Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier discusses the refugee crisis in Europe in an interview. Published in the newspaper Passauer Neuer Presse on 18 September 2015.
Question: Hungary is using water canons and tear gas against refugees at the border with Serbia. Not even children are being spared. What has happened to the decisive response from the EU partners?
Fourteen million people are fleeing a brutal civil war in Syria. Some of them – only just over 500,000 – have sought refuge in Europe. We have to treat them in a humane manner and cannot refuse them our protection. It’s clear that simply constructing border fences will not resolve the refugee crisis. It rather shifts the burden of the problem onto other countries. There is no way to avoid coming up with a European response. This means distributing refugees fairly, developing common standards for taking in and recognising refugees, and undertaking joint border management and an effective policy on return.
Question: Next Wednesday, Minister-President of Bavaria and CSU leader Horst Seehofer is due to meet Hungary’s controversial Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. What is your view of the meeting?
Steinmeier: There is no doubt that a lack of communication and isolation are not effective foreign policy tools, and so I have nothing against talks as such. I cannot imagine Mr Seehofer failing to make our expectations of Hungary and our ideas on European solidarity, among other things, clear to Mr Orbán during their meeting.
Question: Ever more refugees view Germany as the country of their dreams – in reality is that more of a blessing or a curse?
If people are attracted to our country then that is something we shouldn’t lament. Nevertheless a great deal of false information is circulating about the possibility of obtaining asylum in Germany and we cannot allow this to continue. One example is the false belief that there is a job in Germany earmarked for every Kosovar, or rumours in the Middle East that Germany wants to bring all refugees to its country in order to compensate for an alleged shortage of workers. That is why the Federal Foreign Office launched an information campaign in August. We are clarifying the facts relating to rumours through traditional media outlets and, above all, via social media. Our goal is to prevent people who are already in a difficult situation undertaking the dangerous journey to flee towards Germany with misguided ideas and expectations.
Question: Europe is deeply divided over the topic of migration. We’re seeing summit after summit but no progress. What has become of the much-acclaimed European spirit?
It’s true that the conference of interior ministers did not achieve an agreement on a fair distribution system. Yet at the same time, since then a clear majority has formed in favour of binding quotas. Now it’s important to convince the countries still blocking the way that we can’t move forward on this point without European solidarity. It’s not acceptable for Germany, Austria, Sweden and Italy to bear the burden alone. That’s not how European solidarity works. And if there’s no other way then we should seriously consider putting to use the instrument of majority voting.
Question: But that solidarity is exactly what we’re still lacking. Now the call is growing louder for sanctions for those who refuse and are unwilling to take in more refugees. What would be wrong with that?
Steinmeier: In principle I don’t think that sanctions are a very good idea in this situation. But I don’t think that our lobbying work is finished yet. Recently, in the case of some countries, hardened positions have been softened. Poland and the Baltic States are now signalling that they will take in refugees. The fact remains that we need fair burden sharing within Europe, that is something that must be resolved at the emergency summit of interior and justice ministers.
Question: Austria’s Federal Chancellor Werner Faymann is not the only one to thinks that the refugee crisis has the potential to divide Europe as a whole. How close to that point are we?
There have been crises in Europe time and again. The refugee crisis is a particularly serious one. But the history of Europe teaches us that we’ll overcome this one, too.
Question: Winter is fast approaching. What can be done to provide refugees with rapid assistance in order to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Europe and in the countries of origin?
Steinmeier: The fact that aid organisations are so underfunded is completely unacceptable. If everyone doesn’t shoulder their part of the responsibility now, the situation – above all in countries most severely affected by the civil war in Syria – will continue to escalate. In October last year we already hosted a conference on refugees in Berlin in order to bolster support for Syria’s neighbouring countries. Germany is the world’s third largest donor of humanitarian assistance to Syria, yet we need much more in order to overcome the acute lack of funding for aid organisations. Therefore within the framework of our G7 Presidency, I have invited the most important partners – including the Arab Gulf states – to assess how we could further replenish our aid.
Question: The war in Syria is one of the main reasons why so many people are fleeing. As for the solution, how can the Gordian knot be cut?
Steinmeier: The nuclear agreement with Iran demonstrated that even seemingly intractable conflicts can be resolved with astute diplomacy and perseverance. At the same time, the agreement opened up a window of opportunity for a fresh attempt to resolve the conflict in Syria. In order for this to happen we have to manage to bring the neighbours Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia as well as Russia, the US and Europe together round a table. Hopefully, the upcoming UN General Assembly will offer the opportunity for this to happen – I’m working on it.
Question: There are calls for Germany to engage militarily in Syria and in the fight against the so-called “Islamic State”.
Steinmeier: Last year we formed a broad international coalition with over 60 countries. We are contributing to its efforts, not least by supporting the Peshmerga in northern Iraq. Yet it is also clear that without political prospects for Syria and Iraq we will not manage to conquer ISIS. Things started moving after the nuclear agreement was concluded with Iran. We need to regain that momentum. All action which is currently focused on uncoordinated military action hinders the launch of the political process which we so desperately need in order to end the civil war in Syria.
Question: The security situation in Afghanistan is escalating dramatically. Is there a risk of even bigger flows of refugees there and in the neighbouring country Pakistan?
Steinmeier: Indeed, ever more refugees are coming to us from both countries. In Afghanistan the security situation naturally plays a role, yet in both countries an increasing lack of prospects for young people is also a factor. For me, above all with regard to Afghanistan, that means that we shouldn’t let up in our efforts to stabilise these countries. At the same time, within the framework of our information campaigns, we are making it clear in both Afghanistan and Pakistan that only people with a genuine claim to asylum have a prospect of staying in Germany.
Question: The German Government wants to better equip countries such as Tunisia and Iraq for the fight against the terrorism of IS. Doesn’t that ultimately create yet more problems?
Steinmeier: The current refugee crisis is clearly demonstrating to us that we have to make genuine efforts to combat the causes of flight and migration. To do so we also need to strengthen regional partners to enable them to deal with crises. To this end, we have earmarked 100 million euros in the upcoming year for projects in Tunisia, Iraq and Mali amongst others. In this regard it’s important to cover the whole range of crisis management tools, from cooperation with civilian experts, the police and border authorities to border protection equipment. Border protection measures are especially key for Tunisia in light of past terrorist attacks.
Question: In Ukraine it seems that most weapons have fallen silent. Is that a sign of hope?
Steinmeier: The experience of the past one and a half years shows us that there can always be setbacks. Thanks to intensive diplomatic efforts the ceasefire has been widely respected for over two weeks now. Building on this, the most recent Foreign Ministers meeting in the Normandy format in Berlin was one of the most constructive to date. However I now expect Russia and Ukraine to implement the measures agreed upon in Berlin – that applies to the final agreement on the withdrawal of weapons as much as it does to progress in the political process.
Interviewer: Andreas Herholz. Reproduced by kind permission of the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper.