Photo Gallery: Fischer Criticizes Merkel's Government

Foto: Hannibal Hanschke/ dpa

Ex-Foreign Minister Fischer Berlin has 'Lost Touch with Reality'

In an interview with SPIEGEL, former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer discusses the mistakes the ministry's current leader Guido Westerwelle has made with Libya and Chancellor Angela Merkel's clumsy handling of the euro crisis.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Fischer, has former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a hero among Germany's conservatives and long-time chairman of current Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), become one of your fans, though you're the former champion of the opposition Green Party? Or is it the other way around?

Joschka Fischer: At least in this case, I think I'm allowed to speak for both of us and say that neither is the case. Perhaps I could ease your mind if I knew what you meant.

SPIEGEL: The two of you started sounding like kindred spirits a while back. In March, you wrote  that Germany had 'lost its credibility' and that its foreign policies had become 'a farce.' Last week, Kohl said that Germany 'has not been a reliable power'  and that Berlin has 'no compass.'

Fischer: It's irrelevant whether we sound similar or not. That's not what it's about. It's about a serious concern that apparently plagues us both with regard Germany's government. The fact that both a highly prominent CDU member and a not entirely obscure member of the Green Party are expressing sharp criticism that is similar in terms of content doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong.

SPIEGEL: What is it about Germany's current foreign policy and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle that bothers you?

Fischer: Pretty much everything. As the former foreign minister myself, the lack of fundamental convictions pains me. This is fundamentally much worse than losing your compass. We are being governed by those who have lost touch with reality and are denying what's obvious to everyone else.

SPIEGEL: Westerwelle is claiming that he played an important role in overthrowing Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Fischer: He claims in all seriousness that his sanction policies were primarily responsible for doing away with the Gadhafi regime. Everyone knows that's nonsense, and that absolutely no progress would have been made if NATO hadn't intervened militarily. No, the behavior of Germany's government during the Libya conflict, its abstention in the UN Security Council (vote in March on whether to impose a no-fly zone in Libya), was a one-of-a-kind debacle and perhaps the biggest foreign policy debacle since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany. Our country's standing in the world has been significantly damaged. And some of that also comes from Westerwelle's recent justifications for his Libya policies.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

Fischer: He spoke about how new centers of power would necessitate new strategic partnerships. One needs to take a moment to savor this sentence. Presumably that means that Germany intends to start pursuing its own global policies now with the new centers of power -- China, Russia, Brazil and India -- the same countries it joined in abstaining from the Security Council vote. I just don't understand it. Even in the 21st century, the basic features of Germany's situation haven't changed at all. We're too big to confine ourselves to playing a role like the one Switzerland plays. But we're too small to play the role of a global power. Our supreme interest should be holding tight to our anchoring as part of the West. In doing so, something that is paramount -- and, indeed, essential -- is finishing the process of European unification.

SPIEGEL: Westerwelle says he is acting in accordance with an important tradition in German foreign policy, namely that of being reluctant to take military action. Doesn't he have a point?

Fischer: Our military has no primacy, it's in our constitution. But a policy of being reluctant to take military action can't become a free pass for dictators to pursue policies of bloody suppression. In hindsight I think we waited too long before intervening in Bosnia back in 1995. In the case of Iraq in 2003, it was right for us not to get involved because the Bush administration's rationale for going to war didn't hold up and the consequences hadn't been thought through. It's always a difficult decision to deliberate on a military deployment. I wouldn't accuse any of our politicians of being trigger-happy.

SPIEGEL: Still, in the case of Libya, were you completely convinced that military attacks were necessary?

Fischer: Gadhafi was threatening a bloodbath in Benghazi; the civilian population was facing imminent danger. It was clear that a majority in the Security Council backed intervention and that there was also support from the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. What more could the German government really want before giving its approval? The Russian and Chinese abstentions can be viewed as silent approval. But let's not kid ourselves, Germany's abstention was effectively a 'no' -- and isolated Germany from its alliance partners.

SPIEGEL: Do you think Germany's abstention will have any long-lasting negative repercussions?

Fischer: The foreign minister went to Cairo before the UN decision and was greeted enthusiastically by the young people in Tahrir Square. The Arab World didn't view that as a campaign appearance or a personal excursion, but as a promise from the German government that it would stand by the Arab freedom movement. After that, one can't just say, 'Sorry, but now that things are getting serious, you all need to figure out how to deal with it on your own.'

