Mr Maas, you travelled so much before the corona crisis that you even overtook your predecessors Genscher, Fischer and Steinmeier in terms of air miles. Now you’re not travelling at all. Is foreign policy suffering as a result?
Even in normal times, foreign policy success is not measured by air miles, but requires trust and personal encounters. At the moment, I’m communicating with my EU partners and international players as we are doing in this interview: by telephone and video conference. That takes some getting used to. I prefer to look my colleagues properly in the eye.
The EU in particular depends on long, intense meetings, negotiations through the night and carefully moderated discussion. How useful are meetings of EU Foreign Ministers if everyone takes turns reading their prepared speaking notes in a video conference?
Some of my colleagues also read out their speaking notes during face-to-face meetings. What’s no longer happening are the many bilateral talks on the margins, which are often at least as important as the actual meeting. However, as EU Foreign Ministers, we now meet even more frequently, every two weeks in fact. The main focus now is on the coronavirus, of course, but always in conjunction with another foreign policy issue. The crises and wars in our neighbourhood must not be allowed to fall by the wayside even in these times.
This week, together with Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, you described the coronavirus pandemic as the biggest challenge since the creation of the EU in a guest article for five European newspapers. Will the virus determine the fate of the EU?
In the past, the EU has often even emerged from crises stronger. In the financial crisis, new instruments were created that have increased the Union’s ability to act. That must be our goal this time as well.
You write that Europe did not initially find convincing answers. What went wrong?
What such a pandemic would mean for our social and economic life was beyond the scope of our rational and emotional imagination. That’s the truth, and that’s why it took a while to coordinate national and European measures.
Germany’s first response was to ban the export of protective clothing – even to EU countries! That smacked of a policy based on the notion of “Germany first”. What do national reflexes tell us about the state of the EU?
They tell us nothing at all. I think it’s right that each country took national measures first. It’s like being on a plane. In an emergency, everyone should put on their mask before helping others. If we hadn’t done our homework at the national level, we couldn’t have helped anyone outside our country. The order was right.
But it did contribute to the Germans being perceived as selfish and cold-hearted. Can you appreciate that many Italians feel abandoned right now?
There is a backstory to this, of course. The Italians have felt let down before, and that was during the migration crisis. But this time we’re helping them. We sent a military plane with seven tonnes of supplies to Italy, for instance. We have also sent a clear signal by supplying protective equipment and ventilators and by admitting Italian patients to our hospitals. We stand shoulder to shoulder with Italy.
There have been more than 17,000 deaths in Italy. Isn’t it understandable that Germany’s offers of help are seen as a drop in the ocean?
Italy is undergoing immeasurable suffering, and the German people are deeply moved by this. We have offered our assistance where we could and we will continue to do so. The discussion now revolves primarily around the question of how the country can survive the crisis economically. The key issue here is the support Italy feels it receives in terms of fiscal policy.
This week, the Eurogroup mainly argued about whether aid from the ESM should be made contingent on strict conditions, as in the financial crisis. What is your take on this?
In this crisis, we need rapid assistance without the strict conditions and thumb screws that have been applied up to now, i.e. without the troika and tough austerity measures.
To mitigate the impact of the coronavirus, Italy, Spain and France, among others, have called for joint bonds to be issued. What are the arguments against such corona bonds?
The fact that we do not have a majority for them in the EU, for one thing. This is not only thanks to Germany, but also to other governments. But in the current crisis we need quick responses on which consensus can be reached throughout the eurozone. That is why Olaf Scholz and I proposed combining different instruments – the euro rescue package ESM, the European Investment Bank, the SURE programme and the forthcoming EU budget – to form a single toolkit.
Are you in favour of corona bonds as a Social Democrat?
Politics is about making what is feasible possible, not about ending up failing to achieve the impossible. With the CDU and CSU, corona bonds are not possible in this government, and the same goes for a number of other governments in Europe.
In other words, you think corona bonds are right, but you’re not pursuing the idea any further because of opposition from the CDU?
That’s beside the point at the moment. The countries of southern Europe needed a concrete and realistic package quickly, one that helps their economies. This is the only thing that matters.
The image being received, once again, is that we Germans are the best at surviving this crisis. We have a very low death toll and the largest aid package. And yet we’re not prepared to underwrite debts together with our EU partners.
I don’t know whether the perception of Germany at the end of this crisis is already set in stone. If we hadn’t made a tangible offer to help, then that would indeed have been fatal. But we have proposed a package that already amounts to more than 500 billion euros, more than has ever been activated before. That is European solidarity in action. The economic and financial impact of this crisis will keep us busy for longer than the fight against the virus. We will have many more opportunities to show our solidarity.
The corona crisis will further undermine democracy and the rule of law in EU countries such as Poland and Hungary. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is using the pandemic to extend his authoritarian rule. Are his measures proportionate?
They are not proportionate to our mind, partly because they are not limited in terms of their duration. In Europe, we’ll have to discuss the fact that, in the future, the disbursement of EU funds should be made contingent on compliance with fundamental principles of the rule of law.
