Toward a “Europe of Pioneers”: Interview with Jens Spahn

Toward a “Europe of Pioneers”: Interview with Jens Spahn

. 19 min read

Jens Spahn served as Federal Minister of Health in Germany from 2018 to 2021. He has been Member of the German Bundestag (MdB) for the constituency of Steinfurt I – Borken I, since 2002, when at 22 he became the youngest MdB of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) at the time. He is from Ahaus in the Borken district of North-Rhine-Westphalia. His book on his experiences as Minister of Health during the COVID-19 pandemic was published at the end of September 2022.

You penned your newest book on your experiences as Federal Minister of Health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you give us a small sampling: per the book’s title, how has the pandemic changed Germany and what do these changes mean for the future?

Well, the book's title  actually more or less translates to, “we have to forgive each other a lot.” We have to pardon each other.

The book is, first of all, a mix of anecdotes, experiences, and some situations I've been through, followed by the lessons learned. More general [lessons], technical ones, political, how to prepare for a crisis, emergency practices, the European Union, “Europe of Pioneers” for better cooperation [see later below for further elaboration], for example, how we have to become more sovereign. A necessity we have experienced, again, now with Russia. And during the pandemic with China and others.

Finally, the book is about what [the pandemic] did to society. And that brings us to the pardon part. Everyone in this crisis, whether it was over lunch, amongst family or friends, as a journalist or an expert or a politician, at least once, or perhaps I would say more often even, was wrong, and had to correct themselves afterward because this pandemic developed totally differently than expected.

So, we should discuss what happened, what mistakes were made, where we failed, and what we could have done better. At the same time, however, we should do this without bitterness, without anger, so that we [remain] able to pardon each other. Which is not to say that we won’t discuss the problems because, of course, we must discuss them, and we need to learn, but we need to learn in a way that keeps us together. In a way that doesn’t tear us apart.

Something that had, in fact, fundamentally driven me already during the migration crisis [of 2015], and then again later, and now once again, during this war, as tensions rise again, within Germany and Europe, as we navigate how to deal with Russia and the energy crisis and the pricing of energy, was that, of course, as a free and open society, there not only can be but there have to be different opinions, but we should be able to be one, society, community, family, even though we might have different views, and we should be able to discuss these views in partnership. That is the final part of my book, and, for me, the most important part.

Do you think that the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have shaped us into a more forgiving and understanding society?

No! In fact, I would say both that we need more readiness and, perhaps, the ability to forgive, and that now, at the same time, there are more tensions, instead of less. What we, unfortunately, see is the opposite, and so what I promote and work toward is that we should do things in a different way. So no, I would not say that that has happened. It needs to happen.

And to turn to you a little, how would you say the great responsibility and weight of being Federal Minister of Health during the pandemic changed you? In what ways are you a different person now than you were before the pandemic?

Well, parts of it might be still under development. In general, and the same goes for this crisis as well, I take fewer things for granted. With the simplest things in life, you think, it's always been this way and will always be this way, when that is just not the case.

Every day, we need to work toward being able to keep our freedom and health. Even the energy supply cannot be taken for granted, as I have learned in this crisis. At the same time, I have realized you should not get too focused on the news of the day, on daily events and ups and downs, but you should remain focused on the important issues and the actual goal of managing a crisis. In a certain way, I’ve become more calmed down and less driven by the daily ups and downs.

You've been in the Bundestag for 20 years. What's motivated you until now? Has your motivation changed over the course of these past three years?

My fundamental motivation is making a difference. You know, at the very beginning, politics was my hobby. My brother used to play soccer, [and] I used to attend political meetings of the Junge Union youth organization [the CDU/CSU’s youth organization] back home in Westphalia. From the very beginning, from the town council on, I just wanted to make a difference, by debating and then by decision-making, to change people's lives for the better. And there is no better post to do this in—well, there's only one better post—than being a federal minister, making a difference by starting a debate, in my case, on nursing, elderly care, or obligatory vaccination for measles, for example. Just recently, the Constitutional Court approved a law I had proposed, so these are issues that can really change people's lives, whether for small groups in the health system or for millions of people affected by the decision. That is the most important driver of my political engagement, and that has not changed. Now, of course, you need an opposition, but it's better to be in government. Right now, in the opposition, we can criticize, and we are part of the public debate, but if you really want to change things, you need a majority.

