February 08, 2021

“I am a Realpolitiker”

The new leader of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and strong contender to follow her as chancellor, too, Armin Laschet talks about Germany’s relations with Russia and China and his stances on European policy.

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CDU leader Armin Laschet
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A lot of people are wondering if Angela Merkel’s successor as German chancellor will really be able to fill her shoes on foreign and European policy. Do you think that will present problems? After all, Merkel has been in office for 16 years now.

This happens every time there is a change in leadership at the top levels of government, including with French and American presidents, I should say. Angela Merkel in 2005, for example, didn’t have the network among world leaders nor the experience she has today. The change we’re going to see soon is a quite normal thing to happen in a democracy. 

Do you have any kind of foreign policy experience?

I’ve been interested in foreign and European policy for a very long time. When I first came to the Bundestag, in 1994, Helmut Kohl encouraged some of us younger parliamentarians to take an interest in European and foreign policy. He organized for us to meet Bill Clinton in the Oval Office, Vaclav Havel at Prague Castle, and the Russian Prime Minister Chernomyrdin at the Kremlin. As rapporteur for the foreign affairs committee of the German parliament, I visited almost every Latin American country around that time, building on my previous experience as a journalist. After I was elected to the European Parliament in 1999, I was able to continue this kind of work. I wrote the first ever reports on EU relations with the United Nations and on its European Neighborhood Policy, and I was part of the investigation into the alleged misuse of EU funds by the Palestinian Authority. As state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany, I regularly meet with world leaders, including France, Israel, Italy, and the UN secretary-general. The job also entails frequent meetings with the prime ministers of our neighbors: Belgium, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands.

What do you think motivated your particular interest in foreign policy?

Even at school, I was always interested in how the world works and the challenges we face in tackling poverty, war, suffering, and human rights abuses. That was what originally motivated me to go into politics. When I studied law, my main focus was on international law: I wrote my thesis about the Soviet Union’s illegal annexation of the Baltic states.

What sort of conclusions have you drawn from your work in foreign policy?

Foreign policy aims to resolve conflicts and mediate interests peacefully, based on the international rule of law. The network in which every state is enmeshed is complicated, there are different actors who all have very different ideas about society. Internationally, there are also very different cultures, traditions, and religions, not to mention the influence brought to bear by economic interests. Before 1989, debate on foreign affairs was shaped by the Cold War, with reciprocal nuclear threats and the Soviet push for global influence, including in Cuba, Nicaragua, Mozambique, Angola, and Afghanistan. During this time, I realized that rhetoric on domestic policy cannot be a substitute for a wise foreign policy, or at least it should not be. There is an art to maintaining relations with countries that have very different social systems, whether that is Russia, China, Turkey, or the Arab world. The trick is to find common ground and seek to dismantle any antagonisms. You have to be guided by your own values, always, but still clearly perceive the world as it really is.

In terms of foreign policy, would you call yourself a realist: a politician motivated by Realpolitik?

Yes, I am a Realpolitiker. But it's always about both things—our values and our interests. What matters is both creating a better world and protecting German and European interests. In foreign policy, we need to have a clear moral compass. First and foremost, our moral values include freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. But feel-good moralizing and domestic slogans do not add up to a foreign policy. We have to take the world as it is in order to make it better.

Do you get annoyed with you occasional having been nicknamed a Russlandversteher (“Russia Whisperer”)?

That whole term is weird. Foreign policy is all about understanding your negotiating partners as well as you possibly can. Once you do reach that understanding, you can then take action, establish limits, and identify areas of cooperation. But if that term is supposed to mean that I lend support to revisionist foreign policy or to breaches of international law, then clearly it is in no way an accurate description of my stance. Some of the things I read from political opponents are genuinely absurd. Even in my youth, I was very much a believer in transatlantic politics. I was always opposed to Germany adopting any sort of position of equidistance between the two Cold War superpowers. The United States is our primary and most important ally. [First post-war West German Chancellor] Konrad Adenauer’s policy had a strong influence on me: I think Germany should be deeply anchored in the West, we need to understand that the United States is our closest non-European partner. Then from this position of strength, we have to seek understanding with other countries. Certainly, this became a bit more difficult under Trump; we will undoubtedly work closely with US President Joe Biden.

