Gabriel on Turkey: “Our hands are not tied”


Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel talks to the Rhein-Zeitung newspaper about German-Turkish relations, the terrorist threat, transatlantic relations and the North Korean nuclear programme (interview published on 24 August 2017).

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel talks to the Rhein-Zeitung newspaper about German-Turkish relations, the terrorist threat, transatlantic relations and the North Korean nuclear programme (interview published on 24 August 2017).


The Turkish President has attacked you pretty strongly. How much more are we, how much more are you going to have to take from Erdogan? Many people are calling for you to take a hard line.

President Erdogan of Turkey keeps deliberately provoking Germany because he needs an external enemy in order to obscure the internal contradictions of his government policy. I can well understand that this has made a lot of people very angry. But what do they mean by “a hard line”? Should we break off diplomatic relations? That wouldn’t get the detainees released any more quickly. Should we throw Turkey out of NATO? That would drive it into the arms of Putin. But our hands are not tied. We are reducing our economic assistance, we are blocking Turkey’s desire for negotiations on the customs union, and we have done something that will really hit Turkey where it hurts, namely issued special travel advice about Turkey. All of this is hitting Turkey hard. I’m not at all happy about that, as it will mean hardship for the waiters and small hotel owners on the West coast, who are actually friendly towards Germany and Europe. But we have neither the option nor the desire to stand idly by.

Do you think Erdogan’s insults are part of a political strategy?

Yes. He is of course playing on the Turkish people’s emotions. He knows that they harbour a certain feeling of disappointed love vis-à-vis Europe and particularly us Germans; many Turks have felt a lack of true acceptance in Germany. The murders of Turkish people by the far-right terrorists of the NSU, the lacklustre efforts at integration on both sides, years of Turkey being strung along in talks with the EU – it all feeds into a sense of rejection among many people from and in Turkey. And Erdogan is exploiting that feeling. Erdogan isn’t doing these things on a whim; his actions are deliberate attempts to provoke us. He is using that injured pride felt by many Turks for his own nationalistic excesses. He’s saying, “Look at me – I’ll show them all and make Turkey great again.” What he is actually doing is isolating himself internationally and weakening Turkey.

Can you understand why many people are sceptical and prejudiced towards refugees from Muslim countries?

I do hear that a lot. The point I have to make, though, is that the vast majority of those who have carried out terrorist attacks in Germany, in France or in Belgium did not cross our borders as extremists, fanatics and Islamists. They became radicalised in our countries. Most of the people who have set out from Germany to fight for IS in Syria have German passports; they have German parents; they were born in Germany. It was in mosques preaching radical Islamism that they became extremists and fundamentalists. All our efforts in this fight should therefore be directed against that extremism. And those efforts need to take two forms. One of them is the state apparatus of the police and the justice system, which need to take a hard line. Islamist extremists have no place here. We need to shut down any mosques that harbour them and deport their imams. But that alone won’t be enough. We need to do much more, particularly in terms of prevention. We have to bring mosque communities out of their isolation, work with young people, train our own imams and build up a counter-narrative to the extremists’ propaganda on social media.

In Barcelona too, there was apparently one imam who had radicalised that whole group. Do you think that’s somewhere we can do something?

You’re right. The first step is to train imams ourselves, in Germany, with a German curriculum. We also have to be able to close mosques if necessary. And it is also important that we send a message to those who have been paying for these things – primarily Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – saying we don’t want that any more. We need to interrupt the flow of funding.

A local SPD politician from Koblenz has written to the paper complaining that DIE LINKE and the Greens are blinkered by their ideologies when it comes to assessing the threat situation. He wonders why we have not heard news like this from Poland, Hungary or Slovakia. Do we have a blind spot?

That question seems to be suggesting that we should just do as the Eastern Europeans do and not take in any Muslim refugees. As I just pointed out, however, the fighters from Germany who have joined the “Islamic State” terrorist group, for example, were not refugees; they have German passports and German parents. They were radicalised here in Germany. It was the same in France and Belgium: the terrorists were home-grown, not radicalised abroad. To pretend that Islamist terrorism only exists because we have taken in refugees is to underestimate the danger. That’s why I’m so strongly in favour of doing much more to prevent radicalisation. That, I would point out, is how we successfully combated high levels of crime among young people in the 80s and 90s.

Erdogan, Trump, Putin, Kim Jong Un – who poses the greatest threat to world peace?

Without a doubt, that would be the North Korean dictator who is developing nuclear weapons to threaten the US and other parts of the world. But the solution is not to keep coming up with new battle cries. I believe the Chinese approached things very wisely in negotiating with the US to agree on and impose new sanctions. I agree with the US Defence Secretary when he says that war on the Korean peninsula could cost more lives than anything since the Second World War. A solution will therefore only be found at the negotiating table.

Let’s stay with Trump for a moment: can you actually take him seriously any more?

Indeed I feel we need to take him very seriously. Donald Trump is President of a superpower. If the West had to do without the US in the long term, we would have a massive problem. What we mustn’t do is submit to his political ideas. We mustn’t join in with efforts to replace the strength of the law with the law of the strong. His ideology is precisely that. Some of Donald Trump’s team see the world as an arena for fighting and wars. This is a resurgence of Social Darwinism, which caused people so much suffering in Europe and in Germany. We need to do everything in our power to counteract that ideology.

Do you now at least have people you can talk to in the US Administration?

Yes. My relationship with Secretary of State Tillerson is excellent, for instance. I have great respect for him. The same is true of Defence Secretary James Mattis. The problem is that the US has been sending out mixed messages. The White House says something different from the State Department. Take Saudi Arabia. It was the first country Trump visited. Shortly afterwards, it starts a huge conflict with Qatar. Tillerson tries to mediate, which we support. And what do the conflict parties say? That’s all very well and good, but they’d rather listen to the President, as he’s closer to them. That kind of thing is of course dangerous when you’re talking about a country as large and powerful as the United States. One event worried me most particularly. It was a meeting of scientists from the US, Germany and other countries to discuss nuclear weapons. Let me quote you two lines from it: “We are repeating the worst mistakes of the Cold War” and “We are in a new Cold War.” What they mean by that is that the nuclear disarmament treaties currently in force between Moscow and Washington might be given up. You will readily understand that we are extremely concerned about that.

Would you say we are on the brink of a watershed moment in history?

Yes, I think we’re right in the middle of one. The political ideals of the Western world are being put to the test. “The Western world” is not a geographical term, of course, but stands for the ideals of freedom, democracy and the strength of the law. What it emphatically does not stand for is the law of the strong. If the US abandons those ideals, the vacuum will be filled by others who don’t believe in them at all. After all, China’s new Silk Road is not there to let us reminisce about Marco Polo. It’s a declaration of geostrategic intent.


The above interview was conducted by Peter Burger and Dirk Eberz.