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“We’re massively increasing economic pressure on Turkey.”

Interview with Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on the situation in Turkey and the issue of refugees. Published on www.t-online.de on 11 September 2017.

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... I have a question about the televised debate: Martin Schulz surprisingly spoke out in favour of ending EU accession negotiations with Turkey. Who determines the SPD’s policy on Turkey? You, as Foreign Minister, or the party’s candidate for the chancellorship?

Of course, we’ve had discussions on this issue for quite some time now, but Martin Schulz as the candidate for the chancellorship naturally has the final say. I completely agree with him. I do think, by the way, and almost all Germans share this view, that Turkey in its present situation will never become a member of the EU. President Erdogan doesn’t want this to happen, anyway. He told me so a few years ago already. How can someone guide Turkey to EU membership who has thrown overboard everything that defines Europe, including freedom of expression, human rights and the rule of law? Martin Schulz only said what the man and woman on the street are thinking.

Is it wise to write off Turkey? Germany should have an interest in good relations with Turkey, if only because of the many Germans with Turkish roots.

But they live in Germany – and I’m glad they’re here. We should be truly grateful to these people with Turkish roots, because they helped build up our country.

They still have many ties to Turkey.

Yes, that’s a great thing. Those ties should remain in place. We aren’t looking to break off diplomatic relations with Turkey. This is about the European Union. And, in that regard, Turkey is becoming an authoritarian regime. Turkish women and men and their children in Germany enjoy living here precisely because it is different. Because here there’s freedom of expression, freedom of religion and democracy. How am I supposed to explain to people that we are conducting EU accession negotiations with a government that is currently establishing the exact opposite at home?

But by making such negative statements about Turkey you’re actually escalating tensions...

You’re distorting the facts. A few months ago, Mr Erdogan called us “Nazi Germany”. His Ministers have labelled German Ministers “racists”. Despite this, we remained silent for months. Mr Erdogan is calling on voters in Germany to not cast their ballots for the democratic parties. He is still arresting German citizens and has placed more than 600 German companies under suspicion of maintaining ties to terrorists. Should our response then be to say “That’s okay, it’s water under the bridge, let’s forget about it”?

Ten Germans are currently being detained in Turkey for political reasons. What precisely are you doing to obtain their release?

First, we are trying to get consular access to these individuals, so that we can help them. Doing so is not easy, because we face illegal obstruction from the Turkish authorities. Turkey is actually obligated to grant us this access immediately. But getting it always requires a hard fight. Second, we are using all of the diplomatic and political means at our disposal, including bringing our case before the European Court of Human Rights. Third, I have spoken with the Turkish President about this in Ankara. We have used all available channels to discuss the issue with them, including confidential, public and semi-public channels, as well as mediators. But the outcome of all this was simply that even more people were arrested.

Your Ministry has tightened the travel advice for Turkey. Do you think that people actually read it?

Yes. Thankfully, the media have frequently mentioned the travel advice in their reports, and this has drawn people’s attention to them.

Does the German Government need a stronger response?

We’re massively increasing economic pressure on Turkey. That’s the most effective way to get Turkey to think about its actions.

Should German companies also scale down their activities in Turkey?

Because Turkey’s authorities have said that more than 600 German companies are suspected of supporting terrorism – ranging from Daimler to BASF to small enterprises – our advice to companies is: “think long and hard before you do business there”. We are not calling on anyone to backtrack on an investment project, that’s a free entrepreneurial decision. However, doing business in Turkey these days does bear risks.

As you just said, Erdogan has called on the approximately three million Germans with Turkish roots to not vote for either the CDU or the SPD. What is your response to that?

This is an unprecedented and reprehensible act. Just imagine if the German Government were to call on Turks not to vote for Mr Erdogan’s party. Think of the uproar!

The Turkish Government is using last summer’s coup as an excuse to take systematic action against both its critics and the civilian population.

The coup was of course a reprehensible attempt to sweep aside democracy in Turkey. It can in no way be justified. But you are right in saying that Erdogan is now using it to go after his political opponents.

