaken up NATO relations since the outset and enjoys provoking the EU. He recently withdrew from the important Open Skies Treaty, and Europeans have been accused time and again of spending too little on defence. Is NATO “brain-dead”, as Macron provocatively claimed?

For 70 years now, NATO has been Europe’s life insurance. To ensure that it remains so, we need to adapt our Alliance to new challenges and assume greater responsibility within Europe for security policy. To this end, I have initiated a process of reflection with a view to strengthening political cooperation within the Alliance. Under the leadership of NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, a panel of experts has begun this process. As far as burden-sharing is concerned, we stand by our commitments in NATO. Since 2014, we have increased our defence spending by 45 percent and are making a tangible contribution to strengthening NATO every day – as the second-largest provider of troops in Afghanistan, with our Eurofighters involved in air policing in the Baltic States and with NATO’s new Joint Support and Enabling Command under construction in Ulm. I very much regret the announcement by the US that it is withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty. The Treaty is an important element of Europe’s arms control architecture and enhances everyone’s security. Even though there have been difficulties on the Russian side in implementing the Treaty in recent years, we don’t believe that this is grounds for its termination. We, together with our partners, have made this clear to the US time and again.

The US has broken off its relationship with the World Health Organization as Trump considers it to be a “puppet” of China. What’s your view of this? Is the criticism of China and the WHO unwarranted?

This sends the wrong signal at the wrong time. Instead of go-it-alone initiatives at the national level, we need multilateral cooperation with a united response in a spirit of solidarity from all countries and the United Nations, with a strong WHO at the centre. Of course, it will also be necessary to learn the right lessons from dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and to embark on necessary reforms. We want to face this challenge at an appropriate time – together with the WHO and our partners. However, the aim of such a process continues to be to strengthen the WHO to enable it to carry out its tasks effectively and impartially.

Your government has been heavily criticised by the opposition for being too soft in its response to China’s “Security Law” for Hong Kong. Are you not concerned that the opposition will be brutally suppressed?

The high degree of autonomy that Hong Kong enjoys, which is the basis for stability and prosperity in Hong Kong, must not be undermined. The Security Law must not call into question the principle of “one country, two systems” and the rule of law in Hong Kong. Freedom of opinion and assembly, as well as democratic debate, must continue to be respected in the future. We have made this very clear as the Federal Government and also within the EU and will continue to engage with China on this issue.

China has forfeited a great deal of trust in the world because of its long silence following the outbreak of the pandemic. How do you believe relations with China will develop in the future, and what will the EU-China Summit in Germany focus on?

There are many key issues that we want and need to discuss with China. At the end of the day, it is clear that we will only be able to meet the challenges of the 21st century in cooperation with China. We want to commit China to ambitious climate targets and fair global competition, for example through an ambitious investment agreement between China and the EU, which we’re currently negotiating. The EU-China Summit during our Presidency in September is an important opportunity for making progress in this area and for making genuine progress in our joint relations.

Given the breach of trust during the pandemic, wouldn’t it be better to leave Chinese companies out of strategic areas such as 5G, for example?

Europe must not enter into unilateral dependencies – especially as far as critical infrastructure and technologies of the future are concerned. We in Europe must work together to ensure this. Our aim is to strengthen the EU’s sovereignty also in these areas and to invest in joint solutions.

This isn’t a question of calling out certain countries, but of clearly defining, in our own interests, the requirements that we must place on all providers.

Relations between Germany and Russia are strained. Last week, the Russian Ambassador Sergey J. Nechajev was invited to the Federal Foreign Office following the hacker attack on the Bundestag. Moscow has claimed time and again that there is no evidence that the Russian secret services were behind this. What is your response to this, and how will Germany deal with Russia in the future?

There is concrete and reliable evidence from the investigative and judicial authorities that a Russian citizen carried out the hacker attack on the German Bundestag on behalf of the Russian secret service in the spring of 2015 – together with other individuals. It was on this basis that the investigating judges of the Federal Court of Justice issued an arrest warrant against him. This is by no means apolitical prejudgement, as has been repeatedly claimed by the Russian side. In Brussels, we will also call for the EU cyber sanctions regime to be invoked to freeze assets or impose entry restrictions on those responsible for the attack. At the same time, it is also clear that we want to remain in a constructive and critical dialogue with Moscow on other foreign policy issues, such as the conflicts in eastern Ukraine, Libya and Syria.

Given the situation in Libya, where fighting continues, can we say that the Berlin Process has failed?

We are greatly concerned by the ongoing fighting in Libya and by further arms supplies on both sides. I’m all the more pleased that the parties to the conflict have now agreed to resume what are known as the 5+5 talks seeking a ceasefire in Geneva. It’s now up to all parties to play a constructive role in these efforts. I’m also in close and very good contact with my counterpart Luigi Di Maio on the next steps and on how we should proceed within the framework of the Libya process. We will not cease to remind those who attended the Berlin Conference on Libya about the voluntary commitment they made in January. Moreover, we will do our part to implement the arms embargo with the EU operation IRINI.

You went into politics because of Auschwitz. How concerned are you about antisemitic incidents in Germany, which reached a record level last year, with over 90 percent perpetrated by right-wing extremists? “Never again” – can Germany keep this promise?

Antisemitism and xenophobia have no place in our society. The over 2000 antisemitic crimes each year are a reminder that simply saying this isn’t enough. We must work every day to ensure that Jews feel safe in Germany and throughout Europe. This is why the Federal Government has set up a Cabinet Committee to combat right-wing extremism. After all, antisemitism, xenophobia and racism threaten the cohesion of an open, diverse and democratic society. And we must remember what began in Germany 80 years ago, culminating in the Shoah. This is why the Federal Foreign Office is promoting new approaches to and formats for remembrance work. Unfortunately, it is a sad fact that witnesses will soon no longer be able to tell us in person about the horrors of the Shoah. As part of Germany’s chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2020, we are also lending our support to the fight against the trivialisation and denial of the Holocaust.


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