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Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg on the EU, Europe, Merkel, and Trump

Angela Merkel wants to keep Europe united.

Octavian Report: Some both here and in Europe have tried to set the mantle of “leader of the free world” on Angela Merkel’s shoulders. What is your take on that?

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg: It’s probably, even for herself, the most peculiar overestimation of her character. She is someone who would not and who has never led from the front. She definitely stands for the values of a free liberal order, but it has never been her aim to impose German leadership on other, specifically European, countries. In that regard she is still a, let’s say, student of Helmut Kohl — with whom she grew up and with whom she made her first political steps. Her reaction was quite clear when the New York Times in its now-famous op-ed declared her the leader of the free world. But it just doesn’t synch with a traditional German understanding — a post-war German understanding — of never, ever giving the rest of the world the impression that Germany would like to launch ideas that have too much of a German handwriting.

OR: How do you assess the view of Germany on the question of the ECB and monetary policy, especially vis-à-vis the views of other E.U. member states?

Guttenberg: Concern over loose monetary policy is definitely is part of a German mindset. Although probably a vast majority of Germans wouldn’t even be capable of leading an in-depth discussion about the pros and cons of inflation or deflation. It again has historical connotations and therefore, whenever there is an election looming on the horizon, it is an easy gain for whomever brings it up. But the actions of the ECB show how reluctant Germany actually was to lead in that regard. They would always point at the ECB, declare again its independence, and say: “This is as far as we can go, but we have probably not succeeded with some of our convictions.”

The utmost we have seen in that respect was Germany’s argument for more austerity when it comes to the southern E.U. member states. This also showed how limited the government would actually be at the end of the day to contest Mario Draghi’s convictions. It might just be another example of accepting and endorsing multinational institutions rather than pushing a German attitude.

OR: Do you see economic union in the E.U.’s future, or do you see Germany continuing to advocate (as it has done) for a middle road?

Guttenberg: The middle road is the path that the Chancellor — and probably any government in the last 15 years — has chosen so far. I don’t see them changing. The way back to the deutschmark is barred. There are several reasons. One is that they understand the economic consequences of it. They also understand what it would mean to the wider European project if the strongest country actually steps out of the only semifunctional concentric circle within the European Union. At the same time, there’s just a dramatic lack of any alternative.

Having said all that, Germany could have done better actually to push forward the missed opportunity before the euro was launched to foster a political union as a precondition for a monetary union. They do realize that a lot of the flaws we’re facing right now with the euro project are still tied to the deficits regarding a political union. That’s one of the reasons why a good number of people see a lot of hope now in Emmanuel Macron’s election. I’d be careful not to overburden him there.

OR: Do you see any future for a “United States of Europe”?

Guttenberg: Not in its current shape. There are too many distinguishing factors. It can start with simplistic things like the linguistic and cultural diversity being just too vast even within European member states. What I can see is the prospect of further deepening in certain areas that could lead to more and more united elements.

One is the idea of Chancellor Merkel to, at one point, shape an economic union. Although she has never actually defined what it would mean, but it is a step towards more what Macron is actually now asking for — to go further into a financial union. He even launched this old idea of eurobonds again, which will not fall on very receptive ground in Germany. That again explains why we are still far, far away — just this little example — from a United States of Europe.

OR: Why didn’t they kick Greece out when it was clear that the country was on the precipice of crisis?

Guttenberg: A combination of things. It’s, first and foremost, the never-ending political belief in still finding solutions even if there aren’t any on the horizon. Secondly, angst around the geopolitical impact. There are a lot of factors that played into that, given the Russian influence in Greece. There is fact that they are still a member of NATO.

There is also the factor that kicking Greece out would have set a precedent difficult not to follow with other nations that are perceived as being stronger countries. What happens if Italy becomes weaker, as it is right now? And it is weak. But what happens if it becomes weaker — do we need to kick them out as well? What’s left over then: just a fragment of the European idea? That was, I think, the main reason. Along with the fact that kicking them out would probably be more costly than keeping them in.

OR: Do you think it’s true that the financial markets don’t understand the geopolitical aspect of Europe?

