“The future of Ukraine lies not only in the European Union, but also in NATO” – Interview by Foreign Minister Baerbock

08.09.2023 - Interview

Interview by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock with Funke Media and Ouest France (7 September 2023).

Questions: Michael Backfisch, Jochen Gaugele and Sébastien Vannier

Question: When will peace finally return to Ukraine?

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: Sadly it is still the case that this decision lies solely in the hands of the Russian President. He has been bringing brutal killing and destruction to Ukraine on a daily basis – for more than 560 days now.

Question: The Ukrainian army is not only defending itself in its own country but is also taking the war into Russian territory. Is that something you agree with?

Baerbock: This brutal Russian war of aggression is not only being carried out by tanks and soldiers in Ukraine, but with ruthless attacks proceeding from Russia. I experienced this at first hand last winter when I was in Kharkiv in temperatures of minus 15 degrees and an air raid siren sounded. People have 45 seconds after the alarm has sounded until the missile strikes. I was told: Count to 60, and if you’re still alive at the end, you can breathe a sigh of relief. The people in Ukraine experience this every single day. Ukraine has the right of self-defence, the right to defend itself from attacks as effectively as possible. That occurs mainly through air defence, but the people in cities like Kharkiv are only protected in this way to a limited extent, if at all, because they live too close to Russia. A reaction time of a few seconds presents even the best air defence systems with a very difficult task.

Question: The retaliatory strikes are now reaching the heartland of Russia. Do you also approve of that?

Baerbock: It isn’t Ukraine that is attacking Russia, but Russia which invaded Ukraine with tanks, troops and missiles. If Ukraine defends itself to protect its people, it does so in accordance with international law. Specifically with the right of self-defence, which is enshrined in the UN Charter. This guides our conduct and forms the foundation of our military support.

Question: The indications that it was Ukraine – and not Russia – that was responsible for blowing up the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea are mounting. Does that concern you?

Baerbock: We thankfully live in a state based on the rule of law. The investigation is in the hands of the Federal Public Prosecutor General. I can’t comment on ongoing investigations.

Question: Could the outcome of the investigation affect Germany’s support for Kyiv?

Baerbock: We should let the investigation authorities get on with their work.

Question: Are you definitely in favour of supplying German Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine?

Baerbock: We have the appalling situation that nobody really knows what is going on in the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine – how many people there are starving, enduring torture or hiding in cellars because they are afraid of being raped and murdered. All that is possible because the Russian army has built huge minefields between the occupied territories and the rest of Ukraine. In order to liberate the people in eastern Ukraine and to hit Russian supply lines behind the line of defence, the mine belt has to be crossed. That being the case, the Ukrainian request for longer-range equipment is more than understandable.

Question: So you intend to supply Taurus.

Baerbock: That is not something you can just decide very quickly – every detail first needs to be clarified, as was the case with the Leopard tanks and the Iris-T air defence system. There, too, it was crucial to ask how we could best support Ukraine in the current situation.

The cruise missiles can be programmed in such a way that they can’t reach Russian territory. Should we do that?

Other partners have asked themselves similar questions and found solutions for them.

Question: How certain are you that Putin will not resort to nuclear weapons after all?

Baerbock: Putin is playing with fear. He spreads terror – with attacks on maternity hospitals, stations, schools. He hoped to put a stop to international support by means of threats and irresponsible rhetoric. But we will not allow ourselves to be intimidated. We will continue to stand alongside Ukraine.

Question: Is the threat of nuclear escalation out of the way?

Baerbock: Putin didn’t count on the international community condemning the attack on Ukraine for what it is: an attack on international law. And after the visit of the Federal Chancellor last autumn, the Chinese President also made it very clear that nuclear escalation must be prevented.

Question: Do you get the impression that Putin is weakened?

Baerbock: This war shows that brutal violence does not bestow power. Putin has acted with brutality not only towards Ukraine but also towards the opposition in his own country. That has pushed his regime into loneliness and isolation. To the detriment of many people in Russia.

Question: How realistic is the prospect of Ukraine joining the EU?

Baerbock: The question isn’t whether, but when. Ukraine is a European country. It has candidate status. And it is undertaking great reform efforts in the midst of a brutal war.

Question: 2030?

