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Seeking the European Union's lost enthusiasm

 German Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Roth speaks about Ukraine, euroskepticism and Greek-German ties
Germany’s Minister of State for Europe, Michael Roth, speaks at a Friedrich Ebert Foundation event in Berlin last week on the social impact of the crisis. Roth has been an elected member of Germany’s Parliament, the Bundestag, since 1998 with the SPD.

By Nick Malkoutzis

Our understandable focus on the comments of Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble aside, Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Roth in many ways represents for Greece the most interesting member of the German “grand coalition” cabinet. The SPD politician has caused a stir in recent weeks by suggesting that his country’s much-prized trade surplus is giving Germany “an unfair advantage” over other countries in the eurozone.

“Economic distortions in the EU should be balanced,” he said last week at an event in Berlin organized by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. Roth, whose full title is Minister of State for Europe, echoed opinions that are normally heard from politicians in Southern Europe and economists outside of Germany.

Such comments are symptomatic of Roth’s style: a young politician looking to inject some dynamism and new thought into a European Union which he admits often wallows in its own shortcomings. Kathimerini English Edition asked him about the apparent North-South divide in Europe, the upcoming European Parliament elections, Greek-German relations and Ukraine.

Given developments over the last few months, would you agree that the European Union has made mistakes in the way it dealt with Ukraine? If so, what can it learn from these errors?

Eastern Europe needs to be as respected and valued by the European Union as Southern, Northern and Western Europe. That’s why it was the right decision to extend an offer to Ukraine and other Eastern European countries to work closely with us in the political, economic and social spheres. Apparently, however, Russia got the impression that the European Neighborhood Policy meant our Eastern European neighbors had to choose between the EU and Russia. While this impression is false, we do need to critically examine our current approach. I think Ukraine for example could have built a bridge between the EU and Russia. But the Russian violation of international law in Crimea has made this impossible for now and the near future.

Has the EU “overreached” in Ukraine, forcing itself to make grave compromises, such as cooperating with a government that has strong neo-Nazi elements?

The EU and Germany strongly condemn both anti-Semitism and nationalist ideology, everywhere in the world. The government has to stay away clearly from fascist groups. Furthermore, it has to include as many powers in society committed to democracy and the rule of law as possible.

Do you fear that the EU’s relations with Russia may have been irreparably damaged by events in Ukraine? Do developments there require the EU to rethink its geopolitical strategy?

Russia’s action is absolutely unacceptable. The country not only harms Ukraine by doing so but also endangers a reliable relationship with the EU. Russia is completely isolated at this stage. Nevertheless the EU in general and the German foreign minister [Frank-Walter Steinmeier] in particular are working tirelessly for a diplomatic solution. We are holding intensive talks. The worst thing at this point would be to stop talking or refuse to talk. The EU is by no means thinking in the outmoded categories of a 19th-century foreign policy arena dominated by nation states. We are striving for peaceful coexistence, and in a globally interconnected world we are advocating a close partnership that respects human rights and is dedicated to sustainability.

What we have seen, particularly in the last few weeks, is a divergence of opinion in the EU about how to deal with what is admittedly a complex situation in Ukraine. Does this just emphasize that forging a unified EU foreign policy is an impossible task?

This is a dramatic situation. Naturally, the crisis is going to be perceived differently in Spain or Malta than in Poland or the Baltic countries. As a committed supporter of Europe I’m proud that the EU has nonetheless succeeded in speaking with one voice and developing a joint strategy. We’ve learned from our foreign policy shortcomings in the past. And Germany is doing all it can for the EU to remain together, now and in the future. This is the only way we have a chance of being heard and being able to accomplish anything.

It has been interesting to see that many in Ukraine see a better future for themselves as part of the EU at a time when Euroskepticism in existing member states is growing. Are you concerned that May’s European Parliament elections will see Euroskeptic and far-right parties build the kind of momentum that will be difficult to stop?

Yes, we’re facing a depressing dilemma. Many Europeans have lost their enthusiasm for the EU as a unique union of peace and shared values. We frequently appear to be much too maudlin, small-minded and steeped in failure. From the outside, however, the EU continues to be perceived as a fascinating project. This should encourage us as we seek to re-establish trust. The EU is much more than a functional internal market with a single currency. That is why we need to fight more staunchly for social cohesion and against drastically high levels of youth unemployment.

Has the handling of the eurozone crisis been at fault for the growing anti-EU sentiment within member states or do you think the reasons lie elsewhere?

The EU must never settle for a few scattered islands of prosperity. It must maintain its commitment to the principle of prosperity and participation for all. We need to do everything possible to make sure our social model doesn’t permanently go to the dogs in the shadow of the crisis.

Is there any concern in Berlin that the bailout programs, recession and high unemployment in the southern periphery are creating a two-speed eurozone that will only lead to antagonism building between the North and South?

There is no periphery in the EU! Countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece are a part of the heart of a united Europe. But we are currently witnessing a growing split into rich and poor. We must refuse to accept this. And that is why we are calling for a fundamental reform of the Economic and Monetary Union. We don’t need standardization, but we do need more binding coordination, including in fiscal, economic, social and labor market policies.

Relations between Greece and Germany have been severely tested over the past few years. Do you feel they have now been restored to a satisfactory level or is there still work to do?

I recently had the opportunity to accompany the federal president [Joachim Gauck] on his visit to Greece, where I experienced a great deal of friendship and sympathy. But we do have to rebuild the trust that has been lost. Our answer is to show more respect for those who have had to bear the consequences of the crisis, to recognize the initial progress that has been made, and to offer help and partnership with structural reforms.

One of the conditions of the coalition deal in Germany was the creation of a youth association with Greece, after similar initiatives with France and Poland. Is there any news on this? Is this where the two countries must place emphasis to improve their relations?

The German-Greek Youth Office is a project dear to my heart. It would be just the third Youth Office altogether, and would impressively underscore how important Greece is to us. We are in close talks with our Greek partners on this project, and we want to start work on it by the end of this year.

President Gauck made a historic visit to Greece earlier this month, during which he asked forgiveness for the atrocities committed during the Second World War. As you know, the Greek president, foreign minister and members of the opposition raised the issue of war reparations with President Gauck while he was in Athens. Is there any possibility that Greece and Germany will find common ground on this issue – particularly in relation to the loan the Bank of Greece was forced to give the Nazi regime – or is it a matter that Berlin rejects out of hand?

The federal president asked for forgiveness on behalf of the German people for the terrible crimes of the Nazi regime and the German Wehrmacht in Greece. This was an overdue and important gesture. We are aware of our responsibility and therefore want to engage especially intensely in Greece – through, for example, the German-Greek Youth Office, the Future Fund (which is also dedicated to confronting and working through the past), and our support for Jewish life, especially in Thessaloniki. But reparations have been ruled out – legally as well as politically – and this has been the case for decades now.

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