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Policy Statement by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the German Bundestag on Germany’s foreign, European and human rights policy

29.01.2014 - Speech

-- Verbatim report of proceedings --

Madam President,
Esteemed colleagues,

I certainly could not have expected that after a period of eight years I would be standing here again ready to give you a new overview of Germany’s foreign policy and international relations. Let me assure you that as far as I am concerned I am not simply picking up an old routine in coming before you as Foreign Minister for the second time within just a few years. That goes without saying. While it’s true that the office I’ve moved into in the Federal Foreign Office is the same one – absolutely unchanged – I left four years ago, the situation in the world we have to talk about today has changed radically. Crises and conflicts have moved tangibly closer to us over this period. This all affects us: the consequences of both action and inaction in foreign policy invariably impact on us here in Germany in some way. So, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to assure you of one thing: I know what a challenge lies ahead of me, but I am looking forward to it, and I would like to ask for your support. Precisely because I am aware that there is the odd difference of opinion in this House, especially when it comes to talking about mandates, I want expressly to offer you frank and fair cooperation. It began quite well in the Committee this morning, and I hope it will continue here in the plenary. Thank you very much in advance.

When I look around within Europe, I see that this Europe has concentrated entirely on itself in recent years. For four years now we have all been struggling together with the crisis in Europe. And it was necessary to do so. But I have the impression that, as we’ve been struggling to get through the European crisis, we’ve sort of lost sight of what’s happening beyond the confines of Europe. Even without taking the most pessimistic view of the international situation, one can, I believe, see that the dramatic escalations of tension we are seeing in parts of the world very close to home are being underestimated at the heart of Europe, and particularly in countries with stable economies. A glance at the Middle East and parts of the Arab world is enough to let us see what can very quickly happen assuming that the efforts we and others are making are not successful – possibly with results which are no longer controllable, either within the region or in the neighbouring region, not even by us.

A glance at our neighbours in eastern Europe shows that in Ukraine a type of conflict has re-emerged which, after almost 70 years of peace in Europe and following the unification of Europe, we had thought there really was no longer any room for, not in Europe and not on the peripheries of the European Union.

Or let’s take a look at Afghanistan, where we are currently still struggling to ensure that, after the withdrawal of international forces, the country doesn’t simply relapse into the state it was in during the conflicts which raged there prior to 2001 and during the decades of civil war.

Or we could take a look at east Asia. I think we all need to admit that – and this isn’t a criticism – we have completely failed to comprehend the historic depth of the conflict between China and Japan, which on the surface is just about a few islands. We have failed to understand the context specifically in a region – this is why I mention it now – where the states still deal with each other in terms of very narrow geopolitical ideas or very simplistic patterns of the balance of power, ideas and patterns which are no longer current here. That’s what renders this conflict dangerous. I think we must keep a very close eye on this, even if we can’t exert any direct influence on things from here. I am quite sure that these debates will continue to occupy us.

As Thomas Oppermann pointed out this morning, ladies and gentlemen, we will not be able to avoid such discussions, not this year, when we are remembering so many things in connection with 1914: for example, the failure of diplomacy, the lack of foreign policy – notable in the six weeks prior to the outbreak of World War I – or the increasing degree of estrangement and lack of communication between states. The repercussions of this are obvious in the outbreak of war in 1914. But, whilst I don’t want to draw superficial parallels or equate the two situations, all this does have implications for today, ladies and gentlemen.

Bearing in mind the millions of people who have fallen victim to or are suffering under war and civil war today, bearing in mind the millions who may have been forced to flee their countries as a result of these conflicts, I would like to start by giving you my own personal opinion: I find the things that have been written again and again – far too often, to my mind – in recent years about the decline in importance – to put it like that might still have been acceptable – or even the utter insignificance of foreign policy in this day and age not only insupportable, but even a little bit cynical. By this token, it would be absolutely indecent to assume the office of Foreign Minister, because the whole thing’s not worth a fig any more anyway. Looking at the world today – I’ve sketched it out very briefly for you – a world which poses numerous challenges, I find this quite intolerable.

I admit that foreign policy doesn’t always fit in with the rhythm of online reporting. That’s certainly true. The Iran conflict, for example, has been occupying us for more than 30 years. For ten years we conducted negotiations, and it was ten years before there was any sign of a chance of defusing the conflict, though not yet resolving it. I believe we must remember this: if there were no active foreign policy, not even that kind of foreign policy which simply tries to bring about even the tiniest progress in a hopeless position, then conflicts like this would escalate.

There’s an old saying, a saying from the last century, that sounds a bit outmoded: as long as they’re talking, they’re not shooting.

This saying is not outmoded. The Iran conflict has proved it to us: as long as they were talking, they weren’t shooting. But the crucial thing is that these long-term endeavours ensure that the door was kept open for a political solution. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why I plead with such conviction for great value to be attached to foreign policy and to a pro-active foreign policy.

If I am for restraint and against over-hasty decisions regarding military intervention – and this isn’t the first time you’ve heard that from me – then it’s not because I believe that sitting back and waiting is the right reaction. If you think that then you’ve misunderstood. No, what I’m saying is something else: as correct as the policy of military restraint may be, it must not be misunderstood as meaning standing aloof as a matter of principle. We are, also in Europe, a bit too big and a bit too important for that. We are not a small state on the edges of Europe, but the largest, most populated state in the European Union, with the strongest economy. If a country like that refuses to become involved in efforts to resolve international conflicts, then they will not be resolved, and no viable proposals will be made.

That is why one of the first decisions Mrs von der Leyen and I suggested in the Cabinet was to change our approach to the removal and destruction of chemical weapons in Syria.

This case is a plausible illustration of the role we play. I think we were right when we said that dropping bombs on Damascus in such a situation would be the wrong course, and probably more of a stumbling-block if we want to arrive at a political settlement at some point. But one cannot speak out against military options and then also keep out of things when it comes to the remaining alternatives.

That’s why I say that assuming responsibility in foreign policy means that as the biggest country in Europe we also have to assume responsibility in situations like that and say: if we have the chance to create a small platform from which political negotiations might be launched in future, then we have to make ourselves available and play our part. Anyway, I am happy that the Cabinet took a very quick decision which will lead to us destroying the majority of the chemical residues produced in the destruction process here in Germany.

Esteemed colleagues, I cannot finish without taking a look not at the Middle East but at our European neighbours. Developments in Ukraine have occupied us all a great deal in recent days and weeks. The good news is that last night was the quietest for a long time. The bad news is that so far, the opposition has not been able to rely on any of the offers made by the President.

Political talks were able to start because Yanukovych bowed to pressure from the opposition and the international community and offered to repeal his law outlawing political activity. Another factor that enabled the launch of political talks was the resignation of the Prime Minister, followed by that of the whole Government.

But that is not yet the solution. We do not yet know whether the Ukrainian President is only playing for time. Yanukovych is making the signing of the necessary laws conditional on the opposition managing to clear the Maidan, although he knows that the opposition doesn’t have an influence on each and every one of the demonstrators. So we still need to be cautious in our assessments. However, there is a glimmer of hope that the newly started talks – the Ukrainian parliament is meeting right now – may perhaps open up the way for a political solution to the conflict. It’s not certain, though.

We have put ourselves entirely at the service of Catherine Ashton, who is mediating in Ukraine on behalf of the Europeans. She arrived there yesterday and will be on the spot all day today. I think this whole House will want to join me in thanking her for all she has done so far and wishing her good luck in helping to find a peaceful solution for Ukraine which will hold the country together.

Thank you very much.

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