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New deals – interview with Alexander Graf Lambsdorff

Published on January 20, 2010 by: in: Politics

I have met with Alexander Graf Lambsdorff (FDP), German MEP and vice-chairman of ALDE [Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe] shortly after the end of the Strasbourg session of the European Parliament, in the end of November 2009, in his Brussels based parliamentary office. Despite the travel fatigue he came specially to share with Liberté! readers his thoughts and experiences. Before the interview he asked a lot of questions about Poland and the condition of liberals on the Polish political scene, showing his impressive knowledge on issues related to our country.

euThere were plenty of topics that we have touched during the interview. We talked about 20th anniversary of the reunification of Germany, the absence of the liberals in influential positions in the European Union, Herman Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton, the new EU diplomatic service, lack of Poles in the important positions within the field of EU external policy, main goals of the liberals on the current parliamentary term, financial crisis and the crisis of liberal values, the new German foreign policy under the leadership of Guido Westerwelle (FDP), Polish-German relations, the Nord Stream Gas Pipeline project and finally, good advices for Polish liberals. Below you will find the record our conversation:

Dominik Krakowiak:

On my way to the European Parliament to visit you for this interview, in front of it, next to the Place de Luxembourg, I have seen the parts of the Berlin Wall presented to commemorate what happened 20 years ago. Before we would come to politics and issues of today, I have just wanted to ask you, how do you remember that day 20 years ago, from your perspective and how do you see changed Germany after all this years?

Alexander Graf Lambsdorff:

lambsdorffLooking back I have very ambivalent feelings about that day. There was a great joy of course and we all watched it on TV. But to this day I am upset at myself for not going to Berlin, because I had to finish work for University. I stayed in Bonn and went to Berlin only later.
Politically and historically, I think this day was the culmination of a long process that had many fathers and agents, many people who pushed things forward. Starting with people like Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who came up with CSCE [Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe] in Helsinki in 1975, then the Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, then Solidarność in Poland in 1981, then the Baltic independence movements.
In a way, I think the wall was made to fall by people from the East pushing against it and it wasn’t only Germans. It was really thanks to all the people in Central and Eastern Europe who fought for freedom from Soviet communist oppression.

And how do you see this process after 20 years: as being completed or still ongoing, as a success? Coming from the Western Lands of Germany you probably have more Western perspective on the unification of the country. Do you still see the problems or we can talk about unified Germany at the moment?

Well, Germany is a unified country but with internal disparities. We have had internal disparities between the North and the South also in the past, it is not totally unusual. One can only explain some of the discussions that we have, though, by looking really at this particular history in the East and in the West and people who had lived in two completely different social, political and legal systems for 40 years.
For example: How do we deal with the people who were involved in the communist government? How do we deal with people who served Stasi, the secret police? How should the re-emerged ex-communist party be treated in the political spectrum? How do we deal with the fact that the economic situation was even worse than we thought it was? Since 1989 East Germany has lost more than one million people. It is only 16 millions people who live there now.
There are lots of issues that we still need to work on and that will take another generation to tackle. But I’m a firm believer in an open society that will always look for ways to improve things. There cannot be an end of history in Fukuyama’s words. Inside Germany and with neighbours in Europe we will always have to try to work on making things better and that’s the state of play today.

We are coming now to the present times. Lots of changes within the European political spectrum have happened this year. Elections to the European Parliament and also ratification of the Lisbon treaty, finally. However, the liberals have not managed to take any important posts in the EU. How does it come that neither in the Parliament nor in the newly formed positions in the Council, there are no representatives of the liberals?

That’s a good question. There are however, if you look at it in a little bit more detail, indicators that the situation is not quite as bad as you describe it. What is true is that we are still the third political force in Europe.
When it comes to Parliament, there are 2 posts to give away: the President, now Jerzy Buzek from Poland and in the second half of our term it is going to be social-democrat, that’s right. In the Council two jobs to be handed out: one went to conservative, Mr Van Rompuy and one went to the socialist. However, looking at the nominations for the European Commission, where legislation is actually being prepared, today we have 8 liberal Commissioners nominated already, compared to the socialists with 6 Commissioners.
Therefore, I think that the liberal voice will be heard very clearly in this coming legislature, with so many liberals in the Commission and us [liberal MEPs] being in a very decisive position when it comes to building majorities in the Parliament. If we vote for the left, there is majority on the left, if we would vote for the right, there is majority on the right. Very often the outcome of decisions will depend on the liberal group.