But to return to that term: “Russlandversteher” is usually a synonym for being soft on Moscow.

What is that supposed to mean? Look at my criticism of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and on the poison gas attack on Alexei Navalny, and now his imprisonment. We should also include EU sanctions against Russia, which I support, since we cannot accept the violation of borders or the use of force against third parties in Europe. Who comes up with this kind nonsense? Political culture always reaches a low point when people start trying to stick clichéd labels on each other, instead of having nuanced debate about actual policy.

But you still support the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, as does the federal government and a considerable number of Germany’s state premiers. After Navalny’s arrest and conviction, should the government in Berlin change course vis-à-vis Moscow?

Germany has been getting gas from Russia—originally from the Soviet Union—for 50 years already, even at the hottest moments of the Cold War. So the German government is basically doing the right thing. We have ended the mining of black coal, we’re in the process of stopping brown coal mining, and we’re shutting down nuclear energy in 2022. For a transitional period, we will need gas produced outside of Germany. We have to guarantee Ukraine's geopolitical interests and we need Nord Stream 2, a private-sector project, to secure our own energy supplies.

There have also been voices critical of Nord Stream 2 in the United States and in France.

The United States also imports crude oil from Russia, and from other countries that are not exactly role models of freedom and human rights. Energy policy is an important subject we have in common, and it can certainly be thrashed out with the Biden administration.  

And when it comes to China, what about that value/interest balance then?

We have an ambivalent relationship with China. On the one hand, we have to see that country in terms of a geostrategic challenger, a competitor within global systems. So we must clearly point out and criticize the human rights violations against its Uyghur population, for example. And that is something I regularly do. But at the same time we trade with China, and have very intensive scientific and scholarly exchange in several fields. The port of Duisburg, in western Germany, is a key stop within China’s Silk Road infrastructure project. That is a development with a great deal of significance for our export-oriented economy. Moreover, China is a huge market for German states, above all those with a car industry: I need only mention Lower Saxony, Bavaria, and Baden-Württemberg.

It is always about safeguarding our own interests, and I would include high tech collaborations in that. No foreign country should be given access to our critical infrastructure. It is the same with our 5G cellular network—security interests have to be paramount. And that’s exactly what the federal government is doing. We must continue to be vigilant. We have to protect our critical infrastructures, while all the time continuing to work on alternative, European technologies.

So you aren’t planning to take additional foreign policy measures to counter human rights violations? In 2007 Angela Merkel made a very public show of receiving the Dalai Lama when he visited Germany. Would you do the same thing?

I think it’s a good tradition that the federal government meets all kinds of people with political significance, not just heads of state and government. In the case of visits, it is the right thing to meet with the opposition too. It is also the right thing, in the case of human rights abuses, to meet with those affected and with human rights defenders.

Will you do that if you become chancellor?

Every German chancellor should continue the precedent of Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel, using every diplomatic means, correctly timed, to make strong symbolic interventions for human rights. 

One more question about the new US president: everyone is saying Germany and Europe should take on more responsibility. But what does “take on more responsibility” mean exactly, in that context?

One example would be the European drone project, something I advocated for in the negotiations that created our coalition government. This a flagship European project, an important indicator of Europe’s ability to act together. Specifically on that one, we work together with France, Spain, and Italy. If you want to have common European security policy, you need to work together on producing concrete defense capacity. If you want to talk the language of power, you need to have the tools of power to hand. Germany must hit the NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, not because the Americans want it, but because that spending is in our own interests. We need to work on improving our own defense capacities.  

Does this mean Germany will get more actively involved in armed missions overseas? Because in Afghanistan, it looks more like Germany is withdrawing.

