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"A chance to pause and reflect" (interview)

In an interview with the Bild newspaper, Foreign Minister Steinmeier takes a look back at his work as Foreign Minister so far on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday and offers his assessment of the situation in the Middle East. Published on 5 January 2016.

Happy birthday, Minister ...

Steinmeier: Many thanks indeed – even though I must admit that I am still slightly doubtful about and reluctant to mark this round birthday.

What wishes do you have for the upcoming year?

Steinmeier: Well, fewer fires to fight in the world’s crisis regions would be nice. But given the way that year has started again, that seems quite unlikely. In the area of foreign policy, I hope that the successes achieved in de-escalating conflicts – such as in Ukraine or in the nuclear dispute with Iran – can be maintained and will not be threatened by new conflicts.

Are you even in the mood to celebrate at all?

Steinmeier: I’m certainly not in the mood for exuberant celebrations – especially in light of the newly increased tensions in the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which threaten to undo all of our efforts in the Syrian conflict in recent weeks. However, a round birthday such as this is also an opportunity to pause and reflect and to look back – on the challenges I have experienced in federal politics in the 17 years since 1998, as Head of the Federal Chancellery, Foreign Minister, leader of the opposition, and again as Foreign Minister. And I also recall the economically difficult period around the turn of the century, the debate about the Agenda 2010 programme, 9/11, the Iraq war, the negotiations with Iran, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and the refugee crisis. While some days can be so stressful and fraught, I’m thankful that I can take responsibility for our country as Foreign Minister in such times.

You will soon be the longest-serving Foreign Minister, apart from Hans-Dietrich Genscher. Do you intend to outstay him?

Steinmeier: With 18 years in office, Hans-Dietrich Genscher has set the bar very high indeed. In today’s changed circumstances, it’s unlikely that anyone will top that, which is why I predict that Genscher will retain that record – forever! By the way, we talked on the telephone again just yesterday.

Joking apart: a life spent in a plane, on different continents, almost always suffering from jet-lag – don’t you sometimes wonder how long you want to keep that up for?

Steinmeier: Yes, sometimes you wake up after a few hours’ sleep in some strange hotel room – and need a moment to gather your thoughts: which country, which city, which crisis... But you get used to it. It’s important to stay fit in body and mind. I’ve had quite a bit of luck with my health in recent years. Let’s hope that that continues.

It would certainly be a little bit easier for you if you were Federal President. Would that be something that you’d contemplate doing, if the position becomes vacant next year?

Steinmeier: I’m just where I want to be at the Federal Foreign Office. What is more, Joachim Gauck is doing an exceptional job. As I have always said, I hope that he will be willing to serve for a second term in office.

Your job is all about the world’s crises – Ukraine, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf. How often are you sick to the back teeth with all the drama, tragedy and death?

Steinmeier: Always. The fact that I find all of this difficult to bear drives me each day anew to redouble our efforts to make the world a better, slightly more peaceful place, from Ukraine to North Africa to the Middle East.

How dangerous is the recent flare-up in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran? Is there a threat of open war?

Steinmeier: The whole Middle East, and particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran, is indebted to us. The international community has, for years, gone to great lengths to help resolve the interwoven conflicts in the region. We now need accountable actors in the region who behave responsibly – in both Riyadh and Tehran. I trust that, and also expect, that the decision-makers will live up to this responsibility.

What are the ramifications of this escalation for the joint fight against ISIS?

Steinmeier: I sincerely hope that the tensions will end as soon as possible, that reason will prevail and that Riyadh and Tehran will keep in mind what really matters, namely de‑escalating the military conflicts and promoting political solutions in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, and thereby uprooting ISIS.

Saudi Arabia has so far been considered a close ally of the West. Is this a case of having the wrong friends?

Steinmeier: We have values that we uphold and we have interests that we want to protect. I firmly believe that this is only possible by remaining in dialogue with the key actors, even if this isn’t easy and difficult issues also make their way into our in-trays.

Denmark has reintroduced border controls. Will freedom of movement in Europe soon be a thing of the past in light of the influx of refugees?

Steinmeier: I hope not, but I see a very real threat. I am convinced that we can preserve what are perhaps Europe’s greatest achievements, freedom of movement and freedom of travel, along with the Schengen regime. We must all pull in the same direction in Europe, find European solutions for the refugee flows and protect our European external borders effectively.

[...]

Interview conducted by Rolf Kleine. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Bild newspaper.

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