Still, as the Commissioners are designated to become members of the College by the Member States, it means there are a lot of governments in Europe that have liberal views. Following that there will be more liberal Commissioners than left ones. However, still you have not managed to make an agreement with Christian democrats or others within the Council to elect for example Mr Verhofstadt for the new President of Europe. Don’t you think that there is some problem with either with the negotiations that the liberals take with the Christian democrats and the socialists or you are simply being outplayed by these two stronger players?

The European Union is the union of peoples and of states. What does that mean in practice? In practice, it means that you have two very different dynamics at work. One is the dynamic of democracy. The other one is the dynamic of diplomacy.
While in the Parliament, you have votes, you have temporary coalitions on particular issues but not permanent ones. In the Council you don’t have that, because the Council very rarely votes. The liberal family is represented by 4 prime ministers namely from Ireland, Finland, Estonia and Denmark. There, it is really about building consensus and trying to be diplomatic and avoid that anyone loses face. Herman Van Rompuy said it rather nicely “negotiation that ends with one side loosing, is a bad negotiation”. That’s the logic of diplomacy. In the Parliament, a vote will most likely sometimes see someone lose, because they are the minority. But in Parliament nobody loses face for being in minority. That’s just a fact of parliamentary life, that sometimes you don’t win a vote. In the Council things work differently.

What is the view of the European liberals [ALDE – Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe] on the new elected President of Europe and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Mr Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton?

First of all, Mr Van Rompuy is not a President of Europe. He is the chairman of the European Council. That’s an important difference. I don’t believe someone can be the “President of Europe” who does not answer to Parliament, either the European one or national Parliaments. I have great respect for him as a person, but he has been appointed just in a way the civil servant is appointed. The Prime Ministers of our Member States got together and said “we appoint Mr Van Rompuy, one of us, to take care of the preparation of the agenda for the European Council”. That’s his job description. It’s a very limited role.
As far as Baroness Ashton is concerned, she will have to come to the European Parliament to be confirmed with the entire Commission. So there is a democratic legitimacy there that is much stronger than the one of Mr Van Rompuy’s. She will also have the External Action Service at her disposal, which is quite an impressive apparatus of,civil servants and diplomats all around the world. She is actually, institutionally speaking, a much more prominent figure than Chairman of the European Council. Again, I have great respect for her as a person, because what I hear of her work as Trade Commissioner has been very positive. However, I think it’s fair to say that for this position, it would have been good to appoint someone with little more name recognition around the world.

And diplomatic experience?

And experience. Although, I hear that she had no experience in trade policy before and she did quite a good job as Trade Commissioner. Peter Mandelson, her predecessor was very present in the media but people were not always convinced about the work that he did. In Ashton’s case it seems to be the other way around. I think if we have someone who gets things done, that’s a good idea.

Would you reveal any difficult questions that you are going to raise during her hearing in January?

No, that would be inappropriate. She has to come to the meeting and then she’s got to deal with the questions as they come.

What in your opinion should be the new priorities of this new European Foreign Policy service that is going to be developed under her command? You have been involved in a lot of foreign affairs services within Germany and working for Embassy in Washington. It is also your area of interest in the current Parliament. How would you see main targets and goals in order to construct the diplomatic service of the EU?

First of all, there are the institutional issues. This new structure needs to be built and than be put to work. That is the bureaucratic and institutional challenge which is going to be difficult enough and we all hope that Baroness Ashton can pull that off.
In terms of policy, I believe there are number of initiatives that need to be taken. Think about the frozen conflicts in the Europe’s neighbourhood, in the Caucasian region but also Moldova, Transnistria. What is the future of the relations between the EU and Belarus going to be, the Eastern dimension? If you look South-East, you see that Bosnia is still in a very difficult situation. There is a lot of room for strong initiatives from Europe there. As difficult as that is, we need to come to a common European position on the Middle East peace process. I think that she has an enormously important task to try to get Member States finally to overcome the divisions and agree on a common European line. The Southern border of the Mediterranean: lots of regimes with no mechanisms for the transition of power. What happens after Mubarak [President of Egypt]? What happens after Bouteflika [President of Algeria]?
There are lots of things to do there and I believe that is already quite a lot that she has to do. Never mind the horizontal, global issues like climate change, migration, piracy, keeping world trade going. All these things that I have just mentioned, are not going to be inside her portfolio, but the external dimension of the European Union always contains elements of these as well.
And the final point: I believe European Union has made very good name for itself over the last decades as the strong defender of human rights and democracy. I believe human rights and democracy promotion should also be something that is consistently pursued by this new High Representative.