Do you think there's truly a Zeitenwende [turn of eras] in Germany right now, as many have claimed?

What is truly a fundamental shift in the country right now is that the business model of Germany that we relied on for at least two decades, if not longer, does not work anymore. We are not facing just another threat to it; it simply does not work anymore. What I mean by the business model in three simple sentences is: the US takes care of our security; at the same time, we do exports to the world, especially to China, but not exclusively; and the whole model is driven by cheap Russian energy.

This was our business model, and these three pillars worked very successfully throughout the past two decades until the pandemic started. In this time, economically, we had the best years of the Federal Republic ever, with surpluses in the budget and the Social Security system, all the while seeing an increase in salaries, pensions, and freedoms, without being faced with any real threat. So, we had quite a good time, but none of these three pillars [work] anymore like they used to.

We now need to take care of this Zeitenwende, in the first place. We need to take over more responsibility for our security, to grow up as a European Union. Within the EU, in Germany, as the biggest member state, we must take care of our security. We need to become more sovereign and more independent, regarding China. At the same time, we need to remain an export nation, but we should do more trade with and export to our friends, which is why I would be in favor of a new approach. For example, instead of doing more trade with China, we should do more with our transatlantic partners or with South America.

As for the third and final pillar, cheap Russian energy, I'm very sure that won't be coming back either. [Thus], these two crises, the pandemic and this war right now in Europe, really [mean] changes. All of this is a real Zeitenwende for Germany. Is the current government really doing what is necessary, really meeting this big challenge? I would say not yet. But at least, we are starting to realize that this decade will be different.

To focus now on the energy crisis, which you mentioned, winter is coming, and energy supplies appear precarious, so please allow me to begin by asking you about what is on the minds and lips of Europeans, all around. When the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out, nations in Europe, member states of the European Union, scrambled to protect themselves, each rushing for supplies, seemingly allowing disunity to reign over unity. In facing the possible energy shortage posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, how, if at all, can EU member states act in harmony to ensure that all members have sufficient access to energy in the winter and in the longer run? As the greatest energy user, what could Germany’s special role be in making sure every home across the community is heated?

To start with the second question, Germany has a special weakness when it comes to energy, more than many other member states because we are much more dependent on energy sources from abroad than are many areas in the middle of the continent. At the same time, we are the industrial nation on the continent with a high need for energy, and we are [meanwhile] phasing out nuclear and coal energy. Perhaps with Austria, we are one of the most vulnerable countries in this energy crisis in Europe.

In fact, it's only 10, 12, or 14 EU member states that are really affected by [the crisis]. It is not the whole European Union, we are talking about. For example, Portugal and Spain have a different supply chain, [that is not so reliant on] Russian pipelines, so they don’t [find themselves] in the situation that we have to face right now. Neither does the US, by the way. So, we have a special weakness, and this weakness means we are much more reliant on other European countries than you might initially expect.

For example, we need LNG [liquefied natural gas] coming in from Rotterdam through the Netherlands to Germany, because so far, we have no LNG terminals of our own. We need Norwegian gas. We would need French electricity from their nuclear plants too, only the problem is right now they are not running as they should, which brings [us to] the electricity supply chain issue in Europe. In normal times, France exports the electricity that Austria needs more or less [in total quantity]. Yet right now, France is not exporting at all, but is, in fact, importing electricity. Just this simple example shows how connected we are in this. This is true for electricity, and it is true for gas too. So yes, there needs to be a European solution, one that requires many, many agreements, bilateral and multilateral, within the European Union to really make sure that all of us have enough energy for the next winter. I mean, is a French glass factory, for example, really willing to shut down to save gas to have warm heating for German pensioners? That is a very concrete question. And that is still not really solved.

Courtesy of the Office of Jens Spahn.

Do you think there will be greater cooperation than at the very beginning of the pandemic? Will this be a time when these member states work together?

