Securing the energy supply – what foreign policy can do. Interview with Federal Foreign Minister Steinmeier on Inforadio (RBB)

14.10.2006 - Interview

Interview excerpts verbatim


Kahle: Several times now I've touched on the subject of economic interests. Notably of Russia, too. So I'd like to talk about Russia in greater depth. For this issue of energy is also connected to what your officials like to call the “New Ostpolitik”. The SPD, so we hear, expects you to continue Gerhard Schröder's Ostpolitik. In a recent speech you announced that you are planning to refocus the EU's Ostpolitik. “We're working on it”, you said. And of course that also ties in with this energy issue. Even especially with this issue perhaps. The general idea can be summed up as “rapprochement through interlinkage”. That deliberately echoes the motto of Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik, which was “change through rapprochement”. “Rapprochement through interlinkage” – spelt out in concrete terms, what does that mean?

Steinmeier: First of all a brief comment to clarify what this is all about. In one of my public speeches I did indeed say that in the European Union we now find ourselves in a special, a unique situation and that next year, once eastern enlargement has, for the time being, been completed and Romania and Bulgaria have joined the European Union, we will need to take another look at the EU's relations with its new post-enlargement neighbours to the east. And we will need to do this in a situation when, firstly, as the EU Council Presidency, it will be our task to devise a strategy, a common approach, to identify what goals and interests should inform the European Union's relations with its Central Asian neighbours. Preparations for this are under way. I myself am travelling to the region at the end of the month. Secondly, we have the situation that next year – 2007 – the existing Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia will expire. This means that during our Presidency we will have to negotiate a new partnership and cooperation agreement. And there is a third aspect, too. In a few months' time the European Commission is due to present a stock-take on the European Neighbourhood Policy. So we will also be expected during our Presidency to draw conclusions based on its findings. In other words, we will have to develop proposals together with the Commission for a new approach towards the EU's future neighbours to the east – Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Come up with ideas on how Neighbourhood Policy resources can be most effectively employed to support their modernization agenda. All these aspects combined makes for a situation in which, as I see it, the EU has no alternative but to develop its own Ostpolitik, so to speak. For us to be able to help shape it is obviously by no means a disadvantage.

I'd like to come back to this motto. In the Brandt era it was “change through rapprochement”. The goal was to end East-West confrontation and ultimately achieve the restoration of German unity. The motto “rapprochement through interlinkage” certainly carries no such emotional appeal, if I may put it that way. So what is the goal?

In those days we had a situation in which two hostile blocs represented two radically opposed systems. The thinking behind the Ostpolitik was that it was crucial to explore and seize every possible opportunity to establish contact with the other side; such contacts, it was hoped, would set in motion a process that would make it possible to do more together than just talk. Today, now the division of Germany and Europe is history, it is much easier for us to talk to each other and to act together in the political sphere as well. I strongly feel we should do this with a cool head and be quite calm and confident about it. When I talk about “policy-making through interlinkage”, I am trying to bring together various things which we have at least begun to aim for in EU policy-making. For example, in the European Union's relations with Russia we have agreed on four “common spaces”. That may sound pretty abstract, but in practice it means we have a joint project to increase contacts and exchanges in the economic and security sphere, in education and research and also at the personal level. Priorities certainly change somewhat over time – and energy policy is undoubtedly an important new priority. So as we get down to the business of negotiating the new cooperation agreement, our best strategy, I believe, is to keep a cool head and remain calm and confident. As the world's biggest single market, a market of 450 million people, we have every reason to be confident of our ability to steer our relations with a country that is also one of the world's biggest energy producers in the right direction. And there's something else we should not forget – Russia's export dependence. 90% of its gas, for example, is sold to Europe.

Here I get the impression there are two different views or schools of thought both among the experts and in the Federal Government. One school says the West and especially Germany and the EU need the energy partnership with Russia. You yourself have said as much. But the Russians need us as well. One of the things Russia is hoping for after all is an EU-Russian free trade area and an enhanced energy partnership. 50% of Russian exports go to the EU and Russia clearly needs these export earnings to modernize its energy sector. So what I'd like to do is explore the philosophy behind this policy. Is making Russia more democratic – as we understand the term – the hoped-for end-result or is it the precondition?

