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"The external borders have to function"

06.11.2015 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the refugee crisis, the situation in Syria and relations with Russia in an interview with the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” published on 6 November 2015.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the refugee crisis, the situation in Syria and relations with Russia in an interview with the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” published on 6 November 2015.

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Turkey is playing a key role in the refugee crisis. Are you among those concerned that the country’s authoritarian tendencies will become even more pronounced in the wake of the clear election victory for the AKP?

Firstly, we observed that the election result went, to our surprise, indisputably in favour of the AKP, and by extension in favour of President Erdoğan. The opinion polls painted a different picture. The absolute majority for the AKP also entails a great amount of responsibility for the new Government. We should be realistic. While it would be desirable for the conflicts and tensions of recent months, which have put the country to the test, to just disappear, it is simply not very realistic. In spite of this, I hope that President Erdoğan will, from this strong position, now send a clear signal that he is seized of the need to overcome the country’s polarisation and get the peace process with the Kurds back on track. This is also important for stability in the region.

What do Germany and the EU expect from Turkey in the refugee crisis?

Turkey is and remains a key country for immigration to Europe. It lies on the route taken by many refugees from Syria and African countries, as well as by people coming from Central Asia. It will therefore be impossible to properly channel and limit the influx of refugees into the EU in the absence of agreements with Turkey. The EU has agreed an action plan with Turkey that we are flanking with a bilateral dialogue on migration. One thing is clear, and that is that we cannot afford to lose any time in implementing these joint projects.

Turkey is demanding concessions. What is your view of Erdoğan’s demands?

It is possible that we have taken it far too much for granted in the EU that Turkey has, for years, taken in and protected more than two million refugees from Syria. Turkey quite rightly expects this to be recognised. This is not just a question of moral support. I appreciate the fact that Turkey expects financial support in return for undertaking to offer Syrian refugees proper assistance in close proximity to their country of origin.

Can the visa requirement for Turkish citizens be relaxed or abolished entirely as Erdoğan demands?

Facilitating foreign travel by liberalising visa regulations may, at any rate, form part of an overall package. This also applies to requests to open new chapters in the accession negotiations with the EU.

This automatically leads to the question as to whether Turkey, with its authoritarian tendencies, is fit for EU accession at all.

Opening new negotiation chapters can help us to readdress questions such as the rule of law and judiciary more intensively with Turkey. This can also be in our interest and, incidentally, also in the interest of those in Turkey who want their country to have closer ties to Europe. However, this does not mean that we will turn a blind eye to any shortcomings that there may be.

It is worth trying to limit the influx of refugees with Turkey’s help. But what happens if this attempt backfires? Will Germany continue to keep its borders open for refugees from around the world under such circumstances?

Germany’s policy is not to throw open all our gates. We have made it clear that we will help those who are in genuine need of our protection. People who have no right to asylum in our country must, on the other hand, leave Germany again. We must, at all costs, take steps to ensure that the EU’s external borders function once again. After all, the solution cannot be to build walls on the borders to Austria or Switzerland. The truth is that there are no simple solutions to this problem. Anyone who tells people the opposite is being dishonest.

What solutions are on the table apart from a possible agreement with Turkey?

We have to tackle various different things simultaneously. At the national level, we have adopted laws to speed up asylum procedures and make repatriation easier. At the European level, we are helping countries along the southern borders to set up reception centres in which all incoming refugees are systematically registered, which is a precondition for any form of regulation and distribution. We urgently need a permanent European quota system. It is not acceptable for Germany, along with a handful of other European countries, to shoulder the lion’s share of the refugee influx alone. And, of course, we need yet more joint standards for asylum regulations that must be complied with by all European member states. The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) already constitutes the embryo of a European asylum authority. We should take bold steps towards integration in this area.

The EU is striving to create a uniform asylum law. Will Germany then have to make concessions in terms of its own extremely generous regulations?

No – the German fundamental right to asylum will remain in place. All EU countries have signed the Geneva Refugee Convention. This has to be the yardstick for a further harmonisation of asylum law, which I expressly support.

Germany’s approach to the refugees is meeting with disapproval in a number of European countries – “moral imperialism” is an often-heard buzzword. Does that mean that Germany is somewhat out on a limb in Europe, and is this making the desired European solidarity more difficult? Will this damage Germany’s important relations with Eastern-Central Europe in the long term?

