Europe – why and what next? Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to the Politisches Forum Ruhr

28.10.2015 - Speech

Klaus Engel,
Stephan Holthoff-Pförtner,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here again, back in this packed hall where I have been so many times before, not least because I have to express my respect for you, not just for showing up here again, but also because you have the courage to invite a foreign minister at a time like this. A look at the world and at the crises and conflicts that are occurring at an unprecedented rate and complexity shows you that my talk won‘t exactly be a bundle of laughs. I’m afraid that I don’t have much to offer as regards making this a cheerful and relaxed evening if I talk about the things you asked me to cover.

But I don’t want to alarm you. In fact, I doubt that I need to alarm you. Anyone who watches the evening news or occasionally glances at a newspaper – I’ve heard that the latter still happens – is already worried. I just have to warn you that I will not be able to cover the topics of Europe, refugees and the crises of the world in any sort of depth in 30 minutes, that is, unless we add a “Monologue Night” to the Industry Night taking place here tomorrow. But I really wouldn’t want to put you through that!

I’d like to start with two stories, or rather two encounters that make it easier to understand the breadth and dimension of the challenge currently facing policymakers, not just in Germany, but in Europe as a whole.

I had the first encounter a few months ago in a refugee camp in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. An elderly woman spoke to me. She was living under a few scraps of plastic. She had fled from Syria. Her husband was missing. Two of her sons were fighting in the war against Assad. Her daughter was somewhere in no man’s land, fleeing from the militia. This elderly woman, all alone, had escaped with her life, but definitely not much more...

Now you will be as unsettled as I was when you hear what she said.

“Where is God?” she asked me. Where is God? When such a question is put to me, the Foreign Minister, when such a question is asked in a refugee camp, it translates as “Where is the hope? Has the world forgotten us? Where do we go from here?”

The second encounter I would like to share with you did not take place in the Middle East, but rather here in Germany, in what you might call the Nearer East, in a village in my constituency in Brandenburg, where several dozen refugees arrived within a period of a few days last month. A former factory canteen was organised for them at short notice. Beds were carried in and cupboards were set up. Everything was ready. But then new information was received. They had been expecting unaccompanied refugees, but now they heard that mainly families with children would arrive. What was to be done? The village got to work again. Huge numbers of people donated toys and children’s clothing. In fact, they donated so much that one of the local helpers told me they had run out of shelf space to store the donations.

But this is just one part of the story. The other part is that this helper also told me that many of these supportive villagers were worried. They were wondering how many more refugees would arrive. “Are we the only ones taking on responsibility? And will we really be able to cope if all of the refugees stay here?

Where do we go from here?”

That is the question I hear in Lebanon and in Brandenburg. And I also hear it here in the Ruhr region, where so many people are providing such outstanding support. Universities are offering courses for refugees. Employers are opening their doors to apprentices. In Essen, Bochum and Gelsenkirchen, volunteers are helping in the shelters.

This is fantastic. It deserves respect and gratitude from all of us. But it is equally vital that we take these helpers’ concerns seriously when they ask how things are supposed to continue in the long term.

The discussion on this topic is heated in Germany. If you read the newspapers, you get the impression that we only have two extremes, with one side saying “we can cope, no matter what happens” and the other saying “the boat is full”. But this can’t be the answer! The last thing we need now are simplistic slogans – not to mention ultimatums!

What we need is an honest discussion on realistic answers and the assurance that there is no one right answer, no magic wand that will change the situation overnight.

And this means saying “no” very clearly. No, it is not realistic that we can take in and integrate over a million refugees year after year, despite Germans’ unprecedented willingness to help and the outstanding work by municipalities.

We don’t need slogans or simplifications. We need long-term, sustainable solutions. We need them for ourselves in order to reduce the pressure on Germany and on the municipalities and towns. That’s one side of the coin. But we also need these answers for the people who are now forced to flee their homes, people like the woman I met in Lebanon who stands for other people from the arc of crisis in Libya, Syria and Iraq.

It must be clear, even if some people want to make us believe differently, that we will not manage alone. The key lies in Europe, which brings me to tonight’s topic.

