After the Brexit vote, Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), was connected by video feed to the Handelsblatt’s editorial base in London.
In a conversation with Handelsblatt publisher Gabor Steingart and editor in chief Sven Afhüppe, he spoke of his shock over the referendum’s results. He also had sharp words for Brexit advocate Boris Johnson and made the case for a European Union that provides its citizens with social, domestic and foreign security.
Mr. Gabriel said he did not expect the Brexit vote to give added momentum to Germany’s right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Gabriel, how shocked were you when you woke up on Friday morning and saw the results from Great Britain?
Mr. Gabriel: The cabinet met with its partners in Meseberg on Thursday evening. We were still confident then that Great Britain would remain in the European Union. It was quite a rude awakening on Friday, however.
What concerns you the most?
You have to wonder: Why did the British vote so clearly against their own interests? If someone had asked me a few years ago if we would ever live in a European Union that continues to expand into Eastern Europe but loses Great Britain, I would have said that person was crazy. But that’s what we have today.
So the mood is dismal in the European Union and the German government?
Not entirely. There was one number that made me happy: Almost three-quarters of British voters under 25 voted to remain in the E.U. That’s fantastic! This is why we shouldn’t be cutting them off, especially now. Instead, we should do all we can on both sides of the Channel to ensure solidarity within the young generation.
What does that mean?
Young people are thinking of the future. They know, more than many British politicians, that the next generation will only make itself heard in the world if it speaks with a common European voice. Unfortunately, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Brexit proponent Boris Johnson did not think of the future, but only of preserving their own power in the short term.
Unfortunately, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Brexit proponent Boris Johnson did not think of the future, but only of preserving their own power in the short term.
Mr. Johnson is now behaving like a statesman. He wants to recommend himself as chief negotiator in the upcoming talks with the European Union. What can he expect?
He will be thoroughly surprised. Judging by what he is saying, it sounds as if Great Britain merely wanted to secure some advantages for itself and then remain in the European Union, after all. Such negotiations will not happen. I see Mr. Johnson as someone who is leading Great Britain into isolation.
People in Great Britain sense that the world is changing, and they can see that Asia, Latin America and Africa are becoming more important. Even such large countries as Germany and Great Britain will not carry enough weight on their own when competing globally. I believe the British will curse Mr. Johnson one day.
The man many are cursing these days is Mr. Cameron. Did he commit a historic blunder with the referendum?
The mistake began much earlier. The Tories are a divided party, and they have been toying with leaving the European Union for decades. When a prime minister ensures that his party leaves the European Conservatives, the German Christian Democratic Union’s family of parties, and switches to the anti-European camp in the European Parliament, he has ventured onto a slippery slope.
And then, in his campaign, he told the British: Being part of the European Union is really terrible, but if we remain, things will improve a little. That wasn’t very convincing.
Now Mr. Cameron is history. Is his resignation the right step?
It makes sense for him to resign from office. I think he should do it more quickly. In any case, it was a massive and historic mistake on his part.
Perhaps the exit from the European Union will be cancelled, after all. In London, especially in the financial world, some are already speculating on an exit from Brexit. Do you think this is realistic?
No. The British have now decided to leave. We will not hold any talks on what the European Union can offer the British to convince them to stay. And besides, the policies of Mr. Johnson and Mr. Cameron could also lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom. The Scots and Northern Ireland have made it clear that they do not wish to leave the European Union.
So you are saying: Out is out? We are dismissing Great Britain from the European single market?
We will have to reach agreements with Great Britain on the future form of the partnership. We already have such agreements with Switzerland and Norway. The talks will also revolve around the issue of joint trade. But it is also clear that there is no such thing as being just a little bit pregnant. And there are no half-memberships, either.
What does the Brexit mean for the global power structure?
We are already dealing with difficult partners all around us, including Russia, Turkey and the North African countries. The only ones with which we have no problems whatsoever are the polar bears in the Arctic. So a common European foreign policy is important, and it becomes weaker without the British.
Is there a risk that after Great Britain, other member states will push for a referendum on leaving the European Union?
I hope not, but it can’t be completely ruled out, either. This is why we need to react appropriately to this massive shot across the bow. We should not conduct endless debates over the E.U. institutions, but instead should turn to the concrete areas in which people feel neglected by Europe.
Many have the impression that Europe interferes in things that can be done better at home, while ignoring problems that only Europe can address.
Jacques Delors was right: No one falls in love with a single market. But Europe has always been a solidarity project, in addition to a promise of prosperity for all. To me, Europe was always the combination of freedom and mutual responsibility. This has been lost in recent years, especially since the financial crisis.
