Foreign Minister, you have accused Donald Trump of adding fuel to the fire. How has he responded to your criticism?
I believe that threatening further violence in a very tense situation is the wrong approach to take. Democrats should always seek reconciliation, not division. I haven’t had any response so far. But I’m quite sure – regardless of who happens to be in the White House – that our partnership with the US is close and resilient enough to withstand criticism. Incidentally, we shouldn’t pretend that racism is a problem only in the US. Germany is home to some 30,000 right‑wing extremists. In our country, too, there have been racist attacks, black people have been victims of discrimination, and Jews have had their kippa ripped from their heads. We have to put our own house in order first. Racism is killing people not only in the US.
In the US, numerous journalists have been harassed and attacked during their coverage of the protests. Trump has branded journalists enemies of the people and the lowest form of life.
We’ve seen this sort of behaviour from populists all around the world, who polarise people against individual groups, seeking to mobilise their own supporters in the process. This is extremely dangerous.
What impact will this have on the US election campaign?
It’s likely that the election campaign will polarise the US even more. This doesn’t bode well as there’s always the day after the election. No matter who wins, a president has to overcome such division step by step. A society needs a modicum of cohesion for it to function. Populists divide society for their own ends, however. This makes it not only more difficult to live together within the country, but also fuels conflicts at the international level. That’s the last thing we need. There are too many foreign policy crises and conflicts as it is.
What’s your view of Trump’s Democratic challenger Joe Biden?
Quite a few people in the US have contributed words of wisdom in recent days, among them Joe Biden, of course, but also former Republican President George W. Bush. This gives me hope that there are voices of reason from both political camps. I very much hope that those voices will prevail.
How would you describe the state of the relationship between us and the US?
We’re close partners in the transatlantic alliance. But it’s complicated.
A state of affairs further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Federal Government is keeping its travel warning for the US in place.
We’re not prohibiting people from travelling to the US. The Americans aren’t allowing Europeans into the country right now. In lifting the global travel warning, we’re essentially limiting ourselves to the European Union for the time being. We want to be sure that our citizens, when they travel, are as safe as possible from the spread of the virus.
Are the travel warnings only about protecting public health, or are they also underpinned by a political agenda?
The warnings are always issued with the welfare and health of travellers in mind. The focus is on the rate of infection in the country and the likelihood that travellers will be able to get back home safely in the event of an outbreak.
Then why aren’t you lifting the travel warning for Montenegro, which currently has no active cases?
It makes a difference, of course, whether you’re in the EU or not. Within the EU, we have common rules and mechanisms that we can rely on and which allow us to monitor the rate of infection. We have a common data pool and mutually guaranteed transparency.
What about the popular holiday destination that is Turkey?
We have held talks with the Turkish Government and we won’t be keeping the travel warning in place forever. The rate of infection will determine when we can take steps here.
Will you be recommending trips to Turkey in the near future?
My job is not to offer travel advice. We provide basic information and warnings on how we assess the situation in the respective countries. People are smart enough to draw the right conclusions for themselves and to decide on their own where to fly to. In any case, anyone who gets infected while on holiday cannot just assume that we will bring them back to Germany. It goes without saying that our missions abroad are always ready to provide consular assistance in acute emergencies. However, the Federal Government won’t be able to send planes again to get German tourists back home this summer.
Where are you going on holiday?
I don’t know yet. At any rate, I won’t go on holiday anywhere crowded. And let me be quite clear when I say that the social-distancing and hygiene rules also apply to the hotspots. If these rules are not abided by, travel advisories can revert to a travel warning.
Germany will assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union from 1 July 2020. What is your objective?
Solidarity in action will be the motto that will guide us through these six months. COVID‑19 has to bring us still closer together. Agreement on the recovery fund and the EU’s multiannual financial framework must be reached at the beginning of our Presidency. Moreover, we must help the countries most badly affected by the coronavirus crisis. If one of our European partners is suffering today, we as an export nation will suffer ourselves tomorrow.
The aim is for the EU to move closer to China during Germany’s Council Presidency.
China is on its way to becoming a superpower and it is also Germany’s biggest trading partner. Nevertheless, we must not boil the dialogue with Beijing down to economic and trade issues alone. We need a common European strategy in order to stand up for our liberal values vis‑à‑vis China.
China is looking to annex Hong Kong and crush the democracy movement with a Security Law. Why hasn’t there been an outcry from Europe?
There was a clear response from the EU. Its Foreign Ministers have already made two categorical statements with respect to Hong Kong. We expect democratic rights to be respected in Hong Kong.
The EU‑China Summit scheduled to take place in Leipzig in September has been cancelled because of the COVID‑19 pandemic. Is that the only reason for this?
It is. A summit like that only works if you meet face to face, which isn’t possible because of the pandemic. I’m still holding out hope that it can take place before the end of the year.
China covered up the coronavirus threat for at least four weeks and withheld vital information.
Many countries made mistakes in dealing with the virus in the first few weeks – all around the world. We need full transparency, however, so that we can get to the bottom of the virus’ origins. This is important not least for research into the virus and therefore for fighting it. I’m sure that, at the end of the day, this is also in China’s interest.
President Donald Trump wants to withdraw almost 10,000 US soldiers from Germany. Was the Federal Government informed in advance, and what does the withdrawal mean for our relationship?
If there is a withdrawal of a part of the US troops, then we will take note of this. We appreciate the cooperation with the US armed forces over the course of many decades, which is in both of our countries’ interests.
Interview conducted by Roman Eichinger and Angelika Hellemann