“Europe is the answer to all the major challenges of our time.”
Interview by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas with t-online on the European elections.
All the indications are that right-wing populists will make gains at the European elections. They could even become the second largest group. What does that mean for European cooperation?
If the right-wing populists and nationalists make substantial gains, they would be able to block decisions and legislative processes in the European Parliament. We cannot allow that to happen. We mustn’t make the same mistake as that made by many Britons who didn’t vote in the Brexit referendum. We’re currently witnessing the chaos that can unleash. In other words, anyone who doesn’t want to turn Europe over to the nationalists and those trying to divide us, has to vote on Sunday.
How much blame should be attributed to the major parties for enabling right-wing populists to become so strong in the first place?
We should indeed be self-critical in that regard. Take Italy, for example: we left Italy to cope for far too long on its own with the refugee situation. The discussions that resulted from this certainly didn’t do the right-wing populists any harm there.
Which problems should the EU tackle first after the elections?
We intend to launch a strategic agenda straight after the elections. It will set out the priorities for the coming years: the digital transformation, climate change, migration. For me, a social Europe is one of the major challenges, a challenge every bit as important as the lessons to be learned from the rise in right-wing populism. People shouldn’t gain the impression that the EU is only about the free flow of goods, bank bailouts and large corporations. We have to introduce a European minimum wage, as well as common standards in co-determination and employee rights. If we want to arouse new emotions for Europe, everyone must see that people and not the market are the focus of our joint actions.
Does Europe need more passion?
Yes, of course.
Well, you’ve just mentioned a “strategic agenda” ...
... among other things ...
... but that’s a terribly technical concept. Who knows what it means? That’s why I’m asking whether Europe needs more passion?
Let me give you an example. I was born in 1966 and grew up in West Germany. My generation in the West didn’t have to fight for any of the things which make my life good and enjoyable – democracy, the rule of law, civil rights. Perhaps that’s why so many of us have become a bit complacent. But all of the things that we took for granted are now under threat, under massive threat. Anyone who lives in a world where things are taken for granted doesn’t fight with passion. If we want to arouse a passion for Europe, then we have to make it clear what’s at stake. We need to realise that Europe is about our freedom and democracy.
Why was the German Government’s response so lukewarm when President Macron published his passionate appeal for a fresh start for Europe in early March?
I often hear this question in Germany: why haven’t you offered a more vigorous response? In other European countries I hear the opposite. There people say, “You want to tell us what to do.” “You do whatever you like.” “We have to follow you.” If we want to implement reforms in the EU – and Macron provided valuable impetus for that – then we Germans should be reaching out to others in Europe, not patronising them.
You yourself are calling for a strong Europe. What would it look like?
We’re witnessing rivalry among the major powers, especially between the United States and China, but also Russia. No European country is big or influential enough to play a part in this rivalry. We can only play a role by acting together, as Europeans. If we don’t manage to do that, we’ll become the pawn of others. That’s why we need a strong united Europe to defend our interests with confidence and aplomb.
Is there still reliable cooperation with the United States? It seems that all it takes is one tweet from Donald Trump to send the EU into a tizz.
It’s not quite as dramatic as that. We continue to work well with the State Department. Mike Pompeo will be in Berlin next week. The United States has always made decisions which we didn’t think were right. However, we used to talk with each other more extensively. Today, we learn about some things from Trump’s tweets. And sometimes it seems as if not only international partners but also members of his own Administration are taken by surprise.
That’s our impression, too. Now Trump, Bolton and Pompeo are possibly planning a military strike against Iran. What consequences would that have for the Middle East?
Both the United States and Iran insist that they don’t want war. Both sides know what it would mean: it would be a prolonged and terrible conflict which could set aflame the entire region. The greatest danger at the moment is the high level of tension.
So there’s a danger of a “war by accident”?
The situation is extremely dangerous because unforeseen events could lead to a spiral of escalation. We’ve already experienced individual acts of sabotage. In the current tense situation, this could lead to further escalation and a military conflict. That’s why we’re striving to have intensive talks with all sides and to ensure that we can quickly open channels of communication if something unforeseen happens. De-escalation is now more essential than ever. We expect all parties to work towards this goal.
But how much influence does European foreign policy still have in such a conflict?
The more we act together as Europeans, the greater our clout will be. And the European Union is very united when it comes to the nuclear agreement with Iran. That’s why together we’re able to spell out to Iran what we expect of it. It’s precisely because we don’t trust Iran that we’ll work to uphold the agreement.
Can the nuclear agreement be saved?
We have to face this in all sobriety: it won’t be easy to save the agreement one year after the withdrawal of the United States. The economic benefits that Iran hoped to reap from the agreement will be very difficult to achieve following the United States’ departure. But we’ll continue fighting to save it nevertheless. The world is safer with this agreement than without it. We Europeans will fulfil our obligations, but we also expect the same from Iran.
If the nuclear agreement fails, would that be the moment when the EU has to admit its own weakness?
No, not at all. Much has been said about Europe’s disunity. However, the nuclear agreement has shown that the EU is very united, and under very difficult conditions. Even if the agreement were to fail, we’ll be able to build on this European unity.
Let’s come back to Europe: why should people go out and vote on Sunday?
Europe is the answer to all the major challenges of our time. Whether it be climate change, migration or the digital transformation – no country can tackle them on its own. We can only master these challenges if we work together. This is about how we live together, it’s about our fundamental values. These are the foundations of the European Union. And I don’t want them to be damaged. We cannot leave Europe to the nationalists and fearmongers. I therefore hope that many people get out and vote. Nothing less than the future of Europe is at stake here.
Foreign Minister, thank you very much for talking to us today.