Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the Arabic daily “As-Sabah”, Tunis. Published on 19 June to coincide with the German-Tunisian Consultations in Berlin.
Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa is to visit Germany in a few days time at the invitation of Chancellor Angela Merkel. How would you describe relations between Tunisia and Germany, three years after the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime? What has changed in the field of political, foreign and economic relations?
In the last few years, since the end of the Ben Ali regime, we have greatly improved the quality of our relations and can now talk of a close partnership between our two countries. The second intergovernmental consultations between our countries are about to be held in Berlin. This form of regular, high-level dialogue marks a new departure in our relations with Maghreb countries.
We are highly appreciative of the fact that Prime Minister Jomaa is travelling to Germany so soon after assuming office. He has already achieved a great deal and plans to do even more for the future of his country. We want to support these efforts in every way we can.
We have a political interest in ensuring that Tunisia is able to act as a pacesetter for progress and stability in the region, and is able to embrace this role yet more effectively than before. Europe and North Africa have become closer in many ways. Progress on one side of the Mediterranean can be felt on the other. But the same is also true of problems. The area is part of Europe’s immediate neighbourhood.
The business sector is also helping to inject new vigour into our relations. German companies in Tunisia now employ more than 50,000 members of staff, and are confident that the Tunisian markets are moving in the right direction.
A few weeks ago, you and your French counterpart visited Tunisia. Do you think that this visit, to date your only such trip beyond Europe’s borders, has already borne real fruit?
Yes. Before travelling to Tunisia, my French counterpart and I urged our EU partners to provide more support to Tunisia more quickly under the common neighbourhood policy.
Just how we can do that is something we will discuss further over the next few days, not least with Prime Minister Jomaa in Berlin. We will also talk about how we can encourage German companies to devote greater attention to Tunisia.
How can Germany support the process of democratisation in the future? What importance would it give to human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to civil society, in particular the cultural sector, which has been pretty non-existent until now?
We want to further expand Germany’s cultural work on a large scale. The Goethe-Institut in Tunis is doing excellent work, above all for young people, and since the overthrow of the dictator, whole new possibilities have opened up on the Tunisian cultural scene. In response to this, we are providing special funding for training measures for those seeking careers in the theatre and for managers of Tunisian cultural institutions.
2014 is an anniversary year. A hundred years ago, the famous German painters August Macke and Paul Klee travelled to Tunisia. Their pictures created a cultural bond between our countries that has existed ever since. We want to seize this opportunity to raise the profile of German cultural activities in Tunisia.
A very large number of Tunisian students decide to go to Germany to continue their studies. Can we expect to see a new visa granting procedure and a new immigration policy?
We are very interested in welcoming Tunisia’s excellently qualified students. The German Government has already adopted numerous measures to facilitate procedures for foreign students. For example, students who have received scholarships from German public funding agencies or from the EU may be granted a student visa without requiring approval from the interior authorities. This concession greatly simplifies and accelerates the visa application process for these people.
What foreign policy strategy is Germany considering to support the next elections in Tunisia?
The rapid consolidation of democracy in Tunisia is a high priority for us. We seek to foster broad participation in the elections by an informed electorate. To this end we fund civic education programmes. We motivate and empower women to stand for political office. We have also been helping the independent election commission (ISIE) to enhance its operative and technical capabilities. Tunisia is the beacon that shows that successful democratic change is possible in the Arab world.
What is your view of the political scene in the countries visited by the Arab Spring? What position is Germany taking with respect to the events in Libya?
The dramatic political and social changes that have shaken the Arab world since the Jasmine Revolution are part of a long-term process. We in Europe know this from our own experience. The developments in Tunisia appear to us to be the most promising.
Germany is willing to increase its support for the transitional process in Libya. Security, political development and stability are, in my opinion, tightly interwoven and mutually dependent. Violence can never be an option for change. That is why the German Government has set two priorities for its support. On the one hand, we are promoting the building of state institutions and the strengthening of civil society, and on the other hand we are providing concrete assistance to secure and destroy the Libyan arsenal from the Gaddafi era.
In your opinion, how could the war in Syria end? Isn’t the fact that Iraq is now directly confronted by jihadi fighters unequivocal proof of the defeat of the Occident and the international community?
There is no military solution for Syria. Only a negotiated solution can bring Syria lasting peace and stability. Even if there is no sign today that the parties to the conflict could be willing to end the violence, we will continue to support those groups which are working towards a peaceful settlement and a fresh democratic start in Syria.
The most recent successes achieved by the ISIS terrorists in Iraq clearly underline the disastrous impact that the Syrian conflict is having on the entire region. We should now all look forward and jointly take the necessary steps to prevent a new transnational breeding ground for international terrorism being created. The key to any solution is in the hands of the political forces in Iraq. They have to be much more willing to compromise with each other in order to overcome the political divides within their country.
Are you worried by the rise of extremists in Europe? How do Germany and the EU want to counter this phenomenon? And what do you want to do about European jihadis returning from Syria? Is there a joint European position on that?
In Europe we are working doggedly to deprive extremism of any chance to take root and flourish. Our chosen tools are improved integration, equality of opportunity in education, and non-discriminatory access to the labour market. In the short term, we will however use the full force of the law to address the problem. Several incidents in Europe over the past weeks have shown how vigilant we need to be.