Our missions overseas are determined on our security interests and by our obligations to NATO and the European Union. Exit strategies form part of every mission of our armed forces overseas. From the outset, it was clear that our deployment in Afghanistan would at some point come to an end, and that any decision on that would be closely coordinated with our allies and with the government in Kabul. If the collective assessment is that our further presence is necessary, then our armed forces will continue to have a presence in Afghanistan. In the case of Mali, the operation is a French one, which seeks to maintain stability in the face of international terrorism. This is in both Germany’s and Europe’s interests.

Looking back, what is your verdict on two well-known occasions when Germany did not participate in allied operations overseas: first in Iraq in 2003, and later in Libya in 2011?

Germany was right to stay out of the Iraq war in 2003, even if the government of the time took the wrong tone during that year’s German election campaign. In the case of Libya, I was in favor of humanitarian military intervention, but I acknowledge that the situation has not greatly improved since. Foreign interventions need more than just a mandate under international law. They need to be carefully worked out in strategic terms. Over the last two decades, too many “regime change” interventions have failed, not least because the challenges of the aftermath were not thought through.

That lesson could also apply to the conflict in Syria. On this issue, you have been accused of being too cozy with President Bashar al-Assad.

That is nonsense and always has been. Eight years ago I called for nuance in our understanding of the Syrian war. I pointed out that there were opposition groups within civil society that were well worth supporting. But I also said that some strands of the opposition were influenced by radical Islamists and jihadists, and these were taking control of larger and larger parts of Syria. The situation was particularly bad in villages that were first conquered by Al-Qaeda and Al-Nusra, then later conquered again by Islamic State. These places first saw the brutal introduction of Sharia law, later the expulsion and murder of the Christian population. Back at that point, I warned of the danger of ISIS taking control of all of Syria. None of that changes the fact that Assad is a war criminal. His despicable use of poison gas against his own civilian population was in blatant violation of international conventions. 

Would you have favored Western military intervention in Syria?

No. The situation was very complex, as it remains. One thing is for sure—you should not draw red lines, and then allow them to be crossed without consequences.

As chancellor, would you take the same position as Angela Merkel on Israel, namely that Israel’s security is a vital German interest?

Yes, I would. Merkel phrased our position exactly right in her speech to the Knesset. For me, this is both something central to German foreign policy, but also a matter of deep personal conviction. Israel’s security, and finding solutions to the Middle East conflict, have always been crucial questions for me. That’s why, as premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, I have established direct representation for the state in Tel Aviv. We are deepening bilateral relationships across science and research, culture exchange, business contacts, and youth programs. For me personally, Israel’s well-being has been deeply important, ever since my first visit to the country at the age of 20. 

So do you understand why Israel rejects the nuclear agreement with Iran?

I have spoken about on this subject many times with Prime Minister Netanyahu and with other Israeli politicians. I do understand the great concern felt in Israel about the destabilizing potential of Iran. On the nuclear deal, we have differing views: in my opinion, the agreement with Iran will increase Israel's security, rather than reduce it.

Let's turn to Europe. You were involved with the EU's Neighborhood Policy at an early stage of its development, so are you still in favor of the EU admitting new member states?

We need to go back and strengthen the EU's Neighborhood Policy, in terms of relations with states on the periphery of Europe who will not join the EU itself. In terms of enlarging EU membership, there is always a trade off with the deepening of existing institutions. Enlargement and deepening are not necessarily opposed to each other. But we have to bear in mind: the EU must be able to take action when it needs to.

What does this all mean for the Balkan region and for Turkey?

The countries of the western Balkans have been given a clear path to EU membership. If they meet the criteria, we should honor that commitment.

What about Turkey?

Unfortunately, Turkey is currently moving further and further away from the European Union’s principles on the rule of law.

Should Ukraine also have a path to EU membership?

That’s not on the horizon right now. Our interests are very much to support the stability, sovereignty, and modernization of Ukraine. We must support that country on its difficult trajectory, and ultimately open up its perspectives toward Europe.

