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Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the budget debate in the German Bundestag

23.11.2016

Madam President,
Fellow members of this House,

We are living in times of turmoil, times of change. Some people go so far as to say that these are earthquakes whose shock waves have not yet entirely reached us here in Germany – the Brexit decision, violence in eastern Ukraine, the war raging in Syria and instability in Turkey, from where I returned last week feeling if anything even more concerned that I did when I arrived. And naturally, Donald Trump’s election as new US President will bring changes whose direction and consequences we cannot yet predict here at the moment.

Changes and upheavals can cause anxiety and paralysis. But that, esteemed colleagues, would be precisely the wrong answer. We cannot allow ourselves to react like a rabbit caught in the headlights – there is no doubt in my mind about that. We must not allow ourselves to be shaken by earthquakes. Instead, we need to stand firm and to be all the more resolute now in our support of democracy, freedom and an open society, to defend these things now in particular, when others are calling them into question.

With a view to the upheavals, we must become aware of our own international responsibility and, if possible, act accordingly. Reliable and responsible German foreign policy is now all the more important. Such foreign policy naturally requires clear analysis, direction and orientation, but it also needs – and this is why we are here today – a financial basis.

When I look back on the past three years and see how we have had to take on new and greater responsibility in many foreign policy areas during this time, it becomes apparent that it was the German Bundestag that gave us this scope in the first place so that we could play our part, take on this growing responsibility and live up to it. I would like to thank all of you here in the German Bundestag for this support.

I am afraid that things will not calm down in the near future. And that is why it is clear that as long as the violence, killing and dying do not stop – be it in Syria, Libya, Iraq or Yemen – our endeavours to bring about political solutions must not stop either, particularly not now in these uncertain times.

No matter how desperate the situation is in Syria, Libya and Yemen, we must not succumb to a feeling of powerlessness. Yes, far too many attempts may have failed in the past and many people say there is simply no point in trying, but I believe that our position must be – and above all, must remain – that giving up is not an option.

This also goes for eastern Ukraine. Just a few weeks ago, a Normandy format summit was held here in Berlin, that is, between Ukraine, France, Russia and Germany. The situation improved significantly for a few days, perhaps for a fortnight, but in the meantime the security situation has deteriorated once again in the region. The ceasefire is being breached again more frequently, and those who pay the price are local people, for whom the violence and uncertainty have been a harsh reality of everyday life for far too long.

Standing firm does not mean waiting and not doing anything and is not how one takes on responsibility. That is why my French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault and I suggested to our Russian and Ukrainian colleagues that we meet again in Minsk next week. “How many times have you met now?” some might ask. I have stopped counting. But even if we do not achieve a great breakthrough soon, such meetings and talks are simply necessary in order to ensure that the situation does not spiral out of control.

Even when it is difficult and progress is slow – excruciatingly slow – we must not abandon our efforts to implement the Minsk Agreement step by step. The disengagement of forces that we have started must be continued. The heavy weapons that were withdrawn, but were then moved back again, must be withdrawn for good. Above all, we urgently need progress on humanitarian and economic issues.

I hope that we will discuss all this next Tuesday. I hope that our Russian and Ukrainian colleagues will see the urgency of the situation the same way as we do. Both sides are called upon to finally take tangible steps to bring about lasting détente in Ukraine.

***

Esteemed colleagues,

Those who try to make use of the upheavals and uncertainties of these weeks to gain ground are acting irresponsibly and making the situation even worse. I say this primarily with regard to the situation in Syria, where the killing is continuing every day. In eastern Aleppo, the last operational hospital, which, by the way, was run with help from Germany, has been completely destroyed by bombing. For the people in eastern Aleppo, this means they no longer have any access whatsoever to medical care. And at the same time, more people are being injured every day.

The regime in Damascus is cynically taking action against its own people, with military support from Iran and Russia, allegedly to fight IS and al-Nusra. But in our view, there is no fight against IS – at least not on the part of the regime. Moreover, the fight against terrorist groups, as necessary as it is, can never be an excuse to lay waste to the entire city of Aleppo.

With each further victim, each school that is hit and each hospital that is destroyed, the logic of violence is intensified, without our coming the slightest bit closer to ending the madness. And perhaps it is the other way round – far too many people are now gambling on the power vacuum following the US election and on military advances. Unfortunately, the mistaken belief that one will need to be able to prove the smallest of military advantage in the next round of negotiations with a new US President is far too widespread. If this is the logic of those involved, then the time until next February, until a new US administration has been installed in the White House, will be absolutely terrible for the people in Syria. We must break this logic. We cannot allow the talks about ceasefires and humanitarian aid to stop now during this transitional period in Washington. UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura was here in  Berlin yesterday. He argued passionately for a continuation of these talks. I assured him of the German Government’s support. But I am certain that he also has the support of this entire House.

It is good that we are talking about ceasefires and humanitarian aid. But that will not be enough in the end. What is important is that we already start thinking now about how we can give the people in the region hope for the future after the fighting has ended. I say this at the moment less with a view to Syria, but with a view to Iraq, where this is topical. I received my Iraqi counterpart and his delegation in Berlin last week. We discussed the military situation in Mosul, the last IS stronghold, in depth. Of course, the first priority is to combat IS as quickly and with as few civilian victims as possible. However, we mainly discussed how things should continue in Mosul once the city has been liberated from IS, hopefully in a few weeks’ time.

Our experiences in Ramadi and Fallujah, but in particular in Tikrit, where we were able to provide essential goods to people very shortly after the liberation, showed how important these stabilisation efforts are and why we are focusing on them so much. Water and electricity lines were switched back on or restored, and a minimum level of health care was provided, all at a low cost. Progress was tangible. Ninety percent of the civilian population has returned to Tikrit. We are guided by this experience.

This is why stabilisation is now a key element of our foreign policy work. And this is also thanks to the support of the German Bundestag and the increased funding in the last two budgets. Thank you very much indeed for this!

***

A few moments ago, I said that we are living in a time of change. With regard to the US, we cannot yet say exactly what political impact the changes will have. There is one thing we can say with certainty: the dialogue, political channels of communication and interpersonal connections across the Atlantic must continue to play a crucial role in the future, too. And I am certain that they will continue to do so. At the moment, we are urging Washington to value and uphold transatlantic relations as the foundation of the West. Nevertheless, we will have to wait and see what position the new administration adopts.

I am therefore all the more pleased that we have been able to create new interpersonal and cultural connections across the Atlantic now in particular. With the support of the German Bundestag, it was ultimately possible to acquire Thomas Mann’s former home in California and to save it from demolition. I am very grateful indeed for the provision of funding, but above all for the rapid decision on this topic.

Thomas Mann’s home in LA was something like the White House of exile during the Nazi regime. It was home for many Germans, who worked together towards a better future for our country. When artists and intellectuals met in Thomas Mann’s villa, they had intense discussions on Germany, America, the paths to an open society and – something one can perhaps not over-emphasise today – what binds us together, that is, the transatlantic foundation of shared values.

I firmly believe that in a conflict-ridden world we need precisely this sort of room for dialogue – in particular with the US. And with room like this, I do not mean an echo chamber, in which we simply confirm each other’s views. I mean room that creates space for an honest discussion, for exchange and debate. It is important to create room where we do not ignore differences, but rather make them the subject of our discussion, which should be conducted directly with one another and ideally without distortion or exaggeration by the media. This is the aim of our cultural relations and education policy. In conclusion, I would also like to thank you for supporting this third and increasingly important pillar of foreign policy. 

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