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Foreign Minister Steinmeier talks to the newspaper Rheinische Post

08.08.2015 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke to the newspaper Rheinische Post (8 August 2015) about Turkey’s role in the fight against “Islamic State”, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, Europe’s refugee crisis, negotiations between the institutions and the Greek Government, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the situation in eastern Ukraine.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke to the newspaper Rheinische Post (8 August 2015) about Turkey’s role in the fight against “Islamic State”, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, Europe’s refugee crisis, negotiations between the institutions and the Greek Government, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the situation in eastern Ukraine.

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Turkey has officially joined the fight against Islamic State, yet is predominantly bombarding Kurdish units. Has President Erdogan pulled the wool over NATO eyes?

We have always called on Turkey to adopt a clear stance in the fight against Islamist groups in Syria. It is now doing so. The fact that for its part, NATO is showing Turkey solidarity in the fight against terror is logical and right. Nevertheless, it would be fatal for both Turkey and the region if regional conflicts in the Middle East were to derail Turkey’s internal peace process with the Kurds. This cannot be allowed to happen; we have constantly reiterated this to our Turkish counterparts over the past few days. Turkey’s leadership has assured us and our European partners of its will to continue the peace process, yet it expects the PKK to cease all attacks on Turkish security forces.

How can the peace process between Turkey and the Kurds be put back on track? What are your expectations of Ankara now?

We now have to put a stop to this escalation of violence and reprisals. It was the current Turkish Government which broke new ground by cautiously expanding Kurdish rights and initiating talks aimed at ending the long-standing conflict. It is in the interest of all of Turkey – and not only the Kurds – to ensure that this progress is not undone.

Negotiations are the only means of preventing a relapse to violent confrontations reminiscent of the 1990s, which given the current situation of crisis would have unforeseeable consequences for the entire region.

To what extent is Turkey’s new foreign policy course driven by domestic politics?

I don’t want to speculate about motives. The reality is that Turkey held elections at the beginning of June – with an impressively high turnout I might add. Coalition negotiations are currently ongoing and we don’t yet know whether they will be successful and what government will be formed. The first ever election of a Kurdish party to parliament shows that the Kurds’ voice in Turkey’s political scene should be listened to. I think it would be unwise to use administrative and legal loopholes to stifle this voice within the political process.

Doesn’t the Turkish offensive against the Kurds in northern Iraq also alter the basis on which Germany’s Patriot weapons system is deployed in Turkey?

The task of the Bundeswehr present in Kahramanmaraş is to protect the Turkish people and Turkey from the danger of Syrian rocket attacks, that is the precise remit which we are acting under.

Germany’s social security system is not coping with the refugee crisis. What is going wrong?

We are not alone in this, all of Europe is facing this immense challenge for which there are no easy answers. First and foremost, I’m pleased that so many people are volunteering to help the refugees arriving in our country. We have never before seen such civil society engagement in this sphere!

That could still change ...

We will only keep up this great support from the population if we talk openly about the difficulties and act in a credible manner. A problem which affects many people is that it takes too long to process applications. That creates difficulties for towns and communities that take in refugees, and the refugees themselves spend too long living with uncertainty regarding their future. Including the Western Balkans among the safe countries of origin is no silver bullet but it would help to reduce the processing times.

Does Germany need to update its immigration law?

Absolutely – I have been firmly convinced of that for some time now. We have turned a blind eye to reality for too long, we are a country of immigration. We need immigration, and this process should not be left up to chance. We need to take the wheel and to open up a second door by offering legal work permits alongside asylum. That could help alleviate the current pressure on access to asylum. This would also affect people from the Western Balkans. We have made some progress thus far, but we could do better.

Thousands of refugees are waiting on France’s coast in fraught conditions in the hope of crossing the Channel and reaching England: shouldn’t the United Kingdom finally start doing more to resolve this problem?

We cannot survive in Europe without solidarity, and the same goes for taking in refugees. Discussion in Europe must not grind to a standstill with a discourse of “who’s doing more or who’s doing less”. The French and British Governments’ close cooperation with the European Commission on addressing the situation in Calais thus sends an important message. Both countries have an obligation to act here.

Does Europe need a master plan which updates the regulations on the costs, distribution and competences as regards the influx of refugees?

Fairly distributing refugees is a topic which is being hotly debated in Brussels. A first step has been taken by countries accepting more refugees on a voluntary basis, but we cannot allow ourselves to be satisfied with that. The aim of many refugees is to reach Europe in general rather than a specific member state. Thus every member state must take on its due responsibility within Europe. This goes not only for taking in refugees, but also for improving the standard of living in the main countries of origin and transit.

The crisis is flaring up in Greece: stocks have plunged and the head of government lacks majority backing from his own party. Are we on the brink of chaos?

I hope, as does everyone else, that the ongoing negotiations between the institutions and euro bailout fund and the Greek Government will reach a workable conclusion. Ultimately, the eurozone member states have voted in favour of a new rescue package for Greece for it to overcome the crisis. That is in our own best interest, too. We must use all feasible measures to prevent the eurozone from falling apart.

Did Germany’s tough stance within the negotiations on the Greek crisis damage its image vis-à-vis its European partners?

There is no doubt that the negotiations have left their mark. The way the Greek Finance Minister behaved in the discussions provoked irritation and condemnation in Germany. Yet it’s also true that Germany’s role in European negotiation processes is viewed more critically than it was years ago, especially by the Mediterranean countries. We have to take that seriously, especially given that northern Europe is growing increasingly economically stronger than the South – economic differences which have always been present in Europe must not lead to our continent remaining at odds in the long term. In public debate, we will have to make it even clearer that we advocate and work for joint European solutions and that we don’t want to regress to perceiving matters on the basis of national interests. Especially here in Germany, we must not kid ourselves into thinking that it would be easier for us without Europe. Barely anyone is as dependent on Europe regaining its strength as much as we Germans are.

People are dying nearly every day in eastern Ukraine: is this not a de facto failure of the ceasefire?

A year ago we were standing on the edge of an all-out war in Ukraine, a war which would have had devastating consequences for both the country and the whole European continent. The danger of a military escalation has still not passed. Shots are still being fired and people are still dying. Yet one thing stands: the parties to the conflict are talking to one another.

Given the violations we’ve seen, can the Minsk II agreement still serve as a basis for negotiations?

Minsk is and remains the only format which all parties to the conflict have recognised. We don’t have an alternative.

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Interview conducted by Michael Bröcker. Reproduced by kind permission of the Rheinische Post.

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