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To this day, we remain grateful to the United States”

16.06.2013 - Interview

In a Deutschlandfunk radio interview, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle spoke about the upcoming visit of US President Barack Obama, Syria and the situation in Turkey. The interview was conducted by Klaus Remme and was first posted on www.dradio.de.

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Klaus Remme: Minister, thank you first of all for taking time to talk to us. After the G8 summit, Barack Obama will visit Berlin for the very first time as President of the United States. Many are comparing this visit to that of Kennedy. This year marks the 50thanniversary of his famous speech. Most will remember Ronald Reagan's speech at the Brandenburg Gate as well. Do you think these are valid comparisons?
Foreign Minister Westerwelle: Every president lives in, works in, and adapts to, his historical environment. It is true that John F. Kennedy's speech was one of the great moments in global politics, not only from a historical perspective but also at that time. When he said the famous words “Ich bin ein Berliner” he expressed the full solidarity of the Western world in facing the threat posed by the Warsaw Pact. In a nutshell, he was saying that the freedom of Berlin and freedom in general were non-negotiable. Decades later, Ronald Reagan spoke directly to the then leader of the Soviet Union, Michael Gorbachev, challenging him to tear down the Wall and open the gate, the Brandenburg Gate. And that, too, sent a very clear message, namely that the United States of America considered Germany to be one nation, and that the separation was something artificial, symbolized by a wall, barbed wire and the death strip. Finally, Barack Obama is visiting Berlin during a time when the world is rapidly changing, when we are witnessing how incredibly fast the West, including our community of values, must stand up for itself in its relationship with new powerhouses. I think that he, too, will seize this opportunity and deliver a speech that not only reaches a wide audience, but that is also fully embedded in the historical context. He will express a clear commitment to a more closely united Western community of common values, for example through the free trade agreement between the United States and the European Union.

We will certainly come back to this issue in a moment. You mentioned “global politics”. Is this not setting expectations too high for Wednesday's speech?

When the US president visits Germany – as he is now doing on his first official visit to Berlin – I believe he knows exactly how high the expectations are. We must not forget that just prior to his visit, on Monday and Tuesday, the G8 summit is being held. So we have quite high expectations with regard to the speech, while it is also true that we do not want to inflate expectations.

Allow me to remain at the bilateral level: Looking at Germany and the United States in the year 2013, is this a friendship between equals?

The partnership between Germany and the United States is a partnership that can maybe only be compared with the relationship between Germany and France. We have incredibly close and intense ties that are certainly not restricted to politics. What makes the transatlantic relationship special? It is not primarily the fact that our governments have good working relations, as do our officials and politicians. And it is not primarily the fact that we have very strong trade ties, with a large economic exchange that benefits both sides. Rather, it is the deep-rooted friendship between our peoples. The German people have not forgotten, and will never forget, how the United States took action to defend freedom, not only in West Berlin, but here in Europe in general. To this day, we remain grateful to the United States for what they have done to promote freedom, peace and prosperity, from the end of World War II to this day.

You will certainly be asked repeatedly to speak about Syria in the coming days. The White House is now convinced that the Assad regime employed chemical weapons. Last year, the American president stated that this would give rise to a new situation. What happens next?

We are taking these reports about the use of chemical substances in Syria very seriously. We will continue to conduct an intensive exchange on the relevant facts with the United States, as well as with other partners and with the United Nations. We will continue to campaign for a conference on Syria, and we urge the UN Security Council to examine these new circumstances. The aim should be to arrive at a common position in the UN Security Council, for we must overcome its division on this issue. Germany for its part will not deliver any lethal aid to Syria. Rather, we believe that a conference on Syria must be held, even though right now the prospects for success of such a conference are admittedly not very bright.

European countries have not been able to agree on a common position concerning the provision of lethal aid to Syria. The Obama administration, too, was not inclined to provide such aid, similar to the Federal Government. Should the US decide to change its official stance – and knowing the position of the United Kingdom and France – is Germany in danger of becoming isolated?

No. I think that is an artificial construct. The opposite is true. We are very closely coordinating our position with that of our partners in the US and in Europe, too. There are different issues that need to be taken into account. For example, regarding lethal aid, we are talking about the most modern weapon systems, including air defence systems. Here, I am concerned about what could happen if such highly modern air defence systems were to fall into the hands of extremists or jihadists. For their aim is to overthrow not only Damascus, but in a second step also Jerusalem. This could generate a threat that must absolutely be part of our deliberations. I think that, in our partnership, we are not only conducting a close exchange, but we have also arrived at a great deal of consensus regarding the objective of a political solution. I regret that the opposition in Syria is still so deeply divided. Still, I say we want to support the moderate democratic forces of the Syrian opposition. At the same time, the simple fact that jihadists or extremists or terrorists are fighting against Assad is not enough to make them our allies.

