© Federal Ministry of Finance / Hendel



Dr. Wolfgang Schäuble has done more to shape European policy in Germany over the last thirty years than almost any other politician. The Federal Minister of Finance talks about the state of the European Union (EU).

By Holger Wuchold

Minister Schäuble, what is next for Europe?
If Europe wants to remain relevant in the world, we need to move step by step towards stronger cooperation and deeper integration. This process happens more quickly in times of crisis than in calmer times. That has been the case over the last few decades, it is the case today, and I expect it to remain the case in the future. Incidentally, it is always economic integration that is the driving force behind political integration.

When it comes to dealing with the refugee crisis, the European Union has not shown a very impressive performance so far. Is the EU in danger of being torn apart by national self-interest?
It is true that this issue has stretched everyone's nerves and patience to breaking point. But that's how Europe is. As I said, it's mainly during crises that the pressure is large enough to change things. That may not be so laudable, but it's human nature. Recently, Europe has indeed achieved an improvement in the situation by working together - not by following a master plan from a single state, but through a mixture of what the various members consider to be the right approach. Just as it always works in Europe. We move slowly towards the correct joint answers together, and that is the case with this issue too.

Far-right and right-wing populist parties are making gains in many member states, including Germany. Do you see this as a threat to the liberal, cosmopolitan Europe we have known up to now?
Of course, this situation is not entirely unthreatening for Europe. Our country could probably do very well without the Alternative für Deutschland party, which is not an alternative at all. But I don't want to be a prophet of doom in this respect either. Those who support these kinds of right-wing - and also left-wing - populist movements are also expressing scepticism towards Europe. And this Europe, the European Union, the European governments, are not entirely without blame in this regard. At least one possible remedy lies entirely in the hands of all national governments that want it: we can regain people’s trust in Europe by consistently implementing what we have agreed, by simply sticking to what we have decided to do - with all the positive results this would have for the state of the currency union. The evidence for this is the successes that have been achieved where structural reforms and budgetary discipline were actually attempted.

As far back as the early 1990s, you initiated a debate on a "two-speed Europe". How might a Europe like that work in practice?
It is working already. We already have a two-speed Europe when it comes to the single currency and the abolition of border controls, to name but two areas. In future, we will probably see groups with different constellations of member states moving forward in certain areas increasingly frequently. It is too difficult to reach unanimous decisions in the EU with its 28 member states. The debate about a core Europe and different speeds and variable geometries remains relevant today. In the near future, we will probably continue to rely - indeed, we will have to rely - on instruments of intergovernmental cooperation in Europe, and sometimes also on coalitions of the willing. This could lead to the emergence of new momentum for integration.

Surely the first step towards a "two-speed Europe" is common budgetary and financial policy for the eurozone? Or even common social policy, including the adaptation of social standards?
No, I don't think so. The one thing is independent of the other. It is important to use the terms very precisely. Some in Europe see further mutualisation like this primarily as the further mutualisation of liability, passing on the costs of what they do, and do not do, to others, and introducing new European transfer payments. This is not what we want. As long as we in Europe are not willing to transfer additional key aspects of our national sovereignty to European institutions - and I don't see this willingness within Europe - then responsibility for our own actions will remain with the member states.

Is it even possible for Europe to assert itself against, for example, Asia and the USA, in our globalized world without further integration?
That is the crux of the issue and the current justification for the European project. If we are to achieve anything in the world of the 21st century, we need to be convincing in institutional and economic terms. Given increasing global interdependencies, nation states cannot create the necessary framework of rules and institutions on their own. European unity is the way to achieve new types of international and supernational cooperation. And if we look at the differing population trends and the new economic and political centres, a truly united Europe is the only way for us to continue to promote our values effectively. We need a stronger Europe, especially for the big, overarching issues that no state can resolve on its own: a fair and open internal market, trade, financial markets and currency, the climate, the environment, energy, and foreign and security policy.

Minister Schäuble, thank you for the interview.

Holger Wuchold, VDMA Capital City Office Berlin.