Angela Merkel on Europe: 'We Are All in the Same Boat'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stands behind a window with the reflection of an EU flag on Monday, June 3. Zoom
AP/dpa

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stands behind a window with the reflection of an EU flag on Monday, June 3.

In a SPIEGEL interview, Chancellor Angela Merkel discusses Germany's power in the euro crisis and explains why the country exports weapons to authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia.

SPIEGEL: Chancellor Merkel, the US magazine Forbes has named you the world's most powerful woman for the third time in a row. When was the last time you felt powerless?

Merkel: That isn't a feeling I normally have, even though I can't always achieve what's important to me right away, of course. I have to be patient and convince others to go along with me. This applies to both domestic politics and international affairs.

SPIEGEL: Has the German chancellor's power grown as a result of the euro crisis?

Merkel: It's hard for me to say, because we all work within our own context. In any event, the German government's policies are attracting a great deal of international attention. Measures have been approved in recent years that in the past I would have thought were unlikely. For example, after the ratification of the European Union's Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, many believed that European development, at least with regard to major changes to treaties, was finished for the time being. Then came the sovereign debt crisis and we, for example, were forced to introduce a fiscal agreement, or the European Stability Mechanism, which can be used to help crisis-ridden countries, provided they commit themselves to a restructuring plan. This shows that Europe is capable of change and reform, perhaps more than we would have given ourselves credit for.

SPIEGEL: You just had a visit from Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang. Who has more power at home, he or you?

Merkel: In our meetings, we discuss issues that are important for both of our countries, like the condition of the euro or the situation in the South China Sea. Of course, I try to put myself in the shoes of the person I'm meeting with, and if we are sitting across from each other, people expect us to be able to get things done in our respective countries.

SPIEGEL: The mixture of one-party rule and capitalism seems to work very well in China. Nevertheless, will the Western model, the combination of market economy and constitutional democracy, ever stand a chance in such countries?

Merkel: Human rights are indivisible. Human dignity isn't just important in Germany, but everywhere in the world. I'm convinced that the rule of law, democracy and freedom will be unstoppable everywhere in the long run.

SPIEGEL: Does that mean that countries like China will come to resemble Europe more than the other way around?

Merkel: Human rights are indivisible. Aside from that, it's important for Germans and Europeans to recognize that China is going to great lengths to become prosperous, as well. If, in doing so, it behaves fairly in relation to global competitors, we have no right to stand in its way. Instead, we have to make sure that we keep up with this dynamic economic development and take advantage of our opportunities in connection with the country's rise to prominence. At the same time, I'm under the impression that the Chinese leadership is certainly aware that the population expects greater respect for the rule of law, more efforts to fight corruption, more environmental protection and more freedom.

SPIEGEL: Are Western democracies too slow to keep up with radical global changes?

Merkel: Speed is important, but it isn't everything. Democracy remains superior, partly because built-in checks and balances make it less prone to failure in the long term. But it is true that we need to speed up the pace of our decisions in a global financial crisis. I, for example, have turned my attention once again to the law that regulates the recognition of foreign professional qualifications. It took decades to get this sort of legislation up and running, and only this administration managed to succeed. Did it have to take so long? I don't think so.

SPIEGEL: How far has Europe already fallen behind in terms of global competition?

Merkel: We are among the most developed regions of the world. We are so developed that we don't have to emphasize quantitative growth alone but can also focus on qualitative growth. At the same time, Europe is not consistently on top when it comes to research and development, because some countries haven't invested sufficiently in this area. In some areas Europe is very pro-regulation or, put differently, too bureaucratic. Those who make up just 7 percent of the world's population and generate 20 to 25 percent of global economic output, while at the same time providing just under half of the social benefits in the world, must explain how this can be paid for in the long term.

SPIEGEL: And how is this supposed to work with an aging population?

