Karl Lamers (born 1951), Deputy Chairman (CDU–CSU) of the Defence Committee of the Bundestag since November 2006, and President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly since November 2010, visited Budapest on 5 October. He met Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi, and was the keynote speaker at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Hungarian Atlantic Council, along with János Martonyi, Minister of Defence Csaba Hende, US Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis, Professor Sylvester E. Vizi, Chairman of the Hungarian Atlantic Council, and Gyula Kodolányi, Founding Chairman (1992–1993) of the Hungarian Atlantic Council.
In the wake of that visit, in late October, Gyula Kodolányi, with Hungarian Atlantic Council Deputy Chair Ágnes Szent-Iványi Exton, conducted an interview with Lamers for Hungarian Review, on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and on German-Hungarian relations.
GyK: On 9 November 1989 you were in Budapest. How did you feel on that day? Had you ever imagined that the Wall would fall in your lifetime?
KL: On 9 November 1989, I was on an official visit in Budapest with the President of the State Parliament of Baden-Württemberg. When I heard about the fall of the Wall the next morning, I was totally overwhelmed. I was one of the first Germans to have the great opportunity to express my deep gratitude to the President of the Parliament of Hungary as well as to the Hungarian people for their courageous support. We thought that they had fought for their freedom with great courage, and thus for our freedom too.
Back in Germany, in Heidelberg, I flew to Berlin a few hours later where I could witness how hundreds of thousands of citizens of the German Democratic Republic were pouring across to West Berlin. The following two days were full of moving moments of real happiness I will never forget. And I also will never forget the famous speech of our Chancellor Helmut Kohl in front of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church when he addressed all German citizens in both east and west. When I see those pictures today and I walk along where the wall once stood, I can still feel these emotions. For giving us this wonderful gift and making our dream of living together in peace and unity come true, we are thankful to all our friends and supporters.
The great hope and the firm conviction that the Berlin Wall would fall one day was always in my head as well as in my heart. However, the long period of 28 years which it took was marked by worries, suffering and pain. I strongly believed though that this historical moment would take place one day. And when this outstanding moment for my country and for the whole of Europe finally happened, it was overwhelmingly emotional for me, almost unbelievable.
GyK: When did you realise for the first time that German reunification might become a reality?
KL: In 1989, more and more signs of hope pointed to the changes. The people in the former German Democratic Republic showed great bravery when they kept demonstrating peacefully for their freedom during the summer of 1989 in Leipzig, Dresden and many other places. Finally, Hungary got the ball rolling when it cut a hole in the Iron Curtain at the Pan-European Picnic on 19 August 1989, when hundreds of people were able to flee over the Austrian–Hungarian border. When people walked through the streets with candles in October 1989, I felt for the first time that there was a real chance then of German reunification. When I saw on television the pictures of numerous people on top of the Wall on 10 November, during my stay in Hungary, I knew we were witnessing an outstanding event in world history. The world was in motion and I realised that nothing would be similar to how it was before.
When the Iron Curtain was opened on 9 November 1989, hope turned into confidence. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had gained the trust of statesmen in both east and west. He knew that German and European unity were two sides of the same coin. He persuaded all parties who were involved that a united Germany would make a huge contribution to the stability of Europe.
GyK: How do you see the mission of NATO today?
KL: In my opinion, NATO is the most successful political and military alliance in the world today. For more than six decades, the alliance has been the main pillar of European and transatlantic security and the guarantor for peace and security in Europe. Since its foundation on 4 April 1949, NATO has grown in importance. Founded as a defence alliance, it developed into a political and military organisation. While NATO is not a global policeman, it fulfils its worldwide responsibility in a time of global changes and new security challenges. The biggest challenge for NATO today, and its forces like the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, is the fight against international terrorism. Many other security threats exist in the 21st century. These are threats that can originate from anywhere in the world and which no country can face alone anymore: for example the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, piracy, cyber-attacks, failed states, water shortage, intermissions in the delivery of energy and climate change. NATO is not only a military alliance, but also a political alliance that defends our common values like democracy, rule of law and human rights. Today, NATO is as irreplaceable as it is unique. Article five of the NATO Treaty is the core of the alliance and the fundamental principle of NATO. It applies for all member states and was reaffirmed at the Chicago Summit in May 2012.
The accession of Hungary to NATO on 12 March 1999 marked a milestone in NATO history and meant a significant gain in security and stability for the whole region. Without the important role of Hungary, the accession of Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia in 2004 may not have been possible.
During the past 60 years, NATO has contributed significantly to freedom, democracy, stability and wealth for its members in the Euro-Atlantic region. I am convinced that NATO also remains indispensable for peace and freedom in the future.
GyK: Do you think that the challenges of the 21st century may lead to diminished national sovereignty of the member states of NATO?
KL: Against a background of decreasing defence budgets, member states have begun with pooling and sharing (EU) as well as with the smart defence initiative (NATO) and developed kinds of defence cooperation with the comparable goal of keeping their ability to act militarily with regard to the challenges of the 21st century. The states have to work closely together to use limited resources more efficiently and to optimise their defence. The use of armed forces in missions abroad, however, depends on approval of the national parliaments and therefore it affects the sovereignty of its members. For the future, the question concerning the actionability of the alliances has to be asked: Do we have to achieve a new balance between political decisions of alliances and national procedures of approval that impact on the national sovereignty? Efficiency of the alliances and respect for national interests and national sovereignty do not have to exclude one another.
GyK: The leading role of Germany in the EU is not an easily tackled task. How do you see this role changing in the coming years?
KL: The role of Germany within the European Union is certainly a very important one. Together with the governments of other member states, we appeal for a strong Europe. Therefore it is important that agreements are kept. Our most important goal at the moment is to solve the debt crisis in some states in Europe. During this crisis which some states within the eurozone are facing at the moment, the German government has always pointed out that these problems can only be solved by the consolidation of national budgets as well as decreasing debts and enforcing structural reforms. This applies to all states – naturally also for Germany. The arrangements that were made with the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) and the Fiscal Pact lead in the right direction. The euro crisis has shown us how important the solidarity among all states within Europe is and that challenges can only be overcome together. Every single member of the European Union adds to the whole community with its uniqueness. Germany is aware of its responsibility for Europe.
GyK: How do you see Hungary’s public image in Germany, especially since the change of government two years ago?
KL: Hungary is an appreciated partner. The achievements of the Hungarian people and their political representatives with respect to German reunification have not been forgotten and help to sustain the enduring positive image of Hungary in the public eye. The population at large knows our two countries cooperate closely. Today, Germans love Hungary and its people, and particularly young Germans. The German-speaking Andrássy University Budapest in the heart of Central Europe is a real success. In my own constituency of Heidelberg we have had a close partnership and cooperation between the University of Heidelberg and Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest for 30 years. Irritations which occurred during the last two years seem to have been overcome. Also, with the official visit of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Berlin, the public opinion shifted in a positive way due to the exposure the trip was given in the media.
GyK: Why is the opinion about Hungary and the Hungarian government so different in the German political class and the German press?
KL: The relationship between Germany and Hungary on the political level is very close and characterised by friendly cooperation. This was obvious during the meeting of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Berlin in early October. The German government called the meeting an open and frank exchange of views among friends. Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the improvements of the Hungarian government in the field of reforms. Meetings like this on a governmental level are very important to increase bilateral appreciation and also for exposure in the media. The achievements of the Orbán government, for example, the Hungarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of 2011, are not always appreciated by the public. This offsets the partly strong criticism. For the future, I hope that the intensive cooperation on the political, economic and cultural level between our countries will be seen more positively and better reflected by everyone.