Minister Maas, on Tuesday, we will be marking the 50th anniversary of Soviet tanks putting down the Prague Spring in the capital of Czechoslovakia. What lesson would you draw from this event?
The Prague Spring shows us that the longing for freedom is not a present-day phenomenon; on the contrary, it has always existed, especially in places where freedom seems far beyond reach. The brutal crushing of the Prague Spring teaches us that you can suppress freedom for a limited amount of time – but you cannot suppress everyone’s freedom forever. What began in Prague continued behind the Iron Curtain. Think, for instance, of the democratic movement in Poland in the 1980s. In the Soviet Union, glasnost and perestroika emerged, which were similar, but only a top-down phenomenon. The bedrock of all this was the people’s yearning for freedom – and that yearning is more relevant than ever today.
Did Europe learn lessons from the crushing of the Prague Spring?
The European Union has drawn conclusions from the Cold War – in the form of all of the values for which it stands. Despite the problems within the EU, it is held together by these liberal values.
Is Ukraine free to become a member of NATO?
Each country in Europe can freely decide which alliance it wants to be associated with. That is one of the achievements of the CSCE Helsinki Final Act. NATO works closely together with Ukraine in many areas already today.
Why are you not granting Ukraine what you allowed Poland to do?
That comparison falls short. In Ukraine, attention is still focused on totally different issues, namely the implementation of the Minsk agreements, as well as a difficult and important reform process that we are helping Ukraine pursue.
You keep talking about the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea, and about how Moscow has destabilised eastern Ukraine. But that sounds a bit like a mantra. Isn’t it time for Berlin and the EU to accept the normative power of reality?
No. If we recognise Crimea as Russian territory, this could be an invitation for others to break international law. It was therefore right that the EU, just prior to its summer break, extended the sanctions against Russia. It did so unanimously, by the way, with the support of Italy, where the governing parties had made statements to the contrary during the election campaign. This example shows how seriously the EU takes its values – instead of bowing to the supposed normative power of reality.
On Saturday evening, after the editorial deadline, Chancellor Merkel and Russian President Putin were scheduled to meet for talks in Meseberg. They want to resume negotiations in what is known as the Normandy format, which brings together Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine. When will that happen?
Germany is committed to the Normandy format. After a 16‑month standstill, the four Foreign Ministers held a meeting in Berlin in June, and this week I spoke with my Ukrainian colleague Klimkin on the phone. Since then, the Political Directors of all four Foreign Ministries have also met. We want to reinvigorate the Minsk process. I am cautiously optimistic that there may be a UN peacekeeping mission. President Putin and Poroshenko have declared their willingness in principle to support this. Currently, however, the two sides’ ideas on what such a mission would look like are very different. That is precisely what we are negotiating with Kyiv and Moscow. Our aim remains to stabilise Ukraine, and to achieve both a ceasefire and disengagement. If the implementation of the Minsk agreement is successful, then we can begin negotiations on an end to the sanctions. But then and only then.
Right after taking up office, you strongly criticised the Russian Government, later going on to say that Moscow is acting in an increasingly hostile manner. Is that analysis still accurate?
It all depends on what action the Russian Government takes. Right now, it seems to me that Moscow is seeking to increase its own power by filling the vacuum that has been created as the White House retreats from the global stage. Many of the issues I’ve mentioned continue to demand our attention. Just consider Russia’s role in Ukraine, in the war in Syria and in the UN Security Council.
Do you think your criticism of Moscow may have harmed the relationship between you and your counterpart Lavrov?
No. A man like Lavrov can deal with clear language. We have met three times bilaterally so far. This means that we’ve communicated more, not less, and that is a good development. On 14 September, Sergey Lavrov will again be in Berlin. We will pay tribute to particularly innovative and successful cooperation projects that involve municipalities and regions in our two countries.
In your party, there’s been criticism that you are jeopardising the accomplishments of the SPD’s Ostpolitik. What’s your response to these critics?
The Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr primarily focused on Eastern Europe. It was about our relationship with Poland, for example. Back then, there was the Warsaw Pact, and nothing could be accomplished without the Soviet Union. Today, we have an entirely different situation. Some of the Eastern European countries that were once controlled by the Soviet Union have now distanced themselves completely from Moscow. We no longer need to go through Moscow to talk to our Eastern European neighbours. That’s why we need a new Ostpolitik today.
What exactly do you mean?
You cannot compare the 1970s with the summer of 2018. We need new answers to new questions. For example, it’s the job of German foreign policy to take the fears of our partners in Eastern and Central Europe seriously.
During the general election campaign one year ago, the SPD made Europe a top priority. What has the new government accomplished in the area of European policy?
Emmanuel Macron showed us during his campaign for the French presidency that a strong commitment to Europe can motivate people to support the European cause. That’s exactly what is needed! How can anyone believe that an individual European country could purse climate, migration, or social policy on its own? There is a name for our national interest in Germany in 2018. That name is – Europe.
It will soon be a year since Macron delivered his Sorbonne speech. Do you think that Angela Merkel, 13 years since assuming the chancellorship, will finally decide to give a keynote speech on European policy?
The German Government is not silent. In June, I set out my views on Europe in a speech that focused on foreign and defence policy. The coalition has adopted far-reaching decisions in Meseberg, decisions that would have been unthinkable only one year ago.
What we have agreed with France on the eurozone is real progress. I admit that this coalition government had its difficulties early on. But that was also a result of Macron delivering his Sorbonne speech only a few days after the general election. In Germany, we remained in limbo for half a year until the new coalition government was formed. But now we have positions, and we are capable of action.
Chancellor Merkel opposes the establishment of a European finance minister, which is something the SPD would like to have. So what happens next?
The aim should not be to immediately and blindly support everything that Macron has spoken out in favour of.
But maybe it’s time for Berlin to say what it wants.
We must pursue an active European policy, instead of giving multiple-choice replies to the checklist of ideas that Macron presented. For every point that we reject, we must make our own proposal. That is what the German Government and the Federal Foreign Office are working on. The German Government is anything but clueless when it comes to European policy.
Macron has thwarted the initiative of several EU members, including Germany, to establish a financial transaction tax. Does that bother you?
France and Germany will have different ideas from time to time. The financial transaction tax is one example of this. But that’s no reason to get all worked up.
What are Germany’s greatest interests in Europe?
We have made the right proposals regarding financial and monetary policy. In the future, the EU will, to a far greater extent, be called on to deliver more in almost all policy areas. The EU must become capable of action in foreign affairs. Currently, we make our foreign policy decisions based on the principle of unanimity. That’s not necessary. We should find areas in which we can deviate from this rule. Regarding security policy, we must intensify our efforts to establish both permanent structured cooperation, or PESCO, and the European Defence Union. The same applies to the debate on Macron’s proposals regarding a European Intervention Initiative and an EU response to migration.
Helmut Schmidt said that Paris was Germany’s closest, and Washington Germany’s most important, ally. Is this still so with the Trump administration?
The United States is our most important partner outside Europe. That will remain the case. Despite all of the uncertainties we are experiencing, we are doing our utmost to ensure that this relationship is not permanently damaged. However, we should have no illusions. Everything is in flux. Germany and Europe must shoulder far greater responsibility than they have in the past. This new normal will remain largely unchanged, regardless of whether Trump is re-elected or not. However, the transatlantic partnership is here to stay. And therefore Helmut Schmidt’s analysis is accurate.
Aside from the fact that Trump has called on Germany to invest two percent of its GDP in defence – isn’t this needed anyway, so that Europe can take effective action?
We must do more in the defence policy domain to increase our expenditure to 1.5 percent of GDP in the long term.
... that’s a paltry amount.
Just look at the current state of the Bundeswehr, and listen to the expectations that are being expressed by our allies.
The Bundeswehr needs equipment, not rearmament. That’s expensive, and Europe will need to step up its defence policy efforts. That is why defence expenditure is gradually being increased – on a scale that our society can accept.
Is there a road map that will lead to concrete, increased European security cooperation? If everything remains as vague as it is now, Trump will no longer be President, and Europe will still not have agreed on a plan.
