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 “Now is the time for diplomacy, not for warmongering”

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel speaks about Europe’s responsibility in the face of global crises and about the transatlantic relationship in the Berliner Zeitung and the Frankfurter Rundschau on 15 August 2017.

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Minister Gabriel, the world does seem to have got out of joint. What does that mean for Germany’s Foreign Minister?

It means, plain and simple, that we must strengthen Europe. As individual nations, we will no longer have a say in the world of tomorrow. The pace of development in Asia is breathtaking, Africa’s population is set to double and Latin America, too, is growing. Our populations in Europe are getting smaller. That is why we must unite. Our children will either speak with a common European voice, or they’ll have no voice at all in the world.

As Foreign Minister, you have privileged access to information. Do you sleep better or worse considering the tensions between the United States and North Korea?

I’m not that sure if I’m better informed, because, luckily, these days everything is very transparent. At the same time, it is hard to explain what’s happening in the US. The Secretaries of State and of Defence have very realistic assessments of North Korea. Defence Secretary Mattis has said that war on the Korean peninsula would result in more deaths than any other conflict since the end of the Second World War. That is why he believes it would be wrong for the US to intervene militarily.

But Trump is singing a different tune.

Yes, unfortunately. The  President of the United States is using unbelievably strong war rhetoric. It is hard to say who’s in charge. The danger with all of this is that such an escalation begins with words and ends with the use of military force. We in Europe know this is true. A century ago, like sleepwalkers, we marched into the Great War with bellicose rhetoric. We in Europe learned something from that: Now is the time for diplomacy, not for warmongering.

When it comes down to it, will reason prevail, also in Trump’s America?

The entire world is shocked at how unpredictable US politics have become. One of Trump’s people recently published an essay in which he basically says that, until now, people believed that world order should be based on legal agreements. This, he maintains, is nonsense. The world is actually a sports arena. It’s a free-for-all, and only the strongest will prevail. These people want to abolish the strength of the law and replace it with the law of the strong. This stands in stark contrast to the universal values that have united the West until now – freedom, democracy and law. With America disavowing these values, it weakens the West. That’s why we must fight to keep the US on our side. We must not give up on it.

Trump says the Colt revolver is loaded and ready. What can you do to make sure no shots are fired?

We are doing what we can – together with other Europeans and with those in America who can put pressure on Congress. Those people still do exist. It’s not like all of America has lost its mind. The actual danger in this situation is that an undesired escalation could suddenly lead to war.

Are Europeans making enough use of this opportunity to emancipate themselves from the United States?

Europe cannot become a global player overnight. The EU was not established to assume a global foreign policy role, but rather for internal purposes, to keep the peace in Europe. We must first learn how to be, and what we can do as, a global player. We, and particularly we Germans, must also confront some uncomfortable issues. 

Which ones?

If you look at what many in Europe and in Germany are calling for right now, namely that we should bring refugees who are rescued at sea back to Libya and take care of them there, then this raises the question of who will protect these people in Libya. Who will fight the violent and criminal militias that every day mistreat people in the refugee camps? Or who will secure the ceasefire that could be reached in a conflict-ridden region of Africa? If we are completely honest, we’ve often left it to others to deal with such questions. Europe must be willing to address these issues. We’re still a long way from that. We were always rather relieved when the United States assumed the respective military tasks. If things went wrong, we at least had someone to blame.

Is Europe still in puberty, and only now beginning to grow up?

Europe is grown up. We’ve proven this, especially recently. Europe did not fall apart after the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. Although we haven’t been able to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, we did prevent a full-scale war. Greece has stayed in the eurozone. Although there is much to criticise, also about Europe, nowhere in the world can people live more safely, and with as much democracy and freedom, than in Europe.

But what about the refugee crisis?

We have not yet solved the refugee crisis. But even grown-ups don’t always solve all problems right away. 

That also applies to Ukraine. The head of the FDP, Christian Lindner, has said that Crimea should be considered a “permanent provisional arrangement”. By saying this, is he breaking a taboo, or is he only calling a spade a spade?

I think Mr Lindner’s purpose was to make headlines. We don’t need a debate about Crimea. We must think about how we can achieve a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. Because that is what needs to be done if we want to reduce tensions with Russia, step by step. Mr Lindner has unfortunately not helped this effort.

You’ve already said that every German citizen in Turkey could get into trouble with the local authorities. Despite this, you did not issue a travel warning, but instead decided to give stronger travel advice. Why?

We issue a strict travel warning when, in our view, the dangers and risks of travelling to a country can no longer be reliably determined. It’s up to Turkey to keep this from happening. Already now, our travel advice is of course hurting the wrong people: owners of small hotels and restaurants, as well as waiters in western Turkey, all of whom have a favourable view of Europe and Germany. Nevertheless, we must protect our citizens. We cannot allow Turkey’s President Erdogan to order German citizens’ arrest for no reason.

Does pressure have an effect on Erdogan?

Economic pressure does. Although it’s hard to believe, Ankara did actually pass the names of 680 German companies – ranging from Daimler to BASF to the local döner sandwich shop – to Interpol, stating that the Turkish authorities are investigating whether they are supporting terrorism, and requesting support for these investigations. Things have gotten to the point where, in Erdogan’s view, everyone with a different opinion is a terrorist. We reacted to this, by warning German companies investing in Turkey. What happened next? It triggered a large debate in Turkish society. Subsequently, Erdogan said the list was merely a misunderstanding.

People know how much you value spending time with your family. Could you ever imagine being a normal working father, with a 9-to-5 job?

My wife says it doesn’t matter what my job is – I would always work a lot.

Is she right?

Probably yes. But I think work is a good thing.

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Interview conducted by Damir Fras and Tobias Peter.

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