We now need the courage to work more closely together in Europe in safeguarding our external borders, establishing a joint asylum system and sharing burdens fairly.

However, we also need Europe – and this is our foreign policy’s most important task – to tackle the refugee crisis at the source, where war and violence force people to leave their home. We need to tackle the causes, and not the symptoms, of the crisis.

This is why we are doing our utmost to bring about political solutions to the crises in the Middle East and North Africa. This is why we are providing support to the crisis regions’ neighbouring countries. We will only succeed in this if we work together as Europeans.


“Europe – why and what next?”

This is the title you, Dr Engel and Dr Holthoff-Pförtner, gave this evening’s event. It’s a good question, a very valid question.

However, its punctuation is different for the people currently heading for Europe in search of protection. For many of them, Europe is not part of the question – it’s part of the answer!

“What next?” they ask. Where can we flee from deprivation, suffering and violence? To Europe.

And why Europe? Because they hope to find safety, peace and – yes, also – prospects for a better future here.

Safety. Peace. Is that what defines Europe? There is plenty of discussion on this very question, on Europe’s internal state, these days. And in view of the refugee crisis, I think it’s a crucial issue. When the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize three years ago, José Manuel Barroso quoted the great Spinoza.

Spinoza did not regard peace as the “mere absence of war”, but rather as a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for confidence and justice.

This is also true for Europe! The EU does not merely strive for peace among nations. It embodies a vision of freedom and justice, but also of solidarity – solidarity at home and abroad! This notion was often cited in the Greek crisis. It also applies as regards coping with the refugee crisis.


Solidarity at home means we must agree on where and how we receive those seeking protection here on our continent. After all, the right to asylum is not only a core German value – it’s a fundamental European value. All European countries have signed the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. And as all European countries must respond to the current migration movements, I firmly believe that the time has now come to draw up a joint asylum and migration policy – not at some unspecified time in the future, but right now. We need joint procedures, shared standards and fair distribution.

It is unacceptable that not even a handful of countries currently feels obliged to work on the problem. These countries are Italy, Austria – despite the criticism of recent days, one must respect the fact that there are large numbers of refugees in Austria – Germany and Sweden. These four countries are currently really feeling the strain. This goes in particular for the local authorities, which bear the burden on the ground. Things can’t go on this way. Solidarity also means sharing burdens fairly among all member states. We have now started doing this in the EU. That’s a good thing, but it’s not enough. We need a lasting solution so that each country takes on its share of the responsibility.

European solidarity also means that we help the countries that are now reaching their limits. This goes for Italy – but above all, it now goes for Greece.

Solidarity does not just mean support. It also means that we take the joint safeguarding of our external borders seriously. In principle, yes, we have functional institutions. But they were never equipped to cope with the current influx. Frontex does not have nearly enough staff. And we should not only reinforce Frontex – we must also be willing to set up a European border protection agency. As I say that, I can already imagine the news agencies’ headlines: “Steinmeier calls for isolation!” It is not about isolation. It is a matter of control and management.

A reminder: we had a philosophy when we set up the Schengen system. What we always had in mind was that the prerequisite for doing away with Europe’s internal borders was effective protection of its external borders. Everyone was happy to do the first part. But we have to admit that the second part of this responsibility – effective protection of the external borders – has been neglected. It was neglected because no one expected that Europe would suddenly become a key destination for huge numbers of people from other parts of the world. We need to make up for lost time as soon as possible in order to enhance the protection of our external borders. And if there is no other choice because it takes too long to increase staffing levels in the European authorities, then the member states will have to provide the necessary personnel. This is possible if the political will to actually do so exists.

But I have to dash your hopes once again. This may play a part in the solution, but it is not a magic wand that will allow us to halt the flows of refugees to Germany.

We need to look at the entire refugee route from Syria to the Western Balkans because the more difficult the political and humanitarian situation in the country where refugees have initially found protection, the greater the pressure to travel on to Europe.

