Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier on the Ukraine crisis, the solidarity rally for the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Islam as a part of Germany. Published in the Leipziger Volkszeitung, amongst others (15 January 2015).
Minister, Monday evening’s Ukraine meeting with your colleagues from Kyiv, Moscow and Paris bore little fruit. Was it a waste of time and effort?
No one who wants to conduct responsible foreign policy can afford to avoid risk – including the risk that the breakthroughs we hope for fail to come to pass. Moreover the military tension on the ground is unfortunately once again increasing. It is awful that once again a dozen civilians have lost their lives in a rocket attack. That means that the danger this conflict poses to all of Europe has far from passed. Therefore, we will continue to do everything within our power to avoid another relapse to large-scale military confrontation. It’s a painstaking process but there is no alternative.
What is the main difficulty at the moment?
The problem is that, at the same time, we’re talking about the lines of the ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and foreign fighters, access to humanitarian assistance and prisoner exchanges – and all of that in the context of the near-daily deterioration of the situation of people in eastern Ukraine due to the winter. It’s an unbelievably complicated situation. Progress will only take place in small steps but that is exactly what we must strive to achieve.
Is Russia the only one to blame for the standstill or is it Ukraine too?
The fact is that Russia started the conflict with Ukraine by illegally annexing Crimea. But it is also true that we’ll only be able to de‑escalate this conflict if both sides make serious efforts to agree a lasting ceasefire which paves the way for a political settlement. It must be absolutely clear to both sides that the conflict cannot be resolved by military means.
Both yourself and SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel have recently spoken out in no uncertain terms against any harshening of the sanctions against Russia. Can Putin feel safe now?
The point of sanctions can only be to make a party unwilling to negotiate prepared to do so. In my view, sanctions should not aim to cripple a country’s economy. I say that with regard to the current economic problems in Russia, which have been caused less by the sanctions and more by other factors, such as the falling oil price and a general loss of confidence in Russia. However, one thing remains crystal clear: the collapse of Russia’s economy would ultimately mean less, not more security for Europe.
Are Ukrainian President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk pulling in the same direction?
They have very different careers behind them, which have influenced them in different ways, but they’re striving together to secure a better future for their country. Resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine is not the only aspect important to this future. It is up to both of them to set the country on track to getting its economy back on its feet. Fighting corruption and creating reliable administrative and decision-making structures must be made absolute priorities.
Let’s change topic. You were also in Paris last Sunday in order to demonstrate Germany’s solidarity with France. What was your impression?
I was overwhelmed. What we were invited to was a march honouring the victims of terrorism. What we experienced was a self-confident, forward-looking demonstration of French democracy. The events of last week are horrific. But we should take courage from the way France and the representatives of more than 50 nations who were with me on the streets of Paris have responded.
Can the same be said of the demonstrations in front of the Brandenburg Gate on Tuesday evening?
Yes – and I’m very glad that the call to gather there came from Muslim organisations. Germany’s Muslims have made it clear that they will not accept their faith being abused to justify murder and torture.
Do you also agree with the assertion that Islam is a part of Germany?
Anyone who negates this is denying reality. And it’s not only since yesterday that I have been someone who prefers to shape policy based on realities. That’s why I firmly believe that we have ignored our country’s development into a country of immigration for far too long – and along with this, the presence of some four million Muslims who live here on a permanent basis. In 2000 the Red‑Green coalition had already set up a commission on immigration under the leadership of Rita Süßmuth, which presented recommendations for managed immigration. Ten years ago we still lacked parliamentary majorities for this. Since then it has been generally recognised that Germany – and its economy – needs immigration.
In many German cities there have been demonstrations against the Islamophobic Pegida movement, do you welcome them?
I am pleased that all over Germany, tens of thousands of people have made it clear that Pegida does not represent this country. We remain a country that is open to the world, and we are not willing to simply give up what we have spent decades developing, namely our liberties, peaceful coexistence and trust between people from different backgrounds.
Interview conducted by: Joachim Riecker. Reproduced by kind permission of the Leipziger Volkszeitung.