Former European Commissioner Günter Verheugen warns Germans not to act like know-it-alls when it comes to Europe. In this interview with DW, he blames Chancellor Merkel for relations with Southern Europe turning sour.
DW: Mr. Verheugen, the results of Germany's election gave Angela Merkel a boost. We will likely see another four years with her at the helm. Is that good for Europe?
Günther Verheugen: What is certainly good is that those adverse or skeptical toward Europe were not able to gain a standing in this election. I'm concerned about the relatively good results for Alternative for Germany (a euro-critical party that ran for the first time in this year's election). I fear that party could gain the votes necessary for seats in the European Parliament in next year's elections, but the election in Germany generally reaffirmed the parties that support a European policy. The fact that a different government coalition will have to be formed will also lead to some corrections of that policy. One can assume that the German austerity program won't be pushed through with the force that it has in the past. It's good news for partner countries in the European Union that the German approach, which has become so inflexible of late, could become more open.
Europe is dependent on German policy in a way it hasn't been in many years. How much does this dominance affect the feeling of community within Europe?
Our partners do have the feeling of German dominance. That was the feeling to a certain extent during Helmut Kohl's time, but not with such intensity. All of our partners have the feeling that Germany uses its economic weight to reach political goals. But that's not true. The political ambition in Berlin is not all that excessive, but it is perceived to be that way, and that's not good for Europe.
I can only advise German politicians to take a close look at the psychology of this game and never forget that Germany will always be viewed and assessed differently than any other European country. The last two or three years have shown that. In every place Germany has pushed through unpopular measures, supposedly on its own, it has provoked the same reactions: swastikas and images of Hitler. We shouldn't forget that. We are judged differently, and so we should behave differently.
Do you have the feeling that people in positions of power in German politics sufficiently keep this psychological aspect in mind?
No, I don't have that impression at all. On the contrary! I think things have gotten much worse recently. I do not want to single anyone out, but, generally speaking, we have a group of political leaders in Germany who have a blind spot in this regard and do not recognize it. I can only strongly advise them to avoid being arrogant, patronizing taskmasters at any cost.
German politicians have obligations to their constituents, and more and more taxpayers are asking whether they should continue to support crisis-ridden countries. What would you say to these critics?
You're absolutely right that politicians are obligated to their voters. Obligated, for instance, to tell them the truth. The truth, in this case, is that Germany is not the great philanthropist in Europe it makes itself out to be. Instead, it is the greatest benefactor - both politically, but particularly economically - of European unification. What Germany pays into community coffers as the European Union's largest net contributor flows back to the country in the form of orders and commissions.
I think it is part of politicians' responsibility to make these connections clear to voters. Political leaders in Germany, especially of those parties in government, have allowed a downright defilement of public opinion and public discourse to occur with regard to the relationship to our European neighbors. An image has been propagated that portrays those in southern countries to be lazy, lying around in the sun all day, always on holiday and drawing an income at the cost of hard-working Germans. This form of communication, this message, should have been clearly stopped - stopped by the Chancellor herself. I hold that against her.
Günter Verheugen, of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), was European Commissioner for Enlargement from 1999-2004, and European Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry from 2004-2010, as well as Commission Vice-President. In 2010, he founded a consulting firm with his former head of cabinet.