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"We need to fight once again for the European project" (interview)

18.01.2016 - Interview

An interview with Foreign Minister Steinmeier about the refugee crisis, the increasing fragmentation in Europe and developments in the Middle East, published in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 16 January 2016.

An interview with Foreign Minister Steinmeier about the refugee crisis, the increasing fragmentation in Europe and developments in the Middle East, published in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 16 January 2016.

Minister, the new year has begun as the old one ended, with unrest around the world, not least in the Middle East, various situations reaching crisis point and, as a result, the ongoing flood of refugees. When things are happening so thick and fast, is strategic foreign policy even an option any more?

Towards the end of last year, we had some hopeful signs that the new year might be better and more peaceful. In relation to Syria, that hope is at risk right now due to the resurgence of the latent conflict between the two most important players in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran. I nonetheless believe that the strategic approach our policy is taking remains the right one. We get involved wherever we have a chance of contributing to solutions and calming crises – even if there is no guarantee of success. We mustn’t overestimate our capabilities, however.

For Germany, one of the consequences of these crises is the continuing influx of refugees. The word in the CDU/CSU is that the numbers should have gone down noticeably by the summer and that a formula will have to be found to distribute the refugees in Europe. Is that a realistic prospect?

The refugee crisis is a European crisis too. After the euro rescue package and the Greek crisis, this is far from the first crisis Europe has been through. However, it seems that we in the European Union are finding it even more difficult to deal with this wave of migration. There is no single decision that would solve all the problems and no one plan that would change the situation overnight. The scope of this migration is just far too great for that right now. We therefore need to ask people to be patient, and we need to continue working on several different fronts simultaneously. That involves, firstly, keeping up our efforts to combat the causes behind these flows of refugees. Secondly, it is clear that we need to reduce the numbers of refugees. Our country can cope with a million refugees in a year, but it can’t keep doing it every year. That’s why we have put forward two packages of asylum legislation. One has been approved by the Bundestag, and the other will be out shortly. Thirdly, we are doing all we can to ensure that the decisions we take in Europe are actually implemented. We have undertaken rapid initial steps, such as swiftly deploying European border guards to assist Greece. Protection of the EU’s external borders is the pivotal issue. We are pushing for agreement to be reached by summertime on the basis of the Commission proposals. Major gaps remain, of course, such as the question of distributing the refugees. We will need to keep up the pressure in that area. Also, much will depend on whether the agreements with Turkey significantly help reduce the flood of refugees.

One essential aspect is Turkey’s pledge to secure the border – but it seems the Turkish Government is not upholding the agreements. Refugee numbers remain high.

The fact is, the number of refugees has shrunk noticeably. We’ve had between 1000 and 3000 per day arriving over the Aegean in recent days. In some months of last year, that was up to 10,000 per day. No doubt the weather is playing a role in that reduction at the moment. That means we need to work with Turkey during the winter months to implement measures that will stop the numbers shooting back up to previous levels in spring. We will be sitting down together at the German-Turkish intergovernmental consultations next week. Turkey has received assurances that the EU will contribute to the cost of accommodating refugees on Turkish territory. Turkey has also undertaken initial steps, intending to give refugees living there access to the labour market. This January, it has also introduced a visa obligation for Syrians entering Turkey through other countries, which is to be extended soon to cover a range of African nationalities. In the end, we rely on this pivotal country on the migratory route toward Europe keeping a better watch on its external borders.

But this is all last October’s news.

What we had in October was a policy agreement by the heads of state and government. That now needs to be implemented. However, I have received no indication that Turkey might not fulfil its pledges.

The Federal Chancellor affirmed the other day that the European common currency and freedom of movement in Europe were directly connected. You can’t have one without the other, she said. Is that a threat to our European partners?

While freedom of movement remains such an unquestionable feature of our lives, nobody can imagine what state we would collapse into if it were once more restricted. It would do much more than impinge on our sense of well-being. I believe the question of how to deal with migration will also determine whether the European integration project advances or regresses. All those refusing to cooperate on essential solutions to the migration issue need to understand that.

That’s exactly what your coalition partner is debating at the moment. Are you concerned by that debate, and do you believe that the CDU/CSU’s conflict is damaging to the Government’s negotiating position in Brussels?

To be honest, the problem is greater than the internal quarrels of the CDU and CSU. We cannot be surprised at such a question, with its obvious challenges for all involved, being the subject of debate and scepticism. Partners, however, can be expected not to demand solutions that are unconstitutional or undermine the rule of law but to focus their debate on instruments we actually have at our disposal. I’m not all that dissatisfied. We have agreed on two packages of legislative measures on asylum and migration, and the same applies to the recently discussed tightening of laws against sex crimes and to cases of simplified deportation.

As well as the euro and refugee crisis, there are renationalisation trends in the EU, such as the Brexit debate in the UK and an anti-European course in Poland.

