Germany’s rejection of a Eurobond for bankrolling the fight against the spreading coronavirus pandemic is “not at all categorical,” the country’s ambassador to Athens, Ernst Reichel, told Kathimerini in a written interview, leaving some hope of consensus in the future.
The German envoy warned that the European Union may be used by populist forces as a scapegoat, while reiterating Berlin’s solidarity with Greece. He also expressed the belief that the only solution to the migration crisis is a new deal with Turkey.
The next two weeks are seen as crucial to European unity, with the eurozone facing an existential dilemma. Meanwhile Italy is threatening unilateral action and has turned to China and Russia for medical assistance. Is Germany prepared to do what it takes to prevent a major European crisis? And is the risk right now more than just economic but also geopolitical?
Everyone now acknowledges the risks stemming from the coronavirus pandemic to our health, as much as to the economy and European unity. Everyone in Europe needs to remember that the response to the crisis must rely on European solidarity. Many countries introduced national emergency measures at the start of the crisis. This was necessary because we were unable to react swiftly enough at the European level, but it should not be allowed to become the norm. The sudden decision to ban exports of medical supplies from certain member-states, including Germany, was just such a hasty decision that was thankfully replaced by common European measures. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was right to caution against unilateral action. If you look around today, you’ll see many impressive examples of European solidarity, such as hospitals in Germany taking in patients needing intensive care from France and Italy, and whose transfer is being conducted in part by the German Air Force. Similarly, during the operation to repatriate German citizens who were trapped abroad, citizens from many other EU member-states were also brought back home.
As far as some of the, in part, disparaging criticism being leveled against the European Union is concerned, which then makes reference to the relatively limited and questionable actions of other third countries, I have the impression that the need for a scapegoat is also playing a part. Our societies and our governments are clearly under an enormous amount of stress and it is only human in such circumstances to look for someone to blame, someone to bear the actual or moral responsibility. The EU has, unfortunately, been the favorite scapegoat of populists for some years now.
EU leaders failed to come to a consensus in their last teleconference, where divisions appeared along the usual lines: France and the south in support of the idea for a Eurobond on the one side, and Germany, the Netherlands etc on the other. Do you believe that there is some way to broach these differences and come to an agreement?
You are right: The question of a common EU guarantee, through the issuing of Eurobonds, has resurfaced in a morally charged manner. The issue was presented again on a very short-term basis, which led to participants giving the answers they had given before. Nevertheless, the rejection of the idea is not at all categorical. In fact, several issues came under discussion, such as, for example, a time limit for such an emergency measure. There has, unfortunately, been no agreement so far, but the discussion is still ongoing and it would certainly be best carried out bearing in mind the real facts.
One fact is that very significant economic measures have already been announced for dealing with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The European Central Bank said that it will purchase additional state bonds worth 750 billion euros and has already started to do so, resulting in a significant drop of high spreads. The European Commission has also presented an investment initiative worth 37 billion euros, which has already been approved by the European Parliament. The deficit rules that apply to all EU countries have been suspended. As far as Greece is concerned, I take it that accordingly, state expenditure related to the coronavirus and migration crises will be taken into account when calculating the primary surplus target. A lot of things are being done and I believe that there is sufficient financial leeway for the time being. Apart from all this, we also have the European Stability Mechanism, which was created to deal with crises precisely like this one. There is consensus at the European Council to do everything that needs to be done in order to meet this challenge in a spirit of European solidarity. I therefore see absolutely no cause for the kind of moral condemnation we’re sometimes seeing. We remain on your side.
At least Berlin managed to break a taboo by letting go of balanced budgets. Don’t German politicians understand the terrible consequences of austerity measures on, say, the healthcare systems of overindebted countries like Spain, Italy and Greece? Haven’t we had enough of the idea that Athens (or Rome or Madrid) needs to do its homework? Apart from that, the present crisis is an international one, and no one is innocent or guilty.
If you look at it soberly, there are two crises at work here. On the one hand there’s the debt and economic crisis, which Greece – thanks to the support of Germany, among others, and also to the “homework” it has done – is starting to put behind it. And now there’s the coronavirus crisis. Domestic reforms gave the Greek economy a strong productive foundation that other countries already had. This is a process that is continuing and the Greek government is making very good progress. Participants from the political and economic spheres, as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel, unequivocally acknowledged this achievement at the German-Hellenic Economic Forum that took place in Berlin a few weeks ago. By the way, if you look at the EU, you will find countries that have done less “homework” and yet are in no way better prepared for the coronavirus crisis.
Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service has information suggesting that last month’s clashes at the Evros border between Greek forces and migrants were instigated by Turkey. How can we negotiate with the Turkish government when it is responsible for such a crisis at what Ursula von der Leyen had acknowledged is Europe’s border?
There are indeed several indications of Turkish involvement in the situation in Evros. However, if we want to avoid such crises in the future, an agreement with Turkey is the only alternative. Despite whatever differences we may have on a number of issues, we must acknowledge that Turkey is making a large contribution in hosting refugees and migrants. On this point, it has earned our support and should continue to receive it. This, however, does not mean that we, the Europeans, need to submit to every demand from the Turkish side.
Chancellor Merkel had assured Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis at the start of the coronavirus crisis that Berlin would negotiate a new immigration deal with Ankara so as to relieve the pressure being exerted by Turkey on Greece and the rest of Europe. Is this still the case?
The federal chancellor promised that Berlin would try to negotiate a new deal, not that this is something it could accomplish. This still stands. I hope you are also of the opinion that this is something that should be tried. Either way, we support the joint stock-taking that is currently being carried out by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, and Turkey’s foreign minister. Beyond this, Germany is ready to support Greece in any way it can in dealing with the refugees and migrants, for example by hosting children from the islands. It is also important to note that we, like Greece, want the European asylum system reviewed so that some of the pressure on Greece and other first-entry countries can be lifted with structural measures and in a way that expresses solidarity. We are pulling in the same direction.