Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on counter-terrorism and European refugee policy, published in the Hessisch Niedersächsische Allgemeine newspaper (18 January 2016)
Mr Steinmeier, you not only turned 60 a couple of days ago, but you also celebrated another anniversary. Your organ donation to your wife was five years ago. How are you keeping these days?
My wife has been keeping very well since the transplant. Her health has been stable for five years already; she’s working and has no complaints. I haven’t noticed any adverse effects either; the organ donation didn’t weaken me. Since the transplant, we have marked an extra joint birthday every year, glad that we can celebrate so free from worry.
The attacks in Istanbul and other holiday destinations have left many people feeling anxious. Can you, as Foreign Minister, tell us we can still travel to these places without concern?
We handle our travel and security advice very responsibly from day to day. Our intention is not to frighten people but to provide reliable, trustworthy information. We tell people to look carefully at the advice, and most holiday-makers do just that. As far as the attack in Istanbul is concerned, we are very carefully investigating where the attack and the attackers came from. Further pieces of travel advice may flow from that. However, there is currently no reason to warn travellers against travelling to Turkey in general.
In your capacity as the new OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, you have declared your intention to fight terrorism. How is that supposed to work with an OSCE that many see as a toothless paper tiger?
Many OSCE countries feel increasingly threatened by international terrorism, especially countries with their own Muslim populations. That bolsters cohesion and readiness for joint action, in the OSCE as elsewhere. But there won’t be one single decision that will allow us to succeed against terrorism. The crucial thing is to have a comprehensive political approach shared and supported by the entire international community. We have made considerable progress on that score. In Iraq and Syria, however, we won’t be able to combat the terrorism of ISIS without military engagement.
But will that be enough?
No, we also have to fight for the hearts and minds of young people. We can’t do that alone. We need the Muslim world to teach the young people living in those countries that there is no time and place in which religion can justify terrorism. As was made painfully clear to us once again by the attacks in Tunis, Beirut and Istanbul, terrorism recognises no religion and no borders.
After the attacks of New Year’s Eve, the mood in Germany has shifted with regard to refugees. Calls for the borders to be controlled or even closed have been getting louder. Why don’t we do it, when even our liberal Scandinavian neighbours are doing it?
The Scandinavian countries haven’t closed their borders; they are conducting spot checks. Like us, the Scandinavian countries maintain that we cannot close borders as long as people desperately fleeing war and violence need a place of refuge. That said, we do need to take steps at the national and European levels to help ensure that the flow of refugees doesn’t rise back to previous levels after winter. A country like Germany can handle taking in a million refugees in a year, but not every year.
So what needs to be done?
We have agreed on two packages of asylum legislation, tougher criminal law and simplified expulsion and repatriation. We need to protect Europe’s external borders more effectively. And we can’t do without liaison with Turkey, a pivotal country for migration routes, if we are to avoid having thousands of people fleeing to Europe via the Aegean and Greece on a daily basis. In the end, though, the truth is that we won’t get to the heart of the matter unless we combat the causes of flight and defuse wars and conflicts such as those raging in Syria and the Middle East. We are working very hard on that, and I personally am doing all I can.
We do need refugees to be distributed more fairly around Europe as well though. Why is Germany, with all its political and economic clout, not managing to persuade its neighbours to show more solidarity?
What we do on the European stage has to be well thought through. Of course Germany has influence in Europe. We have to use that to persuade our fellow member states. However, Europe is dealing with three crises right now: the economic crisis in the Mediterranean, the question of a possible Brexit, and the refugee issue. Our persuasive work is already under way, but we do need to stay on it, and we do need a long-term distribution mechanism for Europe.
Are you afraid Europe will break apart as a result of these challenges?
I don’t think it will, but I do worry that the process of European integration will stop and not progress any further. Europe today, with all its wonderful achievements, is something that has been taken for granted for generations. We need to relearn how to fight for that Europe. We need to make people see that Europe is not a threat but an asset for all its member states and the only way to guarantee that our 70 years of peace continue.
This interview was conducted by Kai Struthoff and reproduced by kind permission of the Hessisch Niedersächsische Allgemeine newspaper.