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"Fear is not a good guide – and nor is it a policy"

29.07.2016 - Interview

Interview with Foreign Minister Steinmeier, published on 29 July 2016 in Passauer Neue Presse

Interview with Foreign Minister Steinmeier, published on 29 July 2016 in Passauer Neue Presse

Europe is being rocked by a wave of terror, and now Germany has also been hit by attacks with an Islamist motive for the first time. Will we have to get used to this violence?

We will never resign ourselves to terror in Germany or anywhere else. I understand that people are frightened and unsettled after this terrible weekend. However, fear is not a good guide – and nor is it a policy.

Some members of the Christian Social Union (CSU) are calling for tighter deportation regulations and more restrictive legislation on refugees. Do you see a need to take action here?

Particularly in situations of great uncertainty, like the one we are in today, we should take special care and avoid engaging in inter-party rivalries and hysteria. As far as we know, the terrible case in Munich that claimed the lives of nine young people was not motivated by terrorism and nor was the perpetrator a refugee.

Horst Seehofer (CSU), Minister-President of the Free State of Bavaria, regards Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy as a reason for the increased threat level. Was this path a mistake?

I don’t think people expect us to evaluate the past after the fact. What they want is clarity on how the threats and risks are now being kept in check. This is only possible through greater work by the police and security authorities and more intensive international cooperation.

Some members of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) are calling for the Bundeswehr to be deployed to deal with terrorist threats. Should soldiers be deployed in Germany?

The incidents at the weekend showed the speed and high level of professionalism of the police forces. I am pleased that we can rely on the police. There were no gaps that could have been, or indeed needed to be, filled by the Bundeswehr. There are no reasonable grounds for the debate that has now flared up again on deploying the Bundeswehr in Germany. The Basic Law provides the framework for this, and also sets clear limits. There is no need to amend the Basic Law.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has launched a state-run “cleansing” of political opponents following the failed attempted coup. Is Turkey on the path to a dictatorship?

It almost seems as if Turkey managed to avoid falling into the abyss, but is now headed towards a serious internal crisis. No one can underestimate the dangers associated with a military coup. Fortunately, the coup was foiled. However, the response is now going beyond any reasonable level. When tens of thousands of civil servants, teachers and judges are dismissed, when thousands of schools and educational institutes are closed, and when dozens of journalists are arrested, without any direct discernible link to the coup, we cannot simply remain silent. The reintroduction of the death penalty that has been raised by President Erdoğan would be a huge step backwards. Turkey must uphold both its own standards and its international obligations. We expect it to adhere to the rule‑of‑law levels it has achieved.

In view of these developments, can the EU continue to negotiate with Ankara on accession?

Since the start of the accession negotiations, Turkey has achieved a great deal as regards meeting our expectations. At the same time, this progress has been of benefit to the country’s economic and social development and has paved the path to continuing the talks. But now there is talk about reintroducing the death penalty. This would answer the question on continuing the accession process.

If you regard rule of law in Turkey as being at risk, can the EU continue to return refugees from Greece to Turkey? What will become of the refugee agreement?

So far, there are no signs that Turkey no longer wants to adhere to the obligations stemming from the agreement. Europe has a duty to provide funding for suitable accommodation for refugees and schooling for refugee children in Turkey. Ankara has taken on responsibility to provide for and look after these people in Turkey. At the moment, there is no reason to doubt that the agreement applies and is being upheld by both sides.

What about the German soldiers involved in the fight against IS in İncirlik?

Germany and Turkey are members of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. Turkey has a huge interest in our defeating IS in its neighbouring countries of Syria and Iraq. Naturally, members of the German Bundestag must be able to visit German soldiers who are deployed in Turkey. I do not like to think that Ankara does not understand this.

Before the NATO summit in early July, you accused NATO of “sabre-rattling” and “warmongering” because of its policies on Russia. What exactly are you criticising?

It is wrong to conjure up an apocalyptic mood and a new cold war in our relations with Russia. In the final analysis, there can be no security in Europe without Russia and certainly none against it. Despite all of the current difficulties, we have to keep the door open to improving relations with Russia once again. This is the case despite all our criticism of Russia’s conduct, for example in Ukraine. It will not work if relations with Russia are only seen in a confrontational way in NATO, while at the same time we are trying to work with Moscow on Syria, Libya or Iran. We need to find a position that combines both the difficulties and the need to work together.

Have the talks on eastern Ukraine come to a dead end? Should the EU sanctions against Russia be lifted or eased in order to send a message of détente and to get things moving in the deadlocked Ukraine crisis?

I do not accept the view that the Minsk peace talks have come to a dead end. If some negotiation strategies do not prove successful, then we need to look for others. Germany and France are holding intensive talks with Russia and Ukraine, with the aim of reaching the next stage in the Minsk implementation process. We will know by September at the latest if this is working. EU sanctions against Russia remain tied to adherence to the Minsk agreement. If we achieve significant success, I see nothing against gradually easing the sanctions.

The UK has voted for Brexit, that is, to leave the EU. How high is the risk of a division in Europe?

I very much regret that the British voted this way. However, we must respect this democratic electoral result. The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has made it clear that she will go ahead with Brexit. This means a phase of uncertainty, as it is not clear when the UK will submit the necessary application in line with Article 50 of the EU treaties. Negotiations can only take place then. There will be no preliminary talks. What cannot happen is that the UK abdicates from the duties of a member state, but retains all the rights of a country that is fully integrated in the European single market.

The remaining 27 EU member states need to agree quickly on joint positions so that the uncertainty does not become even greater and the negative effects of Brexit on the UK do not spread to other countries.

The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, is in no hurry to leave the EU. Does clarity on the exit now need to be created quickly in order to avoid further uncertainty?

The sooner the UK applies to end its EU membership, the better. But the fact is that only the UK itself can decide on the timing of its application. That is stipulated in the treaties.

What should the Europe of the future be like? Which reforms are now needed?

It is crucial that we now react in the right way. Following the historic watershed of the Brexit vote, this is not the time for Europe to indulge in self-delusions or to yearn for the past. We need to negotiate objectively with London on the details of the exit and to do everything we can to preserve the EU of the 27. We need to show the people in Europe that the EU works. We need a common European refugee policy. Europe needs to ensure the security of its citizens. And we also need closer cooperation in the economic and monetary union.

Interview: Andreas Herholz and Tobias Schmidt. Courtesy of Passauer Neue Presse.

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