At the very beginning of the pandemic, there were some weeks when we really struggled to find a common approach, when we had export bans or restrictions on masks, for example, different travel restrictions, and so on. We needed some weeks, but then we found common ground. In this energy crisis, I would say, this has been the case from the very beginning, since there is more EU regulation already in place, covering energy and energy markets, because the European Union is very much about markets. In this area, there is already lots of regulation in place, even for cases of emergency. So far, those options have not really been used, since they didn’t need to be. The question is if it really comes to a shortage of supply—so far, we “just” see high prices, very high prices, higher than ever, already causing great trouble—but if there is really a shortage, whether European solidarity works or not remains to be shown. But in general, I'm optimistic.

So, if we have these two crises, and both pose a challenge for the EU, then how should the EU evolve to be better equipped to both meet crises in the future and function effectively, efficiently, and prosperously in times of greater stability, particularly in the wake of the war in Ukraine?

“Effectively functioning” is one of the core tasks or challenges of the European Union. To give a small example, it is just the same in a university or in a classroom: it makes a difference whether you are 12 in the classroom or 27. For the discussion, for the interactions, for the networking, for the decision-making, 12 or 27 is a big difference. We used to be 12 or 15 as members of the European Union, and with the enlargement, especially to the east in the past years, we have become 27. In general, it is good that more countries are a part of the European Union, this union with common values and a large market, but still, our size makes decision-making tough, especially if you need unanimity, as you do in many but not all decisions. I have attended many council meetings in the finance ministry and the housing ministry, and with 27, there is no real interaction amongst members anymore, or at least not enough.

So, what we need, before we discuss an enlargement or a deepening of the European Union, is, first of all, to find ways for better decision-making. This would mean less unanimity, for example —that more decisions, especially in foreign and security policies, can be taken without unanimity but rather with a majority.

In my book, I advocate for a “Europe of Pioneers,” which means that if there are 5 or 10 or 17 member states that want to move on with the next step of integration, [be it] in the area of defense or taxing or hydrogen fuel, they can. If you wait for the last one of 27, you might be waiting a long time because you need everyone to say yes. If, on the other hand, you say there are pioneers that start [further integrating], like France and Germany, started with the defense union some years ago, and anyone can join but no one has to, that from my perspective would be a good way to keep the European Union agile and flexible enough to address new challenges.

Take the defense union, for example. If we had waited for the last one to join, the union would never have started. But France and Germany began the endeavor, and then 23 others joined. We are 25 now but not 27. If we would have waited for the last one, which too often these days—but not exclusively—is Hungary, then the union may never have [materialized]. And there are many other similar examples. So, I advocate for this “Europe of Pioneers,” which is different from the “Europe of two speeds,” the image many use: a Europe in which everyone has the same goal but pursues it at different speeds. A “Europe of Pioneers” means there are different layers, different goals of integration, but all remain within the same framework.

Would the integration then occur in a new body that may be an appendage to the EU but is able to function somewhat independently of the EU?

It is already in the EU treaties that you can have this kind of cooperation within the treaty and within the European Union, but it would not be the community approach through the Commission and the European Parliament. You would not use the [current] mechanisms of the community, but it would rather be more like national states cooperating, like the Eurozone, for example. The Eurozone is a cooperation of national states. It is not within the original framework of the European Union. Even if, of course, parts of it are more or less integrated, legally, they are separate even in the way they meet. There is the ECOFIN [Economic and Financial Affairs Council] meeting of the economic and finance ministers of the 27, and there is a Eurozone meeting of only the Eurozone’s finance ministers.

The same idea has just been extended with Schengen since not all member states are part of the Schengen system. Now, after a French idea, there is a Schengen Council. The idea is that, much like with the Eurozone meeting, the Ministers of the Interior from the Schengen area should meet regularly to discuss migration, travel restrictions, etc.

There will be different political bodies within the European Union, but not directly part of the European Union, if you will let me put it that way. These bodies might even meet on the same day: in the morning, you do the 27’s meeting and then you do the Schengen meeting. More importantly, you can create bodies that can make decisions, and you do not have to let the migration crisis, for example, happen without any coordinating body. The Eurozone mechanisms were actually developed in the wake of the Euro crisis. The Schengen Council developed out of the pandemic when we had to close our borders but perhaps should have developed during the migration crisis. Now, perhaps in the midst of this energy crisis, 10 or 12, or 5 member states that want to do more integration or take steps on energy policies can move ahead with their hopes.

