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Botschafter Ullrich Klöckner

Botschafter Ullrich Klöckner, © Matic Zorman

04.03.2021 - Artikel

In this interview with Delano, Ambassador Klöckner addresses the pandemic’s challenges, Germany’s EU Council presidency, Rule of Law in the Union and the EU’s role as a global player. 

German Ambassador Ullrich Klöckner arrived in Luxembourg in September 2020. In this interview with Delano, Ambassador Klöckner addresses the pandemic’s challenges, Germany’s EU Council presidency, Rule of Law in the Union and the EU’s role as a global player. 

Prior to coming to Luxembourg, you were posted to Sudan, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Is it easier being in a country like the grand duchy?

Ullrich Klöckner: It’s not easier but different. In Luxembourg, EU-issues dominate our agenda; we are involved in the network of our other embassies in EU-countries, contact and exchange with Berlin is much closer. There were discussions a few years ago whether bilateral embassies within the EU were still needed because the direct exchange of governments is so close. Over the last few years, especially since the pandemic hit Europe, it became evident that our embassies in Europe still have an important role to play.

About one year ago, my predecessor had his hands full when the borders were being controlled. This caused--quite justified--considerable protest from Luxembourg authorities but also from people on both sides of the border. My predecessor managed not only to support connecting relevant people but also alerted Berlin where maybe not everyone involved in the anti-pandemic efforts was familiar with this particular border region.

Supporting dialogue between relevant people, of course, is my role as well today. My impression:  more institutions in Berlin are now much more aware that Luxembourg--as part of the Benelux countries--and the geographic counterparts in Germany are a particular region at the heart of Europe. We should not cut into and tear apart this incredible dense network of exchange developed over the last 50 years. It has been and still is my embassy’s job to convey and constantly repeat this message.

You assumed office in September 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. What challenges did this pose?

When you arrive in a country as Ambassador, you want to listen to and to meet many people, get to know local partners in politics, economy and culture. So far, all of this has been possible only to a very limited degree. In a place like Luxembourg, I would normally be attending an event somewhere in town every evening. Moreover, it is a different conversation if you have a rather formal exchange via video conference or if you meet a person much more casually, for example at a national day celebration. I hope I will be able to catch up once everything is back to normal.

As you already mentioned, the mood between Luxembourg and Germany was tense on several occasions this past year. What’s your assessment of the relationship between both countries at the moment?

The exchange between both countries is very close on all levels and trusting. I notice this repeatedly when speaking with members of the government, with politicians, with everyone here in Luxembourg. However, I am also aware that there are particular issues with potential for tensions as we saw last year. All sides were shocked when suddenly borders were closed. Open borders are one of the key achievements of the EU. Maybe it was not clear to everybody in Berlin how essential open borders are particularly for Luxembourg and the neighbouring Bundesländer. This awareness has definitely changed over the last year. 

During our common fight against the pandemic, we still might experience extraordinary circumstances where, temporarily and as an ultimate action, the free movement between countries needs to be restricted. Such a situation, unfortunately, arose on the German/Czech border. If a similar situation should materialise here in the West--and there is currently no indication for this to happen--we all would have learned our lesson from last year and also could draw from recently gained experiences at the Czech border. I am sure all would manage the situation very differently, in particular since today there is a much closer exchange on all levels between Luxembourg, Berlin, Mainz and Saarbrücken, between the respective health ministries and the local authorities.

But honestly, I hope the rising number of people having been vaccinated, together with options for self-tests available quite soon, will strengthen our common fight against this pandemic and help us avoid further thoughts about restrictions at borders.

The pandemic aside, what are some other areas you want to focus on?

Culture is an important topic for the embassy. There is a close cooperation with the Institute Pierre Werner [a joint German, French and Luxembourg arts not-for-profit]. In October last year we put together an ambitious programme of events and activities for 2021. We very much hope that the overall situation will allow us to realise most of the programme.  From the few events that could take place last year we know how eager people are to experience cultural events.

One of the embassy’s flagship projects is the German-Luxembourg Economic Conference, co-hosted by the Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce. We have started elaborating first concepts, not yet knowing when we will be able to ultimately organise this year’s event.

In October last year, when it was still possible to meet, the European Space Resources Innovation Centre was inaugurated, and I attended this spectacular event. The new organisation is well connected with German partners. This is an area I would like to know more about and enhance cooperation between Luxembourg and Germany.

Furthermore, in 2021 we are celebrating 1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany. The Jewish communities in both of our countries are historically very close. We are in the process of planning an event to honour this relationship.

These are some of the projects we are working on and I hope that we will be able to host most events not as video conferences because, I think, people are rather tired of this format.

