In an interview with FOCUS online, the chairman of the European People’s Party (EPP), CSU politician Manfred Weber, calls for more leadership in defense policy from the federal government, clearly distances himself from the AfD and advocates a European guiding culture.

Mr. Weber, Russian President Vladimir Putin is continuing his war of aggression against Ukraine with undiminished severity and is showing no serious signs of giving in. How long can the invaded country, and everyone on its side, hold out?

Weber: I see little signs of fatigue among people in Europe when it comes to supporting Ukraine. They see how Ukrainians are suffering because they want to live in freedom and democracy. There is a lot of respect and recognition for that.

But Kiev is calling ever louder for more and faster help. Is the front of the European partners against Putin beginning to crumble?

Weber: Putin is testing every day how far he can go, most recently at the borders with Finland and the Baltic states. The only possible answer is European unity and strength. Away with the principle of unanimity in EU foreign policy, so that we can no longer be blackmailed by Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban!

How is the EU progressing in strengthening its own defence capabilities?

Weber: So far, not enough. Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk, together with Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has proposed a “Skyshield”, a joint missile defence system in the EU. But there has been no response from Berlin. That is tragic, because such a system is absolutely in Germany’s interest.

There is, after all, a declaration of intent by 21 European nations, including neutral ones, to “make the skies over Europe safer”…

Weber: And that without France and Poland? It’s all happening far too slowly; the German government needs to show more leadership here. We must now manage to be strong enough to defend ourselves and support Ukraine. That must be proven in the next five years. The goal is a strong European defense pillar and, in the long term, a European army.

We are still a long way from that. What should the next steps be in this direction?

Weber: We urgently need a European defense commissioner so that we can better coordinate our armament efforts. We have 17 types of tanks, the Americans have one. That alone shows how much money we are wasting on this continent.

After the European elections, the next European Parliament is expected to see a strengthened bloc of right-wing extremist, nationalist and populist parties. This is unlikely to increase the EU’s ability to act. How functional will it still be then?

Weber: The firewall remains, we remain clearly demarcating ourselves from the radicals. But the question that is even more important now is: what kind of Europe will we have tomorrow? I want to replace the Brussels traffic light coalition. We should no longer have left-wing majorities at the European level either. We need to bring common sense back into the fold. Enough of the tactical debate, get down to the issues! That is what people expect from us.

And for this you are willing to cooperate with forces such as the Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose party is made up of neo-fascist remnants?

Weber: All democrats who are able to make a contribution to ensuring that Europe moves forward together and we resolve the issues are my partners – based on our values. The European People’s Party (EPP) has clear principles: We will never work with parties that question Europe, support for Ukraine or the rule of law. Governments like those of Giorgia Meloni or Petr Fiala in the Czech Republic work constructively at the European table.

Meloni and the French opposition leader Marine Le Pen have distanced themselves from the AfD. A purely tactical maneuver?

Weber: It is crystal clear that the AfD is one of the most radical forces. Apart from them, there is hardly any other party that is calling for the exit from the EU. Everyone has understood that Brexit was not a smart move – except the AfD.

Yet, despite all the recent scandals, she still seems to enjoy stable voter support. Why?

Weber: We saw not only in the recent unspeakable video from Sylt that stupid nationalism and racism unfortunately exist. Taboos are falling. That is shocking. As a democrat, you have to stand up and fight back. We need people in the middle of society who have maintained decency and want to enforce it. Everyone is called upon.

That may be so. But what do you personally want to do?

Weber: When a Mr Höcke says: This Europe must die, then I stand in the front row to defend it against the Nazis. The political embodiment of the taboo-breaking is of course Höcke’s AfD, of which he is the ideological leader. The overwhelming majority of people, however, are democratic and pro-European and want nothing to do with these Nazis.

How do you plan to bring AfD voters back to the democratic center?

Weber: Addressing people’s concerns in the face of global change is the most important task of politics, so that people do not follow radical slogans and supposedly simple slogans. I do not believe that the Social Democrats will be able to reach out to Thyssen-Krupp employees who are afraid of losing their jobs. Securing prosperity and peace and getting immigration under control: these are the key questions of our time. We as Christian Democrats and Christian Socials provide answers to these questions and will implement them.

What are your answers?

