“Securing the external border should never be left to populists”
Interview with Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth, published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
What are the focuses of Germany's European policy going to be in future?
We don't just want to try and treat symptoms but, like French President Emmanuel Macron, we are aiming to achieve fundamental changes. We need greater social cohesion in the EU, more cooperation, not only in the economic and monetary union. Together with France, we want as many new ideas as possible to soon be transformed into pan‑European projects. The main goal is that we become more effective as a whole and that our cooperation becomes more binding. That applies to employment and social policy as well as to economic policy.
What specifically do you mean by that?
Minimum wage regulations, for example. We need those throughout Europe. The same goes for basic social security systems. It is ultimately up to the regions or member states themselves to decide what form these take in practice. The EU is currently suffering from massive social and economic imbalances. That is not only a threat to the stability of our currency, but also a threat to the stability of democracy. We social democrats have now managed to achieve a move away from the exclusive austerity policy in the EU. Instead, we now have a threefold approach incorporating socially balanced consolidation, investment and structural reform. The even more ambitious continuation of this three‑pronged approach can also be found in the coalition agreement. At last!
There are rumblings in the EU, nationalism is gaining strength in Eastern Europe, the United Kingdom is leaving. What will Berlin be doing to counteract that in future? Do we need a major venture?
Among European social democrats there is an understandable sense of disillusionment with underambitious policymaking which takes a purely pragmatic approach. The desire for visionary ideas and more courageous action is huge. We need to find a new balance between transformation and pragmatism. And we won't find that balance by working against Europe, but only by working with it. Europe is an opportunity and not a threat for progressive thinkers. We need to dispel people's fear of Europe. We can't afford to play off national identity against Europe, instead the two need to be reconciled. Nation states don't lose out because of Europe. On the contrary, with a more effective Europe, we regain political influence.
That sounds like quite hard work.
Europe is not a homogenous club. Not only does it have an enriching diversity, but also, unfortunately, an eroding sense of what actually holds us together. If we want to carry people along with us, we need to use our powers of positive persuasion. First and foremost we are a community of shared values, not a hard‑hearted business club.
So how should Berlin go about persuading people?
We Germans, of all people, need to show that liberal and inclusive societies are ultimately stronger than societies that are intolerant and exclusive. What is more, we need to put a stop to a highly dangerous “game” that is popular in all national capitals: conveying the impression that good things come from Paris, Berlin and Budapest, and bad things from what is perceived as a monstrous bureaucracy in Brussels. Many people cannot cope with a world that has become more complex and are seeking refuge in their familiar national environment.
Will the Federal Government's position on the issue of border security in Europe change?
As an ardent supporter of Schengen, I am against fences and walls in the EU. But we need to protect Europe's external borders effectively, without isolating ourselves. We need to know who is entering the EU and where they have come from.
Germany is surrounded by EU members. Responsbility for securing the external borders lies with other countries such as Italy, Greece and Spain.
Germany has evaded its responsibility for many years. Making the security of the EU's external borders a common task is a question of solidarity and credibility. It is not an issue that we should ever leave to populists and nationalists, who paint distorted pictures and deliberately fuel fears. Particularly for a liberal democracy it is vitally important to avoid a perceived loss of control. Otherwise we will have another situation like the one in 2015 when it seemed like the state was no longer fully capable of acting.
Interview: Oliver Das Gupta