SPIEGEL: Still, Westerwelle was worried -- and not without some justification -- that the UN mandate for Libya could draw German soldiers into a ground war.

Fischer: And where was the ground war involving Western armies that he predicted?

SPIEGEL: It didn't happen. But apparently there were Western military advisers and special forces units that provided crucial aid to the rebels during their advance in addition to the NATO air strikes against Gadhafi's compound. The goal was to effect regime change in Tripoli. But it was a very creative interpretation of the UN resolution, which called for a political solution and an end to the fighting in Libya.

Fischer: Most of the Security Council's resolutions can be interpreted in a number of ways.

SPIEGEL: There are some who say that the West only cobbled together a UN resolution because it needed a justification for chasing Gadhafi out of power with the excuse that the end justifies the means. Is that what modern international law looks like?

Fischer: No, of course not. It was primarily about the survival of civilians under imminent threat, which made military means unavoidable.

SPIEGEL: This still marks a turning point in international politics. In the case of Libya, for the first time in its history, the UN justified a mandate by saying that the international community bore responsibility for protecting an individual state's domestic population.

Fischer: It is a supremely positive development to see that despots will no longer be allowed to use the smoke screen of state sovereignty to get away with massacring their own populations …

SPIEGEL: … though the fact is that the majority of oppressed populations will derive no benefit from the development. In both Syria and Sudan, the opposition was suppressed and tortured just as brutally as the one in Libya, but nobody wants to intervene in those countries. Isn't this a case of double standards?

Fischer: There aren't just two sets of standards; there are all kinds of them. But the basic principle is always one and the same: We Germans tend to want to adopt principles that are recognized as correct in all places and at all times.

SPIEGEL: Do you find something wrong with that?

Fischer: That's just not the way the world is. In the case of Syria, the risks associated with military intervention are much bigger. Damascus plays a pivotal role in the Middle East conflict. Whenever one makes a humanitarian intervention, one always has to take the risks into account. In Libya, they were manageable. What's more, the fact that we aren't involved there gives off the fatal impression that Germany has generally turned its back on the Arab revolution. At the same time, this is a historic movement that can no longer be undone -- even if all parts of the story don't turn out to be shining successes.

SPIEGEL: How can Germany help a new Libya?

Fischer: With all the means at our disposal, and not only because we have something to make up for. With the construction of civil structures and institutions, ranging from a constitution to the police force and courts. Hopefully we won't say no this time if supplying a military component becomes necessary to safeguard these efforts. It's telling that the most sensible proposals about the postwar deployment that I've heard coming out of Germany's government are from the defense minister (Thomas de Maizière), who essentially revised Germany's stance on the UN decision after visiting the United States.

SPIEGEL: Europe doesn't have a common position on Libya, and it doesn't have a unified stance toward Kosovo. What's more, we will presumably see Europe's divisiveness in September when the United Nations General Assembly votes on whether to recognize a Palestinian state. Does the EU still have a future in its current form?

Fischer: It may well be that another rude awakening awaits Europe. The economic and financial crisis will force the United State to reduce its involvement on the global stage. When that happens, we Europeans will have to ask ourselves whether we can do more for our own security. If things remain the way they are currently organized and drafted, then the answer will be 'no.'

SPIEGEL: At the same time, the Lisbon Treaty is supposed to ensure that Europe speaks with a single voice on foreign policy issues. But we don't really get the impression that EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton has really done much to make that a reality.

Fischer: What's important in EU security and foreign policies is that the 'Big Three' -- that is, Germany, France and Great Britain -- are united and act together. If that happens, the EU can achieve a lot. But that also requires a willingness to work together. Incidentally, we have exactly the people in place at the EU that the heads of state and government wanted.

SPIEGEL: They wanted the lowest common denominator.

Fischer: If you want to know why that is, you'll have to ask Ms. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy. They bear responsibility for these staffing decisions. In all political camps, on both the left and the right, there would have better, more distinguished candidates.

SPIEGEL: Is the EU standing on the edge of the abyss?