Guttenberg: I’m always astonished how blind the financial sector here in the U.S. is when it comes to connecting its economic thoughts to geopolitical language and at its general lack of knowledge when it comes to core geopolitical questions.

OR: Do you see Europe and particularly Germany doing “whatever it takes” (to use Draghi’s phrase) to save the euro, or do you see it eventually falling apart?

Guttenberg: Germany will, because they don’t want to be perceived as a gravedigger of any European idea. Again, that’s part of the DNA within the European construct. I’m very worried about the future of the euro project if we don’t come to terms with the realities we are facing within the European Union. The realities are far away from the illusions that the treaties are reflecting.

These illusions are of a Europe of equals, a Europe of the same speeds, which couldn’t be more different from the realities we are facing right now — and that we have actually faced from from the founding moments of the European Community and later on the European Union. The Europe of six, of nine, of 12, of 15 — all the way up to 28 now — is a Europe of different speeds, a Europe of concentric circles. But the treaties don’t reflect it.

The one thing that needs to happen to keep the whole thing as stable as possible is to finally get a grip on the treaties and to acknowledge that it is not helpful to persist in this nostalgic, Romantic view. It’s about coping with realities.

OR: Is the E.U. as a structure able to make tough decisions, given that most substantial changes require unanimity?

Guttenberg: I think that was one of the more important steps in the last few years: i.e., that there are more and more fields in the European Union where unanimity is not any longer a dogma. It, of course, takes time to change the system into a more functioning, more flexible one. In general, the institutions are (at least on paper) not that weak, but that’s the abstract view. In reality, you certainly have a point: as long as you still have too many obstacles where unanimity is the core precondition, change will be extremely hard.

That, again, asks for a couple of the stronger member states to wage a debate, which Europe has never had. Europe never had a discussion like the Federalist Papers in the U.S. We’ve never had a discussion about the philosophy or the core thoughts of something entirely new that needed to be created that went further than a couple of articles in the feuilletons of the newspapers.

As long as such a thing is not happening, led by people with the necessary credibility and independence and the backing of the stronger member states, we won’t see much movement. Especially now, when everyone is breathings sighs of relief about the less-bad-than-expected election results in the Netherlands and France. Well, it’s almost as bad as predicted, and it would be even worse if complacency now leads to our just kicking the can down the road.

OR: Could Brexit, when it happens, be a salutary shock on this front?

Guttenberg: I had the hope last year that Brexit — in combination with Trump’s election over here — would serve as a real wake-up call, that we would realize it’s just not enough to turn around in bed and say, “Okay, let’s sleep through this interesting shockwave,” while hoping that when we wake up again everything will be fine.

Nevertheless, the first thing that happened in Europe post-Brexit was that most of the leading protagonists stepped back and said, “Whoa, whoa, let’s not be too quick. Let’s first resolve the Brexit issue.”

At the time, I asked for a different strategy. I said, “Take it as an opportunity to refine and reform the European Union. There won’t be many more opportunities of that quality where the European public will be willing to accept such an event.” Now it’s all about: how do we handle the Brexit? Let’s get to the root causes after we are through our long-lasting negotiation phase, which most probably won’t be resolved in two years.

OR: What are the big strategic risks facing the E.U.?

Guttenberg: Any macro threat outside of Europe with a potentially enormous impact on Europe hinges on the functionality of the European Union as an institution. Is Europe dysfunctional or potentially functional? We do have a good number of significant threats that could lead to a weaker and weaker European Union. Outside threats such as a migrational wave that has hit us — not the first, and it won’t be the last one. Or conflicts on the borderlines of the European Union with potential spillover effects. Or the role Russia plays in using any tiny little rift within the European Union to immediately widen it and to undermine its stability again.

There’s also the growing disinclination of the U.S. to get involved in geopolitical threats where Europe is potentially the first target. All of these things can only be handled properly if you’re capable of speaking with one voice. It is very, very hard to find the necessary stability for the years to come.

OR: How does the next wave of potential E.U. accessions play into this?