Could you understand the Americans if they were now to decide to give the rebels lethal aid that is less sophisticated than the anti-aircraft missiles you just mentioned – that is, light weapons, munitions, and anti-tank weapons?

So far, no official decision has been taken. It is the privilege of the media to speculate about deliberations of the innermost circles, if you will. But that is not my job. The Federal Government does not speculate. We assess the facts and circumstances to the extent that, and as soon as, information actually becomes available to us.

I would like to address once more Germany's position. What would have to occur for the Federal Government to change its stance on provision, or non-provision, of lethal aid?

During the past weeks and months, I have repeatedly made clear that we also respect those partners of ours in the European Union, for example the United Kingdom, that have spoken out in favour of directly arming the rebels, and for providing them with lethal aid. Yet the fact that Germany for its part is not sending arms to Syria is simply also due to the fact that we have a totally different, very restrictive legal situation, independent of the political considerations that I have just mentioned.

Let us turn to another topic, one that you briefly mentioned. At the latest since the Munich Security Conference, the issue of a free trade agreement has gained momentum, evolving from an idea into a project. It has been discussed in recent months, and it is now taking shape. Apart from its economic potential, why is this project so important?

One aspect is that we are of course looking for ways to create growth and jobs, without taking on new debt. For this, there is a very obvious, tried and proven method: more free trade. Second, the world is witnessing the rise of new powerhouses, which include China, India and Brazil, as well as those on the African continent that we so far have not been paying enough attention to. It is important for us to play an assertive role , also as a community based on shared values. The question is, in the future, will we set the standards, or will others do so? That is why it is only natural for the two most successful economic regions in the world, with the closest of ties, to even further increase their cooperation, all with a view to maintaining their influence in a world with new powerhouses and completely new demographics.

Yet, before negotiations can begin, certain obstacles must be overcome at EU level, if I may say so. Do you understand the French position, for example, that the cultural domain should be non-negotiable and excluded from negotiations?

I believe the tasking that we set for negotiations must be as comprehensive as possible. I very well understand those who are sceptical and believe that our European art and cultural heritage, as well as our media traditions, including the cinema, must be protected. There is absolutely no doubt about that. At the same time, however, we must take care not to exclude from the outset all sorts of issues. This would only weaken the outcome and restrict our leeway when it comes to reaching a good compromise.

You are listening to the interview of the week on Deutschlandfunk. Minister, now a completely different question: How do you personally use the Internet? Are you on Facebook? Do you Twitter?

I am on Facebook. And the Internet is, incidentally, a good tool for obtaining information. It helps you do quick research, also while travelling. That's really nice and makes work much easier. But I will admit to you that, to me, reading a book is more than a technical procedure. Opening a book for the first time, holding it in your hands, reading the first pages, not just touching it but smelling it as well, and actually feeling it. This may sound a little euphoric, but I think it speaks to the senses in a way that no electronic medium can.

As a brief aside, because you feel so strongly about this: What are you reading right now?

I'm reading Paul Auster, his stories about New York.

Coming back to the Internet, we can now be quite certain that the US National Security Agency is amassing big data on a global scale. The US president defends this practice, for reasons of national security. Does this go too far?

I can understand that the right balance needs to be struck, on a case-by-case basis, between security interests, that is investigating terrorist structures and contacts, on the one hand, and respecting individuals' privacy, on the other hand. However, I think it is right for us to discuss this issue with the United States. Our initial reaction to the reports we received on this issue has been highly sceptical and cautious. But I will add that, when such topics arise, we can have reasonable discussions about them. I know the Federal Minister of Justice has already done the right thing by contacting her US counterpart, because here, too, we must first have a very clear idea of what is actually going on. This, in turn, is the solid basis on which government action must be taken.

The Federal Commissioner for Data Protection is speaking of nearly total surveillance, and he is highly critical of this. Can the Federal Government defend against the surveillance of German citizens?

