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Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier at the sixth Berlin Foreign Policy Forum

29.11.2016

Members of the German Bundestag,
Paolo Gentiloni,
Excellencies,
Colleagues,
Guests from all around the world,

Thank you, Mr Paulsen, for the warm welcome and for enabling the Körber Foundation and the Federal Foreign Office to jointly host the Berlin Foreign Policy Forum for the sixth time. Thank you ladies and gentlemen for being here to address somewhat unpalatable topics so early in the morning. And finally I would particularly like to thank my Italian colleague Paolo Gentiloni for coming. It goes without saying that he would have come to Berlin for the Körber Foundation’s event alone. Yet he came for several reasons. Yesterday we not only discussed current crises, we also spoke of the long shadow cast by events that took place over 70 years ago and that continue to weigh on German-Italian relations today. Together, we went to Berlin-Schöneweide, where we dedicated our visit to working through a topic that to date has not been meaningfully addressed in the way, for example, that the massacres perpetrated by the German Wehrmacht in Italy have been: namely Italian military internees. Over the last year and a half of the Second World War, 650,000 Italian soldiers were taken prisoner and deported to camps where they were presented with the grim choice between fighting on in Hitler’s army or going into forced labour in the German arms industry. 53,000 people died in Berlin-Schöneweide and other sites. Yesterday, we jointly inaugurated a memorial site and opened the small but excellent exhibition Between Two Stools, which I warmly invite you all to visit.

***

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’m about to set off for Minsk and so it could hardly be more fitting for our meeting this morning to be entitled Crisis as the ‘New Normal’. Indeed, the world does seem to be in crisis mode at the moment, and yet the word crisis doesn’t really say much about the situation. For if we take a closer look at the state of crisis the world is in, we see multiple but completely different crises that we are grouping together under the same heading. They take the form of radical changes and decisions that provoke uncertainty: the vote on Brexit, violence in eastern Ukraine, the raging war in Syria, unresolved conflicts in Yemen and Libya, instability in Turkey. And of course the election of Donald Trump as the next US president will also cause changes, the consequences and trajectory of which we can’t currently predict. This all causes uncertainty in Europe.

Taken together, one could say that a look at the world faces you with a resoundingly bleak picture. However, ladies and gentlemen, we must constantly remind ourselves that we cannot allow the situation to overwhelm us. We must not simply describe the state of the world and faint or lapse into a sense of paralysis. Rather, we now need responsible foreign policy more than ever, and, in light of Brexit, I must also stress the need for responsible European foreign policy.

Ladies and gentlemen,

When I talk about active foreign policy, I certainly do not mean blind activism. Good foreign policy does not entail bursting into a flurry of activity, but rather working on a diplomatic solution in a patient, well-judged manner and hopefully on the basis of intelligent analysis. It also implies persevering unfazed if all is not accomplished with the first or second step. This is particularly true for eastern Ukraine. In recent days, how many have asked: what have the Minsk Agreements actually achieved? There is still insecurity in eastern Ukraine; the conflict has not been resolved. That’s true, but in foreign policy you must at times imagine hypothetical scenarios and how they may have played out if individual decisions had not been taken. What would have happened in Ukraine had we not found a way to the Minsk Agreements? At the time we were facing a situation in which the conflict in the Donbass region was threatening to spread elsewhere. I think we must keep telling ourselves that the Minsk Agreements were not the solution to the conflict, but that they did to a certain extent “contain” it, and that the conflict did not spread like wildfire throughout eastern Ukraine. By doing so, it also prevented Europe from becoming the stage for a stand‑off between East and West that would have had implications far beyond Ukraine.

There’s no doubt that the solution does not lie in the Minsk Agreements. And naturally, since the agreements were signed, they have only been implemented in very slow steps. And of course, whenever we’ve agreed ceasefires, we’ve seen them being broken just a few weeks later. However, we’ve significantly reigned in the escalation, and the meetings held to date – whether of foreign ministers, or recently here in Berlin, of leaders – have managed to keep the situation at least somewhat under control. We’re working on the next steps to make the ceasefire more robust. It’s not easy, but we have no alternative option to dedicating ourselves to these difficult tasks. We must now persevere tirelessly for as long as the parties to the conflict who signed the Minsk agreements consider them to be the basis of efforts to resolve the conflict.

