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Austria: "One of our most reliable partners in Europe"

19.06.2014 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke to the Austrian daily, the “Kurier”, in the run-up to his visit to Vienna (19 June 2014). He commented on relations between the two neighbours, the crises in Ukraine and Iraq and his forthcoming trip to Turkey.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke to the Austrian daily, the “Kurier”, in the run-up to his visit to Vienna (19 June 2014). He commented on relations between the two neighbours, the crises in Ukraine and Iraq and his forthcoming trip to Turkey.

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Minister, why are you coming to Vienna?

I’ve been invited to Vienna by my counterpart Sebastian Kurz. Vienna is an important city, not only because it is the seat of the OSCE, which is so important now during the Ukraine crisis, and because negotiations on Iran are being held here, but also because it is the capital of one of our most reliable partners in Europe, with whom we coordinate our positions extremely closely.

Another visitor will coincide with you in Vienna – Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey is busy with his thinly disguised electioneering, as he was recently in Cologne. And he’s thereby provoking the Turkish community and his hosts, even though he was warned not to. Will the EU have to get used to dealing with an increasingly inconsiderate partner in Ankara?

I am sure you will understand that a German Foreign Minister is not at liberty to comment on the visit of a Turkish Prime Minister to Austria.

But I can say that Mr Erdogan’s recent visit to Cologne was also heatedly discussed in Germany. At the time I said that Mr Erdogan was welcome. Our democracies can withstand even contentious debates. But we would also like him to find words that foster good relations between Germans and Turks.

Here in Vienna, we don’t have the impression that the EU’s previous attempts to steer Erdogan away from his autistic and autocratic course – as measured by Western standards – were crowned with success. What are you expecting of your meeting with his Foreign Minister in Istanbul on Friday?

Turkey isn’t always an easy partner, and some of the recent developments there, for example with regard to the rule of law, cannot be approved of. But that doesn’t alter the fact that Turkey is an extraordinarily important partner for us, being as it is an aspiring economic power, a pivotal energy player and a NATO country in the crisis-stricken Near and Middle East.

After Putin’s annexation of Crimea, the most drastic warnings from any international politician came from you. You spoke of the “most dangerous situation is Europe since 1989”. Where do we stand now, three months on? Has the worst danger been averted? Will the crisis now be confined to civil war in Ukraine?

If we do not manage to overcome the crisis in Ukraine, we risk a new divide in Europe, a quarter of a century after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. We must do everything we can to prevent that. The events of the past few days – the unacceptable shooting down of a military plane near Lugansk and the difficulties Russia and Ukraine are having in reaching agreement on gas supplies – have sadly not made this any easier. I welcome the fact that President Poroshenko is nonetheless sticking to his peace plan. The main thing now is to find ways and means of getting the Russian-Ukrainian border under control.

Foreign Minister Kurz has suggested that Ukraine should adopt a position of military neutrality much like Austria’s, which would also allow it to be embedded economically and culturally into Europe and the EU. We haven’t yet heard much from you about this idea. Could it satisfy Putin’s new aspirations to be a global player and defuse the situation?

We have from the outset supported the Ukrainians’ desire to determine their own future themselves. President Poroshenko has let it be known that he considers closer ties with the European Union to be at the heart of his policies. If you ask me personally, I agree with Sebastian Kurz. Like our American partners, I cannot see Ukraine joining our Western alliance in the foreseeable future.

The hottest crisis is currently unfolding in Iraq. Is there anything the EU can do apart from increase its aid for refugees?

The situation is highly dangerous. The advance of ISIS threatens internal cohesion in Iraq, and it threatens neighbouring countries – and not only because of the increasing flows of refugees. What we have to prevent is another proxy war taking place on Iraqi soil.

The erosion of central government authority in Iraq can only be stopped if Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish interests can be brought together in Baghdad. Iraq must not become a permanent threat to stability in the Near and Middle East. The international community, and the EU, have supported Iraq in many ways over the past years. This international aid was not directed sufficiently towards creating political and economic stability.

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