Merkel has always acknowledged American hegemony – German Left Party MP
With Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential race putting the prospects for transatlantic cooperation in jeopardy, EU leaders are now bracing for change. With Washington promising to focus on internal affairs, Berlin may now have to play the lead among its Western allies. Angela Merkel is planning to run for a fourth term as German Chancellor, and is seen by many as a beacon of stability in turbulent times. But as the country struggles with an influx of refugees, and public discontent grows, will non-establishment candidates be able to take on Germany’s ruling party? We ask the parliamentary leader of the Left Party – Sahra Wagenknecht.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Chancellor Angela Merkel will be running for a fourth term, but in regional elections, Merkel's CDU party has suffered defeat. Will the Germans vote for the stability that comes with Merkel, or will they vote for change?
Sahra Wagenknecht: I wouldn't say that Chancellor Merkel represents stability. Merkel has brought even greater social inequality to our country. There are a lot of people who feel that politicians have abandoned them, that we are moving away from democracy. But the problem is, there are no strong candidates within the Social Democratic Party, so the risk is quite real that Chancellor Merkel will remain in office for another four years. I think that most people in this country do not want things to "stay the same".
SS: There is growing support in your country for the Eurosceptic party Alternative for Germany - AfD. Do they stand any real chance of becoming part of the coalition government and influencing public policy?
SW: Well, I don't think Alternative for Germany will become part of the next government. But you're right, Alternative for Germany is, indeed, becoming stronger. It has made some very significant gains in recent regional elections, but not so much because people support the position of the AfD – it is chiefly because they were disappointed with the other parties.
It looks to them as if politicians don't really care about their interests, and so many believe that by choosing Alternative for Germany they can express their anger, their frustration, and protest. In other words, for many people, a vote given to Alternative for Germany is a way to express their disappointment, not a sign that they wholeheartedly support the idea of AfD defining Germany's politics. I don't see them achieving that much, but I fear that they will have a much stronger representation in the next Bundestag.
SS: Der Spiegel wrote that during his visit to Berlin, the outgoing American President Barack Obama personally led the campaign in support of Merkel. Can Merkel be considered a successor to American policies in Europe?
SW: Well, she has always been a very successful proponent of American policy. She always believed that her function is to acknowledge and recognise American hegemony, the hegemony of the United States, meaning that it should ALWAYS be recognised. We do not know of any case in which Merkel has raised any objections against American policy, including military action both with NATO and without it.
I mean the military action that took place under American leadership, and in which Merkel played her part, and, therefore, Germany did, too. The most recent example of this is Syria. So, there has always been a close relationship between Chancellor Merkel and Obama and, unfortunately, she has never said anything critical with regards to the United States. When German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed a different view, for example, when he criticised NATO maneuvers in Eastern Europe, in those cases, of course, Mrs. Merkel always kept silent. There has always been a kind of alignment with the United States, as well as a need for American approval.
SS: According to the New York Times, Angela Merkel is the Liberal West's Last Defender. If Trump focuses on America’s domestic issues, will Berlin become a beacon for the West? Maybe it’s time for Merkel to become the “Leader of the Free World”?
SW: I have no idea what “the free world” means. I mean, lately, America has been engaged in many military operations in violation of international law. They have not been defending freedom and democracy; they have been using their drones in war zones to kill people, which is a gross violation of international law. So I wouldn’t use such terms lightly.
I also don’t think we should be praising Angela Merkel too much. Germany today should not be pursuing hegemonic goals. On the contrary, many European countries feel that the EU nations are disconnected because Chancellor Merkel is acting on her own again and again without consulting her European partners, so they are not happy about it. So I believe it would be a mistake for Germany to pursue hegemony today.
SS: The EU Parliament adopted a resolution aimed at countering Russian propaganda. In this resolution it says that RT is trying to ‘divide Europe’. Will Russian media be muffled in Europe? And why is an alternative point of view considered as a threat?
SW: Well, this issue is worth discussing. Of course, media are under pressure. There’s evidence that the U.S. exert influence on European media. For instance, there are journalists – including German journalists – who have close ties with the U.S. But nobody has ever discussed this or criticised them. So I don’t think it’s appropriate to say that the Russian media have problems, since the American influence on the media has never raised any questions.
Naturally, various media co-operate with different parties. But democracy requires media pluralism; there shouldn’t be any dominant sides. I, personally, believe that the real problem is that Germany’s media is controlled by a small group of people and that private publishing houses belong to billionaires who put pressure on the media to meet their private interests. The real problem is that media pluralism is weakening, there are more and more newspapers controlled by small groups of people. Something should be done in this respect. I’m talking not only about Germany but about other European countries as well.
SS: Sahra, but I’m worried about the fate of our channel - RT. Why is an alternative point of view considered as a threat?
SW: Well, what can I say? This channel, naturally, has its own agenda like other pluralistic media. But I believe you can hardly say that your channel is trying to divide Europe. If I thought RT is able to divide Europe, I probably wouldn’t agree to be interviewed by your channel.
SS: But I still can’t believe this subject can be seriously discussed. You know, in that same resolution they condemn information warfare by Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. Can Russian media be as dangerous as terrorist groups?
