“Not just act as if nothing has happened”

13.04.2015 - Interview

Federal Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier in an interview on the upcoming meeting of the G7 Foreign Minister in Lübeck. Published in the WELT newspaper on 13 April 2015.

Federal Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier in an interview on the upcoming meeting of the G7 Foreign Minister in Lübeck. Published in the WELT newspaper on 13 April 2015.


Mr Steinmeier, does the arson attack on the centre for asylum seekers in Tröglitz cast a shadow on Germany as the host of the G7?

What happened in Tröglitz is a disgrace. We should not be surprised that our partners in the world react with great concern when refugee accommodation in Germany is set on fire, and that they look very closely to see how German society responds to it. I am glad to be able to say that the vast majority of people in our country wholeheartedly rejects xenophobia. Moreover, people are getting involved in many local initiatives to help refugees come to terms with their situation. During the year of our G7 Presidency we will continue to present Germany as a tolerant, globally minded country that is aware of its responsibility. And where better can we do that than in the old Hanseatic town of Lübeck, which, with Thomas Mann, Willy Brandt and Günter Grass, has been home to three Nobel laureates.

Is Germany really embracing its responsibility for refugees?

Throughout the world more than 50 million people are now refugees, more than at any time since the Second World War. In Europe, too, we are feeling the impact of this situation – even though the numbers of those seeking refuge in our countries pale into insignificance compared to the massive numbers of refugees with which Syria’s neighbours, such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, have to cope. We in Europe, in Germany, must not look the other way. Even though we cannot solve the desperate refugee problem, we have an obligation to help alleviate the consequences.

And how?

We are already doing a fair bit. No other country in Europe has taken in as many Syrian refugees as we have. To date more than 100,000 people from Syria have found refuge within our borders. Since 2011 we have provided more than one billion euros for refugees from Syria and to stabilise the neighbouring countries, which are shouldering the heaviest burden. But even more must be done to prevent the deaths of people who keep attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. The aim is not only to provide the millions of refugees with food and water and to give the children a minimum level of education. Above all we need to work to enable people to return to their homes. That is why we are cooperating with others on ways to overcome the civil war in Syria, which is now entering its fifth year.

President Gauck would like to see Germany assume a stronger role in the world, also in a military context. Will the G7 Presidency contribute to this goal?

I believe that in the past year we have proved that foreign policy is capable of more than just two poor extremes – either inconsequential diplomatic waffling or Bundeswehr operations abroad. The toolbox of foreign policy contains a much wider range of instruments.

Which tools do you prefer?

We are using a whole range of them: in the Ukraine crisis, in the fight against Ebola, in the worrying crises in the Middle East and in the nuclear negotiations with Iran. By providing support in the form of weapons and military equipment for Kurdish security forces in the fight against ISIS, we have not even ruled out military options. But the choice of tools must be suitable for resolving the problem concerned. In Lausanne, for example, diplomatic steadfastness and determination paid off. We are well aware of our responsibility to maintain the international order and its rules – and we try to contribute to conflict resolution efforts by drawing on our experience, our ideas and our influence.

Where do you see the limits to Germany’s engagement in the Ukraine crisis?

Germany assumed responsibility in the Ukraine crisis from the outset, with a steady compass and resolute stance. Despite various setbacks, we have continued to work on finding a way to de‑escalate the conflict, beyond condemnation and decisions on sanctions. Even though this initially sparked criticism, there wasn’t really a viable alternative. This conflict could not be resolved by military means, certainly not in Ukraine’s interests. With the Minsk agreements we now have a specific timetable supported by all conflicting parties to defuse the conflict by political means. And indeed, violence levels have fallen considerably in the weeks since the Minsk agreements were adopted.

Do you think the Minsk agreements are sustainable?

The ceasefire agreed in Minsk is largely holding, and the withdrawal of heavy weapons well advanced. Yet violations of the ceasefire still occur. We cannot therefore say yet that the threat is over. The incidents which keep erupting particularly around the airport in Donetsk and in Shyrokyne near Mariupol show that the danger of renewed escalation is not entirely banished. In these places, too, peace must finally be restored. But that is the very reason why we now have to hang in there so that the ceasefire can be established and we can successfully embark on the next stage of implementation of the Minsk agreements.

What do you expect from Russia?

I have invited my colleagues from France, Russia and Ukraine to Villa Borsig in Berlin on Monday to discuss with them where and how we can push the Minsk agreements further forward. We expect both Moscow and Kyiv now to tackle the central issues of the next stage in implementing the Minsk agreements so that we can embark on the political process. They include, for example, preparation of local elections in the areas occupied by separatists, as well as humanitarian access and reconstruction in eastern Ukraine. At the last meeting of the monitoring mechanism set up in Minsk, which was held in Paris, we agreed that task forces should be formed in the trilateral contact group, under OSCE mediation, precisely in order to discuss these difficult questions. We have made a good bit of progress so far, but it is not enough. For this reason, too, it is important that we take the time in Berlin on Monday to share views on the next steps at this critical stage.

Has Germany accepted the fact that Crimea is controlled by Moscow?

The opposite is true. Our position on this issue is crystal clear. The annexation of Crimea was and remains in violation of international law.

Can Russia’s President Putin nonetheless hope that sanctions will be relaxed?

The future of the sanctions is linked to the implementation of the Minsk agreements. This decision stands. So now the ball is in Moscow’s court. We are doing everything in our power to make progress in implementing the Minsk agreements. It is an arduous task, and the situation remains fragile. But it is worth the effort. In this we need the support of Kyiv and particularly of Moscow. Tomorrow the next stage of the implementation programme is on the agenda of the meeting with my colleagues from Kyiv, Paris and Moscow in Berlin. Over the following two days in Lübeck the G7 Foreign Ministers will be very interested in hearing and discussing our views on the current status of the Ukraine conflict.

DIE LINKE (The Left) would like Putin to be present when the G7 Heads of State and Government gather at Schloss Elmau in Upper Bavaria in June ...

It is not in our interests to isolate Russia permanently. But following its violation of international law in annexing Crimea, we could not simply act as if nothing had happened and return to business as usual. The way back to the G8 involves recognition of the unity of Ukraine and the implementation of Russia’s obligations from the Minsk Protocol. However, the current negotiations on the nuclear conflict with Iran and the dramatic, unresolved conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya show that we ourselves ought to have an interest in involving Russia more intensively in the search for solutions.

Do you see a danger that Greece could deviate from the EU’s line in this conflict?

The whole debate about Tsipras’ trip to Moscow is far too nervous and hysterical in my opinion. The Greek Prime Minister is well within his rights to visit Moscow. A generous move by Russia to help bail out the Greeks was, in light of Cypriot experiences, improbable, and given Russia’s current economic situation it has not become any more realistic. The paltry outcome of the Moscow trip will hopefully have helped Greece realise that the country will continue to be highly dependent on Europe. And that this also means striving for understanding with its European neighbours on difficult issues. In the Ukraine conflict we have managed, though sometimes with difficulty, always to maintain our unity of purpose. We will do everything in our power to ensure that this remains so.

Interview conducted by Jochen Gaugele. Reproduced by kind permission of DIE WELT.

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