Merkel: It can also succeed with an aging population. A person who is 70 today is like a 60-year-old 25 years ago. Aging alone is not a reason for a society to stop being innovative. Fortunately attitudes toward aging are changing. Staying active and life-long learning are becoming increasingly important. Many old people have a great deal of experience to contribute. This was not sufficiently taken into account when early retirement programs came into effect in Germany. Because we want to maintain our standard of living, we decided to extend the retirement age to 67, so that people can work longer than in the past. Many can and want to do so.

SPIEGEL: As chancellor, do you also feel responsible for countries like Spain and Portugal?

Merkel: We are all connected to one another, because for us in Germany, much depends on what happens in Portugal, Greece, Spain and other countries. We are all in the same boat. No European country can be strong in the long term if others are not doing well.

SPIEGEL: There is a curious circumstance by which you are very popular here in Germany but a controversial figure in other parts of Europe. Do you pay too much attention to German interests and too little to European neighbors?

Merkel: As the German chancellor, I always want to best for Germany and for Europe because I am profoundly convinced that Europe's prosperity in 20 years depends on how we set the course today. If we do not view ourselves and our strengths and weaknesses in a global context, if we forget or ignore how hard countries in Asia or South America are working to become more competitive, Europe will fall behind globally. We have to have this discussion, even if it is controversial at times.

SPIEGEL: How long can Brussels continue to impose austerity on countries like Spain and Greece, a policy that the majority in those countries does not support?

Merkel: Democratically elected governments are our partners in all of these countries. My Greek, Spanish and Portuguese counterparts are all democratically authorized to pursue their courageous and arduous course of reforms. In politics, we are repeatedly forced to make decisions that are not popular at first. Take, for example, the retirement age of 67, which we've already addressed. It still has little support in the polls, even if it remains unavoidable.

SPIEGEL: Once again, what makes you so confident that the countries in Southern Europe will subject themselves to your austerity mandate in the long run?

Merkel: Many people in these countries know that years of undesirable developments led to these problems, and that this is why something has to change. At the same time, I know all too well that the necessary reforms demand a great deal of them. Many often justifiably raise the question of fairness, and whether too much is being asked of ordinary working people while the more affluent seem to be getting off lightly. In many countries, for example, labor laws for young people have been made very flexible, which means that when a company runs into difficulties, they are the first ones to lose their jobs. There is also a fierce debate over fairness when it comes to older workers, although in their case we cannot forget the reasons for the difficulties.

SPIEGEL: Youth unemployment in Southern Europe is above 50 percent in some cases. The austerity policies you have imposed are having disastrous consequences.

Merkel: Budget consolidation and reform mandates were negotiated with the governments of these countries and are offset by the solidarity that these countries are getting from Europe and, therefore, from us. Youth unemployment was already high before the crisis in some of the hardest-hit countries. The German government intends to do its part to ease the situation in that, for example, we are planning a loan program for countries in Southern Europe, funded through the government-owned KfW Bank.

SPIEGEL: A common accusation against you is that you lack a grand scheme for Europe's future. Some say that you don't have such a plan because you pursue a policy of small steps. Others say that you most certainly do have this grand scheme, but that you chose not to reveal it because it would provoke unnecessary resistance. Who is right?

Merkel: I really do believe that it is reasonable and promising for us to work our way out of this crisis step by step, because the one overarching solution doesn't exist. But, of course, you can only take these steps if you have an idea of the direction you are taking.

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1. Pax germanica? No thanks!
euroisnotonlygerman 06/04/2013
Are the southern europeans homeless a side effect of the new pax germanica? Yes that is for sure. will we forget it? No, we will never forget it. When Germany needed help all the world have contributed and what is the result: indifference! Each passing day the German image is sinking and no Europeans want to live on this domain so hideously marked by History. You can keep talking, but your acts will be the ones to endure in History. The balance is inevitable in everything in life and balance in Europe will come when Europeans feel that this country will have no more to do with the rest of Europe, once more for the third time...
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