Barley for a powerful foreign EU: “The European army remains our vision”

Former Justice Minister Katarina Barley is running as the SPD’s top candidate in the European elections in June. In the coming legislative period, she would like to give the EU more authority in foreign policy issues: “Anyone who calls for the EU to have greater influence on the world must also give it the means to do so,” she says in an interview with Barley feels particularly secure with her party colleague Olaf Scholz as Chancellor: “I consider prudence to be Scholz’s outstanding character trait,” she says. On the other hand, she can’t do anything with EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen or even Sahra Wagenknecht. It is the third Easter in a row – the Orthodox do not celebrate the festival until May 5th – when there is war in Europe. How have these years of war changed the European Union?

Katarina Barley: These years have fundamentally changed the European Union. The current legislative period also includes the corona pandemic and, as a result of the Russian war of aggression, the energy crisis. A greater awareness has therefore arisen in Europe that we need to stand more on our own two feet, be it in the areas of health, raw material supply, digital or defense, for example through a stronger European pillar within NATO. A lot has happened in the meantime, but we are still at the beginning.

The war in the East is also changing the face of the EU, which sees itself as a peace project but is now massively rearming and sending weapons into a war zone. Is the EU still a force for peace in its original sense or is it now something completely different?

Historically, the EU is a project that was intended to create internal peace. It was designed to end the hereditary hostility between France and Germany. And I remember the accession of Great Britain and Ireland 50 years ago: ending the civil war-like conditions in Northern Ireland was a prerequisite for accession. Without the European Community, the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland would probably not have existed. The EU won the Nobel Peace Prize because its members do not wage war against each other. This is the core of the peace project.

Isn’t it also about creating peace in the world?

This is a task that the European Union is increasingly taking on. But that is difficult given their competences: the member states have so far been primarily responsible for foreign and defense policy. The EU is very successful internally as a peace project, which is why so many countries want to be part of it. Anyone who calls for the EU to have greater influence on the world must also give it the means to do so.

Is this the state of the EU? Strong on the inside, weak on the outside?

The European Union can do little on foreign policy issues without the unanimity of its member states. This makes decision-making complex. The EU cannot therefore act on the global stage like the USA. On the other hand, this historically determined diversity is also a strength of the EU. The art lies in tying together the different perspectives. We agree that we need more cooperation in the defense sector. For the coming legislative period, I expect that a council of defense ministers will be created, just as the European foreign and finance ministers meet regularly.

Many parties are promoting a defense union, the EPP, the Liberals and also the European Social Democrats. Your election program also includes the call for a European army. Why do you stick with it even though the idea seems hardly feasible?

The SPD has a tradition of thinking in long lines. Not just asking, what do I do tomorrow, but what is my goal? The European army remains our vision. This also makes economic sense: We have more than a dozen tank systems in Europe – what are the avoidable costs! In the area of ​​defense, Member States are much further apart than in others. Just the differences between Germany and France: In our country, the Bundestag has to approve every foreign deployment, the French president can decide many things on his own. At the same time, France’s army was more powerful than the Bundeswehr until the turn of the century. It is now clear to all sides that we need to work together more closely.

Given the rise of right-wing populist and right-wing extremist parties in Europe, isn’t this goal becoming increasingly distant?

One finding of the Future Council for Europe is that citizens want more majority decisions. But the abolition of the unanimity principle can only be done unanimously. This gives notorious obstructors like the Hungarian government the opportunity to throw a stick between the spokes anytime and anywhere. Nevertheless, I believe that we will achieve more majority decisions. In this sense, the next round of enlargement is a window of opportunity: it is clear to everyone that the EU cannot continue to function otherwise.

Will the momentum towards a common defense of the EU also be promoted by a possible renewed presidency of Donald Trump, who threatens to no longer provide Europe with nuclear protection?