This is precisely why we are supporting Syria’s neighbouring countries, particularly Lebanon and Jordan. We are helping them so that they too do not collapse, thus creating the next wave of refugees. We need to look at the figures. Lebanon has a total population of around 4.5 million. And it has 1.5 million refugees from Syria. This means there are now more Syrian than Lebanese children in Lebanese schools. And Lebanon is a poor country, which actually does not have enough resources to ensure the survival of its own population. The situation is pretty much the same in Jordan.

Supporting Syria’s neighbouring countries is part of the solution as regards easing the pressure of the refugee flows. And against this backdrop, it is a dramatic development that the aid organisations in the region have had to reduce the daily food rations by 50 percent because the international community was not able to provide the resources. This is a scandal!

I mean – what decision will people in the refugee camps make when they know they will no longer have enough to eat? They will leave the camps.

This is why we rounded up the G7 nations and other important partner countries for a meeting in New York two weeks ago aimed at increasing our support to the international aid organisations. We raised 1.8 billion dollars.

I am telling you this to highlight how much needs to be done on all levels so that even more people do not head for Europe. And we will need to repeat this exercise again in the spring, as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ financial resources will run out again then.

When I talk about the transit countries, one country is of particular importance, namely Turkey. There is one fact that we cannot ignore. Turkey is the key country for migration in Europe. If we do not manage to agree with Turkey on regulations on setting up state control and managing the refugee flows, then we will remain helpless in Europe. We will only be working on the symptoms and not on the causes.

All of this is necessary. But all these things are only the consequences of flight. We will only have a marginal impact on the problem if we do not make a concerted effort to address the reasons why people flee.

In the 90s we talked mainly about people fleeing poverty in Africa. “Economic refugees” some called them. Today it is different. Those from Africa previously labelled as economic refugees today make up less than 20 percent of migrants. Most come from crisis regions, regions they have fled to escape war and violence. And until we can put an end to war and violence, there will be refugee flows!

The war in Syria has now raged for almost 5 years. The killing goes on. More than 11 million people have been displaced. Also in Syria, we are trying to help.

In Aleppo, a city ravaged by heavy fighting, we are supporting the delivery of ambulances, of medical supplies. In northern Syria we are helping with projects to set up water and electricity supplies.

But this will not be enough to tackle the causes of flight. For that, we need political solutions in Syria.

I don’t need to tell you that this is extremely difficult. And Russia’s military engagement has certainly not made it any easier. What is clear is that in the end the conflict in Syria will not be resolved on the battlefield. What we need now is the launch of a political solution which must start by defusing the conflict.

Just now, many have got a piece of advice at the ready: “You need to talk to Assad.” To that I say, why did people not listen to those who said years ago that you need to talk to Assad? I was in Syria a few times in 2005, 2006 and 2007 and told our American friends back then: I think you are wrong to include Syria in the axis of evil. What you are doing is isolating someone rather than solving a problem.

But back then it was not possible for the West to reach agreement on conducting political dialogue with Syria, with a young ruler who did not give the impression that he really wanted to succeed his father. We did not have the strength to do it back then. And today, after five years of civil war? A death toll of 250,000? With the suffering wrought on families who have lost loved ones? The displaced? It has not got any easier to conduct the dialogue with Assad that we neglected to conduct in the past, dialogue with someone who is responsible for the huge death toll in Syria.

Nevertheless, those who want a political solution in Syria must be prepared to talk to all actors playing a role in the region. And as long as Russia and the United States are in conflict about Syria’s future, there will be no solution.

And as long as Saudi Arabia and Iran refuse to sit around one table, there will be no solution.

Many are wondering what Russia actually wants. The obvious answer seems to be that they want to strengthen Assad. But I am worried we are underestimating the Russian strategy here. I believe Russia is pursuing certainly three goals: Firstly, to protect the military facilities it has in Syria, to retain a military port on the Mediterranean. Secondly, to be able to negotiate as equals with the Americans. And thirdly, and this is the long-term goal, to be sure that nothing concerning the future of this region in the Middle East goes past Russia.

If this is the case, then we now have a situation where also the Americans are saying: we cannot get past Russia and we need to attempt coordinated action with the Russians.

