Sigmar Gabriel.

Former German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, a fellow at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies this fall, talked to the Gazette on topics ranging from global migration to Germany’s relationship with the U.S., the European Union, and China.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Nation & World

New thinking for Germany

long read

After decades under U.S. wing, fresh policies should tackle clear problems, says former top official

As the former vice chancellor of Germany and minister of foreign affairs in the coalition government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Sigmar Gabriel is in a unique position to comment on current conditions in Europe.

The John F. Kennedy Memorial Policy Fellow at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES) this fall, Gabriel on Nov. 1 will give the inaugural Guido Goldman Lecture on Germany and on Nov. 5 the keynote address discussing Europe’s security issues at the CES Summit on the Future of Europe. In an interview, the Gazette talked with Gabriel on topics ranging from global migration to Germany’s relationship with the United States, the European Union, and China.


Sigmar Gabriel

GAZETTE: In Germany, as in the United States, nationalism and populism are on the rise. Do you see similarities or differences in these movements?

GABRIEL: I met the former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson the day after he came into office. I visited him in Washington and asked him, “Please explain to me the election of Donald Trump.” He answered, ‘It was a ‘Can you hear me now?’ election.” I think that’s a good explanation. Parts of society feel that the political elites do not recognize them, do not know that there are people in rural areas and families in bigger cities that cannot afford even a small flat. It’s the failure of centrists and progressives because they do not deliver alternatives and the only alternative that some people find is nationalism.

GAZETTE: Is there also a sense of immigration and the rise of populism as a security issue?

GABRIEL: I think it’s a trigger in Germany. You will find the highest rate of voters for the right-wing populists in regions where you do not find migrants. During the last federal election, people asked me, “So over the last few years, whenever I ask for a higher pension somebody tells me, ‘That’s impossible.’ Now a million refugees are coming, and you are offering them billions of Euros. So why do you give money to them and not to us? We are the taxpayers.” There is something that is triggering the emotions, but it’s not the real reason.

GAZETTE: You recently told the publication Der Spiegel that Germany can’t just stand on the sidelines, but most Germans don’t seem to want an active military. How do you reconcile this?

GABRIEL: First of all, not everything is about the military, but Germany has the potential to use much more of its diplomatic and economic influence. In some cases, you need military interventions because you will not convince Boko Haram and other terrorist organizations to put their weapons down and bring back the schoolgirls. Sometimes you have to fight. I think during the last 70 years we were in a very comfortable situation. Because of the experiences of the Second World War and the First World War, the rest of Europe and especially the United States, thought, “Let’s put Germany in a situation where the country will never try again to go it alone, never try again to be a hegemonic power, and never go alone to create wars.”

GAZETTE: You are saying that the United States intentionally pushed Germany to become nonmilitary?

GABRIEL: It was a political decision of the United States to place the burden for around 70 percent of the defense spending for Europe on the shoulders of the citizens of the United States. That was not a charity idea; it was in the interest of the United States because the United States thought, “We don’t want to send, for the third time, our kids into a world war in Europe.” Originally, the idea to found a European Union was the Marshall Plan. It was an interest-driven policy by the United States, and it brought us into a situation where we were geopolitical vegetarians because when we were not vegetarians it was very dangerous for the rest of the world.

GAZETTE: And now the U.S. has changed its priorities?

GABRIEL: Now, I think for good reasons, America says, “Times have changed. Europe has the same economic power as the U.S. Why should Europe not do more for its own defense?” I would say that’s fair. I’m not a promoter of investing 2 percent of the GDP every year only in the German army because it would mean €80 billion every year to the army. France is a military power with nuclear weapons, and they only invest €40 billion each year. But to invest 1.5 percent of GDP in our own defense and 0.5 percent in the common defense policy of Europe would show that Germany is willing to take on responsibility for the public good, which in the past was only taken on by the U.S.

GAZETTE: In your new book (“Zeitenwende in der Weltpolitik” or “A Turning Point in World Politics”), you call for a common EU (European Union) foreign policy.

GABRIEL: Such a policy is necessary because in the world of tomorrow, even Germany is too small if our kids want to have a voice in the world. I mean, Asia is growing, Africa is growing, Latin America is growing. Europe is shrinking. If our kids and grandkids want to have a voice in the world of tomorrow, it should be a common European voice.

GAZETTE: What do you think of French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for a European intervention army?

GABRIEL: I understood him. Look at Libya and imagine it would be possible to form a government of unity in Libya. Then, somebody would have to fight against the militias, which control these concentration camps where they organize human trafficking under horrible circumstances. A new Libyan state would not be able to do this. France has said, “OK, maybe we are willing to do that, but not alone.” I think that’s right.

GAZETTE: How does the European view of Russia differ from that of the U.S.?

GABRIEL: I’m not so sure that the U.S. and Europe have a different analysis of Russian policy. Maybe we differ on the question how to handle Russia. America is some thousands of miles away from Russia. In Europe, it’s our neighbor. If you come down from Finland to Spain, all have neighbors that are difficult. Russia, Turkey, North Africa, we always have difficult neighbors. On the west coast, we have the ocean and then the United States, but on our eastern border from the north to the south it’s difficult.

GAZETTE: So Germany and the United States have very different geopolitical situations?

GABRIEL: And geography and history define policy. I would say my advice would be: Remember what we did under the Harmel Doctrine at the beginning of the ’60s. We said we have to be strong; we have to have a common and clear position. Nobody in Russia should misunderstand our common position, but at the same time we are ready for dialogue. In parallel, we need strength and openness for dialogue, deterrence, and détente. I think that’s, even today, the right strategy.

