Philip Oltermann in Berlin – 26/06/2020
Angela Merkel was speaking to the Guardian and five other European newspapers. Photograph: Thomas Koehler/photothek.de
Germany’s European council presidency is taking place during an unprecedented crisis. There is a lot of pressure; Germany is expected to sort things out. How nervous are you?
My first council presidency as chancellor was in 2007. The European constitutional treaty had just been rejected in France and the Netherlands, and we had set ourselves the task of shaping a new treaty. We succeeded in that. Then came the international financial crisis, turbulence for the euro and the refugee issue – so difficult times are nothing new. And time and again it has been shown that Europe is not yet sufficiently resistant to crises. In the euro crisis, we lacked the tools for an appropriate response. The movements of refugees in 2015 showed up the deficiencies of the EU asylum system.
Now the coronavirus pandemic is confronting us with a challenge of unprecedented dimensions. It has struck us all indiscriminately. On the one hand, it has torn us away from a period of positive economic development in all EU member states. On the other hand, it has coincided with the two great disruptive phenomena of our time, climate change and the digital revolution, which are changing our lives and our economies regardless of the virus. I am very sharply focused on all of this.
Given the sheer number of crises, is the EU’s survival on the line?
Rather than ask the existential question too often, we should get on with the day job. It is very much in all the member states’ own interests to maintain a strong European internal market and to stand united on the world stage. In such an extraordinary situation, I rely on the member states having a great interest in the things that unite us.
The crisis has not just struck Europe; the whole world is fighting the pandemic as well as political demons.
Exactly, and it is true that the tone of international discourse is brusque at the moment. After the 2008 financial crisis, multilateralism was the order of the day. That was when the G20 started meeting at the level of heads of state or government, and the countries gave a very unified response. That is not the case today. These days, we have to do all we can to stop ourselves collapsing into protectionism. If Europe wants to be heard, then it needs to set a good example. I am counting on it – though I am under no illusions about how difficult the negotiations will be.
Your proposal for a recovery fund was a major concession to the southern countries. What reform efforts are you expecting in return?
I don’t find it helpful to talk about the northern countries, the southern countries and the eastern Europeans. That is seeing things in black and white. I expect each of us always to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and consider problems from the other’s point of view.
The group known as the ‘frugal four’ is pursuing a defensive approach. Why has Germany left the cautious camp?
For Italy and Spain, for example, the coronavirus pandemic signifies a huge burden in economic, medical and, of course, because of the many lives lost, emotional terms. In these circumstances, it is only right for Germany to think not just about itself but to be prepared to engage in an extraordinary act of solidarity. It was in that spirit that French President Emmanuel Macron and I made our proposal.
Going into higher levels of debt is a U-turn for Germany. What happened to the chancellor with the tight purse strings?
In a crisis of this magnitude, each and every one of us is expected to do what needs to be done. What needs to be done in this case is something extraordinary. Germany had a low debt ratio and can afford, in this extraordinary situation, to take on some more debt. It is also very important to us to keep the programme within the bounds of the European treaties. We have found a way to do that.
And all this is in our own interests too, of course. It is in Germany’s interest to have a strong internal market and to have the European Union grow closer together, not fall apart. As ever, what’s good for Europe is good for us.
The recovery fund has generated an odd kind of harmony. Is the money drawing a veil over the real problems of burgeoning nationalism and latent populism?
The recovery fund cannot solve all of Europe’s problems. But not having it would make all our problems worse. Europe’s economic health can influence so many things. Very high unemployment in a country can become politically explosive and thereby increase the threat to democracy. For Europe to survive, its economy needs to survive.
Might the recovery fund spark movement towards a United States of Europe?
I see this fund as a unique response to a unique situation. If we wanted to change fundamental aspects of the way the EU budget is managed or, for instance, give it the right to raise taxes, then we would have to amend the treaties. That would alter the static equilibrium between competence and oversight. I am sure this will be discussed in the years ahead, but that should be done cautiously. In the current situation, however, we could not wait for the treaties to be amended. We have to respond quickly to the pandemic.
Do you think Nadia Calviño [Spain’s economic affairs minister] would make a good Eurogroup president?
The finance ministers are discussing that at the moment. It is no secret that there is support for Nadia Calviño’s candidature in the German government. But the final decision lies with the Eurogroup. I am always pleased when women get leading political roles, and the Eurogroup has never been headed by a woman. But it’s not my decision. This is for the Eurogroup to decide.
Should Italy use what the European stability mechanism has to offer?
That is Italy’s decision to make. We have created these instruments through the EIB [the European Investment Bank]: the ESM with its precautionary credit lines and the Sure short-time work scheme. Anyone can make use of them. We didn’t make them available for them to remain unused.
You are the last head of government left of the 1989 generation. You experienced the eastern bloc and European unification. Is it not the case that Europe is drifting apart in spite of the pandemic-related efforts? Can the younger heads of government still find a common language?
Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, was already politically active in 1989 too. Back then, the liberal democratic order had initially triumphed over the dictatorship of socialism and communism. But that was only part of the reality. Conflicts broke out in the western Balkans and later in the Islamic world. China rose to become a major economic power. Indeed, the example of China shows that even an undemocratic state can be economically successful, which is a major challenge for our liberal democracies. Then came the challenge of Islamist terrorism, particularly the attack on the United States of 11 September 2001. Add to this the disappointment that followed the Arab spring. In short, we have not yet been able to furnish absolute proof that the liberal system is about to win the day. That worries me.