Looking from our Polish perspective, when we discuss this new EU tools to be more effective in the World, we always complain that we have so few Poles involved in the foreign affairs, working either for Commissions DG [Directorate-General] for External Relations, DG Enlargement or any Council services that are responsible in this area. The only main representative we had was in the European Parliament, Mr Jacek Saryusz-Wolski was the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the last term.
How would you advise Poles to be more successive in getting the posts or lobbying to be better represented in these spheres? We believe we also have some topics or issues that we would like to raise on the international scene.

Funnily enough, we have exact same discussion in Germany. “Too few Germans in important posts in Brussels”. I think the only ones who do not have that problem are the French and perhaps the British, because they are very experienced in these things.
I believe that in the Polish case, it’s a mixture of strategy and patience. One strategy is: if there are openings and you have good people, try to get them into these positions. If you don’t do it with full support of the government and perhaps the government simply hasn’t done enough in the past, the complaints could have started because of that. But, these are always singular decisions. That is one thing. The other one is patience. Poland has been the member of the European Union since 2004, so that is only six years that Poles really have had an opportunity to rise through the ranks of the respective services. It is going to take perhaps another 5, 10, 15 years until there are simply enough Poles in the Commission, in the External Action Service, in the Council Secretariat, in the administration of this Parliament, who by seniority, experience and competence are qualified to be picked as candidates for top jobs.

Let’s get back to the European Parliament. What would you describe as the main goals of the liberals for this 5-years-long cadence?

There are a number of things. One: The financial crisis has shown that we need better financial supervision. We want European financial supervision. The markets have long been European, even global, but our supervisory structures are still national. We need the real European regulation.
We want to complete the single market, that’s the second big, important thing: more freedom to provide services, more freedom of movement for people. The fifth freedom is going to be crucial – the freedom of knowledge to move around. Whatever we can do to improve this, it’s a priority for us.
We want strong European Foreign Policy. We’ve just discussed that, so I am not going to elaborate. The group here also wants to make sure that people across Europe enjoy the same rights, regardless of their personal predispositions, that they are not being discriminated against. Be it on the grounds of the colour of their skin, their ethnic origin, their sexual orientation, their religious beliefs or whatever. That for the liberal group of course is something crucially important, because we believe that every citizen should have the same rights without any discrimination.

Let us concentrate for a moment on the financial crisis. Don’t you think that it undermines the faith of the society in the democratic and liberal values and may cause a serious problem for the liberals, as the neo-liberal approach has been regarded by some of the representatives of the society as the cause of the current crisis? How do you think the liberals should react to that and what is the way to keep the political influence?

This is the discussion we have also had in Germany and strangely enough the German liberals keep winning election after election. I think one has to firmly reject the notion that this is the neo-liberal problem that has led the financial crisis. First of all, neo-liberal means the liberalism that focuses on free markets with rules, a framework of rules within which everybody can compete with everybody else in a fair manner. So, liberalism is not about competition without rules. On the contrary, especially neo-liberal school of thought that was developed in German city of Freiburg in the 1940s and 50s is also called ordoliberalism, combining order and liberalism in one word.
I believe, what we have seen are the consequences of mixture of neo-conservatism, the Thatcherite, Reaganite approach to economic policy making that did not want any rules, that thought the state was the problem. The state is not only the problem. If there is too much of it – yes, but you cannot have economic competition without someone setting the rules. That’s number one.
Number two is: you had a situation in which state regulation and also the monetary policies of the American central bank [Federal Reserve System – FED] were absolutely crucial in creating this crisis. So, it is state actors who are to blame just as much as the banks and I do not absolve the banks of guilt. Of course the banks behaved in a highly irresponsible manner and of course we could see that greed taken to the extreme has very negative consequences. This is why we need better supervision, why we need better regulation. I think looking at this idea that liberal ideas have caused the crisis is totally wrong. Liberalism wants competition with rules and it was the rules where we had the problem.

But, on the other hand, the more regulation, the less liberal economy becomes for some of the voters of your electorate?

