German Ambassador Wolfgang Dold: EU needs to keep its eye on the competition

Wolfgang Dold, the German ambassador to Greece, had to rush to his post just over a year ago when his predecessor suffered a health problem and didn’t have the time for the kind of preparation that usually comes with a new appointment. A lawyer, Dold had to quickly get to grips with the eurozone crisis at a time when relations between Greece and Germany were not at their best.

“You get a big folder with information about all aspects of bilateral relations with Greece… and also instructions of the overall goals you should try to meet,” Dold told Kathimerini. “There is no doubt that in March 2012, when I arrived, the German-Greek relationship was very much at the core of these instructions.”

What is currently guiding German decision-making?

There is a worry in Germany – and probably not only in Germany – that we are so focused on our own domestic economic situation that we somehow tend to forget that Europe, or the European Union, is a unique entity and that we Europeans view the EU as a kind of pocket that is isolated from the world. We tend to underestimate the fact that we need to be competitive in 20-30 years’ time. There are other power centers in the world that do not necessarily share our set of values and if we Europeans don’t get our act together we will be at the receiving end in 20-30 years’ time. That means that we have to be economically stable and competitive, and we have to be relevant in 20-30 years’ time. This suggests having an eye on the global competition and not just on the crisis of individual countries within the European Union. Some countries [in the EU] are more or less deindustrialized; they neglected their own production capabilities, they imported goods instead and financed this with credit that was not sustainable. The level of university research and development went down and the competitors in Asia and the United States took the lead. These are the things Germans are talking about. We need to ensure that we Europeans will be able to sustain our way of life for the generations to come.

Does that explain Germany’s stance toward Greece?

This is Germany’s position vis-a-vis the European Union; it is not specific to Greece. Germany has also experienced a time when it put its own production on the back burner and imports were put in front. I am not expecting everyone to build cars, but at least you have to offer something where you have a comparative advantage to be around in the global competition and I think that some countries have neglected this approach. The present fiscal and economic crisis in Europe, which began with Greece, created the concern in Germany that Europe was losing its international competitive edge.

Where do the bailout agreements come in?

The memorandums say two things: Get your fiscal situation back in order so that one day you can get money from the markets again and, second, implement the structural reforms which are necessary in the 21st century in order to be able to compete in the global arena. Again, the global framework in which we are all moving is being neglected in the public debate. The mere fact that exports in Greece have been rising for months now shows that there are competitive Greek products beyond tourism that are being asked for from outside. This success may be the most important signal that the memorandums are working.

On the other hand, people are suffering from the strict austerity policy.

The weaker strata of society suffer most from the cutbacks in spending, but this is not going to be a permanent situation. After all, austerity is not the right word to describe what Europe is pursuing, which is fiscal stability. Austerity is not at the core of European policy. The concept of austerity excludes, for example, the whole issue of structural reform. The amazing thing to me about this is how little structural reform appears as a topic in the public debate in Greece. The ability of the state structures to deliver, the effectiveness of the existing set of rules, the justice system – all these things are hardly being questioned and discussed by the broader public. I find it even more amazing that you hear so little from the business community about structural reform. You have individual opinions but when you talk of lobbies here in Greece, you seldom hear the big business communities saying something like, “We demand a lean and efficient civil service, we demand that red tape be cut, we demand the liberalization of professions.” You don’t find this clarity. I am concerned that these important structural changes will not last if they are being seen as done under pressure because they are in the memorandum. What you need is a general conviction that modernizing the state is the key to recovery.

There is a prevailing feeling that Germany is dictating how Greece and other countries in the EU should behave financially and in general.

Germany carries a specific weight in the decision-making process in the eurozone for two reasons: first, the sheer size of its economy within the EU and the fact that at the moment we are doing quite well – and I stress at the moment – because no one can guarantee that it will stay this way forever. There are already first signs of a slowdown in the economy. The second reason is that German resources have to carry much of the weight of the European recovery program. However, decisions in the Eurogroup are still unanimously reached by all EU members.

There have been numerous complaints from the European Parliament regarding the behavior of certain German deputies.

Many people are asking Germany to take the lead, some say it is not doing it decisively enough and others say it is doing so too much. I think some people who want Germany to have a leadership role want it to be more lenient and to be more liberal in conceding or using German resources for other purposes. I am quite sure that there is a leadership role for Germany at the moment. It’s a fact. And that some people don’t like it is probably true as well.

