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“The refugee crisis will continue to occupy us for many more years”

16.08.2015 - Interview

In an interview with the German Sunday newspaper “Bild am Sonntag”, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke about Europe’s refugee policies, the situation in Syria and the latest developments in Turkey and Ukraine. Published in “Bild am Sonntag“ on 16 August 2015

In an interview with the German Sunday newspaper “Bild am Sonntag”, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke about Europe’s refugee policies, the situation in Syria and the latest developments in Turkey and Ukraine. Published in “Bild am Sonntag“ on 16 August 2015.

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Bild am Sonntag: Mr Steinmeier, as foreign minister you go on holiday, and over the course of a completely normal day, ISIS beheads a Croatian hostage, Turkey steps up its offensive against the PKK, fighting breaks out again in Ukraine, the civil war in Syria claims dozens more victims, and thousands more refugees arrive in Europe.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier: It would be an illusion to think you can escape from the havoc in the world even for a few days. You can’t just switch off at the touch of a button. And once again this year, I interrupted my summer holiday twice to attend meetings in Berlin. But it’s still great to get away! I find it very helpful to go hiking in the mountains – it gives me some distance and helps me to recharge my batteries. When you go hiking, all you can think of for a few hours are the next ten steps.

We can expect well over half a million refugees to arrive in Germany this year. Can our country take them all in and provide them with proper accommodation?

There is no doubt that the flows of refugees are one of the greatest tasks of our time. And whether or not we want it, this crisis will continue to occupy us for many more years. There won’t be any quick solutions – and we need to be honest with our own population about that. What makes me particularly happy – and to be honest, also moves me – is that so many people in Germany are willing to do voluntary work to assist, welcome and help refugees to settle in here. We must maintain this openness. Our cities and municipalities are doing good work.

But at the same time, the big picture is that many communities are feeling the strain of the large number of refugees. Thirty to forty per cent of asylum seekers come from countries in the Western Balkans. Things can’t go on this way. The countries of the Western Balkans are on the path to the EU. And this is how we should treat them. These people have no chance of asylum. Their cases need to be decided much faster, and people must actually be repatriated.

Should Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Kosovo be listed as safe countries of origin? And should border controls be reintroduced?

Extending the list of safe countries of origin must not be a taboo, particularly if we want to help those who are genuinely threatened by persecution, war and civil war. Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Kosovo have decided to seek closer ties with the EU, so for that reason alone, they can’t be treated as persecuting countries at the same time. Recognising them as safe countries of origin could help to ease the burden. I don’t see the reintroduction of border controls as a solution.

Four EU countries – Germany, Italy, Austria and Sweden – take in two‑thirds of the refugees in Europe. Is that fair?

Things can’t continue this way. This is not European solidarity. We need distribution quotas in Europe to make things fairer. But the most important thing is to create incentives for people to stay in their home countries and not to flee in the first place. Europe needs to do a lot more in the countries where most of the refugees come from – and not only more business, although that is important too.

How is that supposed to work in Libya or Syria where a terrible civil war has been raging for years?

After years of fierce fighting, there is now a chance that a government of national unity may be established in Libya. If that happened, there would be a state authority once again, and large parts of Libya would no longer be in the grip of organised crime and human smuggling organisations. This would significantly reduce the flow of refugees. And a turning point has now been reached in Syria after five years of civil war and over 200,000 deaths. Assad’s regime has been weakened in military terms. ISIS’ advance is also putting neighbouring countries under pressure. This is another reason why there is now greater willingness to compromise. And the nuclear deal reached in Vienna with Iran is breathing new life into regional diplomacy. The US and Russian foreign ministers met their Gulf state counterparts for the first time to discuss Syria. This isn’t a breakthrough yet, but it’s a new start. We’ve been waiting for that for a long time.

Turkish President Erdoğan is currently stepping up attacks against the Kurdish terrorist organisation, PKK. Is he taking advantage of the fight against ISIS for domestic policy purposes, in other words, to boost his ratings if new elections are held?

The situation is far more complex. I’d like to point out three things. Firstly, Turkey has taken in the highest number of refugees from its neighbouring countries of Iraq and Syria, and is looking after them. Secondly, the civil war in Syria poses a threat to Turkey’s southern regions, which are close to the border, and PKK units have attacked Turkish security forces. Thirdly, Erdoğan’s government has invested a great deal in rapprochement and reconciliation with the Kurds. It cannot allow these bridges to be destroyed or the reconciliation process to collapse. For this reason, yes, we need to take a close look at the situation and to tell Turkey what we expect, but we cannot take the easy way out.

Many Germans are asking themselves if Turkey is still a safe place to go on holiday.

Tens of thousands of Germans are on holiday in Turkey, including members of my staff and friends of mine. The clashes at the borders to Syria and Iraq have not yet had a long‑distance impact on tourism hubs such as Antalya or Bodrum.

Fighting has broken out in Ukraine again. What needs to be done now?

The situation in eastern Ukraine is explosive. That is why in my talks with the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers this week, I suggested that the military wings of the parties to the conflict meet with the OSCE as soon as possible, rather than in two weeks’ time, to discuss how the situation can be de‑escalated and how weapons can be withdrawn. A lot is at stake. If both parties to the conflict do not adhere to the peace process, the military situation could escalate again at any time.

The polls put the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) 19 per cent ahead of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Does the SPD actually need a candidate for chancellor or has the race against Angela Merkel already been lost, as Torsten Albig, Minister-President of Land Schleswig-Holstein, believes?

The SPD will have a candidate for chancellor in the next elections. A party that can look back on a 150‑year history will not concede defeat before the campaign has even started. And if the polls are not satisfactory, then we need to work to improve our ratings and to show that Germany needs a strong social democratic force. The first half of the legislative term has shown just how great this need is. For example, no one else would have had the strength to push through the minimum wage in Germany.

How should the candidate for chancellor be decided – behind closed doors, as in 2013, or by a vote by all party members?

The SPD has experience with allowing its members to decide. SPD chairperson Sigmar Gabriel himself had the courage to put the coalition agreement to a vote by party members. But a vote on a candidate for chancellor would only make sense if several candidates were in the running.

What would be your preferred option for 2017 – Federal President or candidate for chancellor?

In 2017, I will help party chairperson Sigmar Gabriel’s election campaign to make the SPD as strong as possible.

With the aim of replacing Angela Merkel as chancellor?

The SPD won’t give up its aim of leading a government.

Your 20th wedding anniversary is in 2015. Almost exactly five years ago, you donated one of your kidneys to your wife. How are both of you now?

We are now celebrating our fifth birthday since the kidney transplant. We are well, and both of us are glad that we made this decision. It did us both good.

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