He worked closely with Angela Merkel as her vice chancellor and as one of her top-ranking ministers for a period of five years, while as head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) he was also one of the German chancellor’s biggest political rivals for eight full years.
Sigmar Gabriel – who was vice chancellor from 2013 to 2018, minister of economic affairs from 2013 to 2017 and of foreign affairs from 2017 to 2018, and SPD leader from 2009 to 2017 – speaks to Kathimerini about the German elections next Sunday.
He praises Merkel for keeping Germany on a “very clear course” through major domestic and international turbulence: the economic crisis, the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine with Russia, the Greek debt crisis, the euro crisis, the refugee influx, the pandemic and terrorist attacks.
Referring to next Sunday’s elections, he believes that European unity is on the line as tension grows between the eurozone’s wealthier and poorer member-states.
The former SPD head stresses that relations with Greece are very good and is confident they will remain that way on the part of Berlin. What is most important, he says, is that member-states have learned something from the Greek debt crisis: that it is “nonsense” to insist on nothing but austerity that ultimately helps bring populist forces to power. He is also confident that we are “finally in a position to give jointly guaranteed investments in the weaker countries of Europe.”
Gabriel sees the continuation of the Next Generation EU recovery fund as unlikely, while he believes that the best outcome in Germany’s elections would be a coalition between the Social Democrats (with 25% in the latest opinion polls), the Greens (15%) and the Free Democratic Party (10%).
With regard to Turkey, he notes that Berlin, like Washington, has a strategic interest in maintaining a stable yet flexible relationship with Ankara, while warning that a Turkey which drifts even further away from the EU and NATO “would become an incalculable risk.” He even mentions the risk of it acquiring nuclear capabilities.
Last but not least, Gabriel describes China as an “economic friend but political antipode” for Europe, and points to three of the areas that the two powers need to stake out.
What is at stake for Germany, and Europe, in these elections?
Above all, the unity of Europe. In addition to the conflicts between Western and Eastern Europe, which have been smoldering for years, an old conflict is threatening to break out again: that between the richer and poorer member-states in the euro currency area. The agreed European recovery fund as a jointly guaranteed investment volume in the reconstruction of the European member-states after the pandemic was already difficult to agree on and implement. It will be even more difficult to continue it, which is imperative in view of the dramatic economic tensions in Europe.
You worked closely with Angela Merkel as vice chancellor, as well as minister of economy and foreign affairs. What will her legacy be?
Angela Merkel has kept Germany on a very clear course through serious national and international crises. The financial crisis, the crisis surrounding the occupation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine with Russia, the Greek and euro crises, the terrorist attacks, the refugee crisis, the pandemic… Germany has been very lucky to have a woman at the helm as chancellor who has kept a very clear and calm course.
How should the next German government manage relations with the US under Joe Biden, as well as Russia and China?
It remains the case that our most important partner is the US. As far as Russia and China are concerned, Germany will certainly try to do everything it can to ensure that, on the one hand, there is further pressure on Russia, while on the other hand it will seek to prevent pushing it even further into China’s hands. We therefore need a new attempt to form a new security architecture with Russia.
With China, the matter becomes even more complex: Where Russia in Cold War 1.0 was only a military adversary to whom we rightly felt economically superior, with China it is the other way around. China is a kind of “frenemy” for us Europeans: economic friend but political antipode, because it is a dictatorship. In principle, it is no different for the US. My hope is that we will succeed in staking out fields:
* Where will we be in real confrontation with each other for the foreseeable future? This will be primarily in security policy, but also on issues such as human rights.
* Where are we in competition with each other? That will be the case above all in the economic sphere. There, no one has any interest in the total failure of the other, because that would have disastrous consequences for the global economy. That competition is not aimed at bringing the other to its knees.
* And where do we cooperate, because otherwise we fail on a global scale: in pandemics, climate change or proliferation control?
I hope that we will quickly succeed in keeping these fields in balance.
If the SPD wins, what would be the best coalition government?
With the Greens and the Liberals.
How do you view relations with Greece, and how should they develop under the next government in Berlin?
From my point of view, relations with Greece are very good and will certainly remain so from the German side. What is more important is that the European member-states have also learned something from the Greek crisis: that it is nonsense to always just give a state austerity measures that end up bringing populist forces into government. And that we are finally also in a position to provide jointly guaranteed investments in the weaker countries of Europe. We must make the euro an international reserve currency, otherwise Europe will always remain dependent and will not achieve full sovereignty.
On a more personal note, do you see yourself participating in – or working in some way with – the new government?
No. I changed to the German and international business sector and there I will stay.
How should the new German government and the EU deal with a more assertive Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and what is the influence of the Turkish community living in Germany?
I believe that not only Germany, but also all of Europe should have an interest in remaining committed in and with Turkey despite all the difficulties. Not least in NATO. A Turkey that is moving further and further away from the EU and NATO would become an incalculable risk. For example, only Turkey’s membership in NATO is the guarantee that the country will not attempt to acquire nuclear weapons. We Germans have a special role in this, not only because of the large number of people of Turkish origin who live with us and who helped build this country and made it prosperous. Like the US, Germany has a strategic interest in maintaining a stable and resilient relationship with Turkey.