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"Now is not the time to dither and delay"

07.05.2016 - Interview

Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the refugee agreement with Turkey and his trip to Africa with his French counterpart Marc Ayrault. Other topics addressed include populist right-wing parties in Europe and the civil war in Syria. Published in the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung on 7 May 2016.

Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the refugee agreement with Turkey and his trip to Africa with his French counterpart Marc Ayrault. Other topics addressed include populist right-wing parties in Europe and the civil war in Syria. Published in the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung on 7 May 2016.

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Foreign Minister Steinmeier, the number of refugees coming to Europe has diminished significantly since the closure of the Balkan route. But hundreds of thousands are already assembling in Libya, ready to cross the sea to Italy. Is this Europe’s next crisis in the making?

Who says the crisis is already over? It’s true that the agreement with Turkey has enabled us to significantly reduce unregulated migration to Europe via the Balkan route for the time being. This is not a proper solution itself, but it does give us time to work on joint European solutions. It also means that we must not lose sight of other routes. I’ve just been in the Niger and Mali with my French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault. Both of those countries are key points on migration routes from West Africa through Libya to Europe. We were assured in both countries of their willingness to cooperate with Europe. In Libya we are helping the new Government of National Accord to progressively build functioning state structures, without which we will not be able to put a lasting stop to the activities of the human trafficking gangs in the country.

Human rights organisations have called the refugee camps in Greece open-air prisons. What do you say to that?

I can understand the anger and fear of the people who have been tempted to make their way to Europe, often by false promises. We all know that Greece is under intense pressure. We are helping on the ground, making available money, staff and equipment. The European Union is also providing considerable funds. Greece has a duty, as we all do, to care for the refugees within its borders decently and in accordance with the terms of the Geneva Convention. The unilateral measures taken by some EU member states have certainly not made the situation any easier for Athens. They just highlight how important it is to work together on European solutions.

Has the refugee agreement with Turkey made Germany susceptible to extortion?

That’s ludicrous. We want to achieve an aim together with Turkey, and in return Turkey wants something from us. If we go about things rationally, we will all be better off in the end – and the situation will also be better for the people who have fled the war in Syria. Besides, we are already seeing that the agreement is helping us: unregulated migration via Turkey has slowed significantly. Now is not the time to dither and delay, now is the time for both sides to fulfil their obligations as agreed.

President Erdogan of Turkey wants to make sure his assistance in the refugee crisis pays well – is Turkey to be taken seriously as an EU candidate country?

We must not forget that Turkey has taken in almost 3 million refugees from Syria. That is something we must acknowledge. That deserves our respect. We want Turkey to stop the traffickers. But it is part of the agreements that we help Turkey improve the lot of the refugees on its territory with tangible projects to support more than 700,000 refugees and to provide school education for over 110,000 children. I think this is money well invested. As regards the accession negotiations, of course we take Turkey seriously. It is up to Turkey to take the necessary steps and adopt the required reforms. There will be no special treatment.

Austria is pulling up the drawbridge – and building border defences at the Brenner Pass. How great is the threat to Europe from populist right-wing parties?

For years, the European project seemed secure. But the financial crisis, and then the refugee crisis, have left Europe spinning. We are working hard to get the problems under control and to find genuinely viable European solutions, and we have already made good progress. Resolving our differences by negotiation in Brussels will take time, and is arduous, but it is and remains the right way forward. The fact that right-wing populists now claim that the waters would be calmer if the EU did not exist demonstrates – if you’ll forgive the expression – a dangerous disregard of history. The future of Europe is certainly not served by a return to the 19th century with its nationalism and its dangerous and destabilising national rivalries.

What about the AfD? Have right-wing populist ideas become socially acceptable among centrists in the heart of society?

Any group that joins forces with Marine Le Pen’s Front National in the EU Parliament cannot be called centrist or considered to be at the heart of society. But it’s true that, over the past years, fears and concerns have taken hold in various parts of our societies, fears and concerns that we must take seriously and must respond to. If you ask me, a policy of fearmongering, isolation and a refusal to pursue joint European solutions is not the answer.

Turning to Syria. The civil war there has resumed with a vengeance – although the international community agreed a ceasefire in February. Have hopes of peace been shown up as an illusion once and for all?

The appalling images from Aleppo, the reckless bombing of hospitals and residential areas have set back the peace process launched in Vienna. That is why it is so important for the ceasefire to be adhered to now, especially in Aleppo. Giving up and looking the other way is not an option. On the contrary, we are working even more intensively with the partners to restore the ceasefire, to organise humanitarian access and to put in place the conditions needed for a resumption of the negotiations. I am glad that we were able to contribute to this process with the talks on Syria held in Berlin this Wednesday.

Russian air-power has turned the tide in favour of the Assad regime – although Russia should be pressuring Assad to end the fighting. Is it at all possible to solve this five-year long conflict, which has claimed an estimated 270,000 lives, by political means?

You have to put it the other way round. There is no possible military solution. Only political negotiations can restore peace in Syria. Of course Russia is pursuing its own interests in Syria. But Moscow, too, has no interest in Syria becoming a failed state and a long-term stronghold of Islamist terrorists, a cradle of chaos and anarchy. And Moscow, too, knows that Assad cannot be kept in power for ever by military force alone. Since the meetings in Vienna and Munich we have at least established a framework, accepted by all sides, in which all key actors are talking to one another. These are the US and Russia, as well as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is by no means a guarantee of success, but it is more than we had achieved in the past five years. We have to build on it. We cannot afford another five years of war, displacement and destruction in Syria.

This interview was conducted by Beate Tenfelde. Reproduced by kind permission of the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung.

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