Fischer: The fact that Germany's government evidently doesn't know how to deal with the financial crisis and the EU's future is a major problem. But at least people seem to have gotten the message that there's no going back to the deutsche mark without unleashing unbelievable chaos. That would definitely be the EU's swan song and a development that could no longer be controlled by anybody or anything.

SPIEGEL: So what should Germany's government do?

Fischer: The question is whether we just keep tinkering with things. Doing so will only make the crisis worse. Or should we proceed in a resolute manner? Doing so means having to refashion the EU into a transfer union, and obviously only in conjunction with a stability union. These are two sides of the same coin.

SPIEGEL: The term 'stability union' is unclear. Does it mean that Germany should keep transferring money while other EU states keep promising to cut more costs? That hasn't worked yet.

Fischer: It won't be enough to have a loose confederation of states bound by a currency union. That was Maastricht, and that failed. Those of us in the euro-zone group have to move from being a confederation to a genuine federation! We need more integration when it comes to fiscal, economic and even social policies. There ultimately has to be a United States of Europe.

SPIEGEL: Even if one shares this belief, it would take years to bring about. But the debt crisis needs to be resolved now.

Fischer: The mere act of clearly stating these goals would have a calming effect on the markets. So long as that doesn't happen, the crisis will continue to worsen.

SPIEGEL: Don't you think it will be a problem to get the citizens of the individual EU countries to back such a plan? They would prefer to see less Europe, not more.

Fischer: People are understandably rattled. I don't understand why the chancellor is pursuing this policy of baby steps, why she has yet to level with people. Already a year ago she should have explained to Germans the direction the EU had to take, that we need an expanded EU, that doing so is crucially dependent on Germany and that we will also have to help pay for it because it will ultimately be to our benefit.

SPIEGEL: Chancellor Merkel argues that countries like Greece would no longer have any incentive to implement reforms if Germany was always so quick to provide more aid.

Fischer: I would buy parts of her argument if I could see she had a strategy. But, so far, there unfortunately hasn't been one. Our government isn't acting; it's reacting. That's always bad in a crisis.

SPIEGEL: German President Christian Wulff has also been criticizing the government's EU policies.  He has questioned the legality of having the European Central Bank (ECB) buy up the sovereign bonds of heavily indebted euro-zone countries. That doesn't seem fit with your call for a transfer union.

Fischer: With all due respect to the president, as far as I see it, he's completely off the mark. In this case, I would have to defend the chancellor as well as the central bank. The ECB purchased sovereign bonds to avert an imminent crisis. That was the right thing to do, and it was also legal.

SPIEGEL: Do you concur with Helmut Kohl's analysis that the EU's main problem is a lack of enthusiasm for the European idea?

Fischer: The EU's main problem is that we are stuck in a political crisis. The crisis we find ourselves in is primarily not a fiscal one and not a euro crisis at all.

SPIEGEL: Some commentators say the EU's biggest problem is the EU itself.

Fischer: That's unfortunately the case. I have often wondered why today's generation no longer has any emotional relationship with the EU. Of course, the world has changed, but that doesn't explain it.

SPIEGEL: People take the positive things associated with the EU for granted, and blame it for all the problems.

Fischer: That naturally plays a role. It's also clear that the EU is always just a compromise, that one will never be able to regain one's former position 100 percent. I used to have to attend these EU meetings often, and sometimes they were downright caustic. But then I reminded myself that my father's and my grandfather's generations had marched out onto the battlefield for precisely these conflicts. It is certainly better to struggle through these meetings instead.

SPIEGEL: Are you optimistic about the future of the EU?

Fischer: We need to work toward the United States of Europe now. That is also completely crucial in light of our history. We are more dependent than others on the faith of our partners and former enemies in Europe and the world. As Helmut Kohl has correctly pointed out, there wouldn't have been German reunification without this faith, which we should guard jealously. Today, the country seems stuck in an inward-looking provincialism, and that's risky. We need the political framework for a strong EU now. I hope the crisis will force the current generation to do what's good for it.

SPIEGEL: Again we're touching on the issue of the compass that Helmut Kohl says is missing.

Fischer: A compass isn't going to get you anywhere in the 21st century. Instead, you need a functioning radar screen or, better yet, a GPS device.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Fischer, thank you for speaking with us.

Interview conducted by Erich Follath and Ralf Neukirch
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