Guttenberg: I think Turkish accession is for the time being not an option any longer. That’s mainly due to the path Erdoğan has chosen. The E.U. cannot accept accession negotiations with a partner that obviously doesn’t fulfill any of the criteria of a potential member state of the European Union — that’s the first thing. Secondly, they are now coming up with a lot of things that are also tied to cultural differences: we’ve heard that before. But mainly it is talking about a country that has already moved into autocracy and is potentially moving into a dictatorship. It’s out of the question to continue promising accession talks.

OR: When you say, “Out of the question,” do you mean morally or pragmatically?

Guttenberg: Both. Some member states or some governments would argue more from a moral perspective, others would come up with the obvious deficits regarding the accession criteria. But there is certainly not a majority any longer advocating Turkish membership in the European Union right now. I have the impression that Turkey is only using it as a domestic tool and not following it enthusiastically any longer.

Apart from Turkey, I currently don’t see any other potential new member of the European Union. Of course, there are a couple of countries that would like to become members — Ukraine and others — but they are far from gaining membership or even accession talks. There’s at the center quite a clear fatigue amongst the population of the European Union because some of the steps we’ve actually done way too fast. We have grown too fast and we have not created the necessary stability within Europe so far. We have brought-in members that didn’t really cope with the economic preconditions and are still struggling to live up to the expectations. It’s about consolidation first.

OR: Is euroskepticism here to stay as a political force unto itself, or is it more a reactive, intermittent phenomenon?

Guttenberg: There have been more and more political movements and parties on the extreme spectrum of the party landscape in a good number of the European member states that are happily playing the nationalistic tune. Even though they have not prevailed in the latest elections, we must not forget that in France, for instance, 11 million people voted for an anti-E.U. perspective. We have the U.K. results. We have in Austria and other places up to 40 percent of people voting for nationalists. We have the very skeptical government in Poland. We have also a questionable approach by the Hungarian government towards European values.

So these are things that won’t just fade away. I don’t see them as just some historic byway. It is deeper rooted than many think. Still, the vast majority embraces the European idea, but if the current players don’t succeed in reforming it properly the breeding ground for such movements will just grow. Europe definitely needs, let’s say, a new set of characters, of people that are capable of defining Europe in a different way and coming up with reformist ideas.

This group actually needs to have the willingness to fail. Even if they are extremely popular when they’re being voted into office, they might immediately be voted out of office if they come up with the necessary reforms (which might prove to be unpopular). They may even alienate the people that voted them at the very beginning. It takes people willing to do that for the sake their successors. It’s obviously not easy to find these characters.

OR: Are there younger leaders across Europe that you think might be capable of staging this reform?

Guttenberg: I don’t see an inflation of talents, no.

OR: How does the centrifugal force you see at play within the E.U. affect NATO? What does it mean for global security?

Guttenberg: First but foremost, it is a necessity to see the E.U. and NATO not as counterparts, but as actually adding to a security framework with whatever they can bring as shared objectives. We’ve had this discussion again and again of NATO being a counterpart of a European security and defense entity, which never played out very properly.

Of course, most of the E.U. member states are NATO members and their willingness to cooperate thus plays into the stability of NATO. I think the potentially most damaging factor for NATO is — as we have coming from the new American President — a blame game over who is living up to their commitments and who is not. The most erosive force on NATO would be a shift of the American attitude to say, “Okay, we will significantly cut down our commitment as long as others are not willing to live up to a two percent of GDP goal.” That, let me say, has never been a very honest debate in many respects. I think we have to be very careful to still separate both institutions, and to undertake everything to also reform NATO in a way that it can finally cope with modern threats. There have been a lot of talks, a lot of discussions, a lot of summits about this — and the outcome is still suboptimal.

At the end of the day, it is a question whether the U.S. is still willing to deliver its unique share for a security construct that helps the U.S. as much as it helps the European Union. It’s not a one-way road. Having said all that, it is equally as important that the member states from Europe live up to their own expectations — but we shouldn’t overburden them.

OR: Do you see Russia presenting a direct challenge to NATO in the medium term or do you see it continuing to operate at the periphery?