You are considered a supporter of greater EU integration. In which particular areas should we see “more Europe”?

All of foreign and security policy would be one example. We definitely need a gradual move away from unanimous decision-making in those areas, although in the case of military interventions, the need for national parliamentary approval makes that change impossible. But for many foreign policy decisions, majority voting will be enough.

The Aachen Treaty—the Franco-German treaty that came into force last year—contains the right approaches. With this agreement, France and Germany provided a blueprint for integration, but one which is also open to other countries. The Franco-German model is open to everyone’s participation.

Won’t that lead to a two-speed Europe?

We already have two-speed Europes: the currency union and the Schengen security zone are just two examples. We do need to be careful to maintain a common framework of law. But two-speed Europes are also possible in foreign and security policy. This is already the case with PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation), the umbrella organization for security and defense cooperation between EU members.

You have repeatedly criticized the absence of any German response to French President Emmanuel Macron's proposals on Europe. What exactly are you looking for?

I made that criticism before the Treaty of Aachen was passed in 2019 and came into force last year. That treaty now represents genuine joint Franco-German implementation of many ideas from Macron’s crucial 2017 Sorbonne speech on integration. A lot of his suggestions have been acted upon, strengthened by additional measures suggested by Germany, including cooperation in arms procurement, artificial intelligence, foreign policy, and battery production.

But Macron wanted a lot more than that. He was thinking of things like eurobonds, a stand-alone budget for the eurozone, and also new initiatives on European military intervention.

On the eurozone budget, my concerns are mainly institutional. On European questions, Germany and France have long had differences in approach, going back to the days of Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand. France tends to look for intergovernmental solutions, Germany tends to want to go the collective, community-route. I think the wisest thing would be to leave any eurozone budget closely associated with the EU’s regular budget, including oversight from the European Parliament. Macron's call for more direct EU help for economically less-developed eurozone countries has now been addressed with the EU Cohesion Fund and, in addition, with the post-pandemic EU recovery fund agreed last year.

What about eurobonds? For France, granting debt-raising powers to the European Commission would imply a very different financial architecture for the European Union.

I don't see eurobonds [happening]. On the Commission and the possibility of debt-raising powers, I’ll just say this: what we now have is a one-off arrangement, which will last for six years. 

How do you assess the prospects for a joint EU army?

In the long term, it is certainly a real possibility. But the first thing we need is for Europe to act together on security policy. We have to strengthen PESCO and promote joint projects between member states.

This prompts the question: what is your ultimate vision of European integration, is it a federal state or something more like a European confederation?

It is impossible to define now what Europe is going look like at some future point. It is an ongoing process that is subject to change. Quibbling about terminology does not help things. “More Europe” is in Germany’s interests. But “Europe” here also means sticking to the basic principles of the European Union. I’m talking above all about problems with the rule of law in countries like Poland and Hungary.

As the new leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), are you in favor of permanently expelling Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party from the European People’s Party (EPP)—the grouping in the European parliament to which both organizations belong?

It is important that Hungary remains bound to Europe. Within the EU, and within the EPP, we are discussing the circumstances in which that is possible. We have quite clear expectations as far as Fidesz is concerned. That party’s membership of the EPP is currently suspended, and there is presently no reason to change that.

Is the EU in danger of breaking up?

After Brexit, the key thing is to keep the EU’s 27 member states together. Germany’s six-month EU Council presidency last year succeeded with its initiatives to bring together North and South. But the debate between East and West within the EU continues. Finding compromise is the greatest of all political arts. This was underlined by the mechanisms on the rule of law that have been written into the EU budget.

So you don’t have any big visions on Europe? Angela Merkel came in for a lot of criticism about her supposed lack of vision for the EU.