Yes and no. If you overdo regulation, you indeed stifle competition, innovation, research, economic growth, jobs creation. Too much regulation will result in stagnation and loss of liberty. That is right.
The total absence of regulation however is not our approach. That is not liberalism. That is anarchy. Liberals are not anarchists. It is very important to make that distinction. We are not a political school of thought that believes that the absence of the state or the absence of any kind of regulation will lead to a better society. We will have better society when we are aware of the fact that regulation is needed, but it should only be as much as absolutely necessary. Not more, but also not less.

We would go now from Brussels to Berlin, to Germany. Your party – FDP [Free Democratic Party] has been lately successfully elected with such a good result that you had joined the governing coalition and Guido Westerwelle has been nominated as the Foreign Affairs Minister. How do you see the new foreign policy of Germany, as the continuation of the past or Mr Westerwelle is going to change something? What can we expect?

Well, both. It is going to be change and continuity. The basic targets of German foreign policy are not going to change: the Atlantic Alliance, European integration, friendship with all of our neighbours, the special commitment to the Middle East and especially Israel, good relations, hopefully, with Russia, but this depends on Russia as well. These are things that are going to continue to be important.
The change: One, the German foreign policy will inscribe much more importance to Poland and our Eastern neighbours than past governments have done. The first foreign trip that Mr Westerwelle undertook was to Warsaw and that was a conscious decision.
Second, we will make a point of treating smaller EU Member States, the Baltic countries, the Benelux countries, Austria and so on as equals in the framework of the European Union, because the European Union comprises both bigger and smaller Member States, they all have the same dignity, history and are deserving the same amount of respect. If you look again on the travel itinerary of Mr Westerwelle, he went to The Hague in the Netherlands, before he went to Paris.
Third there will be renewed emphasis on the disarmament. German foreign policy under Hans-Dietrich Genscher has been one of détente, of dialogue, of patience, of diplomacy and disarmament. In our times also the [nuclear] non-proliferation agenda is a crucial field on which you can pursue such a policy.

Of course, we are mostly interested from our Polish position in the first point that you have made about the Eastern dimension. What do you think are to points we have most in common between Poland and Germany and what are the biggest difficulties, main differences that we have to work on in approaching ever-warmest relationships?

I think the strongest commonality that links Germans and Poles in terms of foreign policy is that we are now both inside the European Union and NATO. It is our shared interest to make this institutions work as well as possible. In the European case that means, we must work seriously for the single market. I know that Germany – and this is something that FDP has always disagreed with – has closed its borders to Poles, who wanted to come and live and work in Germany, which is something that is in our view, in my personal but also political view a protectionist measure. We want to use the European Union really to generate wealth and create jobs, the way it has been the situation over the last couple of decades. This is something that we want also to come out from the crisis we experience now.
The second interest that we have: we want to turn the EU into a global actor, into a force for good in sort of the international system of the 21st century. Neither Germany nor Poland is big enough to do that alone. A very wise European once said: “There are only two kinds of states in the European Union: small Member States who know they are small Member States and small Member States that haven’t yet noticed that they are small Member States”. Either we do it as Europeans or the Chinese, the Indians, the Americans are going to do whatever they like and we are objects rather than subjects of history.
The difficulties of course lie in the socio-economic disparity. The GDP per capita in Poland is lot lower than in Germany. That will sometimes lead to friction here or there. There is some historical baggage, that I believe is not very relevant for us today, but that gets very emotional headlines, especially in Poland. I always say to my German friends, if they knew how well known Ms Steinbach was in Poland, they wouldn’t believe it, because in Germany hardly anyone knows her. I think we can work through this in coming generations and will be more relaxed about it, I believe.
One other difference is the approach towards Russia. The Polish attitude towards Russia for understandable historical reasons is much more critical than the German attitude. This is something that I hope we can work on in the framework of the European Union’s foreign policy in order to achieve a common line towards this important neighbour.
My personal view is that talk of the strategic partnership with Russia that you could hear out of Berlin for a long time was completely premature. Especially Gerhard Schröder, but also Frank-Walter Steinmeier had illusions about Russia and were in my view creating unreasonable expectations regarding the character of the partnership with Russia, which after all has become less and less democratic since the times of Boris Yeltsin.
I believe Poland and Germany together should strive for a strategic partnership with Russia – yes – because it’s a big neighbour and we need good relations, but we should also be clear on both sides of the Oder, that we cannot have a strategic partnership with a country that looks the way Russia looks today. We hope that Russia changes in the democratic direction, towards the rule of law, towards more democracy and towards a better functioning economy. Then, one day – yes – let’s have a strategic partnership with them. I hope we can come to common analysis of Russian affairs, rather than one from Warsaw, one from Berlin that would diverge. I would very much hope that we can overcome this kind of dichotomy.

