How can the conflict in Ukraine be resolved? Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier about crisis diplomacy, the fighting in Donbas, the search for a new European Commission President and the NSA affair. Published in the Tagesspiegel on 8 June 2014
Minister, the YouTube video with your outburst on Alexanderplatz has been seen by more than two million people. Did you expect so many positive reactions?
Absolutely not, I was truly amazed. Besides, my wife was not at all happy, she doesn’t like to see me like that. Of course it’s pretty crazy really. In my political career I’ve made hundreds and thousands of speeches, into some I put a great deal of effort and thought – and managed at least a few words of wisdom, I hope. Yet what gets remembered is not so much a speech as an outburst.
Does the huge echo show there’s a yearning for plain talking, authenticity and emotions in politics?
The reason I made such an impression was probably because I acted in a way people didn’t expect. It was the contrast they found striking, that made them take notice. Obviously if you harangue people all the time, they’d soon lose interest. But one thing’s certainly true. People want politicians to speak up with real ardour for what they believe is right. And in such situations emotional outbursts, even outbursts of anger, are allowed.
Do you see that as an incentive to show more emotion on the job – or did you get carried away, something you’d prefer not to happen again?
If you plan to lose your temper, it won’t have the desired effect. The outrage must be genuine. And it certainly was that Monday afternoon on Alexanderplatz, when a coalition of history ignoramuses and screaming idiots from the far left to the far right tried to drown me out. And my impression, by the way, is that especially in these turbulent times people want a foreign minister who’s guided not by transitory emotions but by a cool head and sound judgement.
Emotions are also an issue in the Ukraine conflict. You were very pessimistic for a while, you spoke of a “madness” that had to be stopped. Do you see any signs that Russia is now working to stabilise Ukraine?
We may manage to defuse the conflict somewhat, but we’re still a very long way from a solution. The various ingredients in the Ukraine crisis – historical tensions, geopolitical reflexes, considerable leverage for aggression, nationalistic fervour, economic destabilisation, a politically polarised nation – all combine to make the quest for a peaceful settlement exceedingly difficult. But there are also hopeful developments.
What exactly are you thinking of?
Who’d have thought a few weeks ago that the presidential election would pass off so well? One thing is clear. The only way forward is to proceed step by step. Success, as we see it, means getting the parties to the conflict involved in an incremental process. It’s a positive sign when the Russian ambassador in Kyiv attends the swearing-in of the new Ukrainian president. And so is the first direct contact between Putin and Poroshenko. But there won’t be any real progress until Moscow and Kyiv hold direct, substantive talks. That’s the message Radek Sikorski and I will be putting across in St Petersburg on Tuesday when we meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
When you talk of resolving the conflict, what kind of period do you have in mind?
It can take only 14 days to provoke a conflict. But it can take 14 years to get the consequences under some kind of control again.
What needs to be done?
We need to stabilise Ukraine politically and economically. That’s also what the vast majority of Ukrainians want. The elections showed, after all, that the separatists are just a tiny minority; the same goes, by the way, for Ukraine’s Right Sector. It’s now absolutely vital to continue the national dialogue launched in the run-up to the elections, take constitutional reform forward and pass new legislation on the rights of the regions and the status of the Russian language. A date for the general election also needs to be discussed.
At least Russia didn’t stop the presidential election going ahead and respects its outcome. Are the sanctions having an effect?
Of course we’ve not got to the stage of tough economic sanctions yet. So as I see it, this is the effect of persistent diplomacy coupled with the clear and insistent message that we’re also prepared to take tough decisions. Whatever Russia’s motives, its stance also in the talks has perceptibly shifted. But that of itself is not enough. What both sides need to do now is secure their common border and so stop the flow of Russian weapons and fighters into eastern Ukraine. In the interest of defusing the situation in Donbas, it would be very important for Moscow to state publicly that it supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity and rejects all secessionist tendencies.
You emphasise the importance of national dialogue. Is this going to be helped by Kyiv mounting massive military operations against the separatists?
Every state has the right to defend itself against attack from within. But in tense situations such as this it’s also clear that any use of military force should be carefully considered and well-judged. One needs above all to be aware of the consequences of one’s actions. Military operations in eastern Ukraine must not end up driving yet more people into the separatist camp. That’s also what the Governor of Donetsk impressed on me during his visit to Berlin this week.
Now the European Parliament elections are over, Minister, there’s big dispute over who’s to be the next President of the European Commission. How important is it who gets the job?
We’re in the midst of the biggest diplomatic crisis Europe has seen in decades. The consequences of the European financial crisis are still very much with us. In this situation what’s needed is an energetic and effective Commission headed by an experienced President, who can keep this Europe with its multifaceted history and differing interests together.
But that’s not what this power game’s all about. It’s about whether the European Parliament or the European Council – meaning the national governments – have the deciding say here. Your party, the SPD, is on the Parliament’s side. Do you as minister not have to defend the right of the national governments?
The major party families have responsibly taken the lead here. Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz are both veteran European politicians who don’t want any gulf to open up between the European Council and the Parliament. But I don’t underestimate this whole business, neither the conflict between the European institutions nor the conflict between the majority of heads of government and Britain in particular. So it would be wrong to make light of the matter. Britain has given the European Union a great deal: its democratic tradition, open-mindedness, sense of responsibility for the wider world. In routine European business difficulties may crop up at times, but the EU without Britain wouldn’t be the same. And above all it wouldn’t be better.
Could in the end a compromise candidate be put forward in a bid to keep Britain in the EU?
There are majority opinions in the Parliament which the European Council can’t simply ignore. That’s certainly something London is aware of, too.
Let’s turn to another subject. A few days ago the Federal Public Prosecutor General opened an investigation into the tapping of the Chancellor’s mobile phone. Has the Federal Foreign Office been at the receiving end of angry protests from the US Administration?
I am aware of a comment by a US State Department spokesperson, which was, as expected, critical in tone. But certainly neither I personally nor the Federal Foreign Office have received any complaint to date.
Is there any danger of the investigation undermining our relations with the US?
I hope that won’t happen. What I think is more likely is that Washington, too, will realise that the German public is not prepared to tolerate any tapping of the telecommunications of close partners, including members of the government. Germany and the United States have forged a friendship across the Atlantic over the course of many decades. A friendship such as this must be able to withstand also differences of opinion, especially on matters both sides regard as vital.
What are you doing to resolve the conflict?
Americans and Germans have different perceptions of the right balance between freedom and security in the Internet age. On my last visit to Washington I suggested to John Kerry that we should discuss these different perceptions. The Americans have taken up my suggestion. I'm very pleased that a big delegation of Americans will be arriving in Berlin in late June for a transatlantic cyber dialogue. Among them probably John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s former White House Chief of Staff, who advises President Barack Obama on big data issues and privacy protection. We want to discuss together with civil society and business stakeholders how we envisage our digital future. Obviously we won’t be ignoring the difficult issues either.
The interview was conducted by Martin Debes Hans Monath, Christoph von Marschall. Reproduced by kind permission of the Tagesspiegel.