Opening speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Business Forum of the 2015 Conference of the Heads of German Missions

25.08.2015 - Speech

Cher Monsieur le Ministre, Emmanuel,
Esteemed guests from the German business world,

The Business Forum of the Conference of the Heads of German Missions has become a well‑established tradition. I am delighted to have the opportunity to welcome so many of you once again this year. It is an honour to us that you seek and cultivate this kind of conversation with us.

I am convinced that this kind of exchange between the foreign policy realm and the business world is becoming ever more important. From your perspective this is likely not in spite of, but rather because of the tremendous export strength of the German economy, which once again set new records in foreign markets in the past year. But because exports have increasingly become the backbone of the German economy, not only the success of our foreign policy but also the success of our economy is contingent on the state of the world.

This is precisely why the Business Forum of the Conference of the Heads of German Missions has become such an important institution for us – and, I hope, for you too.

It is important to us because we as diplomats want to understand how and where you as businesspeople currently see challenges and opportunities in the global economy – and because we want to give you the opportunity to hear our colleagues’ first‑hand appraisal of the situation in the regions of the world where you do business.

In this spirit, it is wonderful to see so many of you here again this year. Welcome!


I am especially pleased to have the opportunity to welcome the Minister of the Economy, Industry and the Digital Sector of the French Republic to the Business Forum as our first‑ever French guest of honour. A warm welcome to you, Monsieur le Ministre!

Germany and France stand together before the challenge of making the European model of business and prosperity viable for the future. Europe’s position in the world will only become stronger if Germany and France pursue this goal hand in hand.

Esteemed Minister, you have initiated many things in this regard in France – and have often faced resistance in doing so. I am following your work with great respect. And I know from my own experience that courageous reforms require a great deal of effort.

Cher Emmanuel, je vous remercie encore une fois de votre présence aujourd’hui – c’est un grand honneur pour moi de vous souhaiter la bienvenue à la conférence des ambassadeurs!


Ladies and gentlemen,

The motto of today’s event is “the world in motion”. I personally can confirm first‑hand that the world is in motion – more motion, in fact, than I would like. In terms of crisis management in the Middle East and Ukraine alone, I flew some 340,000 kilometres last year – as far as the distance from the earth to the moon. And I fear that my flights this year will add up to enough kilometres for the trip back from the moon!

My French colleague Laurent Fabius accompanied me on many of these journeys – this Franco‑German solidarity is very important to both of us.

Much of the time, we were on the road dealing with issues related to Ukraine. How are we to deal with the crisis in Ukraine following the annexation of Crimea? Those who were present here last year will recall:

At the last Business Forum, this issue was weighing heavily on the minds of many of you. A year later, the package of measures negotiated in Minsk has provided us with a road map for a political path out of the conflict. This process, as you know, is far from perfect. Progress in implementation is slow and we have also had to endure setbacks. But Minsk is the only path we have. And this course must proceed via the de‑escalate of military conflict to a ceasefire and from there to a political solution to the Ukraine conflict. This is for the good of Ukraine, but it is also in the interest of our relationship with Russia, for sanctions cannot remain the final word. We need to be interested in restoring genuine prospects to relations between Germany and Russia, and certainly not only for the sake of the economy. I hope that Russia will recognise the same interest and will be guided by it in its foreign policy action. I do not underestimate the many difficulties of the situation, but if Russia does this, the Ukraine crisis will remain solvable even in the face of these difficulties.

In any case, if we have learned anything from the last few months in the field of diplomacy, it is that we must adjust to making progress in incremental steps that are often small and pragmatic, with perseverance and patience.

This path is arduous, and our successes are too rarely visible to the public. But they do exist nonetheless, these moments that confirm that we are on the right path and give us a glimmer of hope in a world filled with chaos and strife.

And that brings me to my second point: the agreement with Iran. This agreement shows what we can achieve through diplomacy with perseverance and patience. It is no exaggeration to call this agreement historic. After more than ten years of negotiations, a political solution has been reached for a conflict that had driven the world to the very brink of military confrontation on numerous occasions. What the agreement brings above all is one thing – and in saying this I am contradicting some of the criticism that we have heard from Israel or Saudi Arabia: it brings the region more security, not less. In the long term, it eliminates Tehran’s strivings for a nuclear bomb in a verifiable way. But this is not all that it does. The agreement has also proven that even deep‑rooted, complex conflicts that are shrouded in distrust can be resolved. This means that the agreement also opens up a fresh perspective for new room to manoeuvre within the region. Solutions that only recently seemed impossible – perhaps for Yemen and hopefully for Syria too – have become conceivable.