SW: Well, I think, it’s absurd to say that. We shouldn’t talk about pseudo-threats – we need to combat Islamic terror groups because we suffered terror attacks in Europe. So that’s what we should concentrate on.
SS: German president Joachim Gauck has urged for a pause in European integration, because it has been accelerating too fast. Do you think the EU really needs a pause?
SW: I believe that the EU has been developing in a way that is against people’s desires. Democratic values are being abolished; economic freedom and free circulation of capital are being promoted which in its turn causes deterioration in living conditions and primarily people’s social conditions. That is why I also believe that we shouldn’t delegate powers to Brussels, because democratic principles are no longer working in Brussels.
There are powerful lobbying organisations and big companies that exert strong influence on the European Commission. I used to be a member of the European Parliament, so I saw lobbying in action. It’s much stronger and aggressive than in other European capitals. I really believe we need European cooperation and coordinated actions of all European countries. What we don’t need is for European bureaucracy and technocracy to become stronger, because this forces more and more people to reject this kind of Europe. This promotes nationalism. That’s exactly what we should be trying to avoid.
SS: German Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier thinks that NATO’s military buildup on Russia’s borders doesn’t strengthen the Alliance’s security. But at the same time Germany keeps sending troops and tanks to Lithuania, to the Russian border. Who is interested in the exacerbation of tensions with Russia?
SW: We’ve been constantly speaking out against this. We believe this is not the path to stability and security in Europe. We need cooperation; we need to go back to the principles of de-escalating tensions.
This means that whether I like the other party’s interests or not, I have to respect them and take them seriously. Whatever I do, I must take into account the other party’s interests. We need this kind of cooperation. Europe and Russia coexist on the same continent. Russia is our neighbour, our great neighbour. And we, I mean the European countries, want to live peacefully with Russia. I really hope this ridiculous maneuvering to the beat of the drum and military build-up may come to an end. I hope everybody realises that this conflict with Russia is harmful to Europe and to our future relations.
SS: The U.S. president-elect has called NATO “obsolete.” According to Der Spiegel, the alliance is considering its options in case the U.S. withdraws from it. Should this happen, will Europe be strong enough to protect itself?
SW: I think that Europe needs an independent foreign policy, and this has nothing to do with Donald Trump. We on the left side of the spectrum want NATO dissolved and replaced with a collective security system which should include Russia. We should provide security together instead of being separated in the trenches of the Cold War.
It is definitely time we do that. As for the possibility that the U.S. may leave NATO, I think it is very unlikely. Let’s wait and see what happens to U.S. foreign policy. But regardless of that, I think Europe has its own interests, and Europe should pursue its own policy. We shouldn’t allow us to be used as an instrument in the interests of U.S.-led NATO.
SS: But don’t you think Germany will have to spend more on defence if NATO is dissolved?
SW: I think the world doesn’t need more arms. Currently, NATO members spend on weapons and military operations 13 times more money than Russia. And there is no justification for increasing this spending further. We have an excellent Constitution in Germany, and it says that the army should protect us. There is no need for the arms race. In other words, we should be strong, we should be able to defend ourselves, but we don’t need military power to wage interventionist wars all over the world, as we have been doing lately.
And I demand, we in the Left Party demand, that the German military should not be involved in these wars. German soldiers have never brought freedom and democracy to any part of the world. In fact, quite often this is not even their goal. Their goal is to establish their zones of influence, or to secure access to natural resources. I think it is terrible that entire regions are destabilised for such purposes, out of such motives.
SS: Stefan Liebich, your fellow party member who represents Die Linke on foreign affairs issues, supported the idea of creating a European army. Will such an army be able to replace NATO?
SW: I don’t think we need a European army. Every country has its own army, it’s something that we need to have in our world, shall we say, and it’s impossible to leave behind, since, unfortunately, we don’t live in a peaceful world where there would be no need for troops. But a European army? To fight for what or against whom? I don’t think we need it.
SS: Trump promised to change U.S. foreign policy regarding Russia and Syria, but Chancellor Merkel has no intention of changing hers. Should we expect disagreements between Berlin and Washington on foreign policy issues?
SW: As I said, first we’ll have to wait and see. Trump hasn’t even finished bringing together his administration, so we have no way of knowing what foreign policy they are going to pursue. I would welcome it if the new foreign policy involved cooperation, not confrontation with Russia, to find a peaceful solution for the Syrian conflict, for example.
Negotiations have previously resulted in significant progress, a truce was established, but the U.S. as well as other players torpedoed it. So if we could resume the peace talks and continue this cooperation, it would be an important victory – for Syrian people too, because what they need the most right now is for the air strikes to stop, for joint efforts to be applied to force ISIL and other Islamist terrorist groups out of Syria, not the possibility of other players fighting each other there. That would be extremely dangerous, we can’t let it happen. But, as I said, I don’t know if Trump will choose this path. There are some signs of that, but I’m not sure. Besides, I don’t think he’s very predictable. On the other hand, I don’t think Berlin would voice disagreement if the U.S. changes its foreign policy – up until now Chancellor Merkel has always aligned her position with the U.S., so I don’t believe disagreements would arise either way.