Guttenberg: The latter is probably the more efficient approach. We in Europe give the guy in the Kremlin — who definitely can spell self-confidence correctly — a lot of reasons and opportunities to act that way. The more disunited we are, the more it plays into his hands — and the more it helps him portray NATO as being more aggressive than its core values actually stand for and as encircling Russia. These are all notions which have never been accounted for properly by many of the Western governments, and so they play pretty well specifically in European minds. They say, “Okay, we’ve got to be a little bit more friendly with Russia in that regard,” not seeing how cynical Putin’s game is in that very respect.

For Russia currently it is far easier just to see and smell different approaches within the alliance and then to use the triggers they have. Of course, there are traditional triggers and modern ones. I’m talking about fake news, about the manipulation of certain election cycles. At the end of the day, of course, Russian can also use its energy carrot, which is probably for them the most powerful tool to divide Europe.

OR: How can Germany and Europe balance humanitarian thinking with national security thinking on the issue of refugees?

Guttenberg: That’s one of the hardest challenges for not only Germany, but also for those European member states that have taken a vast number of refugees and who are still committed to humanitarian causes — which we should not ever give up. On the other hand, there is a number of refugees which you cannot absorb at one point and keep up the necessary integration efforts. Then you have to do more on the foreign policy end and not the diplomatic platform. It’s not only about the question of how to resolve the demographic problem, but also how it changes the culture in a country.

All these things have to be considered and there is no blueprint solution for it yet. We also have to be clear here: the wave that crested recently is definitely not the last wave we will see. We now have had refugees mainly emerging from the Syrian crisis. But in the wake of it people are coming from Afghanistan, from Iraq. This leads to more and more accusations by Europeans of the U.S.: “You left us the whole mess down there and now we have to deal with it. Then you’re not even willing to share the burden with us in that regard.” This is not entirely fair. Europe could have done a little bit more in its immediate neighborhood as well, but they have a point there.

The next wave is already ongoing. We see refugees this year already coming via the Mediterranean again from sub-Saharan Africa, from countries that are facing their own crises. We’ll see more and more climate change refugees. The magnetism of Europe has not stopped. There is now an ocean in between which is way harder to cross than the land route via Turkey. It is probably one of the major challenges of the next years and it’s not over yet, although the numbers are way lower than they were in 2015.

OR: How do you see Merkel and her coalition faring in the next elections?

Guttenberg: The campaigners we have already. Of course, a coalition partner came up with its own candidate who had an interesting, quick, and intense honeymoon phase, but obviously decided to become more and more quiet. Currently the likelihood that Merkel will be reelected is high, but finding a new coalition is not the easiest task.

One could say, “Okay, let’s just prolong the grand coalition.” Although everyone is struggling with the term “grand coalition.” Another option is to create a three party coalition, which would be a novum for post-war Germany and which doesn’t make governing in Germany much easier or more stable. Of course, for Merkel, her next term will be her 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th years in office. So she’s actually challenging Helmut Kohl now on the question of legacy. Very often such a long time in office creates internal and domestic frictions as well, so that is at least something to watch.

OR: Is the AfD a serious force to worry about or are they still in their infancy?

Guttenberg: They are in a continuous infancy. Of course, they profited from the refugee crisis and created worrisome results all the way up to 23 or 24 percent in state elections in former East Germany. They’re now down: as of early May they were down to 5.9 percent in Schleswig-Holstein, for instance. Mainly due to the fact that the overall sentiment towards the refugee crisis has tamed down a bit because it’s just not as dramatic as it was in 2015 or 2016.

Secondly, they are led — to put it mildly, and thank God — by lunatics. They are constantly confronted by internal struggles and quarrels. That’s something no voter, regardless where he or she stands politically, actually likes. I think they’ll be elected into the Bundestag; there’s enough breeding ground for that. We have a five-percent threshold, and they’ll probably make it there. But I don’t see them as a serious threat in a way that they would actually become a significant factor for building coalitions — or even taking them apart.

OR: What is the one issue that keeps you awake at night when you consider Europe’s future?

Guttenberg: It is a combination of the unresolved structural issues, the accumulation of traditional and modern threats, and the impact new technologies and new media have on political decision-making around the globe. That’s what keeps me awake at night.

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