This is true not only in the region, but also in Iran itself. You have seen who welcomed the conclusion of the agreement most in Iran: young people. It was young people who celebrated and cheered on the streets of Tehran. They see a new future dawning for Iran – an end to the country’s isolation, an end to sanctions and a beginning of new chances to travel, study in the West and much more. These changes will not happen overnight. But we should take advantage of the opportunities that this situation holds.


My dear guests,

The world is in motion.

Borders have long since ceased to impede the flow of goods, capital and information. The global volume of data in the year 2018 is expected to be greater than in all previous Internet‑era years since 1984 combined.

Digitalisation appears to be bringing the world ever closer together, even as the world – in terms of its countless political conflicts – seems at the same time to be falling apart in many places.

It seems to me that this sense of loss of order is also familiar in the business world. Today even the development of a simple app, for example, can call into question entire business models and longstanding investments literally overnight. In the economy, formerly long‑established certainties, processes and rules now appear to be in flux – even in China, where stock market eruptions chip away fiercely at the self-assurance of an economy that is ostensibly limitless in its growth.

While we in the field of foreign policy are seeking solutions to problems in many of the world’s trouble spots, most of your companies are fighting to defend their leading positions in global markets. In both cases there is a danger of easily losing sight of the long‑term challenges that lie beyond the realm of acute crisis management and planning for the next quarter, the future challenges that we must prepare ourselves to face. That is why I would like to take a look at two major developments that will, in my view, be holding all of us in great suspense in the coming years:

The first of these is the issue of migration, and the second is Europe.


There are currently more displaced people worldwide than at any other time in the history of the United Nations. They are fleeing poverty, repression and wars, increasingly civil wars, military conflicts and terrorism, especially in the “arc of crisis” in the Middle East and Africa. Many thousands of them are risking the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.

In most cases they are fleeing from political conflicts – conflicts that also need political solutions. Such solutions will enable refugees to get the thing that most of them want most: to be able to return to a homeland that once again offers them safety and prospects for the future.

This is precisely why Germany is working for political solutions in Libya, Syria and Yemen. It is clear that political approaches to problem solving take time.

There are no simple answers to complex conflicts. Take the example of Libya. In 2011 a military intervention occurred there without sufficient consideration of what the next steps would be. Now we have seen that statehood is being eroded in the region and we realise how difficult it is to rebuild institutions there. The country is deeply divided and we urgently need a new approach for political solutions. We are supporting UN mediator Léon, but we are also doing something of our own. A few weeks ago we invited the four main parties to the conflict from Libya to Berlin. What we had there was a group of people who had never spoken to one another, who had at first even refused to board an aircraft together. After their arrival, we organised a dinner for them – not just anywhere, but on‑board a steamboat on the Spree River. So, on the evening before their political talks, the parties to the conflict sat together on the same boat and talked to each other. The importance of this event should not be overstated, but I believe that only when a foundation has been laid for confidence‑building, can this process continue. This is not peace yet, but perhaps it is the start of something.

Beyond these necessary diplomatic efforts, the question of migration – triggered by crises in our neighbouring regions – remains a task for our generation. And national crisis management, however necessary it may be, will not suffice. That is why the Deputy Chancellor and I have put forward proposals for European responses to these challenges.

It is clear to us that we need European asylum, refugee and migration policy that is founded on solidarity and humanity.

To attain this we need EU‑wide standards, which will ensure that refugees are protected in a humane way when they arrive in Europe.

But we also need a fair distribution of refugees among European countries. We need a binding quota system within Europe.

It is also clear to us that Europe will only be able to protect refugees in a humane way if we swiftly repatriate those asylum seekers who are not entitled to asylum in Europe. For this we need a European understanding about which countries of origin are safe. And I believe that we should agree in Brussels that the EU candidate countries are safe countries of origin.

The current debate makes difficult one thing that I have been urging for a long time and continue to consider the right thing to do: greater management of immigration. The old claim that Germany is not an immigration country was disproved by reality long ago. Today some 20 per cent of the German population has roots abroad.

The changes I hope for do not just mean adapting the debates on immigration to fit reality. They also mean responding to our demographic situation and to the growing shortfalls in our labour market.

I remain convinced that we need a second door into Germany.

I believe that a modern immigration act that opens the door to a set number of qualified immigrants would reduce the pressure on the asylum door – which, in most cases, turns out to be a revolving door.

We are still very far away from such a system, and however much I support this approach, what we need just as much is to make sure that our debate about immigration does not succumb to hysteria and panic in this year in which 600,000 to 800,000 people are arriving in our country.

I am deeply grateful to the many volunteers who are looking after refugees in Germany. We’ve never had so many refugees, but we’ve also never had so many volunteers helping. And I am just as grateful for the dedication of many businesspeople who have rendered outstanding services to the cause of integration and are now helping provide opportunities to refugees in Germany.

