German President JOACHIM GAUCK has been described by Chancellor Angela Merkel as a “true teacher of democracy” and a “tireless advocate of freedom, democracy, and justice”.
Involved in the East German opposition at an early age, he was among the initiators of the resistance to the communist regime. Later, as the first federal commissioner for the Stasi Archives, he earned recognition for exposing the Stasi’s crimes. Ahead of his state visit to India (February 4-9), in an email interview with Shubhajit Roy, Gauck discusses Gandhi’s influence on him, German-Indian cooperation, the proposed India-EU FTA and Afghanistan, among other issues:
You had been part of the opposition movement in erstwhile East Germany. What did freedom mean to you then, as a young man? Did any Indian leader influence you and your colleagues?
I grew up in a dictatorship that denied its citizens both political and economic freedom. This experience greatly influenced my attitude to freedom. For me, as for millions of others, the peaceful revolution and fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 were life-changing events. It was wonderful to witness people in the former GDR and other countries in the former Eastern Bloc shed their fears. Anyone looking for a role model on how to stand up to the might of the state peacefully with a strong will and without fear will, of course, think of Mahatma Gandhi. That’s what I did. I decided to quote India’s Father of the Nation in my first speech as federal president to the German Bundestag. Gandhi showed the world that it is possible not to give in to our fears but to choose courage.
More than two decades after reunification, what is the biggest opportunity and the toughest challenge Germany faces?
Germany can look back on the last decades with pride. We are an anchor of democratic and economic stability at the heart of a united Europe. Many had written Europe off in the light of the crisis. However, the latest indications have made me optimistic that our continent will overcome its difficulties. Crises always prompt us to consider what we can do better. I believe we need to work more closely together in economic and financial policy. The EU needs a common security and defence policy to tackle global terrorist and military threats. And, finally, we have to keep reminding ourselves that Europe is more than just a currency area. It is a way of life rooted in freedom, democracy, diversity and prosperity. Given our strong economy, we Germans in particular have a special responsibility.
How do you think Germany’s relations with India can shape the future of ties between South Asia and Europe?
Germany and India have longstanding ties and have also been strategic partners for more than a decade. India was the first country in Asia with which Germany agreed to hold regular consultations at government level. That shows the great importance we attach to the world’s biggest democracy. Due to its growing political and economic clout, India is a key global player. Close cooperation and coordination between our two countries are therefore all the more important. As democracies, we are used to reconciling different interests by entering into compromises and to abiding by clear rules. We should introduce these principles on a global scale, for example, in the spheres of security and human rights, development and climate protection.
India and Germany are close economic partners, as Germany is India’s largest trading partner in Europe. What is holding up the India-EU Free Trade Agreement? Is there a possibility of it being signed soon?
The conclusion of a comprehensive agreement on free trade and investment would be a great opportunity for India, as well as for Europeans. It would interlink the world’s largest single market with one of the world’s up-and-coming economic powers. However, this is not just about a reciprocal opening of our markets. It is also about forging closer links between our societies. Although the EU and India have already made considerable progress, a few key but ultimately surmountable hurdles have, unfortunately, not yet been resolved. We hope the negotiations will be swiftly resumed once a new Indian government has been formed.
India has a large young population. A highly skilled labour force is a fundamental strength of German industry. How can the two countries cooperate so that India may benefit from the German experience?
Our two countries can work very well together in this area. Germany’s dual system of practice-based vocational training is held in high regard throughout the world. India’s many young people need practice-based vocational training and they most certainly need employment prospects. However, the German system cannot be exported wholesale. Indian companies and government agencies must consider how they can make it their own. This is the topic of a conference I will attend in Bangalore on February 7. It goes without saying, Germany is willing to cooperate with India on this.
Both India and Germany have a keen interest in Afghan stability. What is your view of India’s involvement in Afghanistan, and how can India and Germany cooperate there?
I can understand India’s concern about a possible security vacuum in Afghanistan and welcome India’s engagement in the country. During the last intergovernmental consultations, Germany and India agreed to continue working together in and with Afghanistan. The training of air traffic controllers for the new airport in Mazar-e-Sharif is an example: Germany is funding the training, which is taking place in India. Our common goal remains supporting peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan. Germany will remain engaged in Afghanistan even after 2014.