Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier hopes that the attendees at the Munich Security Conference have realised that “five more years of civil war in Syria is not an option”. Interview published in the Rhein Zeitung (12 February 2016).
Which countries have you visited in the past four weeks in these times of crisis?
The year certainly got off to anything but a peaceful start, I regret to say. And we in Germany have also come to realise that there is no such thing as a distant conflict, including in the Middle East and in Syria.
This is why I recently travelled to Iran and Saudi Arabia, and previously to Turkey – three countries that are playing a pivotal role in events in the Middle East and which we need in order, after five years of civil war, to bring about a peaceful future for Syria in which people no longer have to die every day.
How does the world see Germany? Certain circles claim that we are no longer being understood.
This is often a prevarication by those who do not want there to be any serious debate on the causes of refugee flows. We Germans should not complain about being seen as a source of hope, and also as a haven of democracy, in the eyes of many people around the world. This was something that no one was able to predict 70 years ago at the end of the Second World War and is nothing that we should take for granted.
However, it is also true, of course, that we cannot take in one million refugees every year. Their number must go down considerably in 2016. In order to achieve this, we must do everything within our power at national and international level – and without surrendering our European values in the process.
But we also have to realise that we will only be treating the symptoms if we do not tackle the causes of flight, which are primarily war and violence in the Middle East at the present time.
So Germany is not a burden to the EU with its de facto open borders?
No country in Europe reaps such great benefits from open borders as Germany. We depend on the export of goods and wares produced here. Those who think that closing borders is a way out of the crisis would be in for a rude awakening.
After all, closing borders goes hand in hand with economic decline and job losses. The solution is therefore, unfortunately, more complex. There is no one button out there waiting to be pressed – and then the discussion about migration would be over tomorrow. This button does not exist, not in Germany, not in Bavaria, and even not in Wildbad Kreuth. We must make it clear to the people that we need a whole raft of decisions at national and European level.
In this context, we rely on important countries of transit such as Turkey to cooperate and keep to the obligations that they entered into with their European neighbours.
Your travel diplomacy suggests that you would hold talks even with the devil himself in order to stand a chance of ending the war in Syria. Are you approaching the talks at the Munich Security Conference with a measure of confidence?
I am indeed often advised by others to avoid talking to certain difficult partners.
It would certainly be more convenient to maintain contact only with those who share our values. If, however, we had refused to talk to Iran, where there are executions and the death penalty, for twelve years, then the country would probably have the atomic bomb today.
In foreign policy, you have to speak especially to those countries that are difficult and with whom there are conflicts. This does not mean that we just sweep our differences under the carpet. But we need these countries in particular in order to solve the Syrian conflict. While there is no reason to be optimistic, we have, at the very least, brought all the most important partners to the table in Munich, all of whom have hopefully realised that five more years of civil war is not an option. We have a political responsibility and a moral duty to finally put an end to the suffering after the death of 300,000 people.
Is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan one of the difficult partners?
The situation in Turkey is indeed difficult. We are also using our talks to call for a return to the path of dialogue with the Kurds in the country.
We did this most recently at the German-Turkish intergovernmental consultations in Berlin.
But we need Turkey in order to resolve the conflict in Syria and on the question of migration, an area in which the country plays a key role.
How contradictory are the calls for Turkey to open its borders to refugees from Aleppo but for it to close its borders to the EU?
That is not a contradiction. We are working to encourage Turkey to improve conditions for Syrian refugees and, by the same token, to encourage the EU to taken in quotas.
What threat potential does this mean Turkey has?
It is in Turkey’s own interests to improve relations with Europe. This is demonstrated, after all, by the fact that Turkey wishes to enter into negotiations on further chapters in the accession process. The rule of law chapter is part of this. I am therefore convinced that Turkey has a strong interest in ensuring that migration flows do not remain the only topic of discussion with the EU in the long term.
Calls are being made to strengthen the protection of the EU’s external borders. The focus is on Greece with its 3,074 islands. Can this be done?
Some of our discussions are a lot of hot air and lead nowhere. We must finally start investing in border protection. It goes without saying that we will not be able to put a ring around every single island. But there are ways to improve the protection of external borders in the Aegean between Greece and Turkey with the border protection agency Frontex. Germany will do its part – with personnel, financial support and its own ships. Greek-bashing will not get us anywhere at any rate. The aim must not be isolation at our neighbours’ expense. What we need is a return to orderly conditions on the borders and a functioning system for registering the refugees.
How can protection be improved when thousands of people are running into danger at sea?
It goes without saying that we must save human lives. However, Turkey must combat people smugglers and human trafficking more effectively in order to ensure that people do not embark on this perilous journey in the first place.
This interview was conducted by Christian Lindner and Ursula Samary. Reproduced by kind permission of the Rhein Zeitung.