A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

“I Strongly Advise Against Arrogance”


Wolfgang Schäuble, president of the Bundestag and Germany’s most experienced politician in European affairs, reflects on the role Berlin needs to play to stabilize and advance the European Union.

© AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

Mr. President, we’d like to start by reading you a quote: “The process of European integration has reached a critical juncture. If we don’t manage to find a solution, the Union will inexorably turn into a loose alliance of various subgroups, linked together by limited economic agreements. This type of enhanced free trade zone would not address the existential problems and external challenges facing European societies.” Does that sound familiar to you? It does sound familiar, because I have heard it repeated in various iterations of late. Did I say it?

Yes, in 1994. It was a passage from a paper you co-authored with fellow CDU lawmaker Karl Lamers on European integration, the so-called Schäuble-Lamers paper. But your words are just as relevant in the current context. It’s a description of European politics that has held true for decades. It illustrates our constant effort, or our struggle, if you will, to achieve greater integration in Europe. At the same time, we have to make sure people do not lose their orientation in the process. The danger of that happening has only grown since 1994. It remains the duty of politics to respond to change—to embrace progress while maintaining a necessary degree of familiarity. Otherwise, we leave room for volatile, populist movements and forces. Our free and democratic order requires cohesion, and to create that cohesion one needs a force of attraction—a magnetic core that pulls things together. It is a perpetual problem—only the times have changed since 1994.

What do you mean by that, how have times changed? Above all, the pace of change has accelerated. In 1994, Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” was still present in many minds. His premise that the market economy principle is superior to others is still valid today. But it is not as easy to claim that our political order has triumphed. Liberal orders are contingent upon certain preconditions: They require limits, rules, and cohesion, all of which are more difficult to create in a globalized world. That is where Europe must come in. The founding principle for Europe was to prevent a return to war, and that is still valid today. It was only a few steps from here (the Reichstag) that François Mitterrand uttered the words: “Le nationalisme—c’est la guerre!” (Nationalism means war!). But young people today no longer take that seriously. I do not worry that we will find ourselves at war with France. But war in Europe is possible again, as we experienced with the collapse of Yugoslavia. In 2014, as we marked the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, feeling thankful that we no longer have to live through such a conflict today, Ukraine was being occupied. After the disasters of the last century, I remain firmly convinced that European unification is and will continue to be necessary.

You’re considered an unshakable optimist. Wouldn’t the Wolfgang Schäuble of 1994 be disappointed that we are still grappling with essentially the same problems today? The Schäuble of 1994 did not know what 2018 would bring. And the Schäuble of today does not know what 2020 will bring. I am indeed an optimist; one cannot assume political responsibility without optimism or confidence. We cannot simply resign ourselves to problems or despair. Karl Popper (the Austrian-British philosopher) made the point that liberal, democratic orders are superior to others because they can learn from mistakes and correct them. And that breeds optimism (in our system). Europe has always made progress after crises. After World War I, the Japanese-Austrian writer and politician Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi envisioned a pan-European movement. His ideas gained more traction after World War II, but there were setbacks. In 1954, the French parliament rejected the European Defense Community, so we chose another path—the Monnet method, or economic integration paving the way for greater political integration. We make use of every economic opportunity to forge ahead—that is the core of the ever-closer union, and that isn’t wrong. But the reality of what Europe has become on a day-to-day basis is another matter. The effort and will to move forward remain. As Albert Camus said, we have to imagine Sisyphus as happy. Rolling the boulder up the European mountain time and again—politically, this is part of man’s fate.

Is there a particular German responsibility or role? There is, and historically it is not new. We are at the heart of Europe, and we are a fairly big country by European standards—a little too big, according to some. That is why it is our task to promote equality and cohesion in Europe. If we do not manage to do so, we suffer the consequences more than anyone. We in particular have to ensure that one of the greatest achievements of European integration, namely overcoming the East-West divide, does not disintegrate. The first day after her re-election, Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Paris; on the second day, she visited Warsaw. In the short time that I have been president of the Bundestag, I have reached out to various Polish partners—even though I know that foreign policy is not supposed to be my role. But I try to contribute where I can when it comes to relations with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Baltic States, or Hungary. That is our job.