Yes indeed. That remains our goal. And by the way, there are no two schools of thought on this in the Federal Government, despite the rather simplistic reports you occasionally read in the media. It remains our common goal to see Russia a prosperous country that seeks and finds its own path to democracy, building on European values but conscious, too, of its own distinctive traditions. We should help it in every way possible to travel its chosen path. We can cooperate at the political level above all in areas such as research, culture and education, as I've already mentioned. We can encourage more person-to-person contacts and of course boost economic exchanges, too. And let me stress again: we shouldn't assume we have to be on the defensive all the time. Nothing forces us to do that – even though we remain of course dependent on fossil fuel. But what I miss in the whole public debate on this is an awareness that in recent years we have really pursued a rather astute energy policy as far as fossil fuel is concerned. And when I say “we”, I don't mean the politicians as much as the power companies, which realized it was in their own best interest to diversify both their energy suppliers and supply routes. So I should point out that where our important energy supply partner Norway is concerned, for example we are keen to foster, develop and if possible expand our relations. Of course we are exploring the possibility of finding suppliers in North Africa, too. In addition to pipeline gas we are of course looking into the potential of liquefied natural gas …

… You speak of “we” all the time. Do you mean Germany alone or do you mean the whole European Union, an EU energy policy, so to speak?

I think you've noticed that I spoke of a single market of 450 million people. And that's why everything we're doing to develop relations with Russia in the energy sector is not done merely to serve German interests. In connection with the Baltic Sea pipeline, market players in Western Europe are already showing considerable interest. The Dutch have announced their intention of investing in it. As far as I know, Britain is considering following suit. So as you see, everything that happened in this sector in the past was not done simply to serve a specifically German interest but was done to prepare the ground for a European energy policy.

I'd like to come back to the second school of thought – even if, as you say, there are no two schools of thought. But they exist in the public debate anyway. On that we can certainly agree. This school maintains that energy supplies are Russia's chosen instrument to regain great power status. We've seen how Russia behaved in its gas dispute with Ukraine. We're seeing now the treatment it is meting out to Georgia. So this school of thought warns: beware of becoming too dependent on Russian energy supplies. There is good reason to doubt their reliability, and that is why we should work with the EU and especially the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to develop a common energy policy.

To avoid any misunderstandings, let me point out I am not one of those who advocate any one-sided dependence. That is why I said a moment ago that the diversification of both our energy suppliers and supply routes must obviously not stop at the stage it has reached now. And I can't see any sign that German industry is losing interest in this issue or putting less effort into it. Secondly, I am, I believe, one of those who at a very early stage drew attention to the growing risk that all commodities – and that includes energy, too – have the potential to become the new currency of power in the world. And the conclusion I drew from this was that we needed more foreign and security policy, so we could contain more effectively the threats this entails. That is why I am so firmly convinced we must use the whole range of possibilities foreign and security policy offers to build into these supply relationships – and by that I mean not just relations between energy producers and energy consumers, I'm also talking about transit countries – criteria that will help ensure that reliability, transparency and environmental compatibility, essential principles in international legal relations, are respected. That's what I believe is the right course and that's the course to which I am committed.

Do you regard Russia as an absolutely reliable energy supplier?

We in Germany anyway have so far had no cause to view Russia as an unreliable partner where our own energy supplies are concerned. We must take steps, as I say, and we have indeed taken steps through the conclusion of appropriate agreements to ensure that this reliability remains our yardstick also in future.

I've raised the subject of Russia's domestic situation. Some people call what might be deemed the problem “bartering silence for gas”. Of course there can be no such thing. Putin was once described by no other than Gerhard Schröder as a “democrat through and through”. You were head of the Federal Chancellery at the time. But that does not mean you couldn't find a way to do what Russians opposed to their Government have been calling for – particularly since the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya – and that is to “speak out loud and clear”.

I think you can't anyway criticize me for not having done so in the past. As I see it and as you yourself could observe on my visits to Russia, human rights issues, especially the treatment of non-governmental organizations, were always a topic I discussed there. There are two points I feel we need to be clear about. In the world of politics things are not as neat, as cut and dried as people tend to think. You can't say that in Germany there are some who urge that in our dealings with Russia we should limit ourselves to discussing the human rights situation and others who urge that we pursue a hard-nosed economic policy. The wisest course and to my mind the right course is to link these two approaches. We need of course a clear understanding of how our interests, including our economic interests vis-à-vis Russia are best served. But precisely because we recognize these interests do exist, we should not allow ourselves to be persuaded that silence is the best policy on issues that need to be raised. So since you have brought it up, let me repeat again: The murder of Anna Politkovskaya, who was very well known also here in Germany and who, as I have said, was a tremendously important Russian voice, was a crime we not only deplore and condemn. Obviously we also demand that this murder does not go unpunished, that those responsible are found and brought to justice. And during his visit here President Putin made clear that is what the Russian Government wants, too. From a wider perspective, looking beyond this particular case, conditions for journalists working in Russia badly need to be improved.

