Interview given by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on cooperation with the new Greek Government, the conflict in Ukraine and the impact of the Pegida movement on Germany’s image in the world. Published in the Rheinische Post newspaper on 27 January 2015.
How do you view the future of German-Greek relations following the election victory of Tsipras?
Naturally we will offer our cooperation to the new Greek Government. We share common goals: strengthening the single currency and promoting growth all over Europe in order to finally bring down the high levels of unemployment, especially in the South.
Will you fight to keep Greece in the euro?
We want to keep our monetary union together. Greece has already done a great deal for this in recent years. The new Government will also have to live up to this responsibility and that involves honouring agreements which have been made. By the same token, Greece can rely on its European partners.
Would it be a good thing for the Greeks to save less? Are there other ways of helping the Greeks?
Europe’s answer to their economic plight is certainly not exclusively or even first and foremost to save. We all agree that in the long run, growth will only be created by genuine structural reforms which boost innovation and competitiveness. Such reforms are starting to pay off in Greece now. Growth in Greece has picked up more than anywhere else in Europe. What we need now is for the positive effects to be felt by the public, too. Moreover we have launched a European Innovation Offensive worth billions of euros. Sensible budgetary policy remains one of the pillars of this strategy.
How quickly can the sanctions be lifted if Putin stops the separatists in eastern Ukraine?
Now is not the time to be discussing lifting the sanctions. We are seeing another surge in violent confrontations, which are clearly being instigated primarily by the separatists. If it transpires that Russia has been supporting this then that is clearly no reason to reduce the sanctions. Yet we must not allow ourselves to succumb to the illusion that we can resolve this conflict with sanctions. Even if my and the public’s patience is running out, we will not be able to avoid seeking ways out together with the parties to the conflict and bringing them to the negotiating table.
Is it not time for Russia to close its border, put an end to the deliveries of weapons and ammunition and withdraw its “military advisors”?
That is all part of the Minsk Protocol and was also agreed to by Russia, at least in principle. At the Berlin negotiations last week we were trying to agree on an operative step-by-step plan. It would still be wise to start by identifying a line of disengagement, pulling heavy weapons out of that area and sending international observers into the buffer zone. This could be used as a mechanism to bring some calm to the fighting, which could then pave the way to a robust ceasefire.
Given the fighting, a free-trade area from Vladivostok to Lisbon sounds like an idea from another world. Would it be any more than a fool’s errand?
First of all it is a proposal that President Putin made himself in his much regarded speech to the German Bundestag in 2001. At the time both the West and East viewed it as a possible long-term plan. More than a decade of history has elapsed since then and unfortunately relations have not improved. Nevertheless we should not cast aside such hopes once and for all, and neither should we view them as a gift to Russia. If we manage to resolve the Ukraine crisis then it is also in our interest to develop instruments over time which bring more stability to relations between Russia and the European Union. That could come in the form of an economic partnership which ultimately brings economic benefits to both sides.
You travel around a lot, how do you feel when people ask you about Pegida?
I think that in Germany we have not really realised how much Pegida has already damaged us abroad. We are caught up in what is going on here and are occupied with the phenomenon and its frontmen, but barely anyone has noticed that abroad, many people are following the events in our country with dismay and real concern. We should know that beyond our borders xenophobic and racist slogans continue to meet with the utmost sensitivity and vigilance. Thank goodness I am able point out that Pegida demonstrations in Dresden do not represent our country and that in fact in many places and cities, the great majority of people have mobilised themselves to say: Germany is and remains a country open to the world.
Your party is at odds over how to deal with Pegida: if it were up to you in a personal capacity, would you seek out dialogue with members of Pegida?
I may well have unwittingly been doing so for a long time. I speak to citizens on a daily basis, above all in my constituency in Land Brandenburg and I therefore know the concerns they have and the hardships they suffer. It annoys me that Pegida frontmen justify all the rubbish that they are spouting by claiming that no one listens to their concerns. It is natural that in a big country such as Germany there are some who are anxious or dissatisfied. But discussions with the frontmen of Pegida are something that neither I nor they need.
Given the popularity of Pegida and the anti‑Europe AfD party, as well as their cooperation, is there a risk of a German Front National being formed?
It is quite possible that leading AfD and Pegida members are trying to organise a collective movement against Europe, against social and religious diversity and against our country’s openness to the world. I doubt that these attempts will see the kind of results here in Germany that they have had in France.
Your coalition partner is discussing whether or not Islam is part of Germany.
It is quite simply a fact that after decades of immigration from Muslim countries, above all from Turkey, Islam has become a part of daily life in Germany.
What message should we take from the fact that no incumbent representative of the Government, but rather Christian Wulff, who coined the phrase “Islam is a part of Germany”, was sent to the funeral service in Riyadh?
The two things have nothing to do with one another. What is important is that our country is adequately represented. Since the Federal President was unable to attend it is customary to send a former head of state, we are not the only ones to follow this practice.
Interview conducted by Gregor Mayntz. Reproduced by kind permission of the Rheinische Post.