Some say that Germany will eventually be punished for its behavior.

I wouldn’t agree with the theory of “German dominance.” Every time there is a debate about deepening integration in Europe, you will find that Germans are in favor. Deepening integration means giving up sovereign rights. And even though there is always a debate in Germany about how far it is going to give up its sovereign rights to “Brussels,” Germany is always on the side of more integration.

Do you believe that Germany has a plan for Europe, such as splitting it into a powerful North and a weak South?

No. I wouldn’t exclude that in some minds there are these ideas but that is not the mainstream. I mean why would we want to split Europe right now? We already had a split Europe for decades and splitting it again is not a good idea. Moreover, who can guarantee that Germany will not need the assistance and the solidarity of the other countries as well at some point? If you look at our demographic situation, you will see that in 20-30 years’ time, with 1.4 children per couple, we are going to have a problem. There is no country, not Germany nor Greece, that can imagine being better off alone or by making a small alliance with countries who are the moment in the similar situation as Germany. A mini-eurozone with Holland and Finland for example would not work.

Two sides to reparation claims: the legal and the moral/political

What are your views on Greek claims for World War II reparations from Germany?

All of my predecessors have dealt with this issue and this is part of our common history. As ambassador of Germany, you have to know and be aware that this is part of the debate in our bilateral relations. I was posted in Israel before I came here and I learned that you have to face your history. It is as if we don’t have a choice as Germans: We have a history and we have to take responsibility for what our forefathers have done. You learn it the hard way when you are in these countries. You can’t escape the truth, even when you live in your little world in Germany and don’t pay attention to what others say, but the fact remains that, even 70 years later, you deal with what your ancestors have done on a daily basis. So seeing with your own eyes the places where things happened – in Kesariani here in Athens, or in Kalavryta, Distomo and Anogeia – is part of your duty as a German citizen and as a German ambassador – to realize what has been done in the name of Germany.

Did you receive legal advice or were you briefed about the handling of the Greek reparations claims before coming here?

There is a legal aspect here and there is a moral/political aspect. The legal aspect – and I am a lawyer but practiced a long time ago – says that from our point of view there is no legal basis for the reparations claims. The legal reasons are complex and I would not like to be imprecise in this area. We have different opinions with regard to the legality of the claims; this happens. The moral/political aspect is different and in this respect we Germans have always accepted our moral responsibility for what happened in Greece, Poland, Ukraine, France, everywhere in Europe. We always need to bear that in mind in our relationships with our European partners, even though we have worked together over decades to build a Europe in which it is improbable these things will happen again and in which the rule of law, democracy and stability are the rule rather then the exception. But we still have to bear in mind that there are wounds that are not healed, that are still open, and we have to address that. Whether we are doing so in a proper manner is certainly a question we need to constantly ask ourselves.

Let us go back to the legal aspect. As far as the war loan that the Nazi occupation forces obliged Greece to issue to Berlin during the war, documents have come to light showing that the Nazis recognized the loan and had started paying it off.

The position of the German government is that there is no legal difference between the forced loan and damages, that it is all one reparation issue.

Do you think that Greece will take legal action against Germany if it gets all the documents together?

We still need to wait for the ongoing legal analysis to see the perception of the [Greek state’s] legal council on this issue. There is always the question of whether these claims existed at all, and if they did, whether they were settled, and if they weren’t settled, whether they can be recovered. These are all different layers of the legal questions which have to be answered by both sides and if we find that we disagree, then we probably have to sit down and discuss them.

German daily Die Welt suggested in an article that Germany should make some kind of symbolic gesture acknowledging the Greek reparations claims and writing off a part of the Greek debt.

There are different approaches to the issue in the German media. Some commentators say that Greeks are bringing up the issue now because of their present situation and because they blame Berlin for that. Another lot of people wonder whether we have effectively stood up to our responsibility to all the countries of Europe. The Die Welt publication reflects this plurality of opinions.

There is also evidence to suggest that the occupying forces looted archaeological relics and works of art.

We are not aware of cultural treasures which were looted or taken away by the Wehrmacht being now on display in German museums or in German possession or something like that. I wouldn’t exclude that individual soldiers or other looters in those days took treasures or antiquities and took them either to Germany or somewhere else. I am not aware that this actually is a big issue.