In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, 53, criticizes the U.S., China and Hungary for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He also promises not to abandon Italy and explains why he doesn’t want to say that he’s actually in favor of corona bonds.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is critical of the way the United States, China and Hungary have gone about tackling the coronavirus. China, he says, “has taken some very authoritarian measures, while in the U.S., the virus was played down for a long time.” These are extreme models, he adds, neither of which can serve as a model for Europe. The European Union’s approach, Maas says, “show that even liberal democracies can impose drastic measures if they are proportionate and necessary.” He also urges citizens to oppose negative propaganda and not to undermine the value of the EU by blaming Brussels for everything that goes wrong. “What’s that all about? When things don’t work out, it’s our own fault.”
DER SPIEGEL: Minister Maas, you traveled so much before the corona crisis that you overtook your predecessors Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Joschka Fischer and Frank-Walter Steinmeier in total annual miles flown. Now you’re not traveling at all. Is this affecting Germany’s foreign policy?
Maas: Even in normal times, success in foreign policy is not measured by air miles. What it requires is trust and personal encounters. At the moment, I’m communicating with my EU partners and international actors just like we are for this interview: via telephone and video conference. It takes some getting used to. I prefer to look my colleagues directly in the eye.
DER SPIEGEL: The European Union, in particular, thrives on long, intensive meetings, late-night negotiations and clever moderation. How useful are summits of EU foreign ministers when everyone simply takes turns reading their prepared statements during a video conference?
Maas: (Laughs) Even when we meet in person, sometimes people read prepared statements out loud. What’s missing are the many bilateral talks on the sidelines. These are often just as important, if not more so, than the actual session. We EU foreign ministers are now meeting even more frequently, namely every two weeks. Of course most of what we currently discuss has to do with the coronavirus, but we always discuss an additional foreign policy issue as well. The crises and wars in our neighborhood must not be allowed to be swept under the table, even in these times.
DER SPIEGEL: This week, you and German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz published a guest op-ed in five European newspapers in which you described the corona pandemic as the biggest challenge since the foundation of the European Union. Will the fate of the EU be decided by the coronavirus?
Maas: In the past, the EU has often emerged from crises stronger than before. During the financial crisis, new instruments were created that improved the bloc’s capacity to act. That must be our goal this time around too.
DER SPIEGEL: You wrote that at first, Europe was unable to come up with any convincing answers. What went wrong?
Maas: It was beyond our rational and emotional capacity to comprehend what such a pandemic would mean for our social and economic life. That’s the truth. That’s why it took a while for national and European measures to be brought into line with one another.
DER SPIEGEL: One of Germany’s first actions was to ban the export of protective clothing, including to EU countries! It looked a lot like a policy of “Germany First.” What do such national reflexes say about the state of the EU?
Maas: Nothing at all. I find it appropriate that every member state first acted nationally. It’s like on an airplane: Everyone must first put their own mask on before helping others. If we hadn’t done our national homework, we wouldn’t have been able to support anyone outside our country. The order in which we did things was correct.
DER SPIEGEL: But this order contributed to the perception that the Germans are selfish and cold-hearted. Can you understand why so many Italians feel as though they’ve been left in the lurch?
Maas: Of course, there is a history here. The Italians have felt left in the lurch before, namely during the refugee crisis. But this time we’re helping: For one, we sent a military plane with seven tons of aid to Italy. By delivering protective clothing and respiratory machines and by accepting Italian patients, we also sent a clear signal: We are on Italy’s side.
DER SPIEGEL: Italy has reported around 18,000 deaths from the coronavirus. Isn’t it understandable that Germany’s aid efforts seem inadequate?
Maas: Italy is suffering unimaginably. This has deeply affected us Germans, too. We have helped where we could and will continue to do so. Right now, we’re dealing with the question of how the country can survive this crisis economically. It will be important to see how financially supported Italy feels.
DER SPIEGEL: This week, EU finance ministers debated whether funds from the euro bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), should be tied to strict conditions like they were during the financial crisis. What is your answer to that question?