Baerbock: That would be wonderful for the people in Ukraine. The war is currently raging and, as brutal as it is, there can be no shortcuts. All accession countries – Ukraine, Moldova, the countries of the Western Balkans – need to resolutely tackle reform. And the EU itself must also make itself fit for enlargement. The coming years will be crucial in this process. Making Europe fit for the future, for our children and grandchildren, is an issue that is of vital importance to me. After all, Europe is our life insurance.

Question: Will Ukraine join NATO sooner than it joins the EU?

Baerbock: The criteria for joining differ. NATO members are obliged to defend every square inch of Allied territory. Ukraine cannot therefore be accepted as long as it is at war. However, it is clear that the future of Ukraine lies not only in the European Union, but also in NATO.

Question: What awaits us if Donald Trump is elected President of the United States again?

Baerbock: The good thing about democracy is that elections are in the hands of the people and we don’t know what the outcome will be. We as Europeans are not totally naive, but neither do we allow ourselves to be panicked. The German Government cooperates extremely closely with the current US Administration – the Chancellor with President Biden, I with my colleague Tony Blinken – both at a transatlantic level and personally. Russia’s war has drawn us even closer together. Yet German-American relations do not subscribe to just one party. That is why, during my US trip in the coming week, I will of course also hold many talks with Republican politicians. One crucial topic in this context is our long-term assistance for Ukraine.

Question: Would Europe be prepared if the United States were to leave NATO?

Baerbock: I am convinced that the debates about the end of NATO have petered out on both sides of the Atlantic.

Question: Is it not so important after all for Europe to liberate itself from America as far as its defence is concerned?

Baerbock: I follow the principle of cooperation where possible and our own capability to act where necessary. It is not about emancipation as a matter of principle. Russia’s war of aggression has shown that we Europeans have to be better able to protect ourselves. To achieve this, we need to be robust and invest in our common European defence. That also involves developing a European arms industry rather than continuing to use more than a dozen different tank models and not being able to communicate digitally with one another.

Question: Why do you hesitate when it comes to a common European missile defence system?

Baerbock: We’re working on precisely that at the moment. The war in Ukraine, with massive Russian missile fire, has highlighted how important a missile defence shield is for the security of the people in Europe.

In my view, that cannot be delayed. Instead of developing something entirely new over many years, we are calling for the integration of existing systems and for as many countries as possible to participate in the European Skyshield.

Question: 175,000 people have submitted an initial application for asylum – 78 percent more than in the previous year. Have the municipalities reached their limits?

Baerbock: What our country, what everyone in the districts, cities, villages is achieving at grassroots level, is amazing. Likewise in Poland, Czechia and Moldova, where in relation to the size of the population even more Ukrainians have found refuge. That is not easy by any means. That is why I want to convey a huge thanks to parents, teachers, mayors and district commissioners, who wrack their brains on a daily basis to work out how they can take care of the many refugees. That is a great feat, reflecting the humanity which is the hallmark of our country, and for which in May we as the Federal Government earmarked a further one billion euro.

Question: Are you also restricting migration?

Baerbock: We can’t resolve the crises in the world at the touch of a button. That is why it is so important for us now to achieve a European asylum reform which leads to a fairer distribution of refugees, to quicker repatriation where there is no entitlement to asylum, and to work permits for those who are here to stay.

Question: The coalition government wants to define Georgia and Moldova as safe countries of origin – why not also Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria? The rate of recognition, as CDU leader Friedrich Merz recently reminded us, is equally low.

Baerbock: I consider taking a lawnmower approach in foreign policy for reasons of domestic policy to be a rash move. That is why I have always called for us to move away from the construct of safe countries of origin which simplistically pigeonholes countries from a human rights perspective. Georgia and Moldova, however, are on the path towards the EU and in the course of this journey have implemented far-reaching reforms in the areas of the rule of law, democracy and human rights – otherwise they couldn’t join the EU. And as far as Mr Merz is concerned: evidently the Bavarian election campaign prevented him from noticing the recent developments in Tunisia – including the arrest of prominent members of the opposition and the eroding of the constitution.

Question: In August, Emmanuel Macron reiterated his vision of a “multispeed Europe”. Would that not be a solution in the context of the current enlargement negotiations?

Baerbock: Just as the EU today is our life insurance, it is all the more so for Ukraine and Moldova in light of Russia’s war of aggression, but also for the countries of the Western Balkans. That is why an accession process which does not constantly erect hurdles is important, as is thinking outside the box. At the same time, we cannot compromise when it comes to the Copenhagen criteria, i.e. the EU accession criteria such as the rule of law and democracy. If Europe is our life insurance, the rule of law is our insurance policy. I therefore greatly appreciate the ideas of the French President, which unite both aspects.