Allow me to transition to the politics of your party. The newly formed Christian Democratic Union (CDU) issued an appeal to the German people in 1945, stating in part, “From the chaos of guilt and shame into which the deification of a criminal adventurer has plunged us, a new order of democratic freedom can emerge only if we return to the civilizing moral and spiritual forces of Christianity, and make these sources of strength ever more accessible to our people.” Finding compromise between the many disparate Bavarian, Rhenish, Ruhr, Hamburg, and so on, interests, Adenauer’s CDU built a wide-reaching platform that brought in great electoral victories. In what ways have German Christian Democratic politics, particularly the Party’s beliefs and goals, changed since then?

Let us begin by looking at where it has not changed. What has not changed is our view on the human being and on society. This is actually a big difference between us and other parties and perhaps has been throughout the history of parties. Left-wing parties, or rather not only left but especially left-wing parties, have long had the idea of creating a kind of perfect world on Earth, the perfect state, be it through communism or socialism, or from the right, the extreme right, in fascism, or perhaps Islamism, the idea is still to have a perfect system, a perfect ideology, and then to create a kind of paradise on Earth from their ideological perspective. If human beings, the citizens, do not match those ideals, they are forced, which always leads to a dictatorship or autocracy.

The Christian Democratic Party’s answer was and still is that we should take the world and the people as they are as the starting point, and we should try to improve their lives and situations day by day, decision by decision, while knowing that paradise is made by someone else afterward. This is a very different approach. I always say that the Greens in Germany, especially again in this crisis when they tell people how many minutes they can spend showering, have it in them to always try to make people adapt their habits in eating, driving, showering, etc. They want people to live according to their ideas and to change them and their behavior. Our approach is that we take humans as they are, and that is the starting point for improvement. Human beings are human beings, they are not perfect. That is the starting point for Christian Democratic politics.

Then there are the values of the family as a core of society, the idea of community, that freedom and liberty do not mean that everyone does whatever he or she wants to, but that you have a responsibility for yourselves or your family or the one standing next to you, the social market economy, and so on. For decades now, it has been the same idea that has not changed. What has changed, since 2022 is very different from 1950, is how this actually plays out in daily politics. Take family values, for example. Divorce was unthinkable in the ‘60s in the US as it was in Germany, and when there was a divorce, it could only ever be the woman's fault. We obviously do not think that way in 2022. The core value, though, that people should feel responsible for each other, that there's a natural responsibility, especially between parents and children, is still the same. But the way the value carries into the legal framework has adapted to society, to changes in society and developments in the modern world; take gay marriage or adoption as examples, while the value behind the changes remains the same. It is very important to have this [adaptation]. Marriage itself, for example, is just a legal construct, but the idea behind it is actually what counts.

How do you see yourself and your generation reshaping European conservatism across the continent?

Well, first of all, there have been ups and downs. 10 years ago, it was the Christian Democratic conservative parties across the continent that were governing Europe. If you had traveled through the European capitals, there would have been many capitals in which we had a majority. Right now, Vienna is the westernmost capital run by a conservative head of government. So, the landscape has changed a lot, and we need to regain trust in many regards.

In general, I would say we need to find what I would call “liberal conservatives.” This means that you have to not only accept but actually live by conviction in a modern world [according to] the liberal values of a society, which means freedom, freedom of speech, individual freedom especially, and I would even dare to say that in this regard, Germany is perhaps more liberal than the US in [certain] areas of this. At the same time, there is the idea that all these individuals are kept bound together by a community, by the idea of a national state, and that they do need this idea of a national state, of a home, of culture, of language, [to which] they belong to give them an idea of being bound together with others. We have to find the right balance between the individual and liberal rights [on the one hand], and [on the other] the strength and elements of the community to keep this all together and enable individuals to act and react and feel solidarity [with each other]. That is the balance you always need to find.

For example, you need to have limits to make this kind of freedom possible; you need to have a state and control of the state to guarantee freedom. So, freedom is not the absence of state; it is actually the right balance between the two. At the same time, for social security, for freedom, and for the feeling of community and belonging together, you need a variety of social policies and social tools. It is all about finding the right balance between all of these. To see the interaction between liberal individual freedom, and at the same time, conservative values, for example. My conviction is that the two are actually much more interlinked or interdependent on each other than what many who try to separate them into different roles may suggest. You know, in Germany, our natural sister party in the US would be the Republicans, but from today's point of view, if you take [the party’s] content, I would say, a right-wing Democrat might be closer to us than a left-wing Republican. I'm not sure. But perhaps.

