Federal Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier in an interview on coping with refugees in Germany, Europe’s refugee policy and the situation in Syria and Turkey, published on 12 September 2015 in the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung and elsewhere.
Mr Steinmeier, Germany has become a dream destination for refugees. Does that fill you with pride or with concern?
I am overwhelmed by the great willingness to help in our country. We can consider ourselves fortunate that in these times of huge challenges we are seeing so much support from so very many people in Germany. That is something we can be proud of. But the questions for policymakers will come – also from those who are currently helping: Are we the only ones shouldering responsibility? Can we achieve the necessary level of integration?
How many asylum seekers can Germany cope with?
That is not just a question of absolute numbers, it also depends on the level of federal support for the Länder and municipalities. The question is how quickly we are able to teach German to the people coming to us and get them working and earning. One thing is clear: no country can do this single‑handedly, not even Germany. We need European solidarity and more engagement in and for the countries of origin and transit.
When will the government send the clear message that our country can’t take in everyone who wants to come?
In the Balkans we have seen that many people set off to come to us on the basis of false information about Germany’s asylum system and employment opportunities. In this case we ran local information campaigns in the countries of the Western Balkans in order to tackle the problem and were able to correct this view. Our main priority was to make clear that the chances of people from the Western Balkans receiving asylum in Germany are very slim. We are communicating a similar message in other countries where deliberate attempts are being made to attract people to Europe with inaccurate information and false promises. The example of Kosovo shows that the measures have not been ineffective. Migration from there has already fallen considerably.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker concedes: “The European Union is not in a good state.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki‑moon has spoken of a “crisis of solidarity”. Do you share these views?
What is clear is that Europe can only function if all member states assume responsibility and are willing to shoulder their share of the burden. This principle cannot only apply when funding is at stake. Unfortunately, certain countries are currently calling this basic understanding of European solidarity into question. It is good that the European Commission has now published a proposal for the Europe‑wide distribution of refugees. I hope that we will now succeed in distributing the burden fairly.
... according to what criteria?
I believe we need a fair distribution of the refugees based on quotas. To this end the Commission has formulated various criteria which now need to be discussed in detail. These include population size, economic and financial capacity, unemployment levels and the number of asylum requests.
What does your warning that the Mediterranean must not be allowed to become a mass grave mean for the fight against human traffickers?
A comprehensive response to the refugee crisis includes intensifying sea rescue efforts and at the same time destroying the business model of unscrupulous smugglers. The EU must not only be capable of finding out where traffickers’ boats are located in the Mediterranean, but must also be in a position to stop them and bring the criminals to justice. That will then act as a major deterrent. However, in the long term I expect to see a greater impact from the police cooperation between the European countries and the key countries of transit and origin. People everywhere are now aware that crimes involving clandestine immigration networks – alongside trafficking in drugs, weapons and human beings – are just a particularly lucrative branch of organised crime which is becoming increasingly dangerous also for the countries of transit and origin.
The picture of the drowned Syrian boy on the beach moved many people deeply. Has it also had an impact on policy?
I know nobody who failed to be moved by the photo of the dead boy. I have visited refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan and have heard the stories of those who only just survived. Many people lost half of their families as they fled through war zones. Their wives and daughters died, were raped or sold in slave markets. The photo of this boy sums up the whole tragedy of the flight from Syria for Europe’s people. The fact that now more countries are willing to help is, I think, related to the poignancy of such images.
From Syria we hear the disturbing news that Russia is moving soldiers and aircraft to this country ravaged by civil war. Do you know what Putin is up to?
I am following the news of strengthened military engagement in Syria, particularly on the part of Russia, with great concern. I phoned my opposite number Sergey Lavrov in Moscow and asked him for information. He said that Russia, like the West, is concerned about the growing strength of the IS terrorist militia group and will therefore support those who are fighting ISIS. He said this included the Syrian army. I hope that Russia also takes the potential risks into account. I remain convinced that following the successful conclusion of the nuclear negotiations with Iran there is a small window of opportunity in which we could bring together the various players in the region – Syria’s neighbours, including the countries of the Persian Gulf – with Russians, Americans and Europeans in a new attempt to resolve the conflict. Almost five years of civil war, more than a quarter of a million lives lost, 12 million refugees: that gives us all not only a political but also a moral obligation to seize this opportunity, even if there is no guarantee of success.
Is there a danger that Russia will create facts as it did in Ukraine?
I hope that Russia is not counting on the continuation of the civil war in Syria. It must be in Moscow’s own interests to prevent ISIS and other Islamist groups from going from strength to strength. We must not allow a situation to develop which makes a joint approach by the international community impossible. We can no longer have everyone doing their own thing in Syria. Only a joint approach can now bring about a turnaround in Syria.
What is Germany called to do?
We don’t want to overestimate our capabilities, but we will not refuse to respond if we are asked. That is part of the responsibility that I believe a country with the size and stability of Germany has. UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura has proposed plans for embarking on a political transition process in Syria. His plan involves talks in four working groups, supported by an international contact group comprising the most important international and regional players, including Iran. We are supporting de Mistura in this enormous undertaking, both politically through our talks in the region, and also with funds and expertise.
Are you not placing too much hope in Tehran? The spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei immediately refused to enter into negotiations on Syria – and followed that up with a hate speech against Israel.
There is a huge misunderstanding here. The nuclear agreement does not mean that trust in Iran has been established over night. That is why we sought to reach an agreement that can prevent Iran from striving for nuclear weapons lastingly and verifiably, and which is based on control and transparency, not on trust. Whether Iran will now help to defuse the civil war in Syria and to search for solutions remains to be seen. Of course, those who say that the players we need for a peaceful solution have few shared interests are right. But that is not an unusual situation at the beginning of negotiations after such a long civil war in which so many have intervened from outside.
Mr Steinmeier, in your party we are hearing calls for you to stand as a candidate for the office of Federal President if Joachim Gauck decides against a second term. Would you be willing?
I don’t know who is fuelling this debate. I don’t see any grounds or reason for it. We have an excellent Federal President. I would like Joachim Gauck to serve a second term.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier issued the following statement to the Funke media group on the situation in Turkey:
“We owe Turkey our thanks for shouldering the heavy burden of refugee flows from the Middle East over many years.
However, we also view some developments in Turkey with concern. The conflict with the Kurds, which we believed had almost been overcome following the efforts and achievements of the then‑Prime Minister Erdogan, has erupted with full force again and become the dominant political issue in the run‑up to the elections.
We are concerned by the violence which is escalating from week to week. Although I understand the need for an appropriate response to terrorist attacks, I hope that the government in Ankara will seek to defuse the situation and avoid overreacting.
Turkey is a large and important country in our neighbourhood. Successful elections and internal stability in Turkey are in our interests.
All the parties standing for election must have the opportunity to present their political concepts before the upcoming parliamentary elections.”
Reproduced by kind permission of the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung