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“We must not allow ourselves to be drawn into an arms race”

Interview with Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on the occasion of the G20 Foreign Ministers Meeting in Bonn and the Munich Security Conference. Published in the Märkische Allgemeine newspaper on 18 February 2017.

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Mr Gabriel, many people are deeply concerned about the state of our world. What is your impression after the G20 Foreign Ministers Meeting? Will the nationalists soon assert themselves in capital cities all over the world – or will the globally minded powers manage to establish some sort of global network of reason?

The international tone has become harsher. That makes meetings like the one in Bonn, where the key international players can come together and talk to one another, all the more important. Nevertheless, in Bonn I didn’t speak to anyone who wasn’t in favour of openness and international cooperation. It is far too early to say that the danger is over, but it is encouraging and something we can build on.

Isn’t Germany, as a medium‑sized power in Europe, a little out of its depth with such a major project?

Acting on its own, Germany would undoubtedly be out of its depth. We always need to perceive our role as an element of European engagement. I always felt that the calls for Germany to play an “active” role were misleading. I would rather describe it as an “activating” role. We need to make Europe better and stronger. We need to bring the combined weight of Europe to bear in order to ensure that our interests and values continue to be represented at a global level. In the long term it is only through Europe that we will be able to maintain our sovereignty, our influence and our capability to act. That is why strengthening Europe forms the backbone of our foreign policy.

The Americans are calling for more defence policy engagement from Europe. Can you understand where they are coming from?

The current debate gives me cause for serious reflection. Of course the United States will no longer bear the largest burden of defence expenditure. We understand and accept that. After all, Europe’s economic clout is just as large as the United States’. Europe will therefore have to do more, and it embarked on this turnaround before the election of Donald Trump.

Washington is calling for expenditure amounting to two per cent of national income. Are you going to go along with that?

The debate on peace and security has experienced a serious setback if once again the impression is given that a massive increase in the arms budget alone will improve security. We’ve known for a long time that overcoming war, crises and conflicts requires a much greater commitment to prevention, stabilisation and poverty reduction. Germany already plays a leading role in the world in this area and is doing more than many others. And don’t forget that we are spending several dozens of billions of euros on refugees, because military interventions have not brought peace to the Middle East, but instead have generated more suffering and misery, more refugees and displaced persons. That’s why we must not allow ourselves to be drawn blindly into an arms race. Anyone who wants to spend more than 20 billion euros each year on the Bundeswehr also needs to explain where the money will come from. All this has not been thought through and is quite unrealistic. We would do well to show a little less agitation and adopt a broader perspective.

Throughout the world the dangers of potential new trade wars, such as those in the early 1930s, are being expounded. What concrete steps can politicians take to counter and dispel these fears?

There’s no doubt that the world trade order is under pressure, from both the right and the left. This new protectionism poses a threat not only to our globally active and interconnected German business sector, but also to peace and security. The history of our continent shows how quickly it can happen, how protectionism on each side rubs off on the other, leading to poverty and mass unemployment, and ultimately to confrontation. The proponents of open borders and fair trade need to present a united front. We can’t afford to grow weary of explaining the advantages of openness and exchange. The world is now more interconnected and integrated than ever before; value chains have an international focus. A few tweets aren’t going to destroy all that. We work to keep communication channels open, and we can provide good arguments. There was considerable support for this in Bonn.

The new US President Donald Trump doesn’t want to have anything to do with free trade. The EU, in contrast, has just concluded a new agreement with Canada, is now driving forward talks with South America – and could theoretically also open up a new chapter in trade policy in its relations with Asia. What’s your general view of an agreement between the EU and Asia?

Europe has every reason to be self-confident. Our single market is the largest in the world, we are in a good position and are an attractive partner for all of the world’s trade areas. In Bonn it was the countries of Latin America and Asia which showed the greatest interest in closer cooperation. Europe recognised this before Trump joined the US election campaign. The CETA with Canada is ready to enter into force, and free trade negotiations are under way with MERCOSUR, Japan, Singapore, Viet Nam, Indonesia and others. We need to and we intend to pursue these, now more than ever.

Would you be in favour of involving China right away, too?

Of course. China has been a global catalyst for growth for many years. The German economy is in a good position, with more than 8000 German enterprises in the Middle Kingdom. Yet in China, too, there is the tendency to isolate markets and apply different rules to foreign enterprises than to local ones. It goes without saying that the government will raise these issues with Beijing where necessary. And there, too, it is only by joining forces that we will be strong enough to ensure that our valid concerns are taken seriously.

Interview conducted by Matthias Koch.

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