Iran and Saudi Arabia pose the bigger problem. Here it is about dominance, hegemony. That is what makes it so difficult for the two countries to reach out to one another. But this is the very reason why it is necessary to bring these two powers closer together.

Just a few days ago, I visited Riyadh and Tehran. I was attending a major security conference in Amman with partners from the region. John Kerry was in Berlin last week and had a series of talks with the Russians, with Arab partners.

I am not here to spread optimism. But for the first time we are in a situation where I would say things are moving and, what is more, they are moving in the right direction. Americans and Russians are trying, are drawing closer, are spanning the divide.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are also endeavouring to reduce their spillover conflicts. And they are obviously prepared to sit down around a table.

That is why the talks in Vienna on Friday are an opportunity. Maybe you don’t think that is all that much. But for a Foreign Minister who has been working for weeks and months even just to get difficult partners to talk on the telephone this is a lot. That is why we have a major opportunity on Friday as for the first time all key players in the region: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, plus the big powers Russia and the United States plus Europe are sitting around a table and for the first time they are going to talk about Syria’s future and a way out of the conflict.

Friday won’t be the big breakthrough. But it is the start of something. And we have enough experience from comparable processes to know that when such a process has been launched, when partners are sitting around a table, it becomes much more difficult to get up and walk away.


In interviews I am frequently asked: Looking at the conflicts in the world, Libya, Ukraine: Does diplomacy actually serve a purpose?

And it is true, in diplomacy there is rarely proof that it is worth not giving up, that it pays to persist. But there is proof! Take the example of Iran. After years of difficult negotiations we were able to sign an agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme.

That shows that in these complex conflicts, we need to stick at it, to persevere. When you realise just how often we were on the brink of a military conflict with Iran, then you realise how valuable it ultimately is to retain strategic patience, to get a result through sheer perseverance.

Or take Ukraine. How often have our European partners told us: “There is just no point. Just stick to sanctions. The rest will sort itself out.”

The problem is that had we taken this advice, the conflict in eastern Ukraine would have spread further southwards. We saw what was going to happen. And we said: There needs to be political pressure. If political pressure is not enough, you have to back it up with economic pressure – of course you do. But at the end of the day we need to go back to the negotiating table. And it did mean that we have had a ceasefire for some nine weeks now which is holding to some degree.

One final example:

Libya. Since the international air strike on Tripoli in 2011, we are witnessing a state that is collapsing, falling apart. A transit country for many African refugees at Europe’s gates.

A few months ago we decided to support the United Nations Chief Negotiator by inviting the main conflicting parties to Berlin. We sent an aeroplane to Tripoli to pick up their negotiators. But they refused to board the same aircraft and demanded a second aeroplane. We said that’s not happening. That was the first test. And hey presto, in they all get. And when they arrived here, they wanted to go to their hotel. But we said, we’ve organised a dinner for you. And not just anywhere, but on a steamboat on the Spree! So they were all stuck on the boat and sailed along the Spree for several hours talking to one another.

It’s a great idea, by the way! If you ever have a row with your colleagues – the Ruhr and Rhine-Herne Canal are just around the corner!


What do we learn from these diplomatic efforts? And what does it mean for Europe?

In the financial crisis, complicated acronyms and spiralling figures to the tune of billions made plain that much was at stake in Europe. But for many people in our country, it all remained at the abstract level. But when it comes to the refugee question, we can see it for ourselves in our train stations and sports halls. People, particularly in Germany, have now perhaps for the first time got very concrete expectations. They want to know whether Europe, after 60 years of European integration, is able to provide answers to the major questions of our time. They want to see that, when faced with crisis, people do not seek refuge by retreating to ostensible national interests. And that solidarity is the order of the day not just when distributing funding but also when sharing the burden.

It is not too late! Europe can provide this proof, that is, if the member states let it. It is not Brussels that is against managing immigration together. Brussels is on our side! It is some member states that are shirking away and failing to shoulder their responsibility. For me, nothing has changed: In the spirit of our motto this evening, we must not allow Europe to be the question. What we need to do is persevere – then Europe will emerge quite simply as the only convincing response to the greatest political question which we are facing here and now.

Thank you very much.

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