The European Union must remain united in the face of challenges to the European idea and Brexit. This is the message of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who arrives in Athens on Friday. In an interview with Kathimerini, the 61-year-old Social Democrat stresses the need to advance European integration, calling on the nations of the bloc to assume their responsibilities. He says that strengthening Europe would be the best response to US President Donald Trump’s nascent policy on the traditional transatlantic alliance.
Questioned about the Greek financial crisis, Steinmeier says that the debt-hit country must see through the structural reforms that will spur economic growth and enhance social cohesion. Although he repeats Berlin’s positions on the issue of war reparations, the German president voices hope that Greece and Germany will work together on forging a shared historical memory. Despite criticizing Turkey’s “unacceptable” rhetoric, he says we must not burn the bridges that bring the two sides together.
This is your third foreign trip as federal president. Why did you decide to visit Greece now?
On Saturday, documenta 14 opens in Athens. Documenta is a world-class artistic and cultural event and this year it will take place in Kassel [its traditional home] and, for the first time, in Athens. For this reason, I am very happy to attend the opening together with the Greek president [Prokopis Pavlopoulos]. This will be a very good opportunity to attempt a shift of perspective: to focus on Greek-German relations and our cooperation in Europe from a different perspective, namely art.
My political talks in Athens will naturally center on the future of Europe. Greece is a key partner in the European Union; however, relations between member-states – even those between Germany and Greece – are often seen as asymmetrical and influenced by economic issues. Therefore we would have something to gain if art were to stimulate politics, perhaps even openly challenge it, and thereby provide stimulation for thoughts beyond the contours of everyday politics. The crises of the previous years have caused shocks inside the EU, most importantly the decision of the British people to leave [the bloc]. Hence it is particularly important that we send a clear signal of EU unity, as the case is here in Athens on the occasion of the exhibition. Faithful to the tagline of documenta, “Learning from Athens,” my wife and I will take the opportunity to talk with representatives of Greece’s civic society.
Greece is undergoing a long-term economic crisis and has had to make considerable fiscal adaptations. Do you believe that it’s time to grant debt relief and ease credit terms?
I believe that the Federal Government acknowledges the reforms that Greece has already implemented and how much effort is involved in this. This is something that I too want to acknowledge with my visit here. I know that the lengthy crisis, the reforms and the cuts have resulted in hardship for many people in Greece. After all, the crisis also has a human dimension. However, Greece still has not reached the end destination. It will take additional reforms, even if economic indicators are improving. The end objective is that reforms bring long-term economic growth and, at the same time, social cohesion.
Turkey is going through a period of domestic turmoil. As far as Greece is concerned, [Ankara] has adopted aggressive, nationalist language of irredentism. How should Germany and Europe react to that?
Germany is home to millions of citizens of Turkish descent – many of them have German passports, while others have Turkish passports. We do not want political polarization, which has taken on alarming dimensions in Turkey, to obstruct the coexistence of these people in German cities and communities, creating divides between them. It’s hard to explain the rhetoric of the previous weeks, which has in some cases been unacceptable and indecent. In spite of all this, we in Germany and the European Union remain closely connected to Turkey. We are both members of NATO and we have common interests on many issues. This is why we must neither demolish the bridges that connect us nor contribute to the escalation of polarizing rhetoric.
Europe is faced with many challenges, from Brexit to the migration crisis. Many crucial elections lie ahead. Can you still look at the future of the European Union with optimism? Are we in a position to keep the dark forces at bay?
Despite the mistakes and the difficulties, I am optimistic about the future of the European Union, because a strong and united Europe is in the interest of all of us. These days we are witnessing a special phenomenon: Every Sunday, thousands of people across many member-states are taking to the streets to demonstrate in favor of a united Europe. Particularly for the younger participants, Europe has long become their “second home.” At the same time, however, they feel that the European integration process, the European project, has not been completed, it is not self-evident and it is not irreversible. On the contrary, it is a duty for every generation. It will be key for all member-states to undertake the responsibility for the future of the European idea and the reality of the European Union. We must realize this and on the basis of this launch a dialogue with the citizens of our countries. It is, however, an obligation of the political class to explain the mechanisms and the distribution of power, like for example the influence of member-states on EU decision-making. Because the influence of each member-state is by no means as limited as is sometimes suggested.
US President Donald Trump has made several unsubtle remarks about Germany and distanced himself from the traditional transatlantic alliance. Are you worried about the rhetoric and signals coming from Washington?
We are receiving signals from Washington which appear to question many of the things that we had come to consider as self-evident over the previous decades of transatlantic ties. It remains to be seen how many of these will transform into a new political direction. However, there is a great deal of uncertainty both in bilateral relations as well as in bigger issues pertaining to the global order. Our governments will try to handle these in a constructive and realistic manner. We can already say that for us, a necessary consequence of the differentiated political debate in the US must be the strengthening of Europe. It is in our own interest to invest in the power of the EU. This is the only way to make sure that our voice will continue to be heard in Washington and across the world in the future.
You have in the past dealt with the issue of wartime reparations to Greece. Has this issue been settled for Germany?
History is never settled. We Germans are convinced of this and we assume our moral and historical responsibility. This is particularly so in terms of processing the atrocities committed by Germans against children, women and men in Greece during the Nazi period. In my previous post, as foreign minister, I paid a visit to Thessaloniki in this context. I was deeply touched during the visit. And now, as federal president, I wish to contribute like my predecessor, Joachim Gauck, so that the memories of this painful chapter of our common history remain alive and are passed onto the youth of both countries. This is precisely the purpose of the programs which were developed in the context of the Greek-German Fund for the Future which should be developed further. Also the Greek-German Youth Institute, which I hope will soon be ready to launch, will bring people from the two countries closer.
On the issue of reparations, our countries support different claims. For Germany, legally speaking, on the basis of international law, the case is closed. I hope that, regardless of these differences, the two sides will work together, in a European spirit, for a commonly accepted historical memory, their eyes fixed above all on the new generation.