Global Policy Forum

We Have to Move Away from a Europe of Small Minds

What does it mean to be European? With the establishment of the European Union in 1993, the question of European identity was at the center-stage of regional European politics. In the present context of financial and economic crisis, revisiting this debate is of uttermost importance.  In this Spiegel Interview Czech Foreign Minister Karl Fürst zu Schwarzenberg talks about what Europe means for him. Much more than a monetary union, Europe is a politicalproject. Economic solutions such as a two-speed Europe threaten this project. “Anyone who has ever driven on the German autobahn knows that the slow lane leads to the exit,” Schwarzenberg maintains. 

By Erich Follath and Jan Puhl

January 9, 2011

SPIEGEL: Minister Schwarzenberg, as an aristocrat from Bohemia, you spent most of your life in Austria and Germany, before returning to Prague and becoming a politician after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. You also have a Swiss passport. In which language do you dream?

Schwarzenberg: It depends where I am. Sometimes in Czech, sometimes in German.

SPIEGEL: So it's always Central European. In your opinion, how far does Central Europe reach? Which countries should still be part of the European Union?

Schwarzenberg: Central Europe has no clear borders. It passes straight through Germany. Düsseldorf and Cologne are part of Western Europe, while Munich and Dresden are already in Central Europe. It's a good thing that Croatia will soon join the EU. Ukraine should also be a member. I believe that the entire western Balkans should be part of the EU, at least if we want to avoid sitting on a powder keg. And Turkey, if it still wants to be -- provided it undergoes some important reforms.

SPIEGEL: So the EU still has a strong appeal for neighboring countries?

Schwarzenberg: Its light is flickering at the moment.

SPIEGEL: Is Europe using its influence appropriately to bring about change in Russia, with its authoritarian government, and in Belarus, a dictatorship?

Schwarzenberg: Europe has become very introverted. It looks beyond the edge of the plate, if you will, but not beyond the edge of the table. Europe has lost something of its global perspective.

SPIEGEL: Volker Kauder, the head of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) parliamentary group in the German Bundestag, recently said: "All of a sudden, people are speaking German in Europe."

Schwarzenberg: First of all, that's not really true. I just saw a study that clearly concludes that fewer and fewer young people in Europe are learning German, regrettably.

SPIEGEL: But you do realize that Kauder was speaking metaphorically.

Schwarzenberg: Yes, of course. But one has to be careful with such statements. In your country, one can certainly find the belief that "Am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen" (ed's note: a 19th century quotation that was later adopted by the Nazis and which translates roughly as "the German nature will make the world prosper").

SPIEGEL: On the other hand, some have practically demanded that the German government assume a leadership role in Europe.

Schwarzenberg: At the beginning of the crisis, I once made the following suggestion to a group of my European counterparts: Why all these complicated resolutions? Let's just enact an EU regulation that there should be a German accountant in every finance ministry in the EU. Everyone laughed, but now we're slowly approaching that point.

SPIEGEL: It's true. The Greeks already have a German watchdog.

Schwarzenberg: Sometimes Germans seem to be saying: If all of you could just be as industrious and frugal as we are, you wouldn't be in such a mess. There's even some truth to that. But one shouldn't declare oneself to be a role model.

SPIEGEL: Would you advise German politicians to be more modest?

Schwarzenberg: It's like this: The rich uncle who helps you out, but makes a big show of it, gets on your nerves. Small countries, in particular, are sensitive about this. And they don't necessarily like it when Ms. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy sit down and flesh out the policies, and then notify the others of their decisions. This can only go well for a while.

SPIEGEL: Your Polish counterpart, Radoslaw Sikorski, has taken a very pro-European and especially pro-German approach. He has urged Berlin to take the lead in the efforts to rescue the euro. He recently said that German inactivity scares him more than German power.

Schwarzenberg: That's truly a Copernican revolution in Polish political thought. I only hope that the Germans will acknowledge this appropriately. He is being strongly criticized for his position at home.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that Berlin should have responded in a more enthusiastic manner?

Schwarzenberg: I would have liked that.

SPIEGEL: Do you understand the German fear of becoming the main financial contributor to a so-called transfer union, where the richer members of the euro zone would subsidize the poorer ones?

Schwarzenberg: Of course I understand it. The only thing is, the German recovery and Germany's export performance are based on the fact that the countries that are now in debt went shopping on credit in Germany. Who benefited the most from all the reckless debt policies? You did! The Germans should keep that in mind.

SPIEGEL: And what is your opinion of the chancellor?

Schwarzenberg: Ms. Merkel is a very tough politician. She knows when it is best to wait until one's opponent destroys himself. This is a great art, which I acknowledge. Does she have a vision for Europe? Perhaps. But I for one am not aware of it.

SPIEGEL: Czech President Václav Klaus is suspicious of the Germans and highly critical of the EU. How do the Czech people feel?

Schwarzenberg: The Czechs are no more critical of Europe than the Germans or the Austrians. Incidentally, I am opposed to a two-speed Europe. Anyone who has ever driven on the German autobahn knows that the slow lane leads to the exit. I don't want to diverge from the main European direction.

SPIEGEL: Do you feel that the principal blame for the crisis lies with the banks or the politicians?

Schwarzenberg: The politicians, without a doubt. Budgets that required deficit spending were approved for decades as a matter of course. This couldn't go well indefinitely. Of course, the banks took advantage of this. In the last 30 years, there have been hardly any politicians who have warned against spending even more money.

SPIEGEL: Such politicians were immediately voted out of office.

