SPIEGEL Interview with Ex-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer 'Germany is Failing as a Leading Power in Europe'

Germany's former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, 60, speaks with SPIEGEL about the global financial crisis, the lack of German leadership in Europe and what Barack Obama is doing right.


SPIEGEL: Mr. Fischer, France and the UK held the last EU summit without the German chancellor, and many European countries are mocking the Germans' hesitant economic policies. Is Germany headed toward isolation?

Fischer: Things have not gotten that bad. But Germany is staring at its own navel, too much so for my taste. I have made quite a few trips these past few weeks -- to Paris, Lisbon and Copenhagen. Everywhere the first question was: Can you explain why the chancellor, in this crisis, where everyone is looking to Berlin, is leaving Europe in the lurch? Why doesn't Germany see tackling the crisis as a joint project? Why does Germany always say no, instead of assuming a leadership role?

Joschka Fischer
Werner Schuering

Joschka Fischer

SPIEGEL: What reasons do you see for this?

Fischer: I have noticed a disastrous shift in focus in Germany's foreign and European policy. Until now Europe itself has been the key project in German foreign policy -- what was good for Europe was also good for Germany, and vice versa. The country's current leaders, however, increasingly see Europe as a tool to push through Germany's own political agenda. This entails a significant risk for Europe, but also primarily for Germany.

SPIEGEL: What signs do you see of this shift?

Fischer: First and foremost, how the crisis is being addressed. Apparently the German government at first underestimated the gravity of the situation. It failed to recognize how great the risk is that we could slide into a worldwide depression. The fact that the German government did not energetically take action back in November caused a great deal of consternation and confusion in Europe.

SPIEGEL: Can you explain Berlin's hesitation?

Fischer: (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel is still struggling with the political blisters on her hands that she received from the radical reform pledges that she made at the Christian Democratic Union party conference in Leipzig and her support for the war in Iraq. As a result of this experience, she is more reserved and no longer rushes into things. Until now, if opinion polls are anything to judge by, this approach has served her well. She always takes positions that allow her to maintain a majority. However, in this global crisis, that is simply the wrong attitude. What is needed now is strategic, large-scale planning -- in the European spirit.

SPIEGEL: That would be the moment of calling for the self-declared great strategist, Joschka Fischer?

Fischer: This is not about me. But I do see a German government that is groping its way forward. Why aren't we presenting our own German proposals? Germany is failing as a leading power in Europe.

SPIEGEL: Does Germany have to pay more in order to lead Europe? Would an economic stimulus program also be a political investment in Germany's role?

Fischer: We do not have to pay in the sense that we have to pay off a debt. Generally, we expect the strong to do more than the weak, no doubt about it. Of course, we have to take great pains to ensure that budget problems, which other countries have brought upon themselves, are not simply dumped at our doorstep. But that is no reason to throw up our hands and say 'no' whenever our neighbors start talking about a European economic stimulus program. This requires a political approach.

SPIEGEL: But that would mean reassuming our old role as Europe's bankroller.

Fischer: That is precisely the national logic that alienates our neighbors. On top of that, it doesn't make economic sense. We are not the world's leading exporter because of our trade with China, but because we supply so many products to the EU internal market. Hardly any other country depends as much on Europe as Germany, and earns as much from Europe as we do, at all levels. The entire internal market is our market -- no longer just the German part.

SPIEGEL: Germans these days tend to perceive their neighbors as cheeky and greedy.

Fischer: There is a real danger here that the European project will run out of steam, that people will say: Okay, Europe is important, but now we've had enough. The German government promotes this type of thinking with its wait-and-see approach. At least the government now wants to introduce a second stimulus package. But why are they waiting so long?

SPIEGEL: The German chancellor says she's waiting because she first needs to know what US President-elect Barack Obama will do.

Fischer: We have known for a long time what he will do. Ever since the Democratic National Convention in Denver, we have known what is at the core of his intentions. I don't know who the German government sent there. I was there. Since then it has been clear to me. Obama is going to start off with a big bang. The week before last, if the figure was $500 billion -- today it will be over a trillion! The details, how much they will spend on education and how much on infrastructure, won't help us anyway because we, thank God, don't have their infrastructural problems. I suspect that the chancellor would simply like to act simultaneously with that shining light, Obama -- but is this tactical victory worth the price of going through three months of strife with Paris and London?

SPIEGEL: You have a reputation for seeing the gloomier side of things. Could it be that these inner-European problems will all be forgotten in three weeks?

Fischer: That would be nice, but I don't believe it. This brings us back to the issue of Germany's new orientation in Europe. Reaching a consensus within the EU appears to be too arduous for Berlin, in other words: Things are too complicated in Brussels, so let's go it alone.

SPIEGEL: Isn't that understandable? Europe's integration isn't moving forward.

Fischer: Of course it's arduous. But the alternative to a Europe with 27 members cannot be that Germany goes solo. I could very well imagine an avant-garde consisting of a number of countries that lead the way, but France absolutely needs to be one of them, whether we like it or not. Of course other countries have to take part, but working without or against France -- forget it.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, the indefatigable, vain Nicolas Sarkozy is undeniably a rather difficult partner.

Fischer: It has always been like that with French presidents. The relationship between Schröder and Chirac was horrendous for many years. The relationship Kohl/Chirac was also anything but good and harmonious. You don't have to love each other, you just have to achieve something together.

SPIEGEL: And if you don't like each other?

Fischer: Personal aggressions have no place in diplomacy. They are far too dangerous. You sometimes meet people who truly get on your nerves, and in extreme cases, if you are dealing with bloody dictatorships, they can even be revolting. In such cases, as the chancellor or foreign minister, you can't find enough soap to wash your hands after a handshake. That comes with the territory. But aggression is out of the question. It doesn't help when you read in German newspapers that the chancellor watches Louis-de-Funès films to understand Sarkozy better. What's the point?

