“Greece now has a historic chance to modernise with gusto”

29.10.2015 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave an interview to the Greek newspaper Ta Nea to coincide with his visit to Athens today (29 October 2015).

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave an interview to the Greek newspaper Ta Nea to coincide with his visit to Athens today (29 October 2015).

You are the first German official to visit Greece under the SYRIZA government. Is your visit also a sign that Alexis Tsipras (or SYRIZA) has changed? Do you think he is coming closer to the Center Left and social democratic forces?

We tried to foster close contacts with Prime Minister Tsipras’s first government from the very outset. I welcomed my counterpart Nikos Kotzias into the fold in Brussels straight after he assumed office, and he has since met me several times in Berlin. It is a matter of course in the best European manner for Berlin and Athens to work together, especially in this really difficult situation where Greece is rightly building on European solidarity. We will naturally continue our cooperation with Greece with the new old government – as part of the EU and bilaterally.

Five years of austerity programmes and yet Greece needed a third bailout programme. What went wrong? Do you believe that an anti‑austerity force (SYRIZA) can really solve Greece’s problems?

We held intensive negotiations at which painful compromises were made, and in the end we all agreed on a comprehensive package of reforms. My advice is to implement these resolutely now and, by the way, for Europe to maintain its support. Greece still needs it.

Reforms of the scale that Greece intends to make will not pay off overnight. Nobody knows that better than us. Our Agenda 2010 reforms in Germany were the cornerstone for halving unemployment, creating new prosperity, restoring our global competitiveness and dynamic growth, but those benefits only became apparent after Chancellor Schröder had lost the next elections. The situation in Greece is much better. Prime Minister Tsipras will not only be able to play the long game as he enacts and implements the reforms with perseverance and drive, secure in the democratic mandate he won at the last elections. He will also have the opportunity to reap the political rewards for those tremendous endeavours himself – as growth, a wealth of new jobs and, at last, great new prospects are created for the people of Greece.

Greece now has a historic chance to modernise with gusto. Now is the time to act. Not tomorrow. The effects will make themselves felt, and are worth all the work, all the effort. That’s what our experience in Germany tells us.

Wolfgang Schäuble argues that Greece doesn΄t need new debt relief. But France, the IMF and the USA are at odds with this view, insisting that Greece needs deft relief. What do you think? Does a new austerity programme alone guarantee any success in the future?

I think it is now very important to work on the basis of the agreements reached. Rescue package funds will be released as soon as the agreed conditions are in place and the reform pledges that Greece made have been implemented.

Solidarity and reform are ultimately two sides of the same coin and are part and parcel of the route out of the crisis chosen by the Greek Government. I think we would be well advised – all of us, on all sides – to refrain from making new demands or formulating new wishes at every fork in the road, when faced with any little difficulty.

What’s important now is to implement the reform package with tenacity and perseverance and for all of us to build trust. Of course the European partners, and above all Germany, will continue to stand by Greece and will stick to the agreements.

The refugee issue is splitting both the EU and the grand coalition in Germany. Have Europe and Angela Merkel done enough to tackle the issue? Are you satisfied with the Greek Government’s handling of the issue?

All of us in Europe are affected by the huge floods of refugees to be expected as a result of the numerous unresolved conflicts and crises in the Near and Middle East. Throughout Europe, but especially along the routes of migration, from Greece via the Balkans and Austria to us in Germany, we face enormous challenges which we will only be able to master together. It is obvious that Greece, which is trying so hard to get back on its feet economically, sees this flood, coming at this time, as a particular burden. We will stand together in this crisis. We will strongly support Greece in coping with the huge challenges it faces. Decisions to this end have already been taken over the past few days in Brussels and Berlin. We will continue in this vein.

It is my firm conviction that these times in particular require us to have the courage to call for more Europe. Only together will we truly be in control of the situation – as regards securing Europe’s external borders, developing a common asylum and migration system and also distributing the refugees fairly between us. This is not an easy time for Europe. But if we go about things wisely, tackling the major tasks together could bring us closer.

There is often the impression – both in the Greek issue and the handling of the Ukraine conflict – that Germany is a reluctant hegemon. Why isn΄t it getting more involved in international issues? How is Germany planning to deal with Russia and Putin in Syria and elsewhere?

It’s odd that you ask that – I’m often accused of precisely the opposite. It is true that Germany is not looking to lead, most definitely not alone or at the cost of others. But nor may we shy away from assuming more responsibility internationally when we are asked to do so. We are on the front lines of some international diplomatic efforts, for example with respect to the Ukraine conflict with Russia, and in the nuclear negotiations with Iran. But we mustn’t overestimate our abilities either. That’s why we have to keep on asking ourselves where is it specifically Germany that is needed? What can we contribute with the means at our disposal? And no matter what the issue, ultimately the only solution is joint action, with our partners in the European Union.

What is – according to you – the state of Greek-German relations today?

Greece is very important to me, as it is to so many Germans. We love your country and your culture, your music and your language. There is so much to do and see in Greece. Many of the historical, political, religious and social roots of our Europe are to be found here. Our continent is inconceivable without Greece.

After a number of difficult years, it is very much in our interest to restore the intimacy to our relations as quickly as possible. German-Greek relations have always been close, and in the last three decades in particular have been characterised by close cooperation in a spirit of partnership. My counterpart Nikos Kotzias and myself have together vowed to clear up the misunderstandings of the past years and to build on the excellent relations of the past decades. In recent months we have worked hard to find common ground on many important issues. We have already come a long way. I hope that we Germans and Greeks will be able to face the future together with confidence. That’s why I attach special importance to setting up a German-Greek Youth Office.

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