Interview with Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier in the Greek daily Ta Nea. Published on 29 February 2016.
Countries going it alone, referendums, closed borders – that is the reality in the EU only a few days after the decision by the EU Council to wait until the EU-Turkey summit on 7 March. Does the EU still exist?
Without a doubt, there are strong forces pulling the European Union apart. The financial crisis is still far from resolved. What’s more, there’s the forthcoming referendum in Britain and the unchecked flow of hundreds of thousands of people into Europe. Naturally, I’m concerned in the face of this triple crisis. It’ll be even more dangerous if populist, right-wing hatemongers exploit the situation to set fire to Europe’s foundations. That could easily lead to another crisis. We have to fight for Europe! We have to stop pointing the finger of blame at each other. Rather, we should pool our efforts and work together on a European solution to the refugee crisis. This remains the only viable course of action if Europe is to emerge undamaged and strengthened from this crisis.
Austria pointedly excluded Athens from the Vienna conference on the refugee crisis. Some of the countries present at the conference, which adopted measures against Greece, were not members of the EU. Can the EU tolerate such conduct against an EU member state without suffering a serious blow as a union of states?
I’ve always made it clear that uncoordinated national or regional actions only offer a degree of relief at first glance. There can only be sustainable progress if all Europeans are on board. Especially now, the European partners have to remain in very close contact and coordinate their actions. It won’t help anyone if we in the EU start throwing accusations and recriminations at each other. That won’t bring us any closer to resolving the refugee crisis. It will take arduous efforts to repair the damage that has wantonly been done by these actions.
Now that the border to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has been closed, a humanitarian disaster is looming in Greece. Isn’t it the responsibility of the EU to react to prevent a further disaster?
Europe must not resolve its problems at the expense of a member state. In view of the continued large flow of refugees, we will therefore continue to stand by Greece’s side, just as the European Commission is doing everything in its power to help on the ground. In connection with the package we’re currently negotiating with Turkey, we also have to talk at European level about additional personnel and financial support for Greece. At the same time, however, Greece has to fulfil its obligations, for example when it comes to checking and fully registering the refugees. Although Greece has made crucial progress here, much remains to be done.
The NATO operation in the Aegean Sea has begun. Can five Alliance vessels monitor a maritime border stretching hundreds of miles, or is this the start of a larger-scale NATO operation?
This is a reconnaissance and monitoring operation and is intended, first and foremost, to aid the work of the coast guards of both countries and Frontex, so that action can be taken against illegal migration and criminal human trafficking rings. It’s a good sign that Greece and Turkey were also able to agree on this.
Even if all measures – hot spots, Frontex and NATO – can be launched, a Greece with closed borders nevertheless runs the risk of becoming a huge refugee camp for the EU as long as the refugees are not distributed among EU countries. How far advanced are the proposals or concrete plans to distribute refugees directly from Turkey?
We’ve already taken a considerable step forward with the EU Joint Action Plan with Turkey. It’s crucial now that Turkey fulfils its obligations and takes rigorous steps against human smuggling so that the flow of refugees from Turkey into the European Union diminishes. That’s the only way for us to make real progress. We’ll see at the negotiations on 7 March where we stand and what further options we have.
Two crises at the same time are at least one crisis too many for Greece. Can Athens hope for more understanding from Germany with regard to the implementation of the programme?
We Germans understand especially well the additional burden which the influx of refugees has placed on Greece. After all, we’re one of the main host countries. Within the framework of the negotiations with Turkey, we’ll also have to talk about the provision of additional support for Greece at European level. At the same time, however, the continued aim is to kick-start economic growth in Greece once more, thus creating new jobs. It’s therefore essential that Greece remains committed to the reform course. That’s in the interest of the Greek people. For it’s the only way to ensure long-term success.
In contrast to the sovereign debt crisis, Germany and Greece are now pulling in the same direction in the refugee crisis. What impact is this having on bilateral relations, which were greatly damaged during the sovereign debt crisis?
Greeks and Germans are united by a decades-long friendship and partnership within the European Union. I’m in constant contact with my Greek colleague Nikos Kotzias. We Germans and Greeks have built up so much mutual trust that, fortunately, we can talk frankly about everything. That’s not something to take for granted and is of great value, especially in the current crisis facing Europe.