German Foreign Minister Westerwelle talks of the special relationship between his country and France, and his personal ties with the neighboring country with DW. The friendship shouldn’t be taken for granted, he warns.
DW: Foreign Minister, 50 years of the Élysée Treaty, and 50 years of German-French reconciliation. What does that mean for Germany?
Guido Westerwelle: First, it means that the Franco-German friendship is a real gemstone in our European treasure chest. But of course, it's also a pillar for us as nations. Just think about it: there are about 2,000 German-French partnerships between German and French cities. That's an indication of how broad the cooperation is. A German-French TV station, soldiers who work together in brigades. What began 50 years ago has really gone through an exciting evolution.
Was the German-French reconciliation between the French President Charles de Gaulle and his German counterpart Konrad Adenauer the basis for this incredibly successful story of peace on this continent?
It was the initial spark. And that turned into a friendship between citizens. There's the German-French Youth Office, which I took part in while growing up in the Rhineland. These are stunning success stories that have been recorded – how we were inspired as young people to find pen pals or to visit each other's countries.
Did you yourself experience resentment?
Yes, I did experience that. Only I wouldn't call it resentment, but rather simply sorrow or dismay at what France was subjected to by the Germans during World War II. I experienced resentment first hand on a camping trip in Brittany with two or three friends. We wanted to buy something in a little shop. An older woman refused to serve us and went into a back room, where I heard her cry. Her daughter then came out front and said, "boys, this has nothing to do with you. It's because her husband, my father, was killed by the Germans in the war." I had that experience in the 1970s. Fortunately, it isn't something that really shapes our relationship anymore. Today, Germany and France, France and Germany, above all look ahead to what we can accomplish together.
Let us look back one more time. If you review these past 50 years, there are many examples of German-French cooperation. Of course, there's de Gaulle, Adenauer, Helmut Schmidt, Giscard d'Estaing, Helmut Kohl, François Mitterrand, but also Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac. What's surprising is that the politicians who moved beyond the constraints of party lines seem to have gotten along the best. Is that also part of the reason this partnership has been so successful?
I don't think there are any rules for this, no predictability. Cooperation depends on personalities. I notice it myself when I work with other foreign ministers here in Europe. It has nothing to do with parties or party politics. What matters is that you develop a good rapport, just like in everyday life. We have been lucky in that political leaders in France and Germany throughout the post-war era have always had a very close and personal relationship, even if, as in some instances, it followed a difficult start. And that will once again be the case now.
Just like with Chancellor Angela Merkel and President François Hollande. Do you think that, following some initial friction, they, too, can become a dream pair for Franco-German politics?
I think it is possible. We will be doing our level best to make it happen. I have to say that, initially, I had several discussions with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius's predecessor, Alain Juppé who is from a different political party. But it turned into a truly excellent working relationship. We are working very closely with Laurent Fabius. When I look around in Europe and the world, I think there's barely another political pairing that has such a close relationship as France and Germany. Our meetings and phone calls are countless. And it's no longer out of the ordinary when German and French politicians meet – in my youth that was entirely different.
So you are in constant, even daily, contact with your French counterpart Laurent Fabius – for instance over Mali at the moment?
We probably see each other at least once or twice a week, at conferences or during bilateral visits. And it's no different with the difficult decision concerning Mali. The day before France deployed its troops, the French foreign minister explained his point of view to me. It shows that these aren't just complex, static, ritualized talks. There is that too – there are ceremonies, there is the red carpet and sometimes parades with a reception according to protocol. But to be honest, that isn't the defining characteristic of our relationship. It's about the many discussions that are often cordial and sometimes very serious.
Germany and France have always been the driving force behind the European bloc. That was the case, when the then European Community had very few members, to the European Union of 27 – soon-to-be 28 members. Is this Franco-German motor essential to advancing European integration?
Franceand Germany truly are a "conditio sine qua non" (Eds.: Latin for "indispensable condition"), an absolutely essential prerequisite for every step towards closer integration. Of course that doesn't mean it's sufficient for France and Germany to be in agreement. But when France and Germany disagree, the European process can't progress. Still, it's important that we closely coordinate with our partners and neighbors, because we no longer live in Western Europe but in a wider Europe.
I can only encourage everyone not to take the Franco-German friendship for granted. Don't believe it's always going to be that way just because things have developed so positively in the last few decades. It has to be worked on every single day.
I think the young generation, in particular, should be very interested in what is happening in Europe – especially in neighboring France. Young people should use the opportunity to live in Europe and experience it. For my generation, everything was different. It was not a given. Today, I have to say if I could do things over, if I could go back and go to school again and to university, I would definitely spend some time elsewhere in Europe, probably in France. There's a big difference if you visit a country as a tourist or on business than if you really submerge yourself. Experience the culture, smell it, taste it, feel the whole melody of the language, and the way of life. That fosters mutual understanding and is the firmest footing for the Franco-German friendship. Politicians come and go. Governments come and go. Lawmakers have a limited term. But what must remain is the friendship among peoples.
You're from the Rhineland on the French-German border. When you were growing up, did French culture like film, chansons and literature play a role? Or was it of limited influence?
It played a big role. The writer André Gide has always interested me for many reasons. I also had friends who were my age in France. And I once spent Christmas in a small town south of Paris called Étampes. I tried desperately to get through the festivities with my terrible broken French. That's the kind of experience you never forget.
It was unforgettable. And these were perfectly normal members of the French middle class, you don't forget that. It was fascinating how warmly and lovingly they welcomed us young Germans. And how they tried to keep us from being immediately hit by the brunt of history at such a young age, at least in this family. They were just happy that I got along well with the son and the daughter and that we did a lot together. That affected me a great deal, which is why Franco-German friendship isn't just an issue that affects me as foreign minister or as a politician. It's much more than a matter of national interest. It's a chapter of my own life, and I believe I would have been the poorer without it.
And just one last question. French or Italian food, which do you prefer?
It might sound a bit narrow-minded but when we cook, we tend to go for good home-style German food...
The interview was conducted by Alexander Kudascheff, the Head of DW's Berlin bureau.
Guido Westerwelle (51) has been Germany's foreign minister since 2009. He grew up in Bonn, West Germany's capital until reunification, and he was the head of the Free Democrats (FDP) from 2001 to 2011. A lawyer by training, Westerwelle has been a member of the German Bundestag since 1996.
The Elysée-Treaty, an agreement on Franco-German cooperation, was signed on January 22, 1963. Its fiftieth anniversary is being commemorated in Berlin with a joint parliamentary session.