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"Strong centrifugal forces are chipping away at Europe’s foundations"

05.07.2015 - Interview

Interview with Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Topics: Greece, Iran’s nuclear programme as well as alleged NSA activities in Germany. Published in the Tagesspiegel newspaper on 5 July 2015.

Mr Steinmeier, are you worried about Europe’s future at the moment?

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t at least sense that we find ourselves in an extraordinary position. Over many decades, Europe wasn’t called into question and now many of the institutions and mechanisms which we built up so painstakingly are being severely tested. Many different factors have come together: the Greek crisis, the unresolved problem of refugees and migrants, as well as the difficult discussions with Britain, which is struggling to define its relationship with the EU. Strong centrifugal forces are chipping away at Europe’s foundations.

Is Europe in the midst of an existential crisis?

I wouldn’t go that far. However, it won’t help if we play down the situation with the usual standard phrases, claiming that Europe has emerged stronger from every crisis. That won’t boost confidence in Europe. We have to honestly say where Europe’s strengths lie. At the same time, however, we cannot ignore its shortcomings. Otherwise, we will be abandoning the field to populists on both left and right who want to do away completely with the European peace project and call that progress.

Isn’t it a damning indictment that the EU is unable to agree on a fair burden‑sharing in the refugee question?

The way in which we master the refugee crisis will also show whether we’re serious about European values. No society, nor Europe, can function without solidarity. The EU Commission recognises the need for a fair distribution within Europe and proposed a quota system. It wasn’t possible to agree on the distribution and binding quotas in the European Council. But we did manage to make a start with 40,000 refugees being distributed on a voluntary basis within the EU.

Is Germany doing enough?

The figures say it all. Four EU countries – Italy, Austria, Sweden and Germany in particular, have taken in two thirds of all refugees. No country has taken in more people from Syria than we have. Nevertheless, it’s clear that we cannot deal with the refugee crisis on our own. In Germany, too, the state and politicians cannot resolve everything. I’m therefore all the more grateful that such a large number of volunteers have shown so much readiness to help refugees get settled in a world which is so alien to them.

How much of a threat are the Greek crisis and the country’s possible exit from the eurozone to the European project?

First and foremost, it would be people in Greece itself who would suffer most. There’s no question that there will be tangible consequences for Europe and Europe’s self‑confidence if we don’t manage to resolve the crisis. That’s why we were always in favour of exploring all possible compromises. We knew that anyone arguing that Greece’s exit form the eurozone would solve all our problems is mistaken. Even if we could cope with the financial and monetary consequences, a Grexit would send a disastrous signal to countries outside the EU. China, India and the US are observing very closely whether we master this crisis or fail to overcome this challenge. In parts of the world, Europe would lose some of its standing and become less credible.

Is the Grexit inevitable if the Greeks vote “no” in Sunday’s referendum?

The Greek Government is perfectly entitled to allow its own population to vote on an issue which concerns the country’s future. However, I don’t believe that this step will be of any benefit at this point in time and under these circumstances. I don’t want to speculate on the consequences if the “no” vote wins. But even if the Greeks vote “no” by a clear majority, Greece will still be a member of the EU on Monday. However, it has to be said that a “no” vote certainly won’t make it easier to find a compromise. On the contrary.

Germany has pledged Greece “humanitarian assistance” should it become insolvent. What preparations have been made for this?

I don’t want to conjure up the possibility of a humanitarian disaster. We want to keep the door open for productive negotiations and to help Greece find a way out of its plight which doesn’t place too great a burden on Europe and the eurozone countries.

Can you still make out what the Greek Government wants?

To be honest, I find that difficult.

So you don’t know what’s going to happen on Monday?

After our recent experiences, I won’t even try to predict what the Greek Government is going to do next. Some people believe there’s some kind of masterplan behind their actions. I don’t believe that’s the case. Rather, I think that the Greek Government has brought the negotiations to an impasse with a mixture of inexperience, ideology and radical rhetoric. Unfortunately, it’s failed to consider what this strategy means for people in Greece.