Has Europe not reaped the benefits of its revolution?
Yes and no. On the one hand, we have enjoyed an incredible success story since 1989, but in our euphoria we failed to fully realise what long-term traces dictatorships had left in the 40 years since the second world war. After national socialism and the second world war, many countries in eastern Europe went straight into a second period of dictatorship. The countries of the eastern bloc had only a few years to develop their own national identities. So only later did they undergo processes that had long been part of normal life in western countries.
Many young EU accession countries share our enthusiasm for the European Union as a work of peace on the one hand, yet display scepticism towards Europe on the other. We need to develop understanding for that. I see my job as working for a self-determined, liberal Europe rooted in the fundamental rights of the individual.
With all due respect to differences of historical experience, where do you draw the line on violating the rule of law?
We will, of course, talk about issues relating to the rule of law. The hallmark of democracy is that any opposition must have a fair chance of returning to government. An opposition must be guaranteed a clear set of rights – starting with appropriate speaking time in parliaments and at least the same amount of airtime from public broadcasters, and extending to an independent judiciary and adherence to democratic rules.
Is European legislation now in breach of national legislation – or vice versa? Doesn’t the European legal system ultimately need to have more weight than national ones as a matter of principle?
It’s not as if this topic was never talked about before the federal constitutional court issued its judgment on the European Central Bank. Without a doubt, European law has precedence over national law – but that does not tell us where the realm of European law begins and ends. The essence of the European Union lies in the member states transferring powers. In the borderland between the spheres of jurisdiction of national and European law, friction can occur if the European level defines its limits more broadly than, for example, the German parliament does. That’s what we are seeing in the ECB case.
If the constitutional court finds that a boundary has been crossed, it goes to the European court of justice and requests a review. Up until now, all disagreements have been settled. Now we have a conflict. That is the nature of the beast, since a nation state will always be able to lay claim to particular powers unless all powers are transferred to the European institutions, which is surely not going to happen.
The presidency wanted to find a joint strategy for dealing with China. Is that still realistic?
Because of the pandemic, we cannot hold the summit with China in September as planned. But we intend to hold it later. Its objective is to advance EU-Chinese relations. We share common interests, such as cooperating on climate action. We have been negotiating an investment agreement for some time but are not really moving forward on that. We should discuss our development policies in Africa, where China is following a different path in some areas.
At the same time, the summit is forcing us to develop a joint European position vis-à-vis China. That is no easy task. We should develop a policy that reflects our interests and values. After all, respect for human rights, the rule of law and our concerns about the future of Hong Kong stand between China and ourselves and are addressed openly.
Is China calling the western, democratic edifice of Europe into question?
We should start by doing everything we can to make ourselves more resilient. We need to stand together as Europeans, otherwise we will only weaken ourselves. China has become a global player. That makes us partners in economic cooperation and combating climate change, but also competitors with very different political systems. Not to talk to each other would certainly be a bad idea.
A no-deal Brexit is looming at the end of the year. Would that be a personal defeat for you?
No. It would, of course, be in Britain’s and all EU member states’ interests to achieve an orderly departure. But that can only happen if it is what both sides want. What matters is not our wishes but only the reality before us, in other words first of all what Britain wants. With Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the British government wants to define for itself what relationship it will have with us after the country leaves. It will then have to live with the consequences, of course, that is to say with a less closely interconnected economy. If Britain does not want to have rules on the environment and the labour market or social standards that compare with those of the EU, our relations will be less close. That will mean it does not want standards to go on developing along parallel lines.
We need to let go of the idea that it is for us to define what Britain should want. That is for Britain to define – and we, the EU27, will respond appropriately.
The United States has also been rushing to loosen its bonds with Europe. President Trump criticises Germany and wants to withdraw troops. Are you impressed by that threat?
We believe that the alliance is of great value to each of its members. We in Germany know that we have to spend more on defence; we have achieved considerable increases in recent years, and we will continue on that path to enhance our military capabilities. American troops in Germany help to protect not only Germany and the European part of Nato but also the interests of the United States of America.
Has the time come for the EU to gain strategic autonomy and actual sovereignty?
Look at the world; look at China or India. There are compelling reasons to remain committed to a transatlantic defence community and our shared nuclear umbrella. But of course Europe needs to carry more of the burden than during the cold war. We grew up in the certain knowledge that the United States wanted to be a world power. Should the US now wish to withdraw from that role of its own free will, we would have to reflect on that very deeply.
In eastern Europe in particular, the threat emanating from Russia is felt very strongly. Is Germany underestimating that threat?
We recognise misinformation campaigns; the weapons of hybrid warfare, as it is called, are part of Russia’s arsenal …
… even a murder, apparently …
… the murder in Berlin’s Tiergarten park is a serious incident, obviously, the blame for which is currently being ascertained in court. At any rate, we recognise hybrid warfare, methods of destabilisation, as a Russian behaviour pattern. On the other hand, there are good reasons to keep engaging in constructive dialogue with Russia. In countries like Syria and Libya, countries in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood, Russia’s strategic influence is great. I will therefore continue to strive for cooperation.