This development began beforehand, as the example of the German-Dutch defense cooperation shows. At the same time, previous US administrations have increasingly placed their focus on Asia and the Pacific region. This is a trend that we have to deal with – regardless of the outcome of the upcoming presidential election in the USA. A victory for the Democrats would still make me very relieved.

How should a separate European pillar be created in NATO without weakening transatlantic cooperation?

It would not weaken it, on the contrary: several US governments, not just Trump, have called for a higher financial contribution from Europe for common security, keyword the two percent target. So that wouldn’t be a conflict, especially since Washington is also interested in having a contact in Europe instead of calling all 27 EU government countries individually.

Another aspect of greater strategic autonomy concerns partnerships with third countries. EU Commission President von der Leyen has just agreed on stronger cooperation with Egypt. President al-Sisi has a terrible human rights record, but is literally courted in Europe. As the SPD’s leading candidate for the European elections, where do you draw the red line up to which the EU is allowed to cooperate with dictatorships?

Drawing a red line in the abstract is difficult. Because the fact is, we have more autocracies and dictatorships in the world than democracies. The number of democracies has recently become fewer, which is why we can hardly make a difference if we only cooperate with like-minded states.

And what kind of case is Egypt? The country is a key player in the Middle East, but a torture state.

The human rights situation in Egypt is dramatic. As the Gaza Strip’s only neighboring state other than Israel, we have to talk to Egypt in the current situation. In general, however, I am very critical of Ms. von der Leyen’s approach. There is no strategy behind it. Not even the Commission itself is informed in advance. She had already taken a similar approach on her trip to Tunisia: Germany and France would have liked to have been more involved, but instead the conservative Mark Rutte from the Netherlands and Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni traveled with her, behind whose democratic convictions I put a big question mark.

The coming European elections will also indirectly decide the fate of Ukraine. It’s about joining the EU, about financial and military aid. What are the opportunities and risks associated with June 9th for Kiev?

Support for Ukraine has a clear majority in the EU Parliament, the Commission and the Council. Parties that are directly or indirectly supported by Putin work completely differently: the AfD, Le Pen and the many other right-wing parties. Added to this are the voices of the lost, like the Wagenknechts of this world, who still do not admit their misjudgment regarding Putin. I firmly assume that the majority will continue to be in favor of Ukraine after the European elections.

Your SPD traditionally sees itself as a peace party, but in recent weeks has appeared torn about whether Ukraine should receive more military support or whether it is time for more diplomatic efforts. Where does this diversity come from?

As a people’s party, we represent a certain range of opinions. We agree on the basic line, especially that Ukraine alone decides whether and the conditions of negotiations with Russia. I also took part in peace demonstrations. But: Peace is more than the absence of war. It is not enough to keep the guns silent. Ukraine has the right to freedom.

Nevertheless, the spectrum of opinions within the SPD is wide, from Ralf Stegner, who calls for more diplomacy instead of more weapons, to Michael Roth, who is promoting the delivery of the Taurus cruise missile. Where do you stand as the SPD’s top candidate in this spectrum?

I am very close to the Federal Chancellor, with whom I also coordinate closely. Olaf Scholz’s level-headedness got us through this time well. It’s his way of thinking things through and at the same time discussing things with the experts in order to then come to a decision. I feel very safe with Olaf Scholz as head of government, even if I am not involved in all processes. Germany’s support for Ukraine is absolutely right, even on a very large scale.

The word prudence is heard more and more often from social democrats. Is that the strategy? People should vote for the SPD because Chancellor Germany kept them out of the worst?

You’ve been hearing this attribution from me for a long time; I consider prudence to be Olaf Scholz’s outstanding character trait. When I hear aggressive statements from others, I am glad that these existential decisions are not in their nervous hands. If some people had their way, Russian gas imports would have been stopped in April 2022. Putin’s strategy would have worked and we would have experienced a cold winter of anger. Approval for supporting Ukraine would have fallen to zero within a short period of time.

Sebastian Huld and Lea Verstl spoke to Katharina Barley

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