If the European Union develops and pursues a common energy policy, surely Germany will then have a problem on its hands. Germany wants to phase out nuclear energy and most countries in the European Union have no intention of doing so. Do you think under these circumstances a common energy policy is feasible? There have been plenty of proclamations and statements of course.

The formulation of a common energy policy is definitely going to come, since it is clear from the groundwork so far and the overall approach that the EU partners are not going to lay down the law to each other on the use of nuclear energy. And heaven knows it is not the case that the majority of European countries have chosen the nuclear option or intend to do so in future. Different countries have different approaches, however.

Well, Tony Blair anyway knows his oil reserves in the North Sea are dwindling fast and he's beginning to have second thoughts.

Yes, but that's simply not the majority of European countries. However you reckon it, it doesn't make any real difference. The fact remains that there are different approaches. We in Germany have made our decision and so we are – more than others – duty-bound to come up with alternatives to our dependence on fossil fuel. That is one of the main reasons why the recent energy summit convened by the Federal Chancellor highlighted the crucial importance of enhancing energy efficiency and the use of regenerative energies. That doesn't mean that with improved energy efficiency alone – although there is an enormous potential here waiting to be tapped – and greater use of regenerative energies we can decisively reduce our dependence. Clearly we need to pursue the other approach, too, and that means diversifying. In those sectors where dependence will remain, we need to establish criteria that can guarantee reliability and transparency and we need to think particularly seriously about how we prepare for the post-fossil fuel age. For that is inevitably going to come. I have said publicly many times that we need an international division of labour. And as we have talked so often about Russia, I would like to point out that “transatlantic” is a word I have repeatedly used in this context. I have said, too, that real progress towards the hydrogen economy – there is still a long way to go and it will require a huge investment – can only be achieved if we have an international division of labour. In this field we have tremendous European competences – especially here in Germany – both in industry and research. And right now there are similar efforts under way also in the United States. So I see great opportunities – indeed a common need – for German-American relations or European-American relations to contribute to achieving decisive progress in this field.

To wind up, I'd like to venture a kind of global tour d'horizon. According to many experts – and you yourself have hinted as much – what we are now seeing is a fundamentally new situation in which the balance of power is shifting in favour of energy producers and away from energy consumers. In various reports, including those written by your officials, we read that the amount of energy Germany will need to import from politically unstable regions of the world is likely to increase dramatically by 2020. The plain fact is that there is already political instability in ten of the fourteen countries from which we currently import energy. So let me ask you – is the world going to be a pretty uncomfortable place in the next ten, twenty years?

I don't know if it's going to be uncomfortable. But we should get used to the idea that the world is changing. It was not in fact very comfortable in the days of East-West conflict, living with permanent confrontation between two hostile blocs. Thanks to the wise and patient policies we pursued, these blocs today no longer exist. For a while we perhaps rather naively thought the only issue left to deal with was sharing out the peace dividend resulting from the end of those blocs. That was obviously an illusion. The world is currently searching for a new status quo, one based on new principles. Control over commodities is not the only criterion that counts here, but there can be no doubt that commodities are a factor that grants considerable influence in the world. So as I say, to be aware of that fact doesn't mean we should see the Apocalypse looming, it means we should use foreign policy and all the instruments it provides – for that is indeed our duty – to demonstrably contain such threats and ensure the world remains a place fit for people to live in.

If this world is so insecure and may even become rather more insecure in future, let me ask one more question about the United States. You've already touched on transatlantic relations. The writer and economist Moisés Naím has spoken of a “hyperpolar world” that America would no longer be able to mould in its own image. As far as I know, there are even some Christian Democrats here in Germany who believe the United States no longer has the same existential importance for Germany that it had in the past. All the same, military spending by the United States to secure its energy supplies is now running at 150 billion dollars. We benefit from that as well. So is the United States of existential importance to us?

Steinmeier: I think all this talk about the quality of transatlantic relations at this or that point in time should not be allowed to distract us from doing what is really important, which is not only to nurture our close partnership with the United States but also to constantly seek it. From time to time in this partnership differences of opinion have loomed large, differences about the likely outcome of the Iraq war that arose with good reason. But that is no reason for us to start pondering about alternatives to this partnership. We need the transatlantic partnership, for us there can be no doubt at all on that score.

Minister, thank you very much indeed.

The interview was conducted by Ingo Kahle

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