Do you believe that the developments in Greece pose any geopolitical risks?

If you’re alluding to the fact that the Greek Government is seeking to intensify its relations with Moscow, then I have to say that I take a more relaxed view than some other people. Russia also looks to see if credits are paid back. However, it’s clear that Greece is located in a zone of unrest in the eastern Mediterranean which plays a key role in migration policy or in energy issues. That’s why I said early on that we have to view Greece’s future not only as a financial and monetary issue.

Is it possible to find a durable solution for Greece without a debt haircut?

It’s always forgotten in this debate that there’s already been a debt haircut. Unfortunately, the reforms weren’t tackled with sufficient resolve at that time. That led to a loss of credibility. However, I doubt anyway whether there is any one measure which would guarantee success. When I now read the many views and recommendations in the newspapers from analysts who know exactly what should have been done five years ago in order to consolidate Greece’s public finances, I sometimes think of the satirist Horst Evers’ programme “With hindsight we knew from the outset”.

The Greek crisis has used up a lot of energy. Is too little attention being paid to other disputes, such as Iran’s nuclear programme, as a result?

Considering my own schedule, I can’t really agree with you. I attended the nuclear negotiations in Vienna three times last week, most recently last Thursday, and today I’m flying back to Vienna for a few days for the final round. We have a historic opportunity to resolve this dangerous dispute. An agreement is within reach. We will continue to do everything we can to come to an agreement, even though the final steps will require another extraordinary effort.

Iran is prepared to submit its nuclear industry to international controls, but wants to exclude military facilities from this. Should it be allowed to get its way?

No. We’ll take the greatest care to ensure that we come to an agreement which really does rule out the open or clandestine development of nuclear weapons by Iran. We’ll do so in our own interest, but we also owe it to Iran’s neighbours. That’s why the inspectors must have access to all facilities where there is reason to suspect that nuclear material is being handled.

The Israeli Government has major reservations about an agreement. What do you say in response?

We’re not seeking to reach an agreement at any price. The accord should do more than simply end the dispute on paper, for we want to increase security in the region. While there was no agreement, Iran was able to develop its nuclear capabilities and its stockpiles of fissile material grew at an ever quicker rate. It wasn’t until we agreed on the Joint Plan of Action of November 2013 that this development could be halted. In Lausanne, Iran accepted long‑term and far‑reaching limits for the first time. If we manage to put these key parameters in a comprehensive agreement, then this will mean more security for Iran’s neighbours – including Israel – in the long run.

But the entire region is completely unstable...

It’s for that very reason that an agreement with Iran is so important. A whole series of crises have sprung up in the Middle East during the last few years and hardly any of them have been resolved. Nevertheless, doing nothing is not an option. How often have we heard during the last few years: these endless negotiations, having to accept repeated setbacks, running risks – it’s all to no avail. But nothing can be achieved in foreign policy without perseverance. Shouldering responsibility for peace is always strenuous, always accompanied by doubts and never rewarded with quick successes.

What do you mean by this specifically?

My hope is that the success of the nuclear negotiations will provide impetus for the resolution of other conflicts in the region. I’m thinking here in particular of the civil war in Syria. We urgently need a new attempt to bring the key players around one table with a view to at least curbing the violence on the road towards perhaps creating non‑combat zones. That would provide a small glimmer of hope after all the suffering people in Syria have endured during the last five years.

Germany and the US are pulling in the same direction in the negotiations with Iran. New evidence has now emerged that the NSA not only monitored the Chancellor but also ministers. Should Germany put up with that?

There’s no doubt that we now need a swift investigation and I hope that the Americans will recognise the urgency of this issue and cooperate. I believe we have to be open and honest in our dealings with each other. Given the many crises and conflicts in the world, however, it’s illusory to think that we don’t need to work together with the Americans. Be it in the Middle East, in Syria or Libya, whether it be ISIS or Boko Haram – in a world plagued by crises, we need each other more than ever.

Interview conducted by Stephan Haselberger and Hans Monath. Reproduced by kind permission of the Tagesspiegel.

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