SPIEGEL: Do German politicians have to be subservient to the French in order to lead Europe?

Fischer: Helmut Kohl said: "The German chancellor is best advised to bow twice before the French flag." I don't see it quite like that, but we are well advised to endeavor to understand a country which has become such an important partner. That is often difficult. But we are also certainly not an easy partner for the French. We have a totally different mentality. We tend to have diverging political cultures. This also engenders something positive and constructive, if you embrace it. That is something that Schmidt/Giscard d'Estaing and Kohl/Mitterrand succeeded in doing.

SPIEGEL: Germany is also at loggerheads with the British. The Financial Times compared Merkel's approach to Heinrich Brüning's belt-tightening policies during the economic crisis of the 1930s.

Fischer: We don't have to take every criticism literally. There are definitely exaggerations. But our government is acting like a bull in a china shop. Take for example Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück's tirade against Gordon Brown in Newsweek.

SPIEGEL: He accused him of "crass Keynesianism" and questioned the benefits of lowering their value-added tax.

Fischer: It reminds me of the Daily Telegraph interview, which led to an extremely inglorious affair.

SPIEGEL: In 1908 the newspaper published an interview with Kaiser Wilhelm II, where he read the riot act to the British. This sparked a crisis in German-British relations.

Fischer: Of course Steinbrück is not Wilhelm II. But it is exactly the same kind of brash "now I'm going to tell them what's what" -- a condescending tone.

SPIEGEL: A return to Wilhelmism?

Fischer: Oh no, those days are definitely over. But such interview attacks are bad foreign policy and don't fit with our role.

SPIEGEL: Steinbrück of course loves provocations.

Fischer: The finance minister has apparently not understood that one country is speaking to another here, one government to another. If you offend someone, not as a person, but rather in their political function, it has consequences.

SPIEGEL: Particularly as Steinbrück has made mistakes himself during this crisis.

Fischer: He stood before the German parliament and said: The financial crisis is a purely American problem. His coattails were on fire and he didn't even notice. He has pulled a couple of stunts during this crisis. There is absolutely no reason for him to stick his nose in the air.

SPIEGEL: What was his biggest mistake?

Fischer: Take Germany's bank rescue package -- truly a carefully crafted, top-notch product. In contrast to other countries, we have made the banks' participation voluntary -- and thrown in thumbscrews and hot irons for good measure. The banks of course have recoiled in horror because even on their boards of directors they are not particularly inclined toward masochism. I would have made the law mandatory.

SPIEGEL: Are Steinbrück's actions an indication that the Germans are focusing increasingly on their own national agenda?

Fischer: Yes, but not in the sense of something negative, something nationalistic. More like the French and the British.

SPIEGEL: A new normality?

Fischer: If you will. But there is a big difference. France and the UK are integrated into an extremely old foreign policy tradition. We are not. Take for example the Middle East. When you think of France, clear coordinates immediately spring to mind: Northern Africa, Lebanon and the Mediterranean region. It's a similar story with the British. However, if you want to define Germany's political role in the Middle East, aside from our special relationship with Israel, you are left only with foreign trade policy, or a big question mark.

SPIEGEL: In other words, we are weaker when it comes to foreign policy, so we are best advised to focus on Europe?

Fischer: German foreign policy only becomes stable and reliable if it is defined through the European prism. We had a break in our traditions with National Socialism and the Holocaust. So we cannot build on long historical experience. Things immediately lose clarity when we think that we can again define foreign policy more in line with our national agenda. We simply lack a firm foundation. Only defining Germany's identity within a European context has made it stable.

SPIEGEL: We cannot expect any help from the chancellor. She hasn't given any great speeches during the crisis, and hasn't shown direction. Do you see a lack of leadership here?

Fischer: This would actually be a golden opportunity for Merkel -- like the fall of the Berlin Wall for Helmut Kohl. He was an extremely ungifted speaker. But in a similar crisis he reacted with a 10-point plan for German unity. I have yet to see Merkel produce such a plan.

SPIEGEL: Why is that?

Fischer: Perhaps there is not enough pressure on the government to make every effort. That is my impression. This is an extremely negative aspect of the grand coalition.

SPIEGEL: Because there is no opposition?

Fischer: When Schröder and I were in power, when we went to sleep there was no way to know that we would still have a majority in the morning. It was constantly like that. You need an opposition, you need to feel their hot breath down your back. It makes you work. Merkel and Steinbrück are lacking this drive.

SPIEGEL: Europe is faltering due to a lack of German leadership. What consequences does this have for Europe?

Fischer: America will turn away from the Atlantic and toward the Pacific. China, Japan and South Korea are the main creditors of the US. If we are interested in having lively transatlantic relations, then we have to invest more. This requires a strong Europe which can serve as a partner to the US on the world stage. But if Europe ceases to be an effective power, the Americans will downgrade their relations with us.

SPIEGEL: At the same time, there are so many Germans who hope that Obama can save their world.

Fischer: This crisis will restructure the age of globalization in the 21st century. America will redetermine its role. Obama is bringing America together. America is reinventing itself in its worst crisis and growing together, while Europe is flying apart. Berlin is currently pursuing a course that will only weaken us.

SPIEGEL: What would Merkel have to do to become more European?

Fischer: It is important to coordinate your new stimulus program with the key partners in Europe and truly assume the responsibilities of leadership. This would be a second attempt, in any case. But it will come too late for 2009. That could be disastrous. From a political standpoint, though, I find it absolutely necessary that Germany once again assumes a leadership role.

SPIEGEL: We thank you for this interview, Mr. Fischer.

Interview conducted by Ralf Beste and Dirk Kurbjuweit.

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