What are you doing to support the civilian population in Turkey?

In Germany, we are providing protection for academics, journalists and artists. We are increasing funding for our scholarship programmes. Through the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, we have given persecuted researchers the opportunity to come live and work here in Germany. We’re doing what we can to strengthen our ties particularly with those individuals who are not toeing Erdogan’s line.

Do you know how Deniz Yücel is doing?

We receive regular updates on his condition, because we do have consular access to him. He is as well as can be expected, given the circumstances. I think a situation like this is hard for anyone to bear. Being incarcerated is difficult enough for an individual. But if you are being held in prison despite being innocent and have no idea when charges will be filed against you, if you do not know what legal procedure you will be subjected to and are completely at the mercy of authorities that give you no information whatsoever – I imagine he must be under tremendous pressure. I can only deeply admire Mr Yücel’s strength and resilience, given the situation.

What would your reaction be if Erdogan were to actually reinstate the death penalty?

That would once and for all sever Turkey’s ties with Europe.

Let me switch topics, to Africa and the issue of refugees. Africa’s population is growing very fast. Climate change is destroying livelihoods in entire regions there. According to an estimate of the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, up to 100 million people could try to migrate to Europe. Why is Germany doing so little to keep this from happening?

We have quadrupled our funding for crisis prevention. We’ve expanded our funding for sustainable development cooperation and economic assistance significantly, much more than in any previous legislative term. We’re a lot more strongly engaged than others. But it’s an illusion to think that Germany can stop this development on its own. The European Union must urgently change its policy toward Africa. Africa must not only be seen as a continent faced with a host of problems. Many African countries are developing very well.

Hardly any Arab country has brought forth as many Islamist terrorists as Tunisia.

Most terrorists in Europe grew up here, too, or became radicalised here. We have a problem in France, in Belgium and here in Germany, with so-called home-grown terrorists. Our problem is that we justifiably pay a lot of attention to those terrorists who enter Germany from abroad, but we pay far too little attention to those individuals who come here peacefully and later become radicalised in our country. That’s why – in addition to strengthening our police force and judiciary, which is necessary – we must make a much greater effort to prevent radicalisation. This should even extend to closing radical mosques.

Let me ask you again, how can Germany stabilise African countries?

We must not cave in to the belief of Mr Trump – like Ms Merkel is unfortunately doing right now – that, by increasing military spending, we will create more security. All soldiers who return from serving in a mission tell us that “Yes, the military is sometimes needed, as well. But don’t think that, by using the military, we will create more stability and peace.” We must fight hunger and poverty instead. We need to support sustainable development and build infrastructure. That’s where the truly large potential lies. Let me add that, in so doing, we also create export markets for European goods and services.

The failed state of Libya is currently a large problem. Recently, far fewer African refugees have been crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe. They are being stopped by the so-called Libyan coast guard, which in truth is run by warlords. They bring these people back to the camps, where they are brutally mistreated. Is that the right solution to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean?

In Libya, we are faced with the dilemma of standing by and watching what’s going on or working together with the actors on the ground as well as we can, to help alleviate the refugees’ suffering. And the refugees are truly suffering, some most cruelly. These camps are bad enough when they are being controlled by state authorities, I’ve visited them and seen so myself. The camps run by militias are much worse. Some refugees are tortured, raped or even murdered there. In any case, turning a blind eye and doing nothing would be disastrous. We Europeans must do two things. First, we must act as one in Libya. If today the French show up and tomorrow the Italians make an appearance, followed by someone else, then the parties to the civil war will always try to hide behind one of these partners. That’s why Emmanuel Macron’s initiative to bring together General Haftar and Prime Minister al-Sarraj is an important step. Second, Europe must not leave Italy in the lurch. We are taking in too few refugees from Italy. That is something we must change.

Hungary is refusing to accept refugees, despite the ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union. Will you accept that?

No. It is of course disastrous that there are EU countries that are calling into question the applicability of European law. Anyone who questions this ruling is attacking the very heart of the European Union. All EU member states must accept it.

The interview was conducted by Florian Harms.

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