We need to fight again for the European project, which we took for granted politically for decades, as if progress on integration was simply a given. This is no longer a matter of course. And there are particularly high expectations of us Germans, as we are seen – often very critically – as the driving force in Europe. This means we need to lobby non-stop so that European integration is not perceived as a threat to national interests, but rather as beneficial to all members. This is why I remain firmly convinced that an EU without the UK would not be a better union. And this is why we are trying to reach a compromise with London that does not call the European treaties into question. But this will only be possible if David Cameron and his Government are willing to fight for it at home and to work out a compromise to ensure that the UK remains in the EU.

And how should Berlin deal with Warsaw?

We invested a great deal in relations with our eastern partners in recent years. I personally played a very active role in this. We feel the burden of history to this day. I recognise our responsibility not to question what has been achieved. And a lot has been achieved. Hostility has been replaced by reconciliation, while estrangement has grown into friendship. I had a long meeting with my Polish counterpart here in Berlin shortly after he took up office. I will be in Poland next week for talks. During my meetings, I certainly won’t avoid the questions currently arising with regard to constitutional jurisdiction and media policy. However, it is important to me that we do not relapse into estrangement and mutual recriminations based on our history.

Your fellow Social Democrat Martin Schulz has likened the situation in Poland to a coup and spoken of a Putin-style democracy. Do you share this view?

The EU has made use of its right to launch an enquiry. The European Commission has asked the Polish Government questions. This is the right way forward. As for us, we are seeking direct talks with our Polish partners.

Were you surprised when shortly after the terrorist attack in Istanbul, Ankara said the perpetrator was a Syrian member of the terrorist organisation IS?

The specialists from the Federal Criminal Police Office arrived in Istanbul on Wednesday. With regard to the identity of the perpetrator and the background to the attack, it would be wise for us to wait for the expert assessments by our investigating authorities.

The attack also highlights Turkey’s policy on Syria and its stance on IS. In this regard, is Ankara part of the solution or part of the problem?

Turkey has been hit by several IS attacks, which claimed the lives of 140 people. It has taken in over two million refugees, who themselves fled from the terror waged by IS. It is perfectly obvious that Ankara has an overriding interest in tackling IS. Moreover, Turkey is part of the anti-IS coalition. But of course not only Turkey, but also other countries in the region, have their own national interests when it comes to solving the conflict and the restructuring of the Middle East. For the past five years, we have repeatedly experienced how this does not make it easier to establish peace in Syria.

You are planning another trip to Riyadh and Tehran. An old conflict between the two Gulf states recently escalated. Do you want to mediate?

The number of stakeholders working towards a solution in Syria, which requires support from Riyadh and Tehran, is not huge. We are not mediators, but we also have no reason to refuse to get involved when our relations with the countries of the Middle East are needed. We also have to get involved, as the renewed outbreak of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran must not be allowed to destroy the efforts to resolve the situation in Syria. This must now take priority over all other issues involving these countries.

You are referring to criticism from the opposition – but also from the CDU and CSU – of your plans to attend a cultural festival in Riyadh. What do you see as your critics’ motives?

I understand that questions are being asked. There are shortcomings as regards human rights issues in Saudi Arabia. The country has the death penalty and carries out executions – and this is even more the case in Iran. We are not indifferent to this, and it is not something to which we can turn a blind eye. The question is simply what conclusions we draw from it. If you want to win Brownie points in your own country, then all you need to do is speak into a microphone there! But if you want to have a foreign-policy impact, then you need to look outwards and speak directly with the parties to a conflict – or at least that has been my experience after many years in foreign policy. If I had listened each time to the usual calls not to go on a trip, to break off contact or to refuse to take part in talks, then we would probably have an outright war in Ukraine today and Tehran would be well on its way to building a nuclear bomb by now. At this time in particular, when we have the opportunity to talk with both governments, then we must make use of it.

There are signs of détente from Russia. Putin has even raised the possibility of offering Assad asylum following elections in Syria.

We need Russia, not only because of the power shifts in Syria resulting from Moscow’s military intervention, but also in Europe. The OSCE is the last pan-European institution in which both the West and Russia are still represented. With regard to Ukraine, we did not make as much progress in implementing the Minsk Protocol last year as we wanted. It is good that we are now able to work on the next steps under the conditions of a ceasefire that is largely being upheld.

Is Russia also changing its stance on Syria?

There are visible signs of Russia’s interest in working towards a political settlement in Syria. And there are hints that Moscow is not wedded to the idea of keeping Assad in power at all costs. Russia itself has serious concerns about IS terrorism spreading in the southern part of the country. Putin is also signalling an interest in returning to institutional talks formats with the West. During the last North Atlantic Council meeting, I myself tried to revive the NATO-Russia Council. There was some grumbling, but far more agreement than I had expected. I imagine that we will be able to make an offer fairly soon on returning to talks at ambassadorial level in Brussels.

Interview by Günter Bannas and Majid Sattar. Reproduced by kind permission of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

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