In mid-March, Joachim Schuster, Member of the European Parliament, and I sat down to discuss topics ranging from German policy toward Ukraine; the war’s effect on the German economy; the Chinese peace proposal, among other topics.
In Brussels, Schuster serves as a vice chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) group and is a member of its Committee on International Trade. He has served in the European Parliament since 2014. – James W. Carden
JWC: Thanks for taking the time to talk. In a recent article of yours, you wrote about the importance of Détente. We Americans have a certain understanding of it and in a way it’s been associated very closely with the early 1970s and Nixon-Kissinger era. What does it mean in Germany and how closely is it associated with Willy Brandt’s policy of Ostpolitik which he pursued around the same time as Nixon pursued Detente?
JS: The main point is indeed that it started in a time of confrontation between the two different systems, communist and democratic, after the Cuba Missile Crisis of 1962. Up to that point, meaning the Cuba crisis, both sides, East and West, had a confrontational policy. And I think they each thought they could beat the other side. And after Cuba and a new policy began where they recognized because of nuclear weapons to win a battle against the other was impossible, and therefore they’d have to find a way to live and work together. And that’s only possible if both sides are sure that the other side will not start a war against the other. And very important thing, is that they also feel that they are secure: Not only that they are secure, that they feel they are secure.
That’s important to realize in the context of NATO. Because I think the Russians are actually afraid of NATO because of the expansion of the NATO to the East. But on the other side, I’m sure the NATO, in this case, is a real defensive organization and they don’t want to attack Russia. They want to increase their influence but they don’t want to attack Russia.
JWC: Do you think that part of the Russian fear of NATO has to do with their view that perhaps NATO is, it is trying to expand American influence in particular? Would they have reacted in the way that they have if America was not part of NATO, if it was purely a European project?
JS: I think that is one dimension of the current war. This complicates a solution, because Russia with the invasion also falls into classic imperialist policy patterns. And for Russia it’s a problem if they are the loser of this competition between the systems. And I think a very important point for their policy and for their view on geopolitical affairs was when President Obama commented that Russia is only a regional power…
JWC: You’re a member of the European Parliament. You have written about, like I said, the importance of Detente and the importance of ending this conflict. What’s the feeling like in the European parliament? I recently interviewed Clare Daley from Ireland who is a very vocal opponent of the war. Can you give me a sense of what people think about in Brussels?
JS: In the parliament voices like Daley’s are a small minority. From the Conservatives to the Greens and the Social Democrats, the majority thinks we have to deliver weapons to Ukraine, we have to strengthen the Ukraine on the battlefield. And we can only use diplomacy if we have a victory, if Ukraine has a victory on the battlefield. That’s that the majority view there, but then you have another slightly different viewpoint from the Eastern European countries who are also in fear that they are next, that Russia will not stop in Ukraine but they will attack the Baltic States, Finland, Sweden. That is one of the reasons why Finland and Sweden asked for membership of the NATO. They will become a part of the NATO because they fear that Russia won’t stop. But the Western European countries are far away from this conflict, and often their inhabitants, in my view, are more rational and they are concerned about how the war is impacting their lives: Increasing energy prices, problems with raw materials, inflation…
JWC: So the majority opinion within the European parliament is very similar to German elite opinion, German media, German think tanks, no?
JS:To German media perhaps but not to German politics.
JWC: Not German politics?
JS: No, because [Chancellor] Olaf Scholz has said we have to bear in mind that we don’t want to become a party to the war. Nor does he say that Ukraine must win the war. He speaks about the fact that Ukraine must not lose the war. In addition, he stressed that further diplomatic efforts are also needed now.
There is a difference between the position taken by the majority in the European parliament and the behavior of different European governments, because they think more about possible consequences of their decisions.
JWC: What about the effects of the war has had on the German economy? Can you talk about those and have they influenced public opinion at all?
JS: Yeah, the biggest effect has been the increase in energy prices. Before the war started, 50 percent of Germany’s gas came from Russia. Meanwhile we get no more energy from Russia. That means , we needed to substitute this 50 percent with resources from other countries. The USA, for example, said ‘OK, you can buy liquid natural gas but you have to pay much more.’
JWC: How much, what’s the factor? How much more?
JS: The price of gas rose enormously. In the meantime, gas in Germany was five times as expensive as in 2021. Now energy prices being two to three times higher than before is a problem for working people. High energy prices are the principal cause of German inflation. Then there are the increasing prices for food, because Russia and Ukraine are important sources of foodstuffs. And so we have an inflation rate in Germany that at the moment is nearly 8%. So it is a great problem for many people, especially for people who are not very rich.
JWC: Over the longer term, how do you think this plays out in the end?