SS: You said that the sanctions imposed on Russia are detrimental to the European economy. Why doesn’t the EU lift them, then?
SW: We’ve called for sanctions to be lifted. They have no positive effect; they really harm the EU economy, Russian economy, of course, and our people. This policy, this idea that imposing these sanctions would bring positive results, is absolutely absurd. Quite the opposite, we should think about how we could achieve the needed results through dialogue and cooperation, not sanctions. This approach is outdated and absolutely wrong.
SS: You said that it’s because of U.S. pressure that Europe maintains its tough stance towards Russia. Now there is a possibility that Moscow-Washington relations might improve, yet Europe keeps following its anti-Russian policies. Doesn’t that mean it has nothing to do with U.S. pressure?
SW: Let’s wait and see. It’s a matter of time – we’ll see what foreign policy Trump decides to pursue. Europe is divided. Obviously, there has always been greater pressure to adopt a more anti-Russian stance coming from certain East European countries than, say, France or Italy, which tended to criticise this and would prefer their relations with Russia to be more cooperative. So Europe is divided in this respect. We’ll see how the situation develops and what stance the EU will adopt in the end. Unfortunately, Germany has not played a very positive role in this. But time will tell. Germany will have its own election next year, and no one knows what the new government will be like, no one knows if Merkel will remain Germany’s leader. We’ll see. I don’t believe things should stay exactly the same as before.
SS: Merkel admitted that the open-door policy undermined her party’s positions. The CDU says it won’t let a new wave of refugees hit Germany. Will the government be making some fundamental changes to the immigration policy?
SW: First of all, it must be said that other European countries made some changes. Currently fewer and fewer migrants manage to reach Germany in the first place, because Macedonia, for example, closed its borders, so the Balkan route is cut off now. And Merkel made a deal with Erdogan, so now she’s paying him – and would like to continue paying him – to function as Europe’s doorkeeper and keep refugees out. I think this policy is absurd. I think that here, in Europe, we should join efforts to deal with the causes of migration and help people in the places from which they flee to us. The situation in many refugee camps is still terrible – there are food shortages, children aren’t getting their education. I believe this should be our priority – solving these problems that so many people face in these refugee camps. It’s there that we need to make changes.
The same goes for Africa. Europe’s trade policy towards African countries is wrong. Many of them are forced to lower their customs duties, which undermines their economy, flooded by our exported goods, first and foremost our agricultural products. It ruins these countries, sows poverty and despair. This is why people become refugees. We need to change something there.
SS: What should Germany do if a new influx of refugees does happen?
SW: As I said, we need to step up our efforts to deal with the causes of migration. There are short-term measures, for example, improving the conditions in the refugee camps. We don’t need twenty years to do it, it can be done right away – they just need more money and more support to create an infrastructure that would allow children to get educated, for example.
That’s the reason many people run away from camps. They say that their children are growing up in camps and can’t go to school. So we need to do something about it. In the long term, we’ll need to deal with the causes of war, to stop arms supply to the areas of military conflict.
In specific countries, like Syria, we need to do everything we can to establish peace. If there is peace, if Islamic State is chased out of the country, then there will be no reason for people to flee Syria. I think this way we can finally solve this problem. Putting up walls won’t help.
SS: And what should be done about the refugees Germany has already accepted? Will the country be able to assimilate almost a million of refugees?
SW: Chancellor Merkel doesn’t have a plan, and that’s very careless. She sent a signal that Germany will welcome a lot of people, which is one of the reasons why many people set out in the first place.
But she had no idea whatsoever how to integrate them into our society. Integrating people means they need to have a place to live and a job. She still hasn’t taken care of any of that. She put it all on the shoulders of German cities, towns and communities, including all the expenses, and they were left one-on-one with these problems.
This is a huge problem, because it fills German people with doubt and resentment. In the end, that’s the reason why Alternative for Germany is so much stronger now. Back in summer 2015 this party got less than 5% of votes, it was about to split and fall apart.
But now there is this high level of doubt and fear among the German people. This policy was carried out without a plan, and there is no way, even now, to identify all the refugees that arrived in Germany. Of course people are scared. There are reports that Islamic State is purposefully trying to infiltrate European countries. And I must say that the way this policy was implemented was careless.
SS: The influx of refugees has already left Germany more vulnerable, first of all to terrorism. But, for example, Syrian-born potential terrorist Jaber al-Bakr, who was arrested by police, became a radical in Berlin. Doesn’t that indicate that terrorists are not imported, but live in the country?
SW: Both. I mean, the overwhelming majority of migrants flee from terrorists and Islamic State, but there have been reports that terrorists are trying to take advantage of this. Like last year, when there were pretty much no checks in place. Besides, certain organisations operate here as well. We’ve finally started banning terrorist organisations in Germany that recruit new members.
Not long ago at least one such organisation was finally banned. It actively recruited new members and later sent them to Syria to fight for Islamic State. I think we can’t turn a blind eye to this, we have to ban such organisations. It’s true that to an extent they use German infrastructure and money allocated to refugees to spread their Islamist propaganda and hate propaganda.