Speech by Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier at the AHK World Conference in the House of German Business, Berlin

10.05.2016 - Speech

Mr Schweitzer,
Mr Wansleben,
Colleagues from the Bundestag and the Ministries,
Distinguished prizewinners of the IHK German Schools Abroad Competition,
Honoured guests,

Thank you, Mr Schweitzer, for your kind words and for the invitation to this gala evening. In my capacity as Foreign Minister, I have to say that this event seems remarkably familiar to me. For today’s World Conference fulfils the same purpose for the chambers of commerce abroad as the annual “Ambassadors Conference”, which brings together the heads of the German missions abroad in our Berlin Head Office, does for the Foreign Office. Both occasions are – if you will permit a comparison that might have some bizarre associations for a few of you – a kind of family get-together. Once a year, the whole clan converges from all over the world – and not just in order to swap the latest gossip, although of course that’s part of it, and it seems the bar is being set up outside to this end as I speak... The main purpose of such meetings is, however, to discuss the principal developments of the past years and to plan the next steps forward.

At present, such a stocktaking exercise does not produce a nice, clear picture, but rather, and I think the same can be said for both foreign policy and external economic affairs, a relatively muddled canvas. This is reflected nicely in a humorous anecdote I would like to tell you. The original is about a German ambassador, who has come to Head Office to report to the Foreign Minister about the situation in the country he’s posted to. But it could equally well apply to the head of a chamber of commerce abroad reporting back to President Eric Schweitzer. Mr Schweitzer is pressed for time and asks: “If you were to sum up the situation in your country in one word, what would it be?”

The AHK head ponders long and hard, and then says: “Good.” But that’s a bit too imprecise for Mr Schweitzer after all, and so he asks again: “Hmm. And if you had two words?” The AHK head mulls over the question, and finally says: “Not good.”


Where am I going with this? In my opinion, there are currently two opposing trends in international affairs.

On the one hand, the world continues inexorably to become smaller and more interconnected – a process which is of course primarily driven by technology, by the Digital Revolution and the increasing transnational movement of data. Germany remains in some ways the “spider in the web”. We are the most interconnected country in the world – connected above all by trade flows and our strong exports, which are due in no small part to your work at the AHKs. Germany is also in the lead when it comes to migration – as shown in a recent study – a position it claimed even before the massive influx of refugees starting last summer. Did you know for instance that the percentage of the population born abroad is higher in Germany than in the United States, that ultimate “country of immigration”?


This “small world” phenomenon has also translated into some foreign policy successes in the past years. We have built bridges, even over some very deep gulfs.

Take the example of Iran. After more than ten years of negotiations, we reached a historic breakthrough last summer in the decades-old, dangerous dispute over the Iranian nuclear programme.

No less historic is the rapprochement between Cuba, the US and the West. Just today I received the Cuban Foreign Minister in my office.

We have effectively contained the risk of war in eastern Europe. Even if the Minsk Process is far from perfect, it remains the only effective route towards a political solution in eastern Ukraine. As I see it, there are no military options. We are sticking to the Minsk route, and Russia knows that we do not consider sanctions an end in themselves, but that they are linked to progress in implementing the Minsk criteria. Tomorrow I will again play host to my fellow “Normandy Format” foreign ministers in the Villa Borsig.


That’s the one side of the story – the “good” part from the anecdote.

There is, however, also the contrary trend. New and dangerous forces are pulling ever outwards. New gulfs are opening up. International crises and conflicts – Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq – are assuming proportions, and a complexity, that I have not yet seen in my political career.

And, in response to all this, we see isolationist reactions all around – sadly also here in Germany. “Let’s pull up the drawbridge! The world and its problems can stay outside!” That is the simplistic answer offered by some. However, ladies and gentlemen, pulling up the drawbridge and isolating ourselves is the wrong response for Germany – and above all for Germany’s strong external sector. That is something that we – and you – have to say even more clearly!


In your day-to-day business, too, you’re noticing the impact that these geopolitical forces of disintegration are having on the world economy.

Like you, we are concerned by the extremely low commodity prices of today. These will continue to lead to significant reductions in growth in some countries. Since July 2014, the oil price has fallen by almost 60%, and it will remain low for the foreseeable future. As a result, the growth model currently employed by many emerging economies is no longer viable and needs to be superseded by radical structural reforms. That’s easier said than done, since the difficult economic situation makes such reforms even more divisive, as a look at Brazil will show. At the same time, it is to be expected that inhibited growth will not only limit these countries’ ability to function in the domestic arena, but also, unfortunately, in the international arena.


