Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier on the talks with the new Greek Government on how to deal with the country’s national debt and on the debate over whether weapons should be supplied to Ukraine. Published in the Nürnberger Nachrichten newspaper on 4 February 2015.
Mr Steinmeier, the United States are apparently considering supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons after all. Do you think this is helpful?
For over a year I have been struggling with our partners day in, day out, often for nights on end, to de-escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine. After everything that we have experienced recently I am sure that this conflict cannot be resolved by military means – and at any rate not if we want to maintain Ukraine’s territorial integrity. No one is concealing the fact that we have suffered repeated setbacks in our efforts to de-escalate the situation, which is extremely dangerous even now. But hoping that more weapons will help de-escalate the conflict entirely disregards the reality on the ground in eastern Ukraine. In the worst-case scenario it would further prolong the already very violent conflict. And by the way, many in the US share this opinion.
Do you think it is still possible to salvage the Minsk agreements?
There is no reason to renounce the commitments, which all the parties to the conflict – not only Ukraine and Russia but also the separatists – have signed up to in black and white. Having a solid basis which both sides can refer to is absolutely key so that there is some kind of framework to act upon, especially in conflicts as complex as that in eastern Ukraine. I think it would be negligent to now carelessly throw overboard what we have agreed simply because the process of implementing it is not going to plan.
Is Europe slipping into a new, big war?
With the conflict over eastern Ukraine, the question of war and peace has indeed returned to the European continent. People are afraid, and this fear is understandable given the images which reach us daily from eastern Ukraine. That is exactly why we must act sensibly and think beyond the immediate future when negotiating. I also consider it our duty to do everything within our power to stop this conflict from spiralling completely out of control. That is our only chance of resolving the Ukraine conflict by diplomatic means, something which above all the people in the Donbas desperately want.
The new Greek Finance Minister Varoufakis used the analogy of Greece as a drug addict – one that’s always waiting for more drugs, i.e. loans. He said that this needed to stop. Do you think that this announcement is credible?
Greece has voted, the Prime Minister and the new Government have a majority in Parliament and as democrats, that’s something which we must fully respect. Were the Greek Government to avoid accumulating new mountains of debt this certainly would not contradict European expectations. But the election campaign is now over and bold announcements and solutions don’t count any more. What is needed now is the courage to face reality and the willingness to consider serious, robust proposals which hold water. I’m unable to comment on every new proposal put forward on a daily basis by individual representatives of the new majority. What is important now is for us to hear a proposal which the whole Government supports and which lays out how to move forward. That is when the serious discussions can start.
Athens has, at least verbally, thrown the Troika out of the country. Today Prime Minister Tsipras is meeting EU Commission President Juncker in Brussels. What do you think will come out of their talks?
Everyone in Europe has been working for years to get Greece out of this quagmire. It seems to me that an early visit to Brussels gives Alexis Tsipras the chance to put a stop to his harsh rhetoric and to start working constructively. Anything else would harm not only the Greeks themselves but also the European project. And there are many good reasons for Greece to remain firmly anchored at the heart of Europe. That remains my objective. I myself had a face-to-face discussion with my new counterpart from Athens last week. It is important that Europe adopt a united stance in foreign policy matters – that doesn’t only apply to the Ukraine crisis.
Varoufakis made the remarkable assertion that Greece won’t need any further loans until May. Do you view that as a sign of de-escalation or as a naive misinterpretation of the situation?
I’m looking forward to hearing whether this claim is backed up by serious ideas on how to make it work. A misinterpretation of the scope for action could threaten the ultimate goal which unites us, namely maintaining and strengthening the eurozone with all its members.
Does that mean that you consider the Greek’s key demand of a debt haircut unrealistic?
The Greek Government itself seems to disagree on what it’s demanding. And I’m also not sure whether the Greek business community is aware of the consequences of a debt haircut. It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw a few improvements and corrections added to Greece’s expectations.
But does Greece not still urgently need a new, stronger boost to growth in order for it to find its way out of excessive debt?
Yes, maintaining a sustainable budget is all well and good, but boosting growth through reforms and well-placed investment is equally important. The new European Commission has been working full throttle on this. The Greek Government can and indeed must make use of the ‘Juncker programme’ which is set to facilitate over 300 billion euros of investment. At the same time the fight against corruption, administrative efficiency and a tax system which covers everyone, including the rich, are at the top of the Greek Government’s agenda. Such reforms are not only a pre-requisite for foreign investment, they are absolutely necessary if the country’s social imbalances are to be overcome.
Are you afraid that if too many concessions are made for the Greeks it will have a contagious effect?
We can’t apply the same criteria to all countries; Greece is not going to set a precedent. In other places the situation is very different from that in Greece – Portugal has made a great deal of progress, in Italy the labour market reforms are jumping over the final parliamentary hurdles. Spain has seen its banking sector stabilise and is once again experiencing growth. People need to feel the effects of these improvements. Europe’s economy is not yet out of the woods but we shouldn’t speak as if all of southern Europe were refusing reform.
Interview conducted by Katharina Tontsch and Armin Jelenik. Reproduced by kind permission of the Nürnberger Nachrichten.