But are there not limits to Germany’s ability to work with countries like Poland and Hungary, whose governments are shifting away from European values? When speaking with Polish colleagues, they are offended by the allegation that they are no longer honoring European values. They interpret it differently. We have no choice but to communicate with each other about those differences, without arrogance. We also have to take their unique experiences into account. The mass influx of refugees in the summer and fall of 2015 shook us all more than we realized. The chancellor’s recent statements on this matter were noteworthy and clear. But at the time, I made no secret of the fact that I believed the attempt to demand solidarity from Eastern Europe—based on the proportional distribution of refugees—was not constructive. I had a similar experience in 1990/91 as German interior minister, when we had more than half a million asylum-seekers who we sheltered across the country in accordance with our “Königsteiner Schlüssel” distribution quota system.
After German reunification, West Germans expected there would be a quota for the new states from the former East Germany as well. But I appealed to the decision-makers at the time to keep in mind that the East German population had far less experience living with people from different countries; they also felt that they had their own problems to overcome. So do you decide to force their hand, or show some understanding? Because of that experience, I spoke up against the path we were taking now, and I shared my reservations with the current Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who was finance minister at the time.

But it’s not just about understanding, or a lack thereof—the EU Commission is currently examining whether the rule of law is still being upheld in Poland … As I said, Poles are outraged at the presumption that their country has flouted the rule of law. We have to talk about it, and we can—but not when we look down our noses and say: ”I make the rules,” as if we were back in a classroom. Do we really have to teach Poland how to stand up for freedom and self-determination? I don’t know about that. Looking at the history over the last century alone, it is important to display some proper respect. If Poles had not had the courage to stand up to a dictator, we might not be doing this interview right now.

Do you see the situation in Hungary in the same light? Every country is different, and you have to look at Hungary’s history as well. Since the end of the Habsburg Empire and the Treaty of Versailles, I believe some 40 percent of Hungarians still live outside of Hungary. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was the first country to sign a mutual agreement recognizing minority rights. Every Hungarian government since then has been forced to honor that agreement. I met the current Prime Minister Viktor Orbán when he was still leader of the Young Liberals. He has come a long way, and such long paths change people. Just look at Recep Tayyip Erdogan and what he, as mayor of Istanbul, did to modernize Turkish society. He is no wolf in sheep’s clothing, nor is Orbán. You have to talk to them again and again, sometimes decisively, to communicate: We respect you, but we disagree on certain questions.

Doesn’t the Hungarian premier stand for a different kind of Europe? What does a “different kind of Europe” mean? There is no moral quality to the question of how best to shape Europe. I believe Orbán, too, embraces a Europe of shared values. The specifics—whether we need more or less integration, how we shape that integration, how to strike a balance between a Europe that solves problems that national governments cannot and a Europe that preserves a foundation of cohesion, orientation, and familiarity to maintain the stability of our democracy—those are aspects we have to fight to achieve every day.

Should Germany display clearer leadership in doing so? We cannot lead Europe alone. Just look at security and defense policy, the PESCO agreement, and it is clear that we are not in a position to lead Europe alone. And thankfully, we no longer even think of leading Europe by ourselves. That is why we need a close partnership with France and our other allies—including the United Kingdom. We also can draw upon our experience with federalism. We know that when there is one weak link, the rest suffer the consequences, too. On the other hand, when there is no powerful and uniform center, it is important that everyone complies with the rules. Otherwise one runs the risk of creating a moral hazard, as the economists Markus Brunnermeier, Jean-Pierre Landau, and Harold James accurately described in their book (The Euro and the Battle of Ideas) about the differences between the French and German approaches. The French have a strong, efficient state that can navigate crises and does not need a st rong set of rules. We on the other hand try to avoid crises, and for that we depend upon rules. Both approaches have their advantages, and I believe we can learn a lot from each other. I strongly advise against arrogance. Even before Emmanuel Macron’s election victory, I always said: Do not underestimate France—it is a strong country!

Should Germany be more generous in its European policy? We’re referring now to your time as finance minister and the reputation you gained in southern European countries like Greece and Italy. If you had seen how my fellow European finance ministers bid me farewell when I left the post, you would know that the image of me in the media has little to do with reality. We need certain rules in Europe—that’s not just my opinion, but the German position in general. I represent the somewhat old-fashioned perspective that if we have rules, we should try to stick to them—otherwise they are a waste of time. The dilemma we face in Europe is similar to the one we face here in Germany: How do you establish solidarity without eliminating the incentive for people to take action themselves? I cannot carry out reforms in other member states, even if I wanted to do so. Our European project may be incomplete and imperfect, but we have to learn to cope with that.

Looking at the next generation of European lawmakers, do you worry that they don’t see the image of a happy Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up the European mountain, as part of their duty? The older generation always believes it can do things better than the younger generation, but history has always proved that belief to be wrong. I hope the younger generation takes a different approach, and I’m not worried about it either. They bring to the table a vastly different perspective—they are far more open and have seen much more of the world. As students, they spend at least one semester abroad; in my generation, that was extremely rare. I often review the CVs of my colleagues in the Bundestag, and the younger members of parliament have an international experience that I can only look upon with envy. They will do things differently. Thank God. •

This is an abridged version. The full interview (in German) can be found here.