Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister is preoccupied by the euro crisis and the tumultuous events taking place in the Middle East. A former leader of the Free Democrats, Westerwelle was instrumental in bringing his party back to government in 2009 after eleven years in opposition. It has since been the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right coalition. The coalition has been quarrelsome but Westerwelle has tried to distance himself from the infighting by carving out his own interests over in the Foreign Ministry. In an interview with Carnegie Europe, and four leading European newspapers, he set out his views about the euro crisis, its impact on Europe’s security and defense policy, and the Middle East.
Minister, you have just presented an initiative with ten other European foreign ministers to reform the European Union and give it more powers. Is this the good time, in the middle of the euro crisis?
If you want people to take decisions in favor of Europe, you first need to create a climate that is favorable to Europe, and for that you need a comprehensive debate about where Europe is going. The month of September could represent the turning point of the debt crisis in Europe. The European Central Bank has made its contribution to overcoming the crisis. In Germany, the constitutional court has given the green light to our policy. In the Netherlands, voters have rejected anti-euro-populism. And in Spain the government could now for the first time sell bonds at a reasonable rate of interest. I really believe that the silver lining on the horizon is now visible.
But hasn’t the euro crisis weakened Europe in the eyes of the world?
First of all, I would advise against the use of the word euro crisis. The euro is as healthy as anything. It is stable vis à vis other currencies and it has been really strong vis à vis the Dollar or the British Pound. In the early 90s, we had an inflation rate of 5.5 percent for the Deutschmark. Now inflation stands at less than 2.5 percent. This is not a euro crisis, this is a debt crisis.
Even if you call it debt crisis, the fact remains that it has damaged our standing in the world.
If we draw the right consequences from this crisis, Europe will emerge stronger than before. We have to understand that individually, every one of our countries is too small to deal with the world alone. Europe will only have influence and authority in the world if it is united. That is the historical lesson we have to learn. Right now, history is being written, on both the national and the European level. The phase we are living through right now is comparable to the time of profound changes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The decisions taken now will determine for years, perhaps even for decades, whether Europe will be a continent that declines or whether it will rise to the challenges of our time, particularly in relationship to the new centers of power in China or India.
Has the crisis weakened the European security and defense policy?
No. If we now do things right, it can even come out stronger. The debt crisis shows how urgently Europe needs to unite and take the next step towards integration. There is hardly any area that is more suitable for integration than the Common Security and Defence Policy. Only Europe as a whole can envisage and guarantee its own security. If we had more of a common security and defense policy, there would be less of a cost to the tax payer and more security for all of Europe. That would be a very concrete Europe dividend to all our citizens.
Yet so far, the trend has gone towards renationalizing defense, security, and foreign policy.
That is a concern. The renationalization worries me because we need to take on board that we have common European interests, that we are companions in fate. That is something we need to push forward. By the way, to get back to your earlier question, it isn’t just Europe that has a debt crisis. There are also countries outside continental Europe who are faced with a debt crisis. We all have to return to the principle that you have to earn what you want to spend. Otherwise politics become vulnerable to blackmail from speculators and markets.
Aren’t Germany’s debts also much too high?
When I began in government in 2009, the former government left us a budget plan for 2010 that would have increased the debt by more than €80 billion. Within this short period of time, we have brought the federal deficit down to €18 billion. Who knows what trouble we would be in today if we had not managed that turnaround in 2010?
French president François Hollande argues that there should be common European debts. Why do you reject that?
Germany supports a policy of growth, solidarity, and budgetary discipline in Europe. We have helped Greece with substantial payments and guarantees. But there is a fundamental difference between helping countries who find themselves in trouble and accepting a common liability for all debt in Europe. That would endanger Europe more than it would help. Everyone needs to carry the responsibility for their own actions. We act according to the same principle in Germany, too. In spite of having been a federal state for over sixty years now, there is no common liability between the national government and the states, or between the states in Germany.
With the crisis, we have seen a rise of nationalist and particularly, of anti-German feelings in Europe. How can you react to that?
There are trials and tribulations everywhere in Europe, in our country, too. People use the wrong tone and say the wrong things. But I think that the time for Europeans to use clichés and stereotypes in dealing with each other should be over. That’s just as true for Germany as for anywhere else.
To move to a far more dangerous issue of a clash of cultures: What should be done about the Mohammed-Video “Innocence of Muslims” that is causing outrage in the Arab World?
No film can be used to justify violence, even if it is both absurd and repulsive. At the same time, freedom of expression cannot be used to justify insults.
So should the film be banned?
Freedom of expression is of utmost importance in every democracy, of course also in Germany. The relevant legal authorities have to decide, not the Foreign Minister, whether something is an insult to a religion which is likely to disturb the public order, or whether it is simply the voicing of a particularly critical opinion. I call on Europeans to show that we respect other religions and reject any extreme rightwing insults to them. We have to show that those rightwing hate preachers don’t speak for us, just as much as hate preachers in the Arab world don’t speak for the vast majority of people there.
Another pressing issue in the Arab world is how to deal with Syria. Given the huge number of civilian casualties there, does the outside world not have a responsibility to protect? That is an expression that NATO, for instance, likes to use. But what does it mean in the context of Syria, for example?
The responsibility to protect is a very important concept. It refers to the responsibility of every government to protect its own population. But if we are talking about the international situation and international law, we also have to look at the issue of the capability to protect. We have to weigh all the different factors and act wisely. As far as Syria is concerned, we are all horrified by the actions of the regime of President Assad. At the U.N. General Assembly we are going to discuss how we can further isolate President Assad’s regime and find a political solution after all. We want to protect the people in Syria, but we also want to avoid a conflagration and to prevent the conflict from spreading to the entire region.
Add to that the possibility that Israel might go to war with Iran to take out its nuclear facilities.
We are convinced that it is not acceptable for Iran to have nuclear weapons, not just because of the danger to Israel, but also because of the threat to peace and security of the entire region and beyond. It would set a nuclear armaments race in the region which could threaten the security architecture of the entire world. We are pushing for a political and diplomatic solution. As long as Iran does not cooperate, we will continue and further reinforce sanctions.