The German presidency of the Council of the European Union from July to December 2020 also coincided with the pandemic. How did this impact the agenda?

The underlying motto of all EU presidencies is “expect the unexpected”. In March last year we began to realise that, due to the pandemic, our presidency would be radically different from earlier presidencies and that we had to revise almost our entire planning. The problems started with the technical set up: suddenly all communication and events had to be digital. It took some time to install the necessary technical infrastructure, existing neither in Brussels nor Berlin. In addition, the European Union was not prepared to commonly respond to any kind of cross-border pandemic and member countries in the beginning fell back on their own response mechanisms. A common action plan had to be developed and agreed upon, including a financial framework supporting our economies to survive the lockdowns and to strive for a sustainable recovery.

Very late in our presidency, at the December summit we finally managed to get an agreement on the budget and prevent a major crisis. And after years of negotiations, on Christmas Eve an agreement on trade with the UK could be achieved. For the Green Deal, we were able to agree on very ambitious climate targets, a big step forward, although there are still a lot of issues open. It will be a priority for the Portuguese presidency to continue working on this important project for Europe’s future. On migration, the Commission submitted an action plan. Because of all the other pressing issues--and under the circumstances--there was not enough time for in-depth discussions.  At least, we managed to present a progress report and were able to set a direction for further discussions under the Portuguese presidency. 

An important achievement under the German Presidency was finding a solution for the new rule of law mechanism. The whole budget, including the economic rescue package, depended on finding a compromise. The final outcome does not leave everyone happy--Germany as well as Luxembourg had envisioned a more ambitious approach. However, in the president’s chair Germany had to act as an impartial broker in order to come to a compromise. We are convinced that the solution found is a good start. A lot will now depend on how the Commission will proceed and on how a future verdict of the European Court of Justice will turn out.

There was criticism of the rule of law mechanism--that it’s a bad compromise, that Chancellor Angela Merkel surrendered to Hungary and Poland. Were expectations too high?

The EU works on the principle of unanimity in many issues. To achieve consensus, you need to include member states with radically different views on certain issues. The history of the EU has always been one of compromises. In fact, without compromises there would not be a European Union.

The compromise found for the rule of law mechanism is, as I said, a good start. Very often things develop in practice into a different direction than first anticipated. We had to find common ground and we have enshrined the principle and found a mechanism that now needs to be tested. The final word hasn’t been spoken. So far, most have been happy and relieved that a compromise was found. No compromise would have plunged the EU into a deep crisis.

Still, other member countries are disgruntled about delivering EU taxpayer funds to countries that curb women’s or LGBT+ rights. What is needed to address this in the long-term?

We share the frustration on these issues which will stay on the agenda. Civil society will have to play a greater role to push the debate in the respective countries.

There has been a lot of talk about solidarity between people and countries. If we look at vaccinations, it feels like a race of who gets more, faster. Is it everyone for themselves after all?

There is an instinct to look at what others are doing, and it prods governments to do more. There is competition, and that is not wrong. However, in the case of vaccination doses the decision to commonly buy and distribute the vaccine equally among EU-member states has been the right decision.

Of course, it is easier and faster for a country to take care only for itself than organising a purchase for 27 countries with 250 million people. However, there is no alternative to solidarity in such a difficult and dangerous situation that we are experiencing at the moment. How could we look each other into the eye after the pandemic if we would not have shown solidarity?

This is also true for countries in Africa and elsewhere in the world. That is why Germany, for example, this year is engaged with another €1.5bn in the WHO-platform ACT and its programme COVAX which aims at supplying vaccines worldwide.

The next German presidency will be in 2034. What do you imagine the EU will look like then?

The past years have shown that things happen very differently than expected. That aside, the Union has already survived a number of crises. When I joined the Foreign Office in the late 1980s there was talk of the EU running out of steam. Then Jacques Delors was chosen as head of the Commission, he started the project to complete the internal market, which created an enormous dynamic. There has been a constant up and down but, until today, the EU emerged out of every crisis stronger and more united.

I am very encouraged by the solutions on the budget EU partners found in December. These would have been unthinkable before. It is a proof of great solidarity. In addition, all discussions around Brexit as such have shown what is at stake and that alternatives are not that rosy.

Looking at the EU from the outside, as I did for some years in Africa, you realise that the EU is a global player not only in economic terms. Europe is in the same league as the US and China due to the fact that we stand together and pool our resources. If any country will choose to walk alone, its influence in this increasingly complex new world order will be seriously diminished. People within the EU perhaps are not aware how powerful the EU has grown, but for our partners this is evident. And we shouldn’t compromise this.

A strong and prosperous EU allows influence on the future and a change of this world into something better.

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