Weber: If, for example, the asylum and migration package had failed in the European Parliament due to resistance from the left and the Greens, the right-wing populists would have celebrated and pointed their fingers at us: you see, they can’t get anything done. After eight years of torturous debate, we are finally tightening the reins at the EU’s external borders to stop illegal migration: closed facilities for arrivals, decisions on every case within four weeks. The state is taking matters into its own hands and no longer leaving them to the gangs of people smugglers. The Greens were against it, only half of the Social Democrats agreed. Giorgia Meloni supported the package.

And human rights and the promise of asylum protection fall by the wayside?

Weber: We as the EPP support the right to asylum and the Geneva Refugee Convention. But nowhere does it say that one has the right to spend one’s life in Germany in the future. There can also be safe third country concepts. That means: protection, yes, but the person seeking protection cannot choose where. He must accept protection where he gets it.

So we are deporting people to other countries that, God knows, have enough problems of their own – and relying on partners who are happy to take our money but who could blackmail us at any time by opening the refugee sluice?

Weber: Models like the one Italy is now considering with Albania are absolutely worth supporting. What we also urgently need is a Mediterranean pact: cooperation with Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon based on the results achieved with Turkey. Economic cooperation with North Africa in conjunction with the joint fight against the human trafficking mafia – that must be the core of this Mediterranean pact.

So a pact with governments whose adherence to European values ​​can at least be considered questionable?

Weber: We cannot choose our neighbours. And we cannot solve the problems without talking to them. Both sides have similar interests. Dialogue is needed. Otherwise we will not get anywhere. I cannot understand why the Socialists’ leading candidate for the European elections, Nicolas Schmit, is now publicly rejecting agreements such as the one with Tunisia. How else are we supposed to solve the problems? Chancellor Scholz has not made any effort to go to Tunisia, nor has French President Macron. Ursula von der Leyen and I were there. I encountered a willingness to work together.

Are you aiming for “Fortress Europe”?

Weber: Europe must ensure order at the EU’s external border. Only if this is guaranteed can we once again experience the full freedom within the country that comes with the application of the Schengen rules. That is why we want to increase the number of employees of the European border guard Frontex from 10,000 to 30,000 in the next legislative period. We must send the signal: don’t set off, you cannot enter the country.

On the other hand, given demographic developments, we also need immigration…

Weber: When populists promise people that we will stay among ourselves in Germany, they are lying. We need legal migration. Just think of the care sector and the staff that are lacking there. We need to bring those who are useful to us – and not those who exploit us. Unfortunately, 60 percent of the people who come to Germany are not migrants with a right to protection, but simply illegal immigrants.

Anyone who wants to stay and is allowed to stay should also have a corresponding willingness to integrate?

Weber: Anyone who wants to live permanently in Europe has to respect our values ​​and our legal system. There is a European way of life that can be defined: democracy, freedom, the rule of law, a social market economy, equality between men and women. That is the European way of life, a European guiding culture that applies to everyone.

Free trade has always been part of this catalogue of values. But it is increasingly under pressure. How should the EU react?

Weber: Economically, we live in a new world. China has very clear strategic interests in taking over markets. The best example is photovoltaics, a German invention that was nurtured with a lot of state money in eastern Germany and is now almost completely dead because the Chinese have completely taken over the market.

So how do we confront Beijing?

Weber: World trade, yes, including with the Chinese. But we must not be naive. Europe must also be able to protect itself. We must find this balance in the next five years. The situation in the steel industry is now a very specific issue. The Chinese have an overproduction of steel that is as large as the entire European production. The Americans are completely closing their markets. That is why even more is coming to Europe from China. Something must certainly be done to protect the European market.

Even more tangible for consumers is the wave of cheap Chinese electric cars that are flooding the market with the help of state subsidies. Is it time to put the brakes on this?

Weber: Our mass manufacturers have problems, that’s true. Here, too, a common European strategy is needed, ideally with the USA.

The USA is also not without its own strengths when it comes to defending its trade and economic interests; punitive tariffs and market barriers are part of the Biden administration’s toolkit and certainly also of a possible second term for Donald Trump in the White House. How should the EU respond to this?

Weber: I would like to see a close transatlantic alliance. The USA is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s economic output, the EU for 18. Close cooperation with democracies around the world is needed. We would have to act in a closely coordinated and united manner towards China. Together we would have the power to shape the world of tomorrow.