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‘Without Greece, There Can Be No EU’

“Europe starts in Berlin and reaches Athens and goes through all the Balkans. Without the Balkans, without Greece, there can be no European Union,” says the former president of Germany, Christian Wulff (2010-2012), in an interview with Kathimerini looking back on the difficult relationship between Greece and Germany during the years of the economic crisis. He is, however, optimistic about the “next day” between the two sides, stressing that they are “stable democracies in a volatile world.”

Wulff admits that the excessive energy dependence on Russia was a mistake, pointing out though, that in those years this policy “was basically tantamount to hope.”

He also refers to Turkey, noting that in recent years it has “moved away from the European Union, has moved away from European values and basic freedoms.” “Erdogan’s rhetoric makes us angry,” he stresses, adding that “what we should do is invest in a mediating role” and “see a better rapprochement between Greece and Turkey.”

Wulff participated in the 8th Delphi Economic Forum on the invitation of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation Greece and Cyprus.

How do you see the war in Ukraine unfolding? Any possibility of peace in the near future?

We have been impressed by the way in which Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people have actively shown their will to defend their nation and defend their country’s borders. Russia has made several mistakes in having misjudged this readiness of the people, but we have not reached the point where we can say with certainty that this claim by the Russians to move, to change the borders, can be reversed immediately.

In terms of the big geopolitical picture, did the West handle the issue right, because we see a China-Russia rapprochement, but also many third countries not distancing themselves from Moscow?

In many parts of the world right now people are looking at this case, whether it’s Japan, whether it’s Taiwan, even the Greeks versus the Turks, everybody is looking at Ukraine and whether in the end the border change, this aggressive border change, the territorial claims will be allowed or stopped. We have to show – the European Union, NATO, the UN, and it has done so – that we are united against this, we all want peace, but we have to turn against the aggressor at this moment.

Do you think that Germany’s excessive energy dependence on Russia was a mistake?

From today’s perspective, it was a mistake. However, back then, in those years, it was basically tantamount to hope. You have to keep in mind that the German people have a sense of responsibility because of World War II, but they also have a sense of gratitude towards Mikhail Gorbachev for Glasnost and Perestroika. So on the one hand we have this sense of responsibility for the actions during WWII and on the other hand a sense of gratitude. This influenced our position towards Russia then. Today, looking at it, it was wrong. We did not assess the situation correctly, we are seeing a return of Russia to Stalin’s regime, and the French philosopher Henri Levy was right to say that the 21st century has not even begun yet, because the demons of the 20th century still dominate.

You were president at the beginning of the Greek crisis. Looking back, do you think mistakes were made? Did the lenders, especially the key country, Germany, impose excessive austerity on Greece?

Within Germany, there were indeed some anti-Greek feelings, if you like, from whichever side they came, and there were also unfair reports about Greece, but in the end Greece managed to get out of this situation and to benefit greatly from its digital transformation, from its tax reform, it is now a model, after the difficult years that it lived through. We have remarkable growth rates, we have the other indicators improving and we have good external ratings. So I would say, all’s well that ends well. And of course putting this situation in the historical background, I would say that what we needed was our European approach – and I personally, I was particularly philhellenic, because I knew we needed more Europe. Europe starts in Berlin and reaches Athens and goes through all the Balkans. Without the Balkans, without Greece, there can be no European Union, as it is the cradle of democracy, so I can tell you that I had a pro-Greek attitude, both towards the then-Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, but also always because of my position in a discreet way. At the same time, we also had provocative publications in the newspapers, but you know newspapers follow particular publishers and particular rules.

How do you see the relationship between Greece and Germany today, in the context of the day after, after the resentment felt on the Greek side toward Germany during the crisis, especially in the early years?

I feel very grateful for the fact that relations between German and Greek people are developing and have evolved since the crisis. At the same time, Germany is a very important trading partner, both in imports and exports, in relation to Greece. We are the most numerous group of tourists, at the same time we have partnerships and collaborations in airports, in sectors such as software development, logistics, the pharmaceutical industry, but also in photovoltaic and wind energy, a sector where Greece and Germany have an increasing cooperation. So there are many positives, and I would say that, essentially, with these in mind, a chapter, which was the chapter you are referring to, has been closed. Looking at things from an ecumenical perspective, looking at the world, I believe that Greece and Germany are ultimately stable democracies in an unstable world.

As president you said that Islam is part of Germany. How do you see the refugee-migration issue today, and what is your view on Greece’s role in managing it, and to what extent do you think Greece should be supported given its geographical location?