Even if a Democrat is elected as the next president, it would be wise and in our own interest not to count on US foreign policy changing in any significant way. In the long term, we need to prepare ourselves for a new US foreign policy. These changes have been apparent for some time. We Europeans must respond. That is why we are currently working to improve the coordination of our defence efforts in Europe. We want PESCO, and we must combine this with Macron’s Intervention Initiative. However, this cooperation must involve not only France and Germany, but all EU member states.
In the past, anti-American rhetoric was often on many Social Democrats’ lips. Now Donald Trump is in the White House, and you’re handling him with kid gloves. Why?
The United States is much more than President Trump. Civil society is expressing criticism of the President, as are the American newspapers. Congress is self-confidently helping to steer the administration’s policy. We should wait and see how the midterm elections go on 6 November. I don’t think that democracy in the United States is in jeopardy. I do think that the Germans should be less focused on Trump, and instead see the US as a diverse country.
What are you doing to promote this?
On 3 October, I will formally open Deutschlandjahr USA in Washington, DC. Over the coming year, we will put on more than 1000 events across the US that will showcase Germany’s culture, policies and economy. The aim is for our events to have an impact on American society – and, subsequently, an impact in Germany.
Trump says one thing today and another thing tomorrow. He spreads lies and hurls insults. Have Germany and the EU, which constantly praise their own values, learned to live with this?
What makes you think that? I have publicly expressed criticism where necessary. Just a few months ago, I wouldn’t have thought it possible that a US president would ever say that the enemies of the United States are Russia, China and the EU. I was quite candid in my assessment. We have taken countermeasures in response to the United States’ punitive tariffs against the EU. Following the American decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, we are developing a counter-strategy – because this deal is better than no deal. The EU has, to a certain extent, come closer together because of Trump. Until recently, I wouldn’t have considered this possible.
Can the nuclear deal with Iran still be saved?
That depends, among other things, on whether foreign companies are able to continue to do business in Iran. We want them to remain. Furthermore, the payment transaction system with Iran must be maintained. The EU Foreign Ministers will discuss Iran at their Council meeting at the end of August. The US wants to impose sanctions on Iranian oil from November. But oil is the backbone of Iran’s economy. We will continue to do everything in our power to keep Iran in the deal, because if it were to back out, this could lead to a dangerous escalation of the crisis. I doubt whether regime change would improve the situation.
You are trying to raise support for an “alliance of multilateralists”. What’s behind this idea?
Just like Russia, China and the United States also pursue activities on the international stage, it makes sense for us to work more closely together with countries that share our values. Germany stands for freedom, democracy and free trade. We don’t need a new organisation to do this. We can accomplish a lot through regular talks and meetings. Countries such as Canada, Japan, South Korea and South Africa could be initial points of contact for an alliance of multilateralsts. Furthermore, the EU is seeking to conclude additional free trade agreements, just like we did recently with Japan.
What is China’s stance?
China’s model is that of centrally controlled and state-run capitalism, with many imposed limitations. It is consistently working to expand its influence and pursue its geostrategic interests. At the same time, when China’s head of state is in Davos and elsewhere, he tries to portray himself as the leader of the free world. Here, we must consistently take China at its word, and we must self-confidently defend our own model of democracy and free trade. At the same time, we must, just as self-confidently, seek to cooperate wherever we have common interests.
In current polls, your party is stuck at 18 percent – and yet you are the most popular politician in Germany. Why is the SPD not benefiting from your popularity?
There can be a disconnect between parties and people. That’s nothing new, and it happens in all parties.
Do you view the SPD’s low popularity as part of a general phenomenon, i.e. the demise of mainstream parties in the West?
The demise of mainstream parties weakens democracy and our political system. That’s why I’m fighting to help stop it. It harms our country when parts of this coalition government give the impression that all we care about is the issue of migration – as happened for several weeks earlier this summer. That’s a tremendous mistake and will only help the AfD – and those are people that we should not be helping in any way. After all, much of our government work focuses on the issues that people care deeply about: rents, pensions and education. We should make this clear in what we say.