***

Ladies and gentlemen,

The topics of Syria and Libya are much harder. In Syria, it’s currently difficult to assess the situation. Much as our eyes are on Aleppo at the moment, as catastrophic as the situation on the ground is, as unbearable as the images and prospect that the humanitarian catastrophe is set to go on for several weeks or even months are, I think that the regime and its supporters Russia and Iran’s hope that eastern Aleppo will be decisive for the situation in Syria is mistaken. So many stakeholders have invested in this conflict, it will not end just like that, regardless of what’s going on in eastern Aleppo in military terms. We’re sadly seeing that during this current interim phase in which everyone is waiting for the handover within the American administration, the regime in Damascus and its supporters in Russia and Iran have taken advantage to change the military situation in Syria. We’re currently working to deliver at least a minimum level of humanitarian aid there over the next few days, and I hope that talks with the Russian side in Minsk today will help make this possible.

***

Ladies and gentlemen,

The conflict in Libya is not currently escalating; the legitimate government in Tripoli has even managed to push back IS forces around Sirte. Nevertheless we must also note that the military situation is increasingly shifting to the benefit of General Haftar in the East, and that the need for a political compromise in the country, vital to stop it from falling apart, is becoming ever more urgent. That’s why yesterday I discussed with my Italian colleague possible initiatives we could launch, in collaboration with Libya’s neighbours and regional stakeholders, to build a bridge between Tobruk and Tripoli.

***

Ladies and gentlemen,

If we look at these conflict regions we see that all of this is taking place near our borders. Hence, and irrespective of the disconcertion following the Brexit: people expect us and Europe to provide answers in areas where we have as yet not offered any, for example to the topic of migration. Yet if I’m not mistaken, the Germans have one primary expectation when it comes to Europe: for European foreign policy to be stronger and more visible, and for member states to work better and more intensively together.

That is why following the British referendum, in a paper initially drafted by Germany and France, and then enhanced in collaboration with our Italian friends, I stated that we must show the people in Germany and in the other member states what we’re actually willing to do in terms of guaranteeing security. I think that the latest meeting of European Foreign and Defence Ministers demonstrated that the European member states – minus the UK – are still very willing to take Europe’s Common Security and Defence Policy forward. Naturally, that means in coordination with the existing international organisations: with the United Nations, the OSCE and important to note – for the questions are louder here – not in competition with but in addition to NATO, and in full complementarity with the organisation. This relates to what we’re currently discussing with one another in Europe and what we hope to jointly present in Rome next year on the anniversary of the Treaties of Rome: a clearly defined security policy in the European Union.

***

Ladies and gentlemen,

That was a brief overview of the status of current conflicts, and a few challenges facing us with regard to Europe. At the same time we must be aware of why, in my view in any case, we currently find ourselves in such a difficult, downright bedevilled situation when it comes to trying to find solutions to these conflicts, solutions we’re all waiting for and yet which seem hard to achieve. Some are always quick to give answers – for the Middle East it’s the Sykes-Picot agreement, or with regard to North Africa, some say the intervention in Libya was decisive in destabilising the region. There is something to each of these arguments, but of course they’re far from comprehensive explanations of the difficulties we face today. What is currently making it so hard to find solutions is the diversity of these conflicts in terms of the structures representing the different stakeholders. Crudely put: if we as Italians and Germans engage in conflict mediation, then we’re doing so on the basis of an international order based on values embodied in the United Nations. Yet at the same time we’re competing with a Russia that’s ever more visibly oriented towards another model. That model of order is less of a value-based structure such as the one we’re talking about, but rather one developed out of Yalta. One which seeks to split the world into clear spheres of influence. As regards the conflicts in the Middle East, it’s perhaps a mark of the 21st century that we’re no longer dealing with large confrontations between individual states. Rather we’re increasingly seeing regional conflicts stemming from power struggles, where the fight is initially about power and influence yet over the course of time it increasingly takes on religious or ethnic overtones. That’s what we’re currently seeing in the Syria conflict. And that is what’s making solutions so unbelievably difficult to find.

Thank you very much.

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