Most of all, we will have to address mass unemployment. We have more than 20 million unemployed people. We tend to forget that in Germany, since things are going so well for us. We can look back on seven years of austerity policy. I would prefer it if we had a Eurogroup fund that can reward reforms in the member states through investment in digital infrastructure or in research and education.
After the Brexit, that sounds pretty optimistic.
How utopian do you think the idea of European unification sounded shortly before the Treaty of Rome? Our neighbors invited us to join them in building Europe together, even though Germans had committed horrible crimes in these countries a short time earlier. In light of this historic achievement, which produced the biggest civilization project of the 20th century, we cannot be fainthearted.
Isn’t it also a matter of internal security? Especially in light of the refugees, and the growing number of burglaries? Isn’t it also about the issues that former Interior Minister Otto Schily addressed?
Yes, you’re right. Neither terror nor organized crime can be fought within the old structures of nation states alone. At issue are completely different facets of security, certainly including one that has not been that modern in the last few decades: that of the job. No one can protect people from changes. On the issue of the Agenda 2010 package of reforms, I told (former Chancellor) Gerhard Schröder: If you tell people three things that will change, tell them one thing they can rely on. We have a need for security, which enables us to cope with change more effectively. It is precisely the growing sense of insecurity that the radical right-wing enemies of Europe are trying to exploit. Anyone who wants to rectify the injustices and insecurities must do a better job with Europe.
How much of a role does the refugee crisis play? Did we approach it too optimistically, and did we focus too heavily on a European solution that didn’t exist?
Well, it’s clear that the lack of a European solution made the problem worse. But I would warn against making excuses. We have seen this divided attitude toward Europe among the Tories for decades. I have the impression – and this is exactly what the AfD does – that the refugees are being misused in the Brexit debate. August Bebel, one of the founders of the SPD, something that you at Handelsblatt may not be quite as aware of…
…please, Mr. Gabriel…
Okay, I take it back. Mr. Bebel said to me: Anti-Semitism is the socialism of stupid boys. Today he would say: Anti-Islamism is the socialism of stupid boys. We didn’t do everything right in the refugee crisis. But if the AfD is now saying that the refugees are to blame that the British are leaving Europe, even though the Brexit debate began long before the refugee crisis, it merely exposes the indecency of these people.
I have the impression – and this is exactly what the AfD does – that the refugees are being misused in the Brexit debate.
Do you expect the AfD to benefit from the Brexit decision?
No. I expect that many people will think about whether we should continue with this nonsense. I continue to strongly believe in enlightenment and the good will to coexist fairly and peacefully. There are setbacks here and there, but we Social Democrats have learned from our 150-year history that the only way to improve the world is through cooperation. Of course there are those who are rejoicing over the Brexit. But we need to face them down.
How do you intend to do that?
By being clear. Europe is the best place in the world. There is no other place in the world where people live as freely, democratically and safely as in Europe. Of course, some things are going wrong.
For instance, Europe must create more work than unemployment again. Performance has to be worth it, for everyone and not just a part of society. And, finally, we need to make solidarity palpable. This is especially true of us Germans. We, of all people, must invest in Europe. Granted, that costs money, but it’s the best investment in the future of our children and grandchildren.
Would you go so far as to say that we should put a question like this to a vote in Germany? Just as the British did in a highly democratic but tough conflict?
The Basic Law does not provide for referendums like that, and for good reason. Just because the 10 percent who support the AfD want it doesn’t mean that the remaining 90 percent should come unhinged.
But perhaps more than 10 percent would favor a referendum.
The stupid debate over net contributors is coming back to roost in Germany. We are only net contributors if we look at only part of the bill: How much taxpayer money we send to Brussels, and how much we get back. But a country that has 60 percent of its exports in the European Union is of course a net winner.
And if we make it clear to workers that they risk losing their jobs if they destroy Europe, I’m convinced that the Germans will not support the right-wing populists with this crazy idea.
In closing, let’s take a look forward. Former Chancellor Ludwig Erhard believed that psychology was half of the economy. What scenario do you expect for the German economy?
I believe that the markets will quickly get over the excitement. The economic situation in Germany remains stable. I’m not worried about that.
Can we benefit from the Brexit? Perhaps in the context of direct investment?
It is possible that some companies will shift jobs to E.U. countries. There has already been some talk about Frankfurt. But I don’t wish that on the British. There will undoubtedly be some business decisions of that nature. But David Cameron and Boris Johnson apparently didn’t care about that.