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"We have to defuse the situation in trouble spots"

04.11.2015 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on refugee policy in an interview with the Neue Westfälische newspaper. Other topics discussed include the civil war in Syria, relations with Russia and the Turkish elections. Published on 4 November 2015.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on refugee policy in an interview with the Neue Westfälische newspaper. Other topics discussed include the civil war in Syria, relations with Russia and the Turkish elections. Published on 4 November 2015.

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Minister Steinmeier, the debate about the refugee situation is hotting up. Are we on the right track?

There is no one simple solution. We need to tackle the situation at various levels at the same time, and that’s exactly what we are doing. At the end of October, we adopted a comprehensive legislative package to speed up the asylum procedure and make repatriation easier. At the same time, we need centres where refugees can initially be registered and where a quick decision can be taken on whether they have a chance of remaining in the country. The SPD has submitted what I regard as a good proposal on this, certainly one that could be implemented immediately. At European level we have agreed on the distribution of 160,000 refugees. But here, too, we have a lot of work to do to convince our partners if we are to arrive at a fairer distribution of refugees in Europe overall. We are working with the EU Commission to rapidly set up reception centres on the route from Greece across FYR Macedonia and the Balkans. And of course we need Turkey if we are going to manage the flows of refugees. But all this is just one consequence of symptoms we are operating on.

What does this mean in terms of coping with the situation in the long term?

One thing is certain: if we do not manage to defuse the situation in the trouble spots in Syria and the Middle East, we will not be able to cut the number of refugees in the long term. By agreeing at the G7 Foreign Ministers Meeting to increase aid by an initial 1.8 billion dollars, we ensured continuing care for those who have fled and found shelter in refugee camps in the region. That has helped a little. Today I will be meeting the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and representatives of international aid organisations at the Federal Foreign Office to discuss how we can better organise aid and ensure that sufficient funding is available in future to help the refugees in the region. These are all big and difficult issues, but we have to face up to them.

Have the talks in Vienna given any hope of an early resolution of the civil war in Syria?

Unfortunately the story of the Syrian conflict is one of missed opportunities. In 2005, our call for an end to Syria’s regional isolation failed also in the face of resistance from those who wanted perceived Syria to be part of the axis of evil. Today, 250,000 deaths later, we are back at a point where we are trying hard to get talks moving. But whatever the case, the priority now is to bring an end to the slaughter in Syria at last.

How long might it be till a process of détente in the region is achieved through diplomatic channels?

Even if the road ahead is a long and rocky one, the Vienna conference on Syria gives the first sign of hope that we might find an approach to a political settlement of the conflict. In the declaration we adopted at the Vienna conference last week, for example, we agreed that we want to preserve a united Syria. We also stated that Syria should remain a secular state. No one had expected that beforehand. A process has been outlined, starting with preparations for a transitional government. There will follow a constitutional process ending in elections in which exiled Syrians must also be able to participate. If it were possible to organise local and regional ceasefires in Syria, then at least no more new waves of refugees would be forced over the border.

How do you see the role of the radical Islamist IS?

IS is not a negotiating partner. Quite the reverse: everyone in Vienna agreed that the fight against the IS terrorists must continue.

Does Germany have a special role to play in relation to Russia?

Foreign policy has invariably been successful whenever you reject simple black-and-white categories. We proved that in the Ukraine crisis. Wherever necessary, we exerted economic pressure as well in our response to the illegal annexation of Crimea and Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine. At the same time, we kept the dialogue going, seeking a solution at the negotiating table. In this way, Germany and France helped ensure that the conflict did not turn into a war between two states.

Do we need to lift sanctions in order to normalise relations with Russia, not least in the interests of the business community?

Russia’s economic figures have deteriorated greatly in recent years. There have been large falls in its trading figures with China too. Much of this is due to the weak Russian economy. The end of sanctions wouldn’t automatically improve things. But it is up to Russia to resolve the issue of sanctions by implementing the agreements reached in Minsk. We are heading in the right direction in the Ukraine crisis. The weapons have been silent for two months now. And, following the postponement of the elections in eastern Ukraine, we now have an opportunity to stabilise the ceasefire and ensure the further withdrawal of weapons.

Are we on the threshold of a new phase of German foreign policy, a sort of change through rapprochement, part 2?

The policy of détente towards the Warsaw Pact functioned in the days of the inter-bloc confrontation. You knew what the partners on both sides were about. Today we are living in a world largely without ordered structures. Defusing conflicts is certainly no less demanding, for instance in terms of the numbers of players involved. But the basic idea of overcoming a lack of communication and maintaining ongoing contact, despite clashing views, is still apposite.

So that includes recognising Russia as a world power again?

It doesn’t matter how you want to put it: we need Russia if we are to resolve many crises and conflicts around the world.

How do you assess the outcome of the elections in Turkey?

It is a decision by the Turkish electorate giving Erdogan an absolute majority but not one allowing him to change the constitution. Perhaps the AKP will use its strong position to resume the peace process with the Kurds which had been put on ice. That, certainly, is what we hope, and it would be of huge importance for Turkey.

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Reproduced by kind permission of the Neue Westfälische newspaper.

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