– Ambassador Ischinger, is democracy out of date?
Absolutely not. I think we have a problem with credibility, a problem with trust—trust in our political leaders and the credibility of the promises they make. We have a crisis of democratic leadership and, perhaps most importantly, democratic countries are not multiplying. On the contrary, if one uses classic criteria, the number of truly democratic countries is declining and the number of authoritarian countries is increasing. In other words, as democracies, we are on the defensive. Still, I think democracy is still going to prove the most successful form in the long run. Because I think the more citizens in the so-called developing countries, in authoritarian countries, become wealthy and middle class, the more they will want their voice to matter. And in authoritarian regimes, their voice may well be totally ignored. So, I think the democratic principle of one man one vote, or one woman one vote, is really a fantastic principle, and it will win in the long-term. But we need to make sure that our current issues of credibility, trust, etc. are taken seriously, and that we fight for these democratic values. We must not sit back and wait for the authoritarian regimes to take control of even more parts of the world.
– Well, we see that people want to vote for far-right parties now in countries that are pillars of the European Union, like Germany or France, and that is worrisome. They seem to offer people the solutions or the answers they want to hear. Are you worried about that?
Yes, I am worried about it, but I have an explanation which may not please everybody. Let me put it this way: in democratic countries, the political pendulum tends to swing back and forth. In some nations, it swings back and forth very quickly, while in others, it may take years to go one way before swinging back. And in Germany, there has been a tendency for a number of years for more left-wing thought to dominate, even though we had a ‘conservative’ chancellor. But the mainstream political developments have not really been conservative, they were more on the left. And they have led to certain phenomena which the average citizen finds unacceptable.
Take illegal migration. Our governments have seemed unable to get a grip on the problem, and citizens say “Well, my government is not doing anything about it, so I’m unhappy and so I will vote for the far right, because I want to demonstrate my unhappiness.” I think the pendulum will swing back again, but that will require our governments to listen to voters and take their concerns seriously. It’s not only about illegal migration, it’s about a whole range of issues in many countries in the European Union and also in the United States. I have to say the pendulum may have gone a little too far in that direction, but it will swing back in the long run.
I’ll repeat myself: I’m not so pessimistic and I think we can manage this, as far as Germany is concerned. I am far more worried about the future of France, because there we almost saw a victory for a right-wing presidential candidate. And since in France, the only position that really matters is the president, that would have meant a different France.
In Germany, if the far right gets say 10, 15 or maybe even 20%, it will not really impact the nation’s stability, because, unlike France, we are a federal country with 16 states and there are still a lot of mainstream, traditional political parties. So, I think Germany is relatively stable, even if the far right has, unfortunately, won a lot more support than it should have.
– There is a lot of talk in the European Union right now about enlargement and the Western Balkans. Well, we saw what happened with the last enlargement, and we see what is happening in Hungary now. Are you in favor of embracing the Western Balkans? And are you worried that if the European Union does not embrace them, then Russia or some other powers, China perhaps, will? Which would make the problems facing Europe even bigger.
Well, I happened to be Germany’s chief negotiator to end the Balkan wars in ‘95 in Dayton and ‘99 in Kosovo. As a diplomat, I’ve spent more time traveling from Pristina to Belgrade and back and on to Sarajevo than I’ve spent in Berlin. So I know these places and I have many friends in the region. I think we must absolutely stick to the promise we made in Thessaloniki in 2003, which is now exactly 20 years ago. I think credibility of the European Union is at stake here at a very fundamental level. If we don’t keep our promise, I wouldn’t be surprised if, frustrated and disappointed with us, these countries went the other way. So, we have to do it; we have to bring them in and we shouldn’t hang around. So, no more excuses as to why we can’t do it. We need to do it now.
– Do you think that EU should give up on Turkey?
I have never been one of those who believe there in no place for Turkey in the EU.
When I was State Secretary in the Foreign Ministry 20 years ago, I personally worked very hard to make the arrangements that allowed Turkey to start negotiations; we agreed that at the end of ’99, in Helsinki. And I think we should have gone ahead, even if President Erdoğan has made life miserable for us, though I hope not for the Turks. So he does bear a certain amount of responsibility.
But I think it would be a grave mistake for us to give up on Turkey. I don’t think we should ever give up. And the one thing that’s certain is that President Erdoğan isn’t going to remain at the helm of Turkey forever. There is going to be a successor at some point. Perhaps Turkey will come around and rediscover that its best friends are actually among the partners in the European Union, or in NATO, because Turkey, like Greece, is a NATO member. So we are in this together, and I think it would be a big mistake to write Turkey off, even if it has been extremely trying in recent years.
– Are you pessimistic about the war in Ukraine? Can the war end while Vladimir Putin is still President of Russia?
Well, I don’t know whether the war can go on forever. I think there is a good chance it will be brought to an end at some point. But there is more here than just the current conduct of the war; we are facing the change of an era. We are faced with a fundamental, historic problem: the re-emergence of a large and aggressive post-colonial power in Europe.
Russia happens to be in Europe, and that brings with it the threat of military aggression which the Ukrainians have been at the receiving end of. There have also been threats of nuclear escalation out of Moscow. In other words, our world, the world that Greece and Germany have enjoyed since the Soviet Union came to an end 33 years ago, that world is now gone and we will have to deal with a conflict-laden situation, rich in conflict and threats, for a long, long time. In other words, paradise lost and the conflict situation won. For me, that means we—as Greece, Germany and the other partners in the European Union—need to accept the fact that the original idea of Europe, of building the EU, which was integration and getting together, is now no longer sufficient.
There is a second mission we now need to face, which is the mission Emmanuel Macron expressed in four words when he said we need a Europe that protects. Which is a very different mission from that of a European Union that integrates.
– Do we need our own army?
We need to have the capacity to defend ourselves. I’m not talking about a European army, but we do need to do more about defense. Greece has spent a lot of money on defense, but we are lagging behind as a bloc. We need to talk seriously about a defense union. There was a paragraph in Ursula von der Leyen’s speech about the defense union. I think that is very important. And defending, protecting the European Union against foreign aggression, protecting the European Union against illegal migration, protecting the European Union against transnational crime, against Mafia-style criminal activities, against international cybercrime, which does not respect borders, that is the new mission we need to add to our classic integration mission. In other words, I think the consequence of the change in our global threat situation, in the global climate, is that the European Union needs to evolve and become a different union than the one we had in the wonderful, peaceful 1990s.
– And not depend so much in the United States, because if Donald Trump wins the elections…
Well, for the time being, we are not capable of defending ourselves. So we need to be able to rely on the United States for as long as it is possible to do so. But we need to seriously consider a Plan B. And I think the Americans would love us if we could present a European Union that covers a significant portion of the collective defense burden. I mean, America has been accusing us of being security free-riders for 50 plus years now, benefiting as we do from the nuclear and military protection provided by the US. That’s not healthy. But I am in favor of a strong role for the US in Europe.
I don’t want to say “America, go home.” I want to say “Europe, be stronger!”
– Thank you so much, Professor Ischinger .