Anna Lührmann, Minister of State for Europe and Climate at the German Federal government, talks to Christine Pütz about the results of the "Actually European?! 2022" study and what the citizens expect from Germany’s European policy at this “turning point in history”.
Christine Pütz: This is the fourth year in a row that the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung has collaborated with Das Progressive Zentrum on a survey on the citizens’ view of Germany’s role in the EU. It shows even more clearly than last year that most of the German population would like Germany to take a more active role in the EU. In which areas do you think Germany should have a more active European policy?
Anna Lührmann: Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine marks a turning point in history, very clearly highlighting that security policy and geopolitical issues are inextricably linked to our climate, energy and economic policy. Particularly now, in times of crisis, we are paying the price for our addiction to fossil energies and our huge dependency on certain supply chains. This is what we plan to change, not simply because it is good for the climate and environment, and therefore EU citizens, but also because it will give the people of Europe greater security and peace.
This is an area in which the EU and Germany must move forward with great ambition and determination: in the fight against climate change and to usher in a genuine transformation towards a greener and more sustainable economic model. This will allow the EU to continue to bold greater strategic sovereignty whilst reducing its dependencies. The keyword must be greater capacity for action. And, of course, by continuing to strengthen an EU that is underpinned by our common values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law – and that fights for these values, internally and externally.
These are also the approaches favoured by the European citizens in the framework of the Conference on the Future of Europe. We consider their specific suggestions to be important driving forces for Europe’s future – and the trigger point for ambitious reform.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine very clearly showed that freedom, democracy and the rule of law must be solid enough to stand up against despotism and violence.
Against the backdrop of the current threats caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it appears to outsiders that there are some members of the German Federal government coalition who are keen for the government to take a more active role (particularly among the ranks of the Greens and FDP parties) and others calling for even greater caution. Our EU partners, on the other hand, are virtually unanimous in wanting Germany, as the largest country in the bloc, to assume greater leadership and initiative. How can the government satisfy these very different expectations?
Russia’s attack on Ukraine very clearly showed that freedom, democracy and the rule of law must be solid enough to stand up against despotism and violence. The German Federal government has taken huge steps to provide the necessary answers to Russia’s attack and the watershed moment it as created – the extensive, unprecedented sanctions, the new special resources for the German army, the supplies of weapons to Ukraine, the decisions to halt North Stream 2 and its strenuous efforts to free itself from dependency on Russian energy imports – all an absolute paradigm shift in a very short space of time.
At the same time, it is vital to explain the decisions made jointly with our European partners to the citizens and to be upfront about the things that will be harder to implement and why. And we must make sure that we continue to make sensible, balanced decisions that we can uphold and take ownership of as the EU. Sanctions in particular must be carefully calibrated to ensure that we do not end up harming ourselves more than those they are aimed at.
What is quite obvious is that we need more Europe, not less.
The survey reveals that rather more people than last year believe that Germany will be more likely to achieve its political aims by working with the EU. The citizens have been impressed by the EU’s speedy and positive action, for instance in the weeks following the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. How can the EU live up to these greater expectations of its capacity for action and what specific contribution can Germany make to this?
European capacity for action has many dimensions – first and foremost, we need to ask ourselves how we can become more strategically sovereign and less dependent in the long term – in our foreign and security policy, in our energy and climate policy and in our economic policy. But the ability to make decisions quickly and implement them is also part of it – and this has never been clearer than in the last few weeks.
What is quite obvious is that we need more Europe, not less. We should not isolate ourselves with more strategic sovereignty; quite the opposite, we can strengthen our partnerships throughout the world. Germany can contribute an enormous amount to more Europe and stronger partnerships – for instance, by making the case in the European Council to continue the development the EU. For example, we are working to establish international climate partnerships and we put a lot of effort to rapidly enter EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania.
I have the impression that the EU is ready to forge ahead with the “dual transformation” – green and digital. The European Commission has tabled ambitious proposals on the matter, such as the Fit for 55 package. It is now time for EU Member States, including Germany, to organise the majority which is required in the European Council for a truly future-proof transformation. This is something the German Federal government is working hard to achieve.
As the EU, we must also see whether any other opportunities emerge from the Fit for 55 package and the REPowerEU initiative to bolster our international contribution to climate protection. As it adjusts to the climate crisis, the EU will also make a stronger international commitments.
In view of the threat of vetoes in the unanimous voting procedures, could extending majority voting in the European Council be a possible solution?
Absolutely! We are frequently hobbled when making decisions within the EU. Questions of common foreign and security policy, which often call upon Europe to make very quick decisions, are an excellent example of this. The treaties already provide for the possibility of reaching decisions in sub-areas by majority rather than unanimity.
The Conference on the Future of Europe also took position in favour of expanding qualified majority. But this will come up against the specific challenge that expanding majority voting requires the unanimous agreement of all the states. Therefore, we must work on winning over even the most sceptical states. We can do this if we seek solutions creatively and open-mindedly. A mechanism to ensure greater participation for EU Member States with smaller populations may be successful.