I think your question makes it sound too much like everything is cut and dried. And I think we should first speak about what is actually going on. Right now, everyone making public statements only knows what they've read in the newspapers. And all of this reporting, if I understand correctly, is based on the information provided by one man who says he played a role in such activity, and who is now making this public. I can only repeat myself and say that privacy and data protection are extremely valuable – not only for us Germans and Europeans, since, after all, privacy is a core American value as well. That is why we should discuss this in a sensible way and together look at what is actually going on. Only then will we arrive at a good solution, one that meets both criteria: protecting against terrorism, that is, increasing our security in view of terrorist threats and meetings between individuals of concern, also via the social media, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, protecting both our privacy and our data.

Since you mentioned him, I will give his name: it is Edward Snowdon. He is the whistleblower and responsible for disclosing this information. Does such a man deserve our respect?

I do not have an opinion. I don't know enough about this, and I've learned not to judge such complicated issues with wide ramifications based on two or three newspaper articles.

Then let us turn to a different topic: I would like to take a few minutes to discuss the situation in Turkey. Has the demonstration of state power and violence affected your view of Erdogan's government?

What bothers me are not only the images we saw in this connection, but also, and even more so, the inflammatory rhetoric. In such a situation, the Turkish government, for its part, can prove that it takes the freedom of assembly and democracy in action very seriously, and that it sees its role as bridging gaps and reconciling society. I have communicated all of these expectations to my Turkish colleague during a talk we held on this issue.

Is it in your view a domestic Turkish affair?

When human rights, civil rights and civil liberties are at issue, what can be domestic about that? After all, countries that are fellow members of the Council of Europe are necessarily bound to share their views with one another as countries with friendly relations. That is why I do not understand the view that is sometimes expressed that this is a domestic affair. We all are members of the Council of Europe. We have set common standards for ourselves: the rule of law, the separation of powers, the right to demonstrate, as well as freedom of the press and of expression. If, on gaining the impression that these rights and freedoms are not sufficiently protected, countries and national governments decide to voice their opinions, then I believe this is right and a positive development in our modern age.

Considering that here in Germany we have a particularly large population of Turks and Turkish migrants, does Germany have a special responsibility in this regard?

I think we have a shared responsibility. And it does not depend on the number of ethnic Turkish citizens that live in Germany or in neighbouring countries. Rather, it is about values, values such as the freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate. And when the impression arises, for example following the arrest of lawyers, that these values are not sufficiently protected, then it is not only the right but also the duty of national governments – all of whom have entered into such obligations via the Council of Europe – to speak up and point this out. The fact that these demonstrations are happening is, in my opinion, not as negative as is sometimes described. If such demonstrations are occurring, then this is more of a sign that civil society is maturing, that it is becoming more self-confident. And that is, I believe, a good development, for we all know how different the situation was some 20 years ago.

Would it be right to delay EU accession talks with Turkey in view of these events – considering that many people have been wounded and some seriously injured? After all, a new chapter was scheduled to be opened at the end of June.

We are currently engaged in negotiations. A whole series of technical questions needs to be addressed. Many of these technical questions have not yet been resolved. And all of that must happen first.

Does this situation now suggest that it was a mistake to keep the prospects for Turkey's accession to the EU, let me say, opaque during the past few years?

Well, I don't think you can put the blame on Europe for everything that is malfunctioning at home. When there are such controversies and disputes, then I believe it is not right to hold Europe responsible. In the end, the right of assembly, the protection of democratic values, balancing different viewpoints, and engaging in debate: all this is not something you should do because you seek to at some point become a member of the European Union. Rather, it is something you do because it reflects your internal convictions. It is what you owe yourself, and it is respect for your own values and your own principles. Therefore, I see no link. Turkey will need to shed light on what caused this violence. Turkey will certainly also need to engage in intensive internal debate to arrive at reconciliation, and it will need to do this totally independently of Europe and public opinion in other countries. The sole motivation should be that it deserves to hold this debate. That is what President Gül has said. It is also, by the way, what other Turkish government officials have said. I welcome this. However, the inflammatory rhetoric that we have seen in recent days is not, I believe, reasonable.

So should the Turkish government be aware that such escalation may have consequences on the further conduct of accession talks?

You must realize that I am following and observing these events from a respectful distance and in strict accordance with our framework. I do not believe it would be helpful for countries to threaten one another. Instead, it is about standing up for our values. And that is what we are doing. Completely independently of this, the question must be answered of whether or not criteria are being met. To determine this, questions must be answered. And if from a technical point of view these questions have not yet been sufficiently answered, then this will result in political decisions needing to be taken.

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