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"Turkey is key country in the refugee crisis"

02.04.2016 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talks in an interview about the controversial EU-Turkey agreement, the refugee issue as well as the hope for peace in Syria. Published in the Heilbronner Stimme on 2 April 2016.

Mr Steinmeier, Turkey’s President Erdogan is brimming with self-confidence. He’s the EU’s most important partner in the refugee crisis. Is the EU critical enough towards him?

Whether some like it or not, Turkey is a key partner when it comes to seeking a solution to the civil war in Syria or tackling the refugee flows. It remains crucial that we cooperate with Turkey to the greatest possible degree in a spirit of partnership. However, that doesn’t mean that we’re avoiding critical issues, nor does it justify the criticism that we’re doing so.

The Greens are talking of Germany’s disastrous dependency on Turkey. Can you understand their concerns?

We may or may not like Turkey being a key country in the refugee crisis. But – due to its geographical location alone – it’s a fact we can’t ignore. The EU-Turkey agreement is based on mutual interests and contains mutual obligations. So if we wanted to talk of dependency, then at least it would be mutual. Just like us, Turkey is keen to engage in cooperation based on partnership and to tackle the refugee flows from Syria.

Within the framework of the agreement, Turkey has undertaken as of Monday to take back most of the refugees who cross the sea from Turkey to Greece. Do you expect this process to work from day one?

I expect all sides to do everything they can to ensure that the agreement is implemented. Naturally, that includes Turkey taking back refugees. It includes Europe complying with the undertakings we gave to Turkey. And it also includes the EU actively helping Greece to deal with the refugee crisis.

The agreement with Turkey provides for the easing of visa requirements and further EU accession talks. Given Erdogan’s conduct, it’s hard to imagine Turkey as an EU member state. Are you sure that the accession talks will lead to membership?

I’m not sure if Turkey itself knows the answer to this question at the moment. Just as with any other states, the accession negotiations with Turkey are an open-ended process. There are conditions which the candidate countries have to fulfil, as well as values and norms which have to be shared and adopted. It’ll become clear in the course of the negotiations whether Turkey can and wants to meet the criteria.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has reported that the conditions in the Greek refugee camps are unacceptable – and describes them as prisons. Can the rest of Europe stand by and do nothing?

We’re anything but inactive. We were on the ground providing humanitarian assistance in close cooperation with UNHCR even before the images started coming out of Idomeni. The German Red Cross is using funding made available by the Federal Foreign Office to provide basic medical care for more than 10,000 refugees in the Idomeni area. We’ve decided in the EU to provide up to 300 million euros for immediate humanitarian relief this year. We also agree with UNHCR that the international humanitarian and legal standards on the protection of refugees have to be respected when implementing the EU-Turkey agreement. That goes for the humanitarian situation in the camps, as well as for the individual registration and processing of asylum claims. It’s clear that the full implementation of this agreement is a mammoth task which will demand a great effort on our part.

Do the Greeks need more help from Europe in implementing the EU-Turkey deal?

That goes without saying. If we want orderly conditions at the EU’s external borders, then we cannot leave Greece to cope on its own. From the outset, we’ve emphasised time and again that a European solution must encompass support for those member states which, due to their geographical location, are affected most by the refugee flows. It’s good that everyone pledged to uphold this principle at the EU summit. Germany and France alone have offered to send 200 asylum experts to Greece, as well as 200 additional police officers each for Frontex.

Will Libya once again become the focus of the refugee flows now that the Balkan route is closed? Will Europe now do a deal with the warlords there?

Europe must not look away if IS terrorists and people smugglers take advantage of the chaos and civil war in Libya, just a few hundred kilometres away from its southern border, to expand their power base. We will only manage to successfully tackle the terrorist groups and human smugglers if Libya becomes a functioning state once more. Martin Kobler, the German Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, negotiated a peace agreement with the Libyan parties which has met with considerable support in all camps, despite the sabotage efforts of some hardliners. The core of the new government of national unity arrived in the capital Tripoli on Wednesday. Together with our EU partners and the United Nations, we’re now supporting them so that they can get to work as quickly as possible and start rebuilding state structures.

What has to happen so that the refugees go back to Syria? Do you really believe that the negotiations in Geneva will bring about peace in the foreseeable future?

The ceasefire we agreed on in Munich with international and regional powers has held in many parts of Syria for more than a month now. For the first time in five years, there’s a glimmer of hope that a peaceful solution can be found in Syria. However, we can’t expect a breakthrough in the peace talks any time soon. We’ll need a lot of patience and the concerted pressure of the international community if there’s to be an agreement. But if it’s possible to consolidate the ceasefire, to deliver supplies to people in all parts of Syria and to make progress in the peace talks, this could in time lead to a turning point in the flows of refugees.

Will Syria’s President Assad become the West’s partner after all following his victory against IS in Palmyra?

If the ceasefire proves to be a factor in making Assad’s troops seriously engage in fighting the IS terrorist militia instead of attacking their own population, then that’s a good thing. However, this isn’t a substitute for a political solution to the Syria conflict. Indeed, it shows how important a political settlement is to sustainable success in the fight against terrorism. The Syrians will have to agree around the negotiating table in Geneva now on what form a future Syrian Government should take. I don’t believe Assad is the type of leader who really will lead the country to reconciliation and stability after five years of war and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

This interview was conducted by Karsten Kammholz. Reproduced by kind permission of the Heilbronner Stimme.

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