European capacity for action requires consensus between the EU Member States. This hangs in the balance at the moment, as some of the countries are themselves under threat of sanctions for breaches of the rule of law: Hungary, with its veto on the oil embargo, or Poland, even though it is taking a leading role in the alliance to support Ukraine. How can we ensure that a swift, united and decisive approach to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine does not come at the expense of the rule of law within the EU?
We need to draw a clear distinction here: questions of rule of law are one thing, reservations concerning political matters quite another. They are two different things – common principles, standards and values versus temporary differences of opinion – that should not be confused with each other. It is only to be expected that 27 EU Member States are going to have different opinions in certain areas and that compromises are going to be needed. But it is our common values, our foundation of freedom, democracy and the rule of law that ultimately binds the EU together. They are the essence of the EU and Russia’s war of aggression has forcibly reminded us of how important they are. We must continue to bolster our shared foundation.
For Germany, as a state in the middle of Europe and an export nation, the advantages of the EU far outweigh the cost of our financial contribution. But what the EU – and Germany – could do better is to promote the value that Europe adds.
A large majority of the people are in favour of new EU investment funds to secure energy independence and our defence capacity. Many of them could also envisage the introduction of EU taxes as a source of funding for these. At the same time, more and more citizens seem to feel that Germany’s financial contribution to the EU budget is too high. How will the traffic light coalition deal with this polarisation of views?
I do not agree that it is a polarisation of views, but a mixture of two issues. Firstly, as to what the EU costs us and what we get out of it in return, that is very easy to answer. For Germany, as a state in the middle of Europe and as an export nation, the advantages of the EU far outweigh the cost of our financial contribution. But what the EU – and Germany – could do better is to promote the value that Europe adds.
The second question is really about how much more integration we want to entrust to the EU. Certainly, the EU does not levy its own “taxes”, but the European Commission has proposed to create new “own resources” – for instance in the form of the proceeds from emissions training. That will put the revenue of the EU on a broader basis. And as the war in Ukraine has brought home to us, we cannot create energy independence and an increased defence capability for the EU as a single Member State, only in close alliance with the rest of Europe, together with our NATO allies. This means that these are the appropriate issues for an open consideration of “more EU”. But the conditions must be met first : a solid budgetary management is just as much a part of it as internal reform to create more capacity for action. There are good approaches to achieve both of these and we intend actively to work towards them.
The answer must therefore be more climate protection and more sustainability in favour of the people!
In the wake of the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, energy independence and defence were named in the survey as the top political objectives, but climate protection follows these in the citizens’ list of priorities. How can we make sure that the enormous investments that are to be put in place to increase energy independence in Germany and the EU will not come at the expense of climate protection, but are aligned with the European Green Deal and act as a catalyst for the socio-ecological transformation throughout Europe?
That is one of the most important questions we are actively trying to answer at the moment. The aims of energy independence and the green transformation are not contradictory – they are two sides of the same coin. For instance, of the 210 billion euros proposed by the European Commission in the framework of REPowerEU in support of European energy independence, just 5% will go into fossil infrastructure and the vast majority is earmarked for renewable energies and energy efficiency.
Right now, a lot of crisis decisions are necessary. But we cannot remain in crisis mode: we need to start setting a course for post-crisis times. Russia’s invasion only goes to show how important this is. Europe can only act on our own footing, if we can free ourselves permanently from fossil energy forms and establish stable and sustainable supply chains. The answer must therefore be more climate protection and sustainability in favour of the people! We intend to specifically work towards this with the implementation of the European Green Deal. We must also take account of the social consequences and provide support where necessary.
We must continue to work even harder to win over people who are sceptical about an ecological transformation.
Something else that has come to the fore in recent years is that the population groups with Eurosceptical tendencies are the same ones who are worried about losing out from the transformations ahead of us – mostly people from rural backgrounds, those living in precarious social situations and those with lower education levels. This phenomenon is mirrored in many other European countries. Meanwhile, it is already clear that energy independence and defence capacity as new political priorities will call for enormous financial resources in view of the current threats. How should Germany’s European policy and the EU itself deal with this area of conflict to avoid jeopardising social cohesion within the EU?
It is really important that we take as many European citizens as possible with us on our journey towards greater sustainability and climate protection – from all socio-economic backgrounds, from every educational background.
We can only do this if we firstly offer specific support easing the path to a green digital transformation, such as transitional assistance, opportunities for further education, better social protection. That is a job for the entire German Federal government.
At the same time, it would be a fatal error to leave the narrative of transformation open for the populists and Eurosceptics. In other words, we must continue to work even harder to win over people who are sceptical about an ecological transformation – in some cases out of concerns, in others because of uncertainty. This means, for instance, that we must communicate better – preferably on a local level, not just from Berlin – on how we can convert the short-term challenges of the transformation into opportunities for all sections of society. The eco-digital transformation brings with it countless opportunities – we must seize them, for our own benefit as well as that of future generations!
This interview was first published in German on boell.de.