Strategic vision, allied to passion, is essential in foreign policy. Sometimes you have to come up with foreign policy ideas that do not yet seem realistic in day-to-day terms. Macron’s speech at the Sorbonne in 2017 did exactly that, successfully shaping the agenda for the 2019 European elections. Macron is right in this—Europe’s citizens want more Europe, not less, for example on domestic security, like the fight against terrorism, Islamism, money laundering, and human trafficking.

After the COVID-19 pandemic, will the EU be left facing a new debt crisis?

All of the debt we are currently taking on—fortunately on very favorable terms—is needed to fight the pandemic and its economic effects. Only economic growth will allow us to get out of the crisis and deal with those debts. That is why the Green Deal is important, but not enough in itself. Combining economic and ecological development also means safeguarding the competitiveness of our industry, whether that is steel, chemicals, or automotive manufacturing. Incidentally, our industry is a lot more environmentally friendly than what you find on other continents. Among other things, we have to become leaders in hydrogen technology.

If all this calls for such large amounts of investment, shouldn't the EU’s strict rules on government debt be suspended for a few years?

The rules are good ones. The mechanisms we already have contain the required flexibility: on an EU level, in the Maastricht Treaty, and in a German context, with the so-called debt brake written into the Basic Law, our constitution. These mechanisms allow for deviation from the normal rules in crisis situations, which the pandemic unquestionably is.

So does that mean you disagree with Helge Braun, Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, who thinks there will have to be a new amendment to the Basic Law?

No, I think his analysis is right, but I don’t think it will be necessary to amend Germany’s constitution. The Basic Law allows for extra borrowing if an emergency situation demands it: this leeway for emergency conditions was deliberately created for situations like the pandemic. If we make changes to the Basic Law, we run the risk that the debt brake will ultimately no longer be taken seriously. What we need is a clear plan and a shared understanding of what sustainable financial policy looks like.

Do you think European or foreign policy questions will be controversial issues in this year’s German federal election campaign?

No, I don’t think either of them will be dominant election issues, because there are no huge points of disagreement between the relevant parties. There is a lot of common ground in these areas between moderate, democratic parties. 

But the Green Party is planning to raise the question of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, possibly leveraging the issue against the CDU, and against the Social Democrats (SPD), your government partners and election rivals. Even on European and foreign policy, aren’t there insurmountable emotional differences between your party and its possible coalition partners?

I don't think Nord Stream 2 is going to be a big campaign issue. I also think it will be possible to come to a consensus with the Greens, for example. In 2017, when we had some initial coalition talks with the Greens and the Free Democrats, we made a great deal of progress on foreign policy. I can also remember the 1998 federal election: back then, people were also saying that foreign policy would be the stumbling block for any coalition with the Greens. But then the Greens went into government with the SPD, and we saw Germany’s first overseas foreign military intervention since the World War II, with the bombing of Belgrade, all of it under a so-called “red-green” government.

But doesn’t that actually cast doubt on your party’s fearmongering about a possible coalition between the SPD, the Greens, and the Left Party: the famous “red-red-green” alliance?

A red-red-green alliance would damage Germany both domestically and internationally. It would be irresponsible to bring a party—the Left Party—into government on a federal level when that party rejects NATO and has never voted in favor of European unification. You simply can't take a risk like that. Unfortunately, even within the SPD we see the left wing gaining ground. These are people who would refuse to supply our armed forces with the weapons it needs, who are opposed to the 2 percent NATO spending target, and who have driven the SPD’s own security experts to withdraw from front-line politics. If this wing of the SPD coalesces with the Left Party and with leftist elements in the Greens, Germany will be left ineffectual in foreign policy, and will no longer be taken seriously as an international partner.

How crucial for the CDU is foreign and European policy competence in picking an election candidate for chancellor?

The chancellor of Germany is expected to have experience in foreign and European policy.

The interview was conducted by Andreas Rinke for REUTERS, in German. This is a translation. The original version can be found here.

Armin Laschet is the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia. He was elected leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) on January 16 and is presently the likeliest contender to become next German chancellor after general elections on September 26.

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