Maas: In this crisis, we need quick help without any of the strict conditions or torture devices, meaning without the troika or tough austerity measures.
DER SPIEGEL: To mitigate the consequences of the crisis, Italy, France, Spain and others have called for joint bonds to be issued. What are the fundamental arguments against such “corona bonds?”
Maas: The fact that we don’t have a majority in the EU is one argument against them. This isn’t only due to Germany, but also other governments. In the current crisis, we need quick answers that can be agreed upon in the eurozone. (German Finance Minister) Olaf Scholz and I had therefore suggested bundling different instruments into one toolbox: the ESM, the European Investment Bank, the SURE program and the forthcoming EU budget. These are also the essential elements of the compromise on which the EU finance ministers have now agreed.
DER SPIEGEL: As a Social Democrat, are you in favor of corona bonds?
Maas: Politics is about making possible that which is feasible. It’s not about dying in programmatic beauty. With the CDU and the CSU, corona bonds are not possible in this government and the same is true of other European governments.
DER SPIEGEL: In other words, you think corona bonds would be the correct way to go, but you’re not pursuing the idea further because of resistance from German conservatives?
Maas: That’s neither here nor there. The southern Europeans quickly need a concrete and realistic offer that will help them economically. That’s the only thing that matters right now.
DER SPIEGEL: Once again, it looks as though we Germans are best equipped to survive this crisis. We have had relatively few deaths and have assembled the strongest aid package. Yet we’re still not willing to issue joint debt along with our EU partners.
Maas: I’m not sure that it’s already clear what Germany’s image will be at the end of this crisis. If we hadn’t made a concrete offer of aid, this would have indeed been fatal. But we have proposed a package that already includes more than 500 billion euros ($547 billion), more than has ever been activated before. That is European solidarity in action. We will have to deal with the economic and financial consequences of the crisis longer than the actual fight against the virus. We will have many more opportunities to show our solidarity.
DER SPIEGEL: In the corona crisis, democracy and rule of law are being further undermined in EU countries like Poland and Hungary. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is using the pandemic to extend his authoritarian rule. Are his measures proportionate?
Maas: In our view, they are not proportionate, partly because they have no time limit. Europe must discuss whether in the future, the disbursement of EU funds should be dependent on compliance with fundamental principles of the rule of law.
DER SPIEGEL: Then why didn’t you mention Hungary by name in the joint appeal you made with 19 EU partners, criticizing some coronavirus emergency measures?
Maas: Because we wanted to have as many countries on board as possible, including those that have so far refused to criticize Hungary.
DER SPIEGEL: The result was that even Hungary joined the declaration, essentially making a mockery of it.
Maas: This shows that in the EU, we must come up with concrete instruments in addition to declarations and statements. We cannot simply ignore the fact that the rule of law is being undermined. Democracy and the rule of law are the values on which the European Union is founded. All member states must respect this.
DER SPIEGEL: The coronavirus is also threatening to become a geopolitical disaster for the EU. The Serbian president called Europe “a beautiful fairy tale” and said China was the only country providing any real help. How do you plan to counter this narrative?
Maas: We have to fight back. Above all, this will depend on how we talk about the EU ourselves. If, as in the past, we blame Brussels for everything that doesn’t work, we won’t stand a chance against such negative narratives. What’s all the complaining about? Then it’s our own fault. We have to be able to act in the coronavirus crisis and show how valuable the EU is for everyone. And we must also acknowledge this capacity to act, before we start dealing with targeted disinformation and narratives from the outside.
DER SPIEGEL: Russia and China did, in fact, begin delivering urgently needed aid early on — in place of Europe.
Maas: At second glance, not all of it proved to be so useful. Still: Any help that saves lives is, of course, welcome. And yes, it’s good that we work closely with China in getting protective clothing and masks delivered. And with other countries as well, by the way. But if countries are sending aid merely to polish their international image, then this must be disclosed.