Nobody underestimates the difficulties of the current refugee crisis. And there is no doubt that the Federal Government must assist municipalities in coping with the situation. But we must not sacrifice the fundamental openness of our society on the altar of refugee policy. This is something that we owe to our history and to our shared European achievements.


And now I have arrived at the topic of Europe, the major challenge that will remain even after the vote on the package for Greece.

After two world wars and the division of Germany, European unity remains the only convincing answer for organising politics in the heart of Europe. It is the only realistic and legitimate foreign policy framework in which we as Germany can help shape the order of our globally interlinked world. Neither in Minsk nor in Vienna would German diplomacy have yielded the same results without the European framework. Without Europe, even the biggest European country is still just one very small country.

The debate on Greece in recent weeks has left its mark both here and among our European neighbours. This is not just about Athens. We cannot betray our own convictions, but we also must keep sight of the fact that Europe can only succeed together and can only function together.

So what do we mean when we speak of shared European responsibility?

Every country has its interests. We do too. But responsibility – European responsibility in the heart of Europe – means that we cannot measure our strength solely by how adroitly we assert our national interests. Rather, European responsibility also means forging wise European compromises that move us forward together.

If we want to play this role, we also need to be genuinely interested in how our partners are doing. We need to notice the dimensions of the reforms that we are expecting from our neighbours. When we created the Agenda 2010 programme, we were facing a stagnant economy, stagnant wages, an unemployment level that was rising by 300,000 to 500,000 people per year and a budget deficit of more than 4%. I recall the political discord that was unleashed by this correction of undesirable trends in our country.

We did what was necessary, but the pain and consequences that went along with it now seem to have been somewhat forgotten. In any case, this debate altered the political party spectrum in Germany. It firmly established a force of opposition to reform policy, which remains to this day.

To put it another way, I am a bit astonished at how casually we sometimes pass judgment on our European neighbours in public discussions – countries that in some cases have been set back more than a decade in the growth of their prosperity by the crisis and must now begin crawling forward again with great effort. This is true of Spain, it’s true of Portugal and Italy and of course of France.

In Greece, generations of policies and politicians have built up a succession of errors and misguided developments that one single generation now has to make up for.

Wages have fallen by 12% even as prices have risen. It is sometimes difficult for me to understand how the claim that nothing has happened to our neighbouring countries can go unchallenged in public debates in our country. If one looks closer, one sees that a great deal has happened. Also in Italy and France. In Greece it is the case that the changes have to function on a much weaker financial foundation.

This will take endurance – first on the part of the Greeks, but also on the part of Europeans. And this approach will only succeed if the Greek Government accepts reality and acts accordingly. All the more so after the elections!

But this is not only about Greece. Greece compels us to learn the lesson that the current crisis has taught the Eurozone: that there is no way around developing the monetary union further.

We will not be able to develop the future of the Eurozone solely at the regulatory drawing board. The Eurozone will not be made up only of rules: it will always be made up of politics too. And for politics we need shared European safeguards. Three of these are especially important to me here:

First: the euro is an indispensable part of the European project. In recent weeks we have noticed how this project is shaken when one country’s membership in the euro is called into question. We must strengthen the irreversibility of the euro. This means that nobody can be excluded from the euro against their will. Conversely, it also means that we must take precautions – for example, an insolvency code for countries – to ensure that state bankruptcy no longer calls a country’s membership in the monetary union into question.

Second: the eurozone countries have lost full sovereignty over their budgetary and economic policy by joining the shared currency. If we do not want to allow ourselves to be directed by anonymous markets, we must recoup this lost national sovereignty by strengthening European coordination. This also means that we need greater European intervention rights. This will only be politically possible if we are also prepared to consider mechanisms to cushion the blow of economic shocks through joint finances in the Eurozone.

Third: if we are to grant Europe more intervention rights, we urgently need to work on political legitimacy in Brussels. This is about more than just parliamentary control.

We will gain acceptance for these things only if the public feels that all of this is being handled fairly in Europe. It is my view on this matter that each further step of integration is only acceptable if it goes hand‑in‑hand with progress in the joint taxation of cross‑border businesses and in the combatting of tax fraud.


The needed answers to the European crisis will not be found in reactionary debates. We will only find answers if we engage in forward-looking thought and doggedly dismantle the shortcomings that the Eurozone undoubtedly has. Here I am building on and turning to a virtue that Europe has always displayed in the past: that we have learned something from every crisis.

I hope that the thoughts I have shared have tuned you into the day and the first‑time event that you will now witness: a French Minister is opening the Business Forum of the Conference of the Heads of German Missions – and he’s doing so in English to boot!

Emmanuel Macron, the floor is yours!

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