In countries like Hungary, Austria, Greece, there are deep traumas, traumatic conflicts that have to do with Muslims, but also Islamic states, so it’s an issue where I try to be very, very careful in the views that I express. It is an obligation of the 27 member-states of the European Union to protect, to jointly defend the European borders, and to jointly ensure that migration is done in a legal way, and that illegal migration is restricted and limited. The EU must defend its interests. We need to see who comes to Europe, who stays from those who come, and those who are not entitled to stay should be sent back. We need to have a coherence, a coherent policy in Europe. There are countries in the African or Islamic world from which people come. We need to see what prospects there are for these people, and if there are some, based on our interests, we can give them a prospect of staying in the country. Illegal immigration in Europe of course also carries the risk of increasing nationalism, isolationism, but also of dividing society, and that is something we do not want.

On a practical level, how can Greece be supported in dealing with this issue? With financial aid? By further strengthening Frontex?

Certainly in the border protection part, a lot of funds have flowed in, as well as in the return of people part. It is a program that has been very much supported, the Frontex program has been given a lot of funds by the European Union. As Europeans, we must also look at the programs as they are in countries and situations such as Lesvos, so we must, in a European context, ensure that we provide support and medical care for these people, and not just leave it to the countries on the external borders, the coastal countries if you like, or the external borders of the European Union to manage the situation on their own. What I expect from the European Union is a coherent foreign policy. Europe should see situations like the one that is developing in Tunisia, where we have new migratory flows and we have increasing refugee flows. The European Union should essentially also take a position on the issue of the African states. Sometimes, it is also a question of internal situations that create such flows.

Germany has many residents of Turkish origin, and therefore has an interest, understandably, in Turkey. How do you assess Turkey’s role in the region and President Erdogan’s behavior in general and more specifically toward Greece?

Turkey, in recent years, has moved away from the European Union, has moved away from European values and basic freedoms. We see that Turkey is increasing the intensity of rhetoric to levels that we are not used to in the EU. So, I think what we need to achieve is a better rapprochement between Greece and Turkey, a more civilized confrontation if you like than what we have been experiencing lately, and I really can’t help but say that I feel for the Greeks on this issue, I sympathize with them. There is a strong historicity to this relationship, there are strong historical influences. Similarly, I could mention the relationship between South Korea and Japan or Saudi Arabia and Iran. These are strong historical narratives and one must make an effort to create a convergence through them. 

A ‘mediating role’ between Greece and Turkey

Greece is enduring a constant questioning, even of its territorial integrity or sovereignty, and direct threats – “We’ll come one night suddenly” – and I wanted to ask you if this behavior bothers you? You implied it, but I’m asking directly. How should the EU react? And given Germany’s special weight, can Berlin play a mediating role between Athens and Ankara, which is something it has already done to a certain extent?

The rhetoric you mention, particularly bearing in mind the historical background, is something that makes us angry. I had indeed mentioned in 2011 that Islam is part of Germany; two weeks later, in the Turkish National Assembly, I mentioned at the same time that Christianity has always been part of Turkey. You know that in Anatolia I am an honorary citizen of Tarsus, the birthplace of the Apostle Paul. On December 6 last year I was invited by the local minority to Istanbul, and then together with Patriarch Bartholomew we had an excellent day. We even developed ideas on how the monasteries and the education of the clergy there could be shaped. So I’d say I represent both Greek Orthodox interests and the interests of Muslims. Each of them, if you like, schematically, is on each of my shoulders. So I would say that, overall, what we should do is invest in a mediating role.

In our minds we usually see the United States in the role of mediator. Do you have any sense about what Germany could do, if anything?

In Germany there are 5 million citizens who have Turkish ancestors; sometimes they are also Turkish citizens. So there is a very close relationship between Germany and Turkey. And through religious tolerance, if you like, we are precisely trying to mediate so that the Turks, the population of Turkish background in Germany, can use their contacts in Turkey to increase tolerance and bring Germany and Turkey closer together. It is of course a long-term plan if you like.

I think that this close relationship between Germany and Turkey, and the close relationship between Germany and Greece can help to transfer this climate of tolerance to the Turks. But again I repeat that it is a long-term plan. And because you asked me also from the civilian side now, I see that the poles are being strengthened. And this may also be due to the social networks. That is, we have more difference of opinion and the scope for creating bridges of communication is reduced. It seems to me that artificial intelligence is also exacerbating a situation, an abbreviated situation, that is, through social networks. I am particularly concerned about how many will be left as critical mass that will be looking for similarities rather than divisive elements.

Source : Ekathimerini



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