GAZETTE: And with Ukraine?

GABRIEL: The only way to come to better cooperation with Russia would be to find a solution for eastern Ukraine. A blue-helmet mission from the United Nations was proposed by the president of the Ukraine and by the president of the Russian Republic, though they differ a lot about the circumstances on how they should implement this. But if everybody agreed on the withdrawal of weapons and to have a ceasefire, if we could come to an agreement about a U.N., blue-helmet mission, then maybe it could be the first step for better cooperation with Russia. Without that, it’s nearly impossible.

GAZETTE: What about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which the U.S. administration has disparaged as something that Russia can leverage?

GABRIEL: First of all, it was interesting that the American position and the White House position was very blunt. They said, “Europe should stop the import of Russian gas and should replace it with liquid gas from the United States,” which is 20 percent more expensive. It was a very honest position, but this is an economic debate. I would say, yes, Europe should not be too dependent on Russian gas. What is the way to have more independence? There are two options. First, to stop Russian gas imports and to buy gas from other parts of the world. But I would prefer the second option: to invest in the gas infrastructure and to have an interconnected gas infrastructure in Europe so that if Russia really would try to use gas as a political weapon, then you could say, “OK, we will buy our gas from other parts of the world. We can bring it in via the gas infrastructure from the west and the north and the south.”

GAZETTE: What are the different challenges with immigration within the E.U. and immigration from non-European countries?

GABRIEL: The challenge of this century is migration: 68 million people migrate. That’s more than any time before, and the majority of them do not try to reach the U.S. or Europe. These are migrants between the poorest countries and the poorest regions of the world, so we always should be a little bit careful complaining about the migrants coming to us. I mean, Germany has 80 million citizens and maybe 1.5 million refugees coming out of North Africa and Afghanistan. A country like Lebanon has 5 million citizens and also the same number of refugees, and it’s much poorer than Germany. We have to be a little bit careful and to do more to fight against the reasons for migration.

Then there is the migration inside Europe from European member states. Europe … had the idea that in a relatively short period the economies would converge. That has not been the case. The rich countries like Germany became even richer, and the poorer countries even poorer. So there is an incentive to migrate from the east and southeast to the northwest. Then the Brits, under Prime Minister David Cameron, started the idea that member states of the European Union should have an instrument that is able to control migration. Not to stop migration totally, but if too many people in the labor market would try to come and the social security system is overloaded, then member states should have instruments to react.

I supported that idea, but unfortunately the majority of the European Union rejected it. At the end of the day, it was a big trigger for Brexit. My advice would be, let’s be honest. We will not come to a convergence of our social society in a short period of time, so we have to use some instruments to control migration.

GAZETTE: In light of recent local elections in Germany, what do you see happening?

GABRIEL: I do not have a crystal ball. They are a shock for both major parties. For the Social Democrats, it is, of course, a disaster, but also for the Conservatives. I think that the only way to get back more support from the voters is to listen to them. Politicians always have a reason why things that our citizens asked us for are not able to be realized, and people are fed up with that. I mean, I’m a father of three daughters. One went to school this summer. In Germany, we do not have enough teachers for our primary schools. I asked myself as a father, “What the hell did those ministers for education do for the last seven years?” Because 6½ years ago it was clear that my daughter and thousands of other kids would come to school this summer. Why did they not educate new teachers at the universities?

So, of course, some other parents who knew that I am a politician asked me, and normally a politician from the federal level says, “Oh, yes, you are right, but unfortunately this is the responsibility of the state.” If they ask, “And what about the building; it’s in a very bad shape?” Then we answer, “Unfortunately, this is the responsibility of the communities.” Then the parents say, “We don’t want to discuss responsibilities with you. We want to see that something is happening.”

GAZETTE: So it sounds like you’re predicting an angrier Germany?

GABRIEL: At the end of the day, we are a stable country. Don’t forget, 15 percent voted for the right-wing populists, but 85 percent did not vote for them.

GAZETTE: Before you were foreign minister, you were minister of the environment. What is the role of Germany in climate change?

GABRIEL: What is the role of Germany and Europe? Whatever we do will not save the climate. The big emitters are in the U.S., in China, and other parts of the world. However, if the richest part of the world is not able to show to the poorer ones that we are able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without negative consequences for our economy, then nobody will follow us. So we have to be frontrunners — not because if we are successful we will save the climate, but if we can show that it’s possible to combine climate change and economic prosperity, then others will follow.

GAZETTE: Would you discuss the role of China?

GABRIEL: Maybe the instruments that the U.S. president is using against China are not the right instruments, but his criticism of China’s behavior is right. China is the only country in the world that has a gigantic dual economic strategy. We should not blame China for having that. We should blame ourselves for not joining hands between the United States and Europe. But the current policy of the U.S. president is to have a trade war with China and with Europe, and maybe that’s not the best idea.

GAZETTE: What do you see as the future of U.S-E.U. relations?

GABRIEL: First of all, we as Europeans cannot live with Donald Trump but we also cannot live without the U.S. I think, of course, there will be a next administration, but I don’t think that it will be again like it was before, because the change in our relations didn’t start with Trump. It was Barack Obama who said for the first time, “America is a Pacific nation.” The pivot to Asia, it’s normal. In a few years from now, the majority of American citizens will have no roots in Europe, so your country will change, and that’s normal.

It has opened the opportunity to have a new relationship. We will not go back to the old times, and we will not stay in the current situation. There will be a new United States and a different Europe, and we have the chance to develop a new kind of relationship between the United States and Europe, and I think we should start now.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.