DER SPIEGEL: With its draconian measures, China has managed its coronavirus outbreak quite well, at least so far. Do authoritarian regimes have an advantage in such exceptional situations?
Maas: No. The measures taken by Europe, including curfews and contact restrictions, show that even liberal democracies can impose drastic measures if they are proportionate and necessary.
DER SPIEGEL: The Chinese narrative is: The coronavirus crisis proves that our system is more effective and therefore superior.
Maas: It’s obvious that such narratives are currently being developed. But I can only warn against falling for them. In any case, the coronavirus has not shown that one model is superior to any other. This is why it’s so important that we in Europe don’t lose control. An authoritarian system is not required to be able to stay in control in a pandemic.
DER SPIEGEL: The coronavirus also provides a new prism for viewing the competing systems in China and the U.S. Which one is proving superior right now: China or the U.S.?
Maas: Neither. China has taken some very authoritarian measures, while in the U.S., the virus was played down for a long time. There are two extremes, neither of which can be a model for Europe.
DER SPIEGEL: The pandemic is the first global crisis in which the U.S. is not playing the role of leading global power, is completely absent. In the past, they were the ones leading international crisis management. Are we witnessing a decisive moment in a long-term shift in power?
Maas: This shift in power is nothing new. Independent of the U.S., all Western democracies must have an interest in ensuring that this shift doesn’t gain new speed in the coronavirus crisis.
DER SPIEGEL: Under Donald Trump, the U.S. has become an opponent of multilateralism. In the current crisis, everyone is first concerned about figuring out where they stand. Are we experiencing another severe blow to international cooperation?
Maas: On the contrary, this crisis will show how important international cooperation is. We are strengthening organizations like the vaccine initiative CEPI and the World Health Organization. If we do not use the instruments that multilateralism offers, it will take much longer to overcome the crisis. Those who do not understand this will suffer longer.
DER SPIEGEL: At the virtual G-7 foreign ministers’ summit, it wasn’t even possible to agree on a name for the virus.
Maas: Six agreed, only one didn’t.
DER SPIEGEL: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Maas: Nevertheless, together with the British, we submitted a paper outlining measures, a list that the U.S. has now also accepted as a basis.
DER SPIEGEL: Will the coronavirus crisis further alienate Europe and the U.S.?
Maas: That would not be in Europe’s best interest. We hope that the U.S. will come out of this crisis better than it went into it. After all, it’s undisputed that the U.S. was too slow to act. We’ll see to what extent the actions of the American government will lead to discussions in the U.S. as to whether the “America First” model really works. The Trump administration’s trade disputes have certainly not resulted in international supply chains now helping to remedy the lack of protective equipment in the U.S. It shows once again: Hollowing out international connections comes at a high price.
DER SPIEGEL: Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, your ministry has been collecting examples of best practices from various countries. Shouldn’t you have been trying to convince the other cabinet members from early on that measures like tracking apps or the widespread use of protective masks could also be effective to contain the spread of the virus in Germany?
Maas: How do you know that we didn’t? There is great determination and unity in the cabinet. We take other countries’ experiences and scientific assessments very seriously. We must do everything necessary to protect the people of Germany. At the same time, serious encroachments on personal freedoms must be considered very carefully. We must always carefully determine if there might be less invasive measures.
DER SPIEGEL: The wearing of masks is a rather low-threshold measure compared to the contact restrictions that have been adopted.
Maas: Before everyone is required to wear a mask, we will first ensure that medical facilities have enough.
DER SPIEGEL: One could also simply recommend wearing masks.
Maas: We have done so. Wearing respiratory protection is a useful addition to other hygienic measures in order to protect others.
DER SPIEGEL: Could you imagine doing your next meeting with, say, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a protective mask?
Maas: I hope to meet him in person again soon, wherever that might be, and to be able to look him in the eye. That is also possible with a protective mask.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Maas, we thank you for this interview.
The interview was conducted by DER SPIEGEL editors Christiane Hoffmann and Christoph Schult via video conference.