Schwarzenberg: But one shouldn't be afraid of that. It's the way things go. Anyone who acts against his better judgment just to improve his showing in the next election is irresponsible.

SPIEGEL: Would the end of the euro also mean the end of Europe?

Schwarzenberg: Although the euro is an important project, it is only an instrument. The European Union was established as a political project, and it would survive without the euro. We must provide a uniting Europe with democratic legitimacy. The EU is a very complicated structure today. Brussels has taken control of everything it possibly could. As a result, we now have competencies there that would be more effective if assigned to regions or countries. We have to move away from a Europe of small minds. We have to take seriously the principle of subsidiarity (ed's note: a principle of EU law that states that the union should not take action unless it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level) and make important decisions together.

SPIEGEL: London opposed a European consensus in the last negotiations in December. Europe without the British -- is that possible?

Schwarzenberg: I don't believe that the British will leave the EU. They seem to have recognized that they made a mistake in Brussels.

SPIEGEL: You think British Prime Minister David Cameron could do an about-face?

Schwarzenberg: We would be much poorer without England. We need a common foreign policy, a common security policy and a common energy policy. We don't need a common cheese policy.

SPIEGEL: You say that you see yourself as a European through and through. Where exactly does this deep conviction come from?

Schwarzenberg: It clearly has something to do with my family history. Europe has shaped the major changes in my life, both positively and negatively.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean? How did you experience the major changes?

Schwarzenberg: I have my mother to thank for that. When I was 10, she said to me: Kary, you are now a teenager -- she was very English --, and now it's time for me to have a serious talk with you. I have to tell you that we will lose all of this, and that we'll probably have to leave the country.

SPIEGEL: How did that affect you at the time?

Schwarzenberg: I still remember the conversation very clearly, and I know exactly in which room of imelice Castle it took place. I did the only thing that was right at the time: I explored my native country one more time. In the summer of 1948, I walked down the Vltava valley, which has unfortunately disappeared into a reservoir today. As a boy, I absorbed everything I could.

'Václav Havel Impressed Me Right Away'

SPIEGEL: What was the experience of fleeing Czechoslovakia like for you?

Schwarzenberg: It was not a tearful one. We knew what was in store for us. We went to my grandmother's house on Lake Wolfgang (in Austria). We couldn't go to Vienna, because it was in the Soviet occupation zone.

SPIEGEL: You had a reputation as a bohemian when you were a student in Munich.

Schwarzenberg: But I was modest. My wise uncle gave me a modest allowance, so that I couldn't behave too outrageously. I soon became politically involved and -- this is something I'm still proud of today -- was voted into the general students' committee at the University of Munich, as an adviser on Eastern Europe.

SPIEGEL: How exactly did you meet Václav Havel, the dissident, poet and eventual president, who recently died?

Schwarzenberg: In 1985, at the suggestion of former Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, I was chosen to be the head of the International Helsinki Federation (for Human Rights), which documented human rights violations in the area covered by the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE). When I traveled to Czechoslovakia, I was always being watched by two intelligence agents, and so was Havel. Why should I meet with him, I thought, and thereby organize a meeting for four policemen? But Havel disagreed, and he had a mutual friend tell me that he wanted to see me.

SPIEGEL: Were you able to shake the men who were following you?

Schwarzenberg: Well, we met in a very loud bar near Wenceslas Square (in Prague), where bugging equipment didn't work. Havel impressed me right away with his tremendous sincerity, his search for the truth and his great modesty. He was fearless. And so we agreed to meet on a regular basis. After that I often traveled across the border in my car.

SPIEGEL: Was there a turning point in history, a moment when you were convinced that the communist regime was in decline?

Schwarzenberg: Yes, a small but radical event that Havel told me about. It was really banal. He had received a surprise visit from childhood friends from Moravia. There was nothing to drink in the house, so he did what every normal Prague resident does: He gets the big jug from the kitchen, walks to the pub around the corner, has the jug filled with good beer, and takes it home to serve to his guests. So Havel took his jug, but when he got downstairs one of the men assigned to shadow him stopped him and said: "We've looked into it, your visitors are not dissidents. Give me the jug and I'll quickly get the beer and bring it up!" When I heard that in 1988, I was sure that the regime was on its way out. Dec. 29, 1989, when Václav Havel became president, was the best day of my life. I knew that this nightmare in my country was finally over. Now I'm home again. I've survived the 20th century.

SPIEGEL: How did you feel when a portion of your estates was returned to you? Was it a triumph over history?

Schwarzenberg: Not a triumph, but more of a feeling of gratitude. After all, I was convinced that the regime would fall at some point, but I would never have thought anything would be restored to me.

SPIEGEL: You have announced that you are willing to run for president in 2013.

Schwarzenberg: Yes, but I'll probably end up among the also-rans. It won't make me bitter, though. I'm looking forward to my retirement. I would really like to travel, once along the Silk Road -- and then, again and again, all through Europe, this beautiful continent.

SPIEGEL: But because of a recent decision to have the people vote directly for the president, you, being so popular, could stand a chance.

Schwarzenberg: A small chance, yes, or else I wouldn't even run. But I'm too recalcitrant for many people.

SPIEGEL: The authenticity and transparency of politics, is that what counts at the end of a life?

Schwarzenberg: God willing, I will be able to say at the end: You haven't wasted your talents. You've lived in accordance with the responsibility that was imposed upon you.

SPIEGEL: Minister Schwarzenberg, thank you for this interview.


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