In an interview with the Funke Mediengruppe, Foreign Minister Steinmeier talks about the fight against terrorism and praises Russia’s role in Syria. Published in the Berliner Morgenpost on 27 March 2016 and in the Hamburger Abendblatt and the Thüringer Allgemeine on 29 March 2016.
Mr Steinmeier, do you believe that – following Paris and Brussels – Berlin is the next target for Islamist terrorists?
The horrific attacks in Brussels, Paris, Istanbul, Tunis and many other places in the world show that there’s no absolute security anywhere in the world. Terrorism doesn’t stop at borders, and that includes our own. It targets everyone – without exception – regardless of their origins, of whether they’re young or old, men or women, Christians, Jews or Muslims. Our security authorities are doing a good job and have thwarted attack plans time and again. The fact that Germany hasn’t suffered any attacks so far is possibly also down to good luck. What’s more, we should always remember that communities and religious groups living together peacefully also helps to prevent radicalisation.
Is Europe in the midst of a war?
The terrorists would like to bring their war to our cities and our minds, to force us to adopt a kind of siege mentality in order to force their perverse logic of violence and hate on us. We’d be well‑advised not to play this game, not to give the terrorists that satisfaction. Rather, it’s important now to keep a cool head and get at the masterminds and tackle the root causes of terror as well as to identify their supporters in Europe – with all the means available to us under the rule of law. I believe that cooperation among our services should be part of that.
Can Germany step up its contribution to the fight against terror – also in military terms?
After the attacks in Paris we stepped up our commitment in many spheres: in the fight against extremism and radicalisation in our schools and communities, in the joint action against the IS headquarters in Iraq and Syria, as well as in the field of police cooperation, where the interior minister has announced key improvements. Perhaps the most important blow to IS is the fact that we’ve had a ceasefire in Syria – which is largely holding – for more than four weeks now. Government troops and the opposition – at least for the time being –are not engaged in wearing each other down out but can concentrate their efforts on IS and the breeding ground of terror. And for the first time after five years of war, there’s hope of defusing a conflict which has provided the terrorists with new resources every day.
You’ve just returned from Moscow. What’s your assessment of Russia’s engagement against Islamist terrorism?
I went to Moscow on Tuesday evening, so the horrific images of the terrorist attacks in Brussels were still very fresh in our minds. The bombs at Brussels airport and in the underground brought home to us once more that terror poses a threat to us all and that it can strike anywhere at any time. There are many reasons for Russia’s engagement in Syria. One of them is undoubtedly Moscow’s fear that a radicalised Islam will spread from the Middle East into Russia’s Muslim regions. Let’s not forget that Russia has already been the target of Islamist terror on many occasions. The OSCE, whose Chairmanship we hold this year, is a forum for coordinating further joint steps in the fight against terrorism, also with Russia. This summer, we’re hosting a major anti‑terrorism conference in Berlin where we’ll be focusing on preventing extremism among young people.
Is Russia really helping to foster peace in Syria?
It’s true that Russia is also pursuing its own, quite different, interests in Syria – including securing its own power base in the Middle East and establishing its own zones of influence. However, Russia has no interest in permanent chaos or in the complete destruction of state structures in the Middle East. Precisely for that reason, it’s important that we reached agreement with Russia and with the countries in the region in Vienna and Munich on a road map for ending the hostilities and hammering out a political solution. The ceasefire, humanitarian access, the start of the peace talks in Geneva – none of this would have been possible without the constructive involvement of Russia.
What impact is the refugee crisis having on the fight against terrorism?
We mustn’t lump refugees together with suspected terrorists. So far, most of the attackers have come from within Europe – they grew up here. It’s equally true to say that we have to regain control of Europe’s external borders and that we have to know who’s coming and going. The European Commission’s proposal that Frontex be expanded into a full‑fledged European border management agency and the agreements with Turkey are important elements in this. What’s more, we need better cooperation among our security authorities. The proposals put forward by Interior Minister De Maiziere on improving the exchange of information in Europe, on a more efficient collection and better use of data, are therefore the right ones.
The American presidential candidate Donald Trump is zeroing in on Chancellor Merkel’s refugee policy. What could we expect of a President Trump?
Unfortunately, there are others who share Donald Trump’s views. We’re witnessing a tendency to polarise and shut out the rest of the world on both sides of the Atlantic. And the yearning for simple answers is also increasing both here and there, as is the number of populists willing to provide them. Unfortunately, however, the world is more complicated than that. The refugee issue, including the causes of flight and displacement, highlights this all too clearly. We politicians need to have the courage to say that simple answers are often wrong. We have to argue with self‑confidence and perseverance in favour of the right ones.
Because the Europeans are unable to agree on either effective protection of the external borders or a fair distribution of the refugees, they’re placing themselves at the mercy of the goodwill of Turkey. Can the EU survive in this way?
It’s true that for a long time Europe didn’t react appropriately to the influx of refugees. Many believe that unilateral action at the expense of others is more promising than a European solution. We only managed to find a compromise after difficult negotiations. And, given its geographical location, Turkey is a key country and central partner in this compromise. Like it or not – it’s a fact which any responsible policy has to take into account. Naturally, this agreement is yet to be put to the test. But at least a step has been taken towards more control and containing illegal migration.
Isn’t the price Europe is paying for its agreement with Turkey on refugees far too high?
It’s part of the very nature of compromises and agreements that both sides have to give an inch – and that’s the case with the EU‑Turkey refugee deal. Despite all the justified criticism of domestic developments in Turkey, I believe we should remember that the country has taken in millions of refugees over the last few years, which is an enormous achievement. As for the financial support, it’s not flowing into the Turkish state’s coffers. Rather, it’s being used for concrete projects aimed at providing for the refugees.
Considerably fewer refugees are now coming to Central Europe – because countries in South‑East Europe have closed the Balkan route. Are you secretly grateful to these countries?
The images from Idomeni and conditions in Greece answer your question. Fewer refugees are coming to Central Europe because they’re stranded in Greece. A humanitarian emergency has developed there. Solving our own problems by allowing other European countries to become bogged down in difficulties is not the way to treat our partners. I’m therefore pleased that the decisions made at the last EU summit have enabled us to steer towards a European solution to this untenable situation.
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Horst Seehöfer should know that without the agreements with Turkey and the support of Greece we would now have 100,000 people at the Greek-Macedonian border trying to survive in mud and squalor. In reality, it would have been impossible for anyone to bear looking at these images, especially once epidemics broke out and people started to die. The focus on Europe’s external borders, the agreement with Turkey and the support for Greece are therefore the right way forward.
What do you say to those who believe that the way the Government has dealt with the refugee crisis has boosted the right‑wing populist AfD?
I believe it’s important to be honest with people. Cities and municipalities are facing immense problems due to the large number of refugees and it’s our task to solve them. We’re focusing on that and not on the AfD slogans. By the way, we mustn’t allow the AfD to dictate the political agenda. There’s no doubt that dealing with the refugees is top of the agenda. However, Sigmar Gabriel in particular has made it clear that politicians also have to deal with the other issues which matter to people: from increasing the number of nursery places to fighting youth unemployment and expanding the housing stock.
The interview was conducted by Jochen Gaugele. Reproduced by kind permission of the Funke Mediengruppe.