JS: In the longer term, these economic developments put the solidarity of the population to the test. But I believe that the majority of the German population will stand by Ukraine in the long term, because the war clearly originated in Russia.
With regard to the European security architecture, it has become clear that the United States is currently an indispensable ally for us. Only the U.S. can currently guarantee military security.
But on the longer term it’s clear that the United States wants to reduce engagement in Europe and therefore, step by step, we need a more European approach and we need a stronger Europe. But with regard to security and military affairs we are not very united because it’s not in one of the competences of the European Union. But I think there is no alternative to a stronger European role. Yet there we have an additional problem with Great Britain and Brexit, because Great Britain was one of the mightiest military powers of Europe. We have to find ways to keep them on board and therefore I think there will be a special European pillar within the NATO.
And there Germany and France could play an important role…
JWC: Within NATO?
JS: Yes, within the NATO, because up to now Macron as well as Scholz have stressed that it’s important to have diplomacy, to try everything to stop the war. And they are convinced that there will not be a victory in the battlefield. But it is clear to both that militarily only NATO is in a position to ward off a possible military threat from Russia.
On the one hand we are dependent on the Americans, but on the other hand, we have to be more independent. I cannot say what the future will be, but the main point is that the European states must try to cooperate more closely. But close military cooperation in the EU or even the development of effective EU armed forces is unlikely. The conceptual differences between the EU states are too great for that. In addition, there are individual EU states, such as Poland, which rely exclusively on a close alliance with the USA in terms of security policy. Therefore it’s very difficult situation.
JWC: But can you have a stable European security architecture without some way of involving Russia?
JS: No. In my point of view, common security is only possible with Russia involved…
JWC: Common security…
JS: The Americans are important, necessary for our security. But on the other hand we have to have in mind that we cannot move Russia away. Russia is affecting Europe, therefore stability in Europe is only possible if Russia believes it’s secure.
This is the essential parallel to the policy of détente pursued by Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr. On the basis of secure military deterrence, it will be important to return to disarmament and arms control in Europe. At the same time, we must gradually improve relations with Russia so that warlike confrontations on the European continent are no longer worthwhile for anyone.
JWC: So I just want to close by asking you what you thought of the recent meeting between the Chinese president Xi and Russian president Putin. Is this a preview of what the global balance is going to look like?
JS: I think it’s very important that China engage itself in this conflict. They’re not a mediator, they are on the side of Russia. That’s clear. But the most important point is that the Chinese side influences Russia.
And about the Chinese peace plan: It’s not a real peace plan, but has some very important points. They say the use of nuclear weapons must be avoided at all costs and they say Russia has to respect the sovereignty of the Ukraine. And that’s different from many of the things Russia has said. I think also this meeting with Xi and Putin now shows that China has different interests than Russia. They are partners but they have different interests. And I hope that the Chinese side is rational enough that they say: It makes no sense to wage war because it doesn’t solve any problems and it’s better to cooperate.
For all the differences with China, a confrontational policy of the kind currently being pursued by the United States will not solve any of the existing problems and will prevent us from developing a new form of international cooperation globally to combat climate change and reduce hunger and misery in the world.
JWC: It’s all we know. It’s all we know how to do these days. There was so much surprise and anger in the American political establishment over the Chinese brokering the reopening of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran partly because our diplomats have forgotten how to actually do diplomacy.
JS: Even if we consider many developments to be worrying or even fire-threatening, we must take note of the fundamental change in international relations. The geopolitical changes of the last 10 to 20 years means that there is no unipolar order any longer. We have different states and it is not simply a confrontation between autocratic regimes and democratic states. It’s much more diverse. There are difference, for example, between the interests of South Africa and Brazil and India which are not completely in tune with China.
They are not all friends, but they so all say, “No, we don’t want be dominated by the Western countries. We have had enough experience with such domination and we say no, we don’t want it.” And therefore it makes no sense to have confrontation. We have to come to a new balance of interests between the different states. And as a Western states, we have to realize that the interests of the many states within the global south are not the same as our interests. So, that’s the question and that will also be a cause for many problems in the future, I think.
JWC: Im sure you have heard a lot of noise coming from America about this new division of world between the democracies and autocracies, it’s a new Cold War divide that they’re trying to reinvent. And it seems to me that it is very dangerous vision of the world…
JS: Yeah, it would be a disaster because we have common issues like tackling climate change and tackling poverty. We will not be successful in tackling these alone, we will only be successful if all the nations of the world work together. We need a new era of global cooperation and that’s the opposite of a policy of confrontation with China. We need a modern global policy of détente that translates the principles of détente during the systemic confrontation into today.
We have to cooperate and we have not much time.