How do you see the political use that Russia can take of their energy supply policies and of building together with Germany the Nord Stream under the Baltic Sea? This issue is one of the headlines in Poland because of our fears that without the common European Energy Policy and by building such pipeline, Russia would have much more influence on the Eastern Europe, on Poland in particular, but also Ukraine, as we have already noticed within the last two years, or Belarus. It may do so by providing or not providing them enough of gas supplies and than trying to influence them politically, which of course could lead to limited levels of political independence in the region.

Well, your question essentially contains the answer. The situation is exactly as you describe it. By sending gas straight to Germany, the Russians then have the option not to send energy to Poland but to keep providing Germany with it which strategically weakens Poland. The consequence is very clear in my view. Germany must be one of the fighters for energy solidarity in the framework of the European Union and that means that Poland must have an assured supply of gas if the Russians choose not to send it directly, than it must come via the Nord Stream or with the stub that goes off the Nord Stream and goes straight into Poland.

Are you supporter of Nord Stream project politically?

Nord Stream politically is not a problem, because it is not only German dimension you have to think of. It is the Dutch and the British dimension. The British are going to loose their reserves in the North Sea some time soon and they will need gas supplies from Russia as well. So, Nord Stream is not just a Polish-German thing, it is really an European project. However, the strategic implication that you have described in your question is absolutely real and needs to be tackled in the framework of the European system.

I have read some economical discussions and analyses on that matter. They were clearly showing that building the pipeline that would go through the countries, for example Lithuania and Poland on the ground, would be cheaper than construction of the Nord Stream on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. The other issue is ecology, which we have mentioned as one of the priorities of the liberals. Building under Baltic Sea could also cause problems for its ecosystem.

It may be true that it is cheaper to build it across the number of other countries, but when Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin concluded the deal, the point was exactly not to go across other countries. So, this was a strategic consideration, not an economic one. That’s number one. The reality is that the economic considerations were not as important as geopolitical ones.
Second thing: the ecological argument. First of all, the Baltic Sea has its problems already. It is not that the pipeline is going to make them worse. I think this argument doesn’t really carry much weight. I’m not an expert, but so far all of the states that have the sea border with the area through which the pipeline is supposed to go gave their permission on environmental grounds. There were no obstacles. I think the environmental discussion is a side discussion to mask opposition to this project that in reality derives from other considerations.

So, this is not going to be changed under the liberals taking the foreign office?

No, the treaties are signed. I mean all the treaties and all the contracts have been signed…

… but we well know that there are political decisions that can influence it.

Yes, but this would be a major rupture with previous governments policies. This is something that German government regardless of which political orientation, have always made clear: pacta sunt servanda. There are contracts now, this is the project that has begun, that is being financed, and the planning is there. You don’t change that. Sometimes you simply have to live with the decisions of previous governments.
We would not have taken the decision. But, once the decision is there, you cannot simply tell the Russians “well, sorry, we know that government of the Federal Republic signed the treaty, but the government of the Federal Republic now does not want to honour the treaty anymore”. That’s not the way Germany behaves on the international stage.

Let us move to the last issue. Would you have any message or advice to the Polish liberals, so they could rise again on the political scene?

As someone from another country, I am not in a position to give advice. However, something that I would hope for is that the liberals gain more ground again, go back to old heights. I think, that looking at the Polish political landscape, there is potential for a liberal party that emphasises free social market economy, antidiscrimination, environmental issues but also the reform of society. It must be a political force that is understood and seen by voters as the force for modernity, as the force that takes Poland into the 21st century as a modern European country. I believe there is great potential.

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About Dominik Krakowiak

29 years old. Born in Lodz, Poland, currently living in Brussels, Belgium. Master of Arts in both: Sociology (University of Lodz) and European Studies (KU Leuven). Former management member of the EUROPE DIRECT Contact Centre of the European Commission, currently working for the Community Research and Development Information Service CORDIS. Member of the Polish Forum of Young Diplomats.

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