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Refugees: "Germany is taking responsibility"

30.07.2015 - Interview

An interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme, the Turkish-Kurdish peace process and current developments in Syria and Iraq, as well as the situation of refugees in Germany and European refugee policy. Published in the Südwest Presse newspaper on 30 July 2015.

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Have you now managed to convince the Israeli Government that the agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme is rational and effective?

I am firmly convinced that the Vienna agreement is more far-reaching and effective than many experts expected because it actually does close loopholes and preclude Iran’s access to nuclear weapons. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself offered a most graphic illustration of just how real and grave the threat of an Iranian bomb would be in his speech before the United Nations three years ago. The path to nuclear weapons can only be blocked with the Vienna agreement. Without it, it is highly likely that Iran would continue down this path. My impression is that many Israelis are not so much worried about the nuclear issue. Their feeling that they are under threat is fuelled above all by the fact that hard-liners in Tehran time and again openly call for the destruction of Israel while Hezbollah’s rockets are, at the same time, stationed on Israel’s northern border. It will not be possible to solve these problems overnight with a nuclear agreement. I am convinced, however, that implementing the Vienna agreement is an opportunity for those who are in favour of peaceful relations with their neighbours to prevail in the long term, also in Iran.

The situation in Syria and Iraq is worrying. Is the peace process between the Turks and the Kurds currently going to rack and ruin?

There is no doubt that Turkey is in a difficult situation. After the suicide attack in Suruc, it is clear that ISIS also constitutes a threat to the Turkish state. We appreciate the fact that Turkey cannot stand idly by and tolerate this. There are, apparently, forces also among the PKK who never fully accepted the non-use of force, and who are now prepared to let the peace process grind to a complete halt. However, it has to be in the Turkish leadership’s interests not to allow the inner-Turkish process of reconciliation to come to a permanent standstill. This requires proportionality in their response to the PKK’s activities.

Germany is getting involved in the fight against ISIS terrorism by supplying weapons to the Peshmerga and training security forces in Iraq. Are these measures still on the table in the light of the developments of recent days and Turkey’s military response?

There is absolutely no reason to call our successful cooperation with the Peshmerga into question. Parts of northern Iraq that fell victim to ISIS’ brutal invasion one year ago are liberated today, and refugees have already returned in some places. Nowhere else in Iraq and Syria has ISIS’ advance been so successfully halted. It is also clear, however, that this progress will only be kept up in the long run if the cancer that is ISIS is driven back and ultimately defeated also elsewhere. It is important for the countries in the region to take the lead and to demonstrate that this is not a conflict between the West and Islam, but about their own fight against terrorism.

How dangerous is the situation for Iraq and its Government? Is there a risk of a conflagration in the Middle East?

Our common aim is to ensure that ISIS does not continue to spread in the region. Only then will there be any prospect for a peaceful solution in Syria. And this is the only way to defuse the ever more heated confrontation between religious communities in the Middle East. At the present, we are observing – not only in Syria and in Iraq, but also from the Gulf to Yemen – that the fatal perception is taking hold that what we are witnessing are not political conflicts that can be resolved politically, but rather an implacable enmity between Shiites and Sunnis. We must find ways to restore trust. After all, the nuclear agreement with Iran shows that compromise and peaceful conflict resolution are possible with persistent diplomacy even in the Middle East.

The attacks on asylum-seekers and homes for refugees – also in Baden-Württemberg – have recently reached a new dimension. Is Germany unable to offer these people sufficient protection?

It is not only tragic, but also shameful when people seeking refuge in our country are made to fear for their lives. Standing up to xenophobia and racism with all our might is a task that we must all face. The clearest signal here is sent by all those who do voluntary work to help refugees settle into their lives here in Germany.

There seems to be little solidarity in Europe, if you take a look at the ongoing dispute in the EU about binding quotas for refugees. Is Germany’s contribution in this regard adequate, or can we do more?

Europe cannot function without solidarity. This especially applies in a situation in which we are confronted with refugee flows of an order of magnitude that we have not yet experienced in our lifetimes. Germany is taking responsibility. We have taken in 125,000 refugees from Syria alone, which is more than any other country in Europe. Nevertheless, it is clear that no one member state can tackle the refugee crisis alone. The introduction of a voluntary quota system is, at any rate, a first step in the right direction. Having said that, we can only get on top of the refugee problem in the long term by addressing the causes of flight and displacement.

Interview conducted by Gunther Hartwig. This interview was reproduced by kind permission of the Südwest Presse newspaper.

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