Europe must reposition itself to stand up to the challenges posed by its three big global rivals, China, Russia and the US, Angela Merkel has said before her final European election as German chancellor.
Facing challenges that range from Russian interference in elections to China’s economic clout and the US’s monopoly over digital services, Europe needs to get better at putting up a united front, Merkel said in a wide-ranging interview shared with the Guardian.
“There is no doubt that Europe needs to reposition itself in a changed world,” Merkel said in a conversation in her office in Berlin. “The old certainties of the post-war order no longer apply.”
She added: “They [China, Russia and the US] are forcing us, time and again, to find common positions. That is often difficult given our different interests. But we do get this done – think, for example, of our policy regarding the conflict in Ukraine.
“Our policies on Africa, too, now follow a common strategy, which a few years ago would have been unthinkable. So we keep putting one foot in front of the other. However, our political power is not yet commensurate with our economic strength.”
In the interview, conducted by journalists from the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the Guardian as part of the Europa newspaper alliance, Merkel also said:
Brexit was the biggest European turning point of recent years, but that the ball was now in the UK’s court: “In order for the UK to leave the EU, there needs to be a parliamentary majority in London for, rather than merely against, something.”
Generating enough economic wealth to tackle the environmental crisis remained her “greatest worry”.
Germany was aiming to become carbon neutral by 2050, but this was “a tremendous challenge”.
The interview comes at a pivotal moment in Merkel’s 14 years as chancellor. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union, faces the prospect of significant losses in the May 23-26 poll, though observers believe she remains popular enough to see out her fourth term through to 2021.
The elections are a chance for populists in Germany and across the continent to build on their mounting popularity, borne of greater inequality, growing precariousness and a disenchantment with politics in Brussels and in member states.
“Many people are concerned about Europe, including myself,” Merkel said. “This means I feel even more duty-bound to join others in making sure that Europe has a future.”
She said her peers needed to stop toying with populist gestures, and categorically ruled out opening up her centre-right bloc of parties in the European parliament to far-right populists such as Matteo Salvini.
“This is indeed a time when we need to fight for our principles and fundamental values,” Merkel said. “The heads of state and government will decide how far to let populism go or if we are ultimately willing to take on joint responsibility.
“Simply stating that we’ve enjoyed seven decades of peace is no longer enough to justify the European project. Without forward-looking arguments to justify Europe, the European peace project would also be in greater jeopardy than one may think.”
Merkel also stressed the urgency of the global environmental crisis. A former environment minister in Helmut Kohl’s cabinet, Merkel recalled biodiversity conferences she attended in the mid-1990s, and said: “It is heartbreaking to see how the situation has worsened in so many ways.
“There clearly is a lack of consistent political action, on a global scale. What is key for being able to act in all spheres, including environmental protection, is for us to be economically successful. That is my greatest worry.”
She reiterated her aim for Germany to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, but said that for European countries to meet the net-zero carbon emissions target set by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and eight other leaders last week, they would need to reopen a fraught debate about carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.
“Nine countries intend to attain climate neutrality by 2050, whereby they would on average no longer emit any CO2,” Merkel said of Macron’s initiative. “I am firmly convinced that this can only be done if one is willing to capture and store CO2. The countries in question do not deny this. The method is called CCS – and for many in Germany it is a highly charged term.”
CCS is controversial because critics see it as an expensive subsidy that would ultimately perpetuate rather than reduce reliance on fossil fuels. “There are two possibilities – you can either store carbon, or you can reforest on a large scale,” she said. “In the Netherlands, for example, the latter is not an option. There, CO2 could be pumped into empty gas fields. We could do the same in Germany – but if I wanted to implement this policy here with the stroke of a pen, then people would be right to ask me how realistic that is.”
Merkel would not say whether the EU would grant Britain another extension if Theresa May’s government failed to pass her withdrawal agreement by the end of October deadline.
And, asked whether by the autumn Brexit might be being discussed by new leaders in both London and Berlin, she again refused to be drawn, answering: “Should there be anything to negotiate, the European commission will do so on behalf of the 27 member states, as it has done so far.”
This article is part of a six-newspaper collaboration called Europa in which work is reported by one or more newspaper and shared for publication with all. The interview was conducted by Süddeutsche Zeitung, with the Guardian feeding in questions. The six papers are the Guardian, Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung, La Vanguardia, La Stampa and Gazeta Wyborcza.