Can you elaborate further on how you would describe the contrast between the Trump-oriented Republican Party's beliefs and the Christian Democratic Party's beliefs?

First of all, we would never believe in a person like this. I find it very untruthful, and it is the opposite of a conservative liberal idea to have a leader who is the center of a party, of a political movement, like this [former President Trump]. That is not a Christian Democratic approach. Of course, we have a leader, like we had Angela Merkel or Helmut Kohl; of course, there is someone who actually stands for the party and is the leading person, but he or she is never the defining moment of a party and should never be. That is, by the way, what you see in France with Macron; his whole party is one person, more or less. Because of the pandemic, I was not in the US in the past three years as often as I say should have been, but from here, it feels like parts of the Republican Party, at least, are just focused on one person. And then it is not about content and values and ideas. It is more or less like following a leader. And that is never good. And that is never conservative or Christian Democratic. This is something I'm really convinced of.

To go back to your earlier point, in Austria, and if I'm not mistaken in North Rhine Westphalia, there are Christian Democratic - Green governments in place, what does it mean for a Christian Democratic Party to build a coalition with a Green Party? How does that work out in practice?

To begin, of course, we have different political systems in place in Europe. We have countries like France, or the UK, or the US, where often you have only two big parties, a majority electoral system, and in normal times, you do not need any coalition at all. Then there are other systems like the German system, more representative with more parties in Parliament, where forming a coalition is not an exception but the normal situation. In general, of course, Liberals [the Free Democratic Party], just by content and by political culture are always closer to us, more linked to us, than the Greens or the Social Democrats. At the same time, though, a democratic party in a system like ours should be able to find common ground and compromise with other democratic parties to form a government, otherwise, the country would become ungovernable.

I'm from North Rhine Westphalia. Westphalia is a quarter of Germany, it is almost 18 million people, and it is more than a quarter of German industry or German GDP. If Westphalia were an EU member state, it would be one of the biggest. So [the fact that in] North Rhine Westphalia the Christian Democrats and Greens are in government together in this decade in this particular situation can show that you can combine the idea that comes from us of remaining an industrial country—we want to keep the steel industry, aluminum industry, car-making in the country—with the idea that we want to become carbon-free. You can do both. That is the big promise of such a coalition, that there is a correction from both sides that in the end leads to compromise. What never works is if you force yourself into such a coalition, but if you go into such a coalition, at least you should try to find common ground, to really have a common project. If that does not work, if the differences were so big that every day of governing together is just fighting, then it is better to leave it. But I would say we have found common ground to actually build up a carbon-free industrial country. That’s the idea, and that’s the project in North Rhine Westphalia. And we will see how it works.

What is the chief compromise that the two sides must make to be able to work together?

Well, for example, the Greens had to and have to accept that an industrial country needs the security of energy supplied every second of the year and of the hour. For that, you need hydrogen fuel for example. Wind and solar [are] not enough. Now, in the coalition treaty we just made [forming the government in North Rhine Westphalia], the sentence “we want to keep [the] steel industry in the country” is a sentence a Green would never have signed 10 years ago. At the same time to say “we want an industry that is carbon-free” [as the treaty also says] is something we [Christian Democrats] would never have signed 10 years ago because we would have said that is impossible. Building up a hydrogen fuel supply chain, investing in renewables to actually produce the energy you need, and building up the infrastructure structure needed to support the industry in this transformation process is actually the core policy in this regard in North Rhine Westphalia.

My last question is that with this interview, the HIR intends to inaugurate a chain of interviews in which you are the first and I will ask you to pose a question to anybody in the world around today. And we will find that person and we will pose them your question and say this is coming from you, and then continue with a conversation of our own with them. So, to ask you, if you could ask anything from anybody in the world right now, who would you ask? And what would you ask them?

I’d like to ask Professor David Sinclair, “Is there a chance that we will live forever?”

Erdos spoke with Spahn on August 24, 2022. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Zebulon Erdos

Zebulon Erdos is Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard International Review. He is interested in European affairs, rule of law, and political philosophy.