We will not get anywhere by shouting battle cries and exchanging accusations. I think people have not failed to notice that Germany’s support for refugees and our solidarity with the hardest-hit partner countries is not limited to words of encouragement. On the contrary, we have taken in thousands of refugees and we are supporting the countries and institutions affected by the refugee crisis with personnel and financial and political assistance with our commitment to resolving the conflicts that are a key source of the refugee flows. And this is not to mention the tens of thousands of German volunteers who are working day and night to make refugees’ lives easier once they have arrived in Germany. But no country in the world, not even Germany, can solve the refugee crisis alone. Europe as a whole must step up to the plate. This is why we are committed to a fair distribution of refugees in the EU. And, incidentally, we are by no means alone in taking this view. This is why we Germans must take all the more care to avoid playing the schoolmaster – also because we know that we are currently doing better financially than others and that some things therefore come more easily to us.

The number of refugees is also so high because the EU is unable to control its own external border effectively.

That is unfortunately the case. The idea behind the Schengen area was to dismantle the EU’s internal border controls while bolstering the protection of our external borders. Border controls were dismantled and Europeans were glad about this. The second part of the bargain, on the other hand, was greatly neglected. This must change, and is an aim that is also supported by the agreement to increase the level of funding for the European border protection agency Frontex. But even if we manage to achieve all of this and also reach an agreement with Turkey, we will only be able to resolve the crisis on a durable basis by doing more than just tackling its symptoms. We must intensify our focus on the core problem, which is the conflict in Syria.

Do you hope that the most recent Syria meeting in Vienna will meet with more success that the failed conferences in Geneva?

At the very least, there is – for the very first time – the hope that all partners needed to reach a solution can be convinced of the need to cooperate. Russia and the USA cooperated well in Vienna. Both in Washington and in Moscow, the realisation is dawning that they need each other in Syria, and that Syria cannot be allowed to become the arena for a direct confrontation between superpowers. But it is also good that Iran and Saudi Arabia both sat at the negotiating table together in Vienna – two countries that, after all, respected diplomatic radio silence for many years. Vienna sent a signal that things cannot be allowed to continue as they have been in Syria.

What role should Assad play in the future?

In Vienna, we managed to prevent this controversial question from getting in the way and to focus on other topics. We agreed that Syria should remain a united and secular state. Efforts are being made to achieve local ceasefires and to initiate a constitutional process that will also give rise to a transition council consisting of the existing government and the opposition to date. Syrians in exile, the majority of whom will presumably be opposed to Assad, must also be allowed to take part in elections. This is by no means a guarantee that the fighting will stop in the country. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t have thought such far-reaching agreements possible just a few weeks ago.

Is Russia now a beacon of hope in Syria?

First of all, Russia’s military intervention has made the conflict even more complex. The Russian influence is so great that solutions cannot be found without Russia. We need Russia in order to achieve a political de-escalation of the conflict. But Russia also needs us in order to avoid getting caught up in this Syrian conflict.

What consequences does this assessment have for Germany and the EU’s relations with Russia, which were poisoned by the conflict in Ukraine?

Russia’s annexation of Crimea remains a violation of international law and has not been remedied. However, things have also changed in the Ukrainian conflict. A ceasefire has been in place now for more than ten weeks and is, by and large, being complied with. Progress has also been made with respect to the withdrawal of light and heavy weapons. The local elections in the Donbas, which were scheduled by the separatists and would have jeopardised the entire Minsk process, were called off under pressure from Putin. All our efforts remain heavy-going and we are also behind schedule. But a measure of stabilisation has been achieved.

Has sufficient progress already been made for the sanctions to be gradually lifted, as is being called for by SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel?

I have always said that sanctions are not an end in themselves but must encourage change. Serious work is now being done to implement the Minsk agreements. And if the regional elections in the Donbas take place as agreed in Minsk, then this would bring us a major step forwards. We will work on this at the Normandy meeting in Berlin on Friday. Other serious challenges remain to be faced. What is important now is for both Moscow and Kyiv to press on with the implementation of the Minsk agreements. We will have to see where we stand when sanctions are back on the agenda.

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