What we need in foreign policy, as in foreign trade and investment, is patience and perseverance – and I say this having particular regard to the arc of crisis from Libya and Mali to Syria and Iraq.

Far-sightedness and persistence are the attributes with which the AHK family and German diplomacy have together already had considerable success – recently, too. The talks in Cuba and Viet Nam are proving tougher than we’d hoped, but we will not be disheartened and I am optimistic that we will soon be able to open new offices in those countries. I raised the topic with the Cuban Foreign Minister earlier today, and he promised that we would get a response to our proposals immediately after his return. We have already made progress in Serbia and the Philippines. And I would particularly like to thank you, Mr Schweitzer, for your organisation’s involvement as concerns Russia and Ukraine. A few months ago a Conference on Ukraine took place in this self-same venue, the House of German Business. One of the achievements of this event was the launch of a German-Ukrainian chamber of commerce. This was an important step towards bringing economic stability to Ukraine, and I hope that we will be able to actually open the AHK this autumn.


From this platform, I would like to take the opportunity to thank the many hard-working and successful chambers of commerce abroad, picking in particular – but as a stand-in for all the others – on the Tehran chamber of commerce and its staff, for their tireless efforts over the last few years. Iran was indeed the toughest nut which I had the privilege of helping to crack, and to be honest, there were times during the 12 years of negotiations when I feared that this nut would defeat even the best German-manufactured tools. As you know, Germany was the only country without a permanent seat on the UN Security Council that played a central role in these negotiations. The historic breakthrough was achieved in 2015, and following “implementation day” this January, it will once again be possible in principle to secure export deals with state guarantees. The keen interest evinced by German firms in Iran has not abated – they are thus renewing the old ties based on the traditionally close trading relations between Germany and Iran. The President and Vice-President of the AHK Tehran maintained their belief in these ties throughout the difficult years of sanctions. They held on, and are now energetically helping to grasp the opportunities for German businesses in Iran. I wish you all every success in this endeavour, also with a view to encouraging an opening up and modernisation of Iranian society, and above all, I thank the Tehran staff for their tireless work.


Ladies and gentlemen,

In these turbulent and confusing times, we seek – using both political and economic means – to strengthen the forces that bind together, and to contain the forces that pull apart. One key instrument in this quest is the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the OSCE, which is under German Chairmanship in 2016.

The OSCE area is a gigantic area stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and is thus, first and foremost, the core frame of reference for peace and security in Europe. But its countries also account for half of all world trade; and together with the OSCE partners and China, they account for way over 70% in the Eurasian area. The potential for deeper economic connectivity and integration is now, I am sure, greater than ever before for any given place in the OSCE area. Next week we aim to strengthen dialogue in the Eurasian economic region with the first ever Business Conference on Connectivity. We are looking forward to exchanging views with governmental and business delegations from more than 60 countries.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Understanding is the key word when it comes to the IHK Schools Abroad Competition. Understanding is the pivot of our cultural relations and education policy, in which our schools abroad play a central role. German schools abroad show by example what kind of country Germany is, which questions it asks itself, and what its dark and bright sides are. They provide an education for many graduates who form lifelong ties with our country. During my travels, I have often met people – the head of a company, a minister or, just recently, an opera singer – who have spoken to me in glowing terms of their time at a German school. Each of these individuals has a special lifelong bond with Germany, for as you know yourselves, partnerships that go all the way back to your schooldays are often the deepest!

At a time when the integration of refugees is a topic of lively, and sometimes overheated discourse in Germany, we are coming to realise that the understanding embodied by those at the German schools abroad could perhaps contain a few useful lessons for our debate back home.

By way of example let me mention the German Language Certificate “Inland”, a spin-off from the German language exams abroad, which has become a valuable tool in Germany itself – especially now, when the integration of refugee children at our schools is such a big issue. And of course, this same tool also helps prepare people for participation in the German labour market.

Unfortunately I will have to leave earlier than planned this evening, and will miss the award ceremony. So I will take this opportunity now to thank the IHKs for awarding this important prize over so many years, and to congratulate the prizewinners on their success this year!


Ladies and gentlemen,

All that’s left for me to do is to wish you continued success in your vital globe-spanning work, and of course, to hope you enjoy the rest of this “family gathering” in Berlin. I am glad that you invited us, the Federal Foreign Office, as your “in-laws” this evening – and I am pleased to know that we will continue to work side by side out in the world! Thank you very much.

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