Question: France is in difficulties in the Sahel region. Do you see the situation there as a problem for France or for Europe as a whole?

Baerbock: We shouldn’t be indifferent to what is happening in the Sahel. It is our direct neighbourhood. At our meeting last week in Toledo, we as Europeans jointly expressed our support for the legitimately elected Government of the Niger, at the suggestion and instigation of Germany and France.

Question: France has a special history in this region. Should France and Germany adopt different roles in the current situation?

Baerbock: We act together – and from time to time in different roles, where it helps. We have consistently been implementing foreign policy like this over the past months. Some weeks I see and talk to my French colleague Catherine Colonna more often than I do my husband. And I know how aggressive the fake news is which pillories France – evidently with Russian support. Not least with the aim of delegitimising the democratic government in the Niger. At the same time, European self-reflection is important. Berlin and Paris share similar views also in this regard.

Question: ECOWAS has announced a military campaign against the junta in the Niger. Would Germany support this operation?

Baerbock: Just as we as Europeans asked other countries in the world for assistance at one of the worst moments of our times, when Europe’s peaceful order was attacked, we are now also there for others when they need us. When democratic governments are ousted by military forces, we as European democracies cannot turn a blind eye. That is why we stand alongside our ECOWAS partners when they need support.

Question: So in a military context, too?

Baerbock: ECOWAS is pursuing a policy combining diplomacy and pressure, which we support. That means exploiting all diplomatic means while making the standby force ready for deployment. Whether a military operation is required as a last resort is up to ECOWAS. That is what we agreed at our EU Foreign Ministers meeting with the Foreign Minister of the Niger and the President of the ECOWAS Commission.

Question: France and Germany are arguing – again – about nuclear power, this time within the context of the reform of the European electricity market. France wants to expand European support to cover existing nuclear power plants. Why does Germany reject that idea?

Baerbock: It’s well known that we Germans and French are best friends, but sometimes we fight like an old married couple. And when it comes to nuclear power, our societies have always held differing opinions. On this side of the Rhine, the last nuclear reactor was decommissioned in April, while in France nuclear power continues to play a significant role in energy supply. We need to withstand these different views held by Paris and Berlin. We are united by a firm belief of the need to achieve climate neutrality. For us it is important that nuclear power does not slow down the expansion of renewable energies at EU level.

Question: Germany fears market distortions in this case. Would an electricity price cap of five cent/KWh for German industry not represent precisely that kind of distortion for the other EU countries?

Baerbock: The debate on a temporary energy price cap for industry has just started in Germany, naturally in close coordination with the Commission and within the framework of the requirements under European law. And that’s how it should be, for we take the concerns of our European friends seriously. At the same time, it is important that our energy-intensive industries in Germany, France and throughout Europe have a future. After all, it would help nobody if steel were no longer produced in Duisburg and glass no longer manufactured in Arques but only in Chinese production facilities. Especially since we in the single market are more interdependent than any other region in the world.

Question: If the Franco-German relationship is like that of an old married couple, what would you do differently from the Federal Chancellor in this relationship?

Baerbock: Like in a proper family, it isn’t enough just for the parents to get along. Franco-German relations don’t just function by virtue of the fact that two people at the top see eye to eye. They also involve trust-based interaction between the various ministries, but above all interpersonal contact, strong town twinning partnerships and cross-border cooperation. The people in Alsace or in Baden-Württemberg aren’t watching what is going on at the Élysée or the Federal Chancellery every day. Their main concern is to be able to visit doctors or hospitals in the neighbouring country without red tape, and for a good rail connection. We all need to improve in these areas.

Question: Could inflation – and the measures to combat inflation – jeopardise the political cohesion within the EU?

Baerbock: Fortunately, we in Europe are able to learn, and have indeed learned from the mistakes of the euro crisis. No country can save itself singlehandedly, and certainly not at the expense of other European partners. That is why, in the wake of this terrible COVID-19 crisis, we set up a European recovery package together to mitigate the impact of the crisis. That is why we are now cooperating on the green deal, which is being firmly pushed forward by Germany and France. After all, a strong and sustainable European economy is only viable if it is climate neutral and safeguards jobs throughout Europe.


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