“The situation is highly dangerous”

19.08.2013 - Interview

Foreign Minister Westerwelle talks to FOCUS magazine about the current situation in Egypt, the conflict in Syria and German-US relations.

Egypt is on the brink of civil war. Following the coup, the military are now fighting against the Islamist but democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood. What side should Germany and the EU take here?

We are not on the side of one or the other political group. We are on the side of the people striving for freedom and democratic values who want an open society. The future of Egypt will be determined by the people of Egypt. All of that is still an ongoing process. What we are seeing is the first five minutes of a historic hour. The situation is extremely worrying.

How dangerous is the situation in Egypt, in your assessment?

The situation at the moment is highly dangerous. The escalation of violence is threatening a whole society of more than 80 million people.

What would be the consequences for the region if civil war broke out in Egypt? Is the whole Middle East going to go up in flames?

Egypt is a key country in the region. The effects of what is happening there will be directly felt elsewhere. How keenly will very much depend on further developments.

What would an ongoing conflict mean for Europe?

It is important that we coordinate closely, and it is important that we react to events with a clear and concerted response. From a European viewpoint, we are talking here about our neighbours.

Wouldn’t it be a conciliatory gesture, one that might defuse tensions, if Morsi was released at this point?

For Egypt to return to the path of positive development, the rule of law has to be upheld. In assessing that criterion, we will be looking at the way prisoners are dealt with too. We are against selective justice.

Isn’t it time to admit that what happened was in fact a military coup?

We are not going to assess these matters conclusively until we see how things develop from here. That will depend in part on whether the various political forces prepare the return to constitutional order and elections in which everyone can participate. We are calling on all political forces to return to dialogue and negotiations in order to prevent the violence spiralling further. Egypt’s Christian minority needs to be protected and kept safe from attacks.

Germany’s foreign policy has been known to command a lot of respect in Egypt, but the last time you went there you were not permitted to see Morsi, and after your visit we heard voices insist that interference would not be tolerated. Why has Germany’s standing deteriorated?

The vast majority of moderates welcome our diplomatic efforts. It is hardly surprising that extremists on both sides voice criticism. I have spoken publicly in favour of religious pluralism and gender equality, doing so not only from Germany but also in Egypt itself. That can be hard to take if you have a background in fundamentalist Islamism – just as someone clearly advocating the rule of law and democracy can be hard to take for those who want to resurrect an autocratic system.

Do arms supplies to Egypt now have to be stopped?

With regard to our own policy on arms exports, it is restrictive anyway. And it is going to stay that way, not least in the light of these current developments.

What will have to happen for you to say that the West can no longer provide Egypt with financial assistance?

What has happened must have consequences, but it would be unwise for me to make any pronouncements about that while things are still in flux. We are liaising very closely with our allies and partners on this issue.

How safe are German tourists?

In the face of this situation, we can only advise against travelling to Egypt. The Federal Foreign Office’s travel warnings are kept constantly updated. I can but urge everyone to make sure they get the latest information and take the warnings very seriously.

The rebellions in the Arab world have been a constant feature of your time in office. You have visiting the Middle East nearly 50 times. Do you find it frustrating to see movements that began so hopefully years ago now engulfed by violence?

It has been some time since I stopped talking about the Arab Spring and started referring to the Arab seasons. In some countries, I am still seeing progress, and looking at other countries, I am not only concerned but also sad, as I had hoped, when I witnessed the first sparks, that the people would not have to face great suffering.

In Syria, a humanitarian tragedy is unfolding before the eyes of the world. Will the West one day be accused of not having done enough? Russia and Iran are not very worried about supplying arms.

I do not believe that fewer lives will be lost if more arms are sent to Syria. We are only supporting those forces with which we share fundamental values. The fact that an al-Nusra terrorist is fighting against Assad does not make him our friend. Damascus is just a stop on the road to Jerusalem for these people. That constitutes a threat to open society in Europe too. I am therefore sticking to this considered position. It is true that the international community will stand accused of not doing enough at what will prove a historic time – but that of course is down to Russia and China’s deadlock on the UN Security Council.

Is the West helpless here?

The international community is helpless. It is an unsatisfactory position, which we cannot accept.

How might the Syrian conflict be resolved?

In a country like Syria, the solution cannot be military; only a political solution can bring lasting peace and stability, as the country comprises various ethnic and religious groups.

Would you support the Kurdswish for autonomy?

The whole point is that borders cannot be called into question and the various groups need to be reconciled!

A political solution that will tolerate Assad?

In our view, Assad is chiefly responsible for the terrible violence. Nonetheless, there will obviously have to be representatives of his regime at the table during any conference held in Geneva if a political solution is to be reached.

In the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, what does Germany think it can do that the US couldnt manage by itself?

This isn’t a question of one or the other; it’s about both together. Germany is well respected both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. That is why we are doing our bit to support the talks.

Nonetheless, Israel announced new settlement construction even while you were visiting the country...

Unfortunately, there are people on both sides who are opposed to a negotiated two-state solution. We cannot let them have their way. However, my impression is that both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas are personally convinced that the time is ripe for these direct talks and sincere, substantive negotiations aiming for a two-state solution.

The new US Ambassador, John Emerson, arrived in Berlin last week. When are you going to meet him, and how are diplomatic relations with the US in the aftermath of the Snowdon revelations about the NSA?

We will talk soon, I am sure. There are of course some difficult issues that the US and Germany need to discuss – for example, the need to strike the right balance between anti-terrorism measures and security concerns on the one hand and protection of privacy on the other.

Could you criticise the US for NSA as vociferously as you might like to as a Liberal, or have you had to diplomatically restrain yourself?

As a Liberal, I have always been a prime advocate of data protection and civil liberties. What I have learned from my four years as Foreign Minister, however, is that you get further if you keep your tone civil. That’s a fundamental difference between me and the Opposition, who have even been known to want to send in the cavalry. Anti-Americanism would be the wrong response to the current discussion about data protection. The anti-American reflex worries me. The US is a parliamentary democracy with an independent judiciary, and it remains our closest non-European ally. We have a duty to overcome our differences of opinion. That is better than yelling “stick the boot in’’. Or does Mr Steinbrück now want to send his cavalry to Washington too, once they’ve finished doing their thing in Bern?

What is the outcome of the diplomatic talks?

We are seeing the first successes now. Administrative agreements have been dissolved. Negotiations on a no-spy agreement have begun. We have got an initiative under way to make data protection recognised as a human right under international law. In my talks with the US President and the Secretary of State, I have stated very clearly that spying on friends is unacceptable, whatever the actual extent of it may have been, and that we expect German law to be upheld in Germany. Initial consent has been expressed, and now all the details need to be negotiated and put into treaty texts.

One question remains unanswered: how much German data leaves German soil and what happens to that information?

I don’t want to preempt the negotiations that are now taking place, as these are highly complex issues. I am very interested in the recent initiative from German companies to have a ”Made in Germany“ internet with special security levels, and I think that can be taken as a yardstick.


Conducted by Bernhard Borgeest and Stephanie Stallmann, this interview appeared in issue 34/2013 of FOCUS magazine on 19 August 2013 and is reproduced here by kind permission of Focus Magazin Verlag GmbH.

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