“I have confidence in Italy”

07.02.2014 - Interview

Before leaving on his first visit to Rome since taking up his new post, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave the following interview to the “Corriere della Sera” newspaper. Published on 7 February 2014.


Your talks, Minister, with Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino will be a good opportunity to discuss issues at the top of the international agenda. But what people in Italy are concerned about is whether the new German Government is really aware of everything Italy is doing to advance its reform agenda and put the recent difficult episodes behind it. Do you have confidence in Italy? Will Germany show greater solidarity with its European partners now having a tough time?

I have confidence in Italy. Italy is a champion of European integration. With its strong economic backbone and creative industrial culture, it’s well placed to generate growth and jobs – if conditions are right. Obviously I realise it’s a tremendous challenge to keep the country on its present reform course, especially given the complexities of the Italian system. But the course is the right one. As one of the big EU member states, Italy also bears responsibility for Europe as a whole. German solidarity is something not open to question. We realise we have a responsibility to help people especially in the south of our continent to see Europe once again as a hope rather than a threat.

After a four years’ absence you’re back in your old job as Foreign Minister. How has the world changed in this time?

I didn’t expect to simply carry on where I left off four years ago. Just think of Syria, the Near and Middle East, the trouble spots in Africa or Eastern Europe. The crises have moved closer to Europe’s borders, I believe. At the same time we see in the US a growing reluctance to assume responsibility for Europe’s security. What’s more, the stresses and strains of dealing with the economic crisis have affected also the dynamics of European integration. The old certainties are eroding, Germany is confronted with new and growing challenges.

You’re one of the first to have said that Germany must not leave European partners engaged in crisis areas around the world in the lurch. A few days ago Federal President Joachim Gauck spoke of his desire for greater German engagement in crisis areas, also in the form of military deployments when appropriate, and that the tragic legacy of the past should not be a hindrance here. Is this a change in German foreign policy?

A policy of military restraint is a good thing, but it can’t mean that a politically stable and economically strong country like Germany should stand aloof and merely allocate grades for what others are doing. We need to keep in mind the whole spectrum of diplomatic instruments. We need to use our diplomatic toolbox to engage earlier, more decisively and with more substance. No opportunity for talking must be taboo. Our engagement must always mean something concrete. Let me give you just one example. Where Italy is helping with the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons on the logistic side, we will process the residual waste in German facilities. Right now we’re looking at how we can help stabilise fragile states in Africa. Last but not least, we want to provide Europe’s foreign and security policy with concrete input. That, too, will be something I’ll be discussing today with Emma Bonino, for in all these areas we see Italy as an important partner.

After your meeting in Munich with Ukrainian opposition leaders, you argued that threatening Kyiv with sanctions could exert pressure on the Government to end the current stand-off. What’s the best way to create a peaceful atmosphere in Ukraine and ensure that democratic freedoms are respected? What should Russia be called on to do?

A good future for Ukraine can’t be built on violence. A good future can be built only if there is political dialogue and people are able to express their opinions freely. Ukrainian Government leaders have a great responsibility here. They need to offer the opposition more. Time is running out. If the situation escalates or gets out of control, we’ll need to consider as Europeans an appropriate response. Sanctions are not taboo, but they’d be premature right now, as other options are still available. One way out of the current political impasse could be constitutional amendments that would strengthen the role of the government and the parliament. I firmly believe that a political solution to the crisis in Ukraine is possible. That would also be in Russia’s fundamental interest, by the way.

How would you define the relationship between Germany and the United States in the aftermath of the US secret services’ surveillance activities, which have targeted also the Chancellor’s telephone? Has the matter been investigated and clarified? Has the reaction to the scandal been too weak?

Transatlantic friendship is something that’s developed over decades. I’m positive it can withstand differences of opinion. So we Germans and Europeans can and must take a clear yet also constructive stand on this issue. From our American partners we expect a serious dialogue about the balance between freedom and security and how it can be brought into line with our views about civil rights and democracy. We’re still at the beginning of what’s going to be a pretty long process. Yet it’s also important to remember that transatlantic relations are much more than what’s dominated the debate in recent months. On important international issues we work closely together in a spirit of mutual trust.

Interview: Paolo Lepri.

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