Why then, in the joint appeal together with 13 EU partners criticising the emergency measures for tackling the coronavirus, why then was Hungary not mentioned by name?
Because we wanted as many countries as possible to be on board, including those that have been reluctant to criticise Hungary to date.
The result was that even Hungary joined in the declaration, thereby taking it to a point of absurdity.
This shows that we in the EU have to consider concrete instruments in addition to declarations and statements. We cannot simply look the other way when rule-of-law principles are undermined. Democracy and the rule of law form the foundation of values on which the EU stands. All Member States must respect this.
The coronavirus is at risk of becoming a disaster for the EU also in geopolitical terms. The Serbian President called Europe a “fairytale” and said that China was the only country that actually provided assistance. How do you intend to counter this narrative?
We must defend ourselves. This depends above all on how we ourselves talk about the EU. If, as in the past, we blame Brussels for everything that doesn’t work, we will stand no chance when faced with such negative narratives. What’s the point of whining? We’d only have ourselves to blame. We must be able to act in the corona crisis and highlight the value we all attach to the EU. And we must acknowledge this action before we address targeted disinformation and narratives from outside.
Instead of Europe, Russia and China provided urgently needed aid early on.
At second glance, not all of it proved to be quite so useful. Having said that, any help that saves lives is welcome, of course. And yes, it’s good that we’re working closely with China on the supply of protective clothing and masks. We’re also doing this with other countries by the way. However, if countries send aid shipments just to improve their international image, then we must call them out on this.
With its draconian measures, China has managed the corona crisis quite well, at least so far. Are authoritarian regimes better off in such exceptional situations?
No. After all, the measures in Europe, including curfews and social distancing, show that liberal democracies can also impose drastic measures if they are proportionate and necessary.
China’s narrative is that the coronavirus proves its system is more effective and therefore superior.
It’s obvious that such narratives are being crafted. However, I can only warn against falling for them. In any case, the coronavirus doesn’t show that one model is superior to another. That’s why it’s so important that we in Europe do not lose control. We don’t need an authoritarian system to remain capable of taking action in the pandemic.
The coronavirus is also a chapter in the competition of systems between China and the US. Who is currently coming out on top, China or the US?
Neither of them is. China has taken some very authoritarian measures, while in the US the virus was played down for a long time. These are two extremes, neither of which can be a model for Europe.
The coronavirus caused the first global crisis in which the US is completely absent as a leading power. Previously, it led international crisis management efforts. Is this proof of a decisive moment in a long-term power shift?
This power shift is nothing new. Irrespective of the US, all Western democracies must have an interest in ensuring that this development doesn’t pick up speed again in the corona crisis.
The US has become an opponent of multilateralism under Trump. Now everyone is looking out for themselves in the crisis. Are we witnessing another severe blow to international cooperation?
On the contrary, this crisis will highlight the importance of international cooperation. We’re strengthening organisations such as the CEPI vaccine initiative and the World Health Organization. If we don’t use the instruments that multilateralism offers, the crisis will take much longer to overcome. Those who fail to grasp this will suffer longer.
At the virtual G7 Foreign Ministers’ meeting, it wasn’t even possible to agree on what the virus is to be called.
Six were in agreement, only one wasn’t...
... US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Nevertheless, together with our UK partners, we submitted a paper on measures, which the US now also accepts as a basis.
Will the corona crisis further alienate Europe and the US?
We Europeans cannot have any interest in that. We hope that the US will come out of the crisis better than when the pandemic started. After all, it is widely agreed in the US that many measures were taken too late. Let’s see to what extent the actions of the US Government will lead to discussions in the US about whether the “America first” model really works. The Trump administration’s trade disputes have certainly not been conducive in terms of international supply chains helping to remedy the lack of protective equipment in the US at the moment. Once again, it’s clear that those who thin out international connections are paying a high price.
Your ministry has been gathering best practices from various countries since the beginning of the corona crisis. Shouldn’t you have tried to convince your cabinet colleagues at an early stage that tracking apps or protective masks, for example, would also help contain the spread of the virus in Germany?
Who says we didn’t? There is great determination and agreement in the Cabinet. We take lessons learned from other countries and scientific assessments very seriously. We must do everything that is necessary to protect people in Germany. At the same time, serious encroachments on personal freedom must be weighed up with circumspection. We must always carefully examine whether lower-threshold measures aren’t conceivable.
Wearing masks is pretty low threshold compared with the social distancing measures that have been imposed.
Before masks are made compulsory for everyone, the focus is on medical facilities.
Respiratory protection could also simply be recommended.
That’s what we’re doing. Wearing respiratory protection is a useful additional to common hygienic measures for the protection of others.
Could you imagine doing your next meeting with, say, Sergei Lavrov wearing a protective mask?
I hope to meet him in person again soon, wherever that may be, and to be able to look him in the eye – that’s also possible with a protective mask.
Thank you for talking to us today.
Interview conducted by Christiane Hoffmann and Christoph Schult.