Few other politicians in Europe are walking a finer line than Sigmar Gabriel. And perhaps no other issue holds as many minefields for him as the trans-Atlantic free-trade pact between the United States and the 28-nation European Union.
The vice chancellor in a coalition government with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr. Gabriel is also the country’s economy and energy minister. Added to those twin roles, he’s the head of the center-left Social Democrats.
In an exclusive interview with Handelsblatt, Mr. Gabriel said that failing to agree a trans-Atlantic pact with the United States would represent a missed opportunity for Europe to play a role in setting the standards for global trade.
But, in a nod to the opponents within his own political ranks, Mr. Gabriel warns that he’s not afraid to let the negotiations fail if the United States doesn’t compromise and meet the Continent’s demand on some thorny issues – whether on public arbitration courts for settling investor disputes or greater E.U. access to public contracts in the United States.
The interview was conducted on the eve of the world’s largest industrial trade fair in Hanover, where Mr. Gabriel said he’s also pushing German businesses and his own government to step up their efforts to digitalize German industry. He calls the task of creating the world’s best digital infrastructure a “man-to-the-moon project” for Europe’s largest economy, but one that is sorely needed if Germany wants to remain the world’s export powerhouse for years to come.
Also in Hanover on Sunday, U.S. President Barack Obama opened the trade fair together with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Both offered a final plea for the U.S.-E.U. free trade pact to become a reality, in spite of the anti-trade sentiment that has swept both sides of the Atlantic.
Mr. Obama and U.S. negotiators have their own demands of the Europeans if the trade talks, which will go into their 13th round at a meeting in New York on Monday, are to really be completed.
The following is the Handelsblatt’s full interview with Germany’s vice chancellor.
Handelsblatt: Digitalization is changing society and the economy. How well prepared is Germany for the changes?
Sigmar Gabriel: Many things have been launched in recent years, from programs to promote digitalization in the Mittelstand [the mid-sized companies that form the backbone of the German economy] to the General Data Protection Regulation in Europe. But there is still more to be done.
We need greater data security and a new understanding of data privacy. And we mustn’t forget investments in education and a shared understanding of the goals and contents of digital education. Most of all, our goal must be to have the world’s best digital infrastructure, complete with gigabit networks, by 2025 at the latest.
That’s a project that will cost billions. Where will the money come from?
It will be even more expensive if we continue to lag behind with these developments. Creating the world’s best digital infrastructure is a “man-to-the-moon project.” But it would also get young people enthusiastic about Europe again, and it would show that we are working on the future here. What we need now is courage, not timidity. Most of the funding would come from the private economy. But the government needs to move things forward with good regulation.