“Adding fuel to the fire of this conflict will not help”

15.05.2016 - Interview

An interview with Foreign Minister Steinmeier for the Tagesspiegel newspaper, published on 15 May 2016

An interview with Foreign Minister Steinmeier for the Tagesspiegel newspaper, published on 15 May 2016.

Mr Minister, the refugee agreement with Turkey is on the verge of failure. Do we need to prepare ourselves for a new influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees in the near future?

Prior to the refugee agreement, the Federal Government was accused of merely standing by and observing how up to ten thousand migrants per day crossed the border into Germany. When we took up negotiations with Turkey on an agreement, many prophesied it would never come about. After it was signed, they maintained that Turkey would not abide by its terms. But the fact is that the agreement is effective. Whether or not there will be a permanent easing of the migration pressure we are facing from the Middle East and Central Asia will depend on how both sides – Europe and Turkey – uphold the agreement.

Is the reduced flow of refugees not also due to the closing of borders along the Balkan route?

That is the preferred view of our Austrian neighbours. Yet this has not reduced the number of refugees who are coming to Europe. Tens of thousands have been stranded in Greece. This is an unacceptable situation. The agreement with Turkey is the first measure to effectively lower the number of refugees that are setting out on the perilous journey across the Aegean Sea. Turkey, for its part, is sheltering Syrian refugees and opening its labour market to them. In return, the EU is providing three billion euro in aid for refugees in Turkey, and has said it may provide an additional three billion. That is what our joint efforts are based on, and that is what we must further develop.

But now Turkey is threatening to send refugees to Europe if the EU does not grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens. Does President Erdogan not remain in control of the situation?

In the agreement, the EU made the offer that every Turkish citizen in possession of a biometric passport can be granted 90 days of visa-free travel to the Schengen area. The EU said that, for this to happen, 72 conditions must be met. If all these conditions are fulfilled, then Turkey has a right to expect that we will meet our obligations and implement the promised easing of visa requirements.

The key EU condition is that the Turkish anti-terrorism laws must be changed, because in their current form critics of the government can be arbitrarily classified as terrorists. Is there room for compromise on this point?

The conditions are well known and have been negotiated with Turkey. New conditions have been added since conclusion of the agreement. The ball is now in Turkey’s court. Ankara must tell us how it intends to respond to the unresolved questions.

But Erdogan does not want to change the anti-terrorism laws and is not tolerating any foreign interference...

My advice is that Turkey’s interest in the agreement, in general, and in visa-free travel, in particular, must not be underestimated. Turkey knows what needs to be done. Us adding fuel to the fire of this conflict will not help.

Polls indicate that a majority of Germans does not have a favourable opinion on the refugee agreement. Many believe the Federal Government will kowtow to Erdogan for as long as he keeps away the refugees. Does that not worry you?

No, because it is not accurate. We continue to freely bring up worrisome developments in Turkey, also with regard to restrictions on the freedom of opinion and the press. Everyone who is willing to listen will know this. But still, public criticism alone does not solve problems. We will and must remain engaged in discussions with Turkey. Whether we like it or not, Turkey is the key country for the issue of migration to Europe. We must maintain a certain level of cooperation if we wish to avoid situations like the ones we experienced last year.

The German parliament intends to adopt a resolution on the expulsions and mass murder of Armenians during the First World War, a resolution that clearly describes the events as genocide. You originally opposed this resolution. Why?

I was aiming to get Turks and Armenians to agree to jointly examine what occurred, and to work toward rapprochement. That is not easy from today’s standpoint, where even 100 years later Yerevan and Ankara are still locked in dispute over the respective facts, history, preceding events, and historiography, as well as the descriptive sentences and phrases. I thought it would be unwise for us to jeopardise this very fragile process, and I am afraid that simply deciding to use the term genocide will not settle the issue.

What is next? As a member of parliament, will you vote in favour of the resolution?

You can rest assured that the SPD will close ranks for this vote in the German Bundestag.

Turkey is voicing its protest ahead of the vote. Will the resolution lead to tension between Berlin and Ankara?

I hope that relations between Germany and Turkey will not be strained by the resolution, and that we will be able to maintain our close cooperation. In any event, we will continue to campaign for reconciliation and better communication between Turkey and Armenia, which we believe should be the ultimate aim: this can be done by, for example, conducting cross-border projects, and by promoting encounters between Armenians and Turks.

The organisation Human Rights Watch claims that Turkish border guards are shooting at refugees along the Turkish–Syrian border, including at women and children. How would Germany react if this were to be confirmed?

Those are alarming allegations, and they must be fully investigated. Ankara, too, must have an interest in examining these allegations.

The civil war in Syria is currently causing the greatest outflow of refugees. Do you still believe that a lasting peace agreement can be achieved this year?

Three months ago, no one would have believed that a ceasefire would be possible. Since then, we have witnessed how the channels of communication we established in Vienna and in Munich can have a real effect. Fighting in the country has become much less intense, although it has not ceased in all of the country. That is why more steps are needed, even though it is still difficult to include other cities and regions in the ceasefire. As imperfect as the ceasefire may be, and despite the fact that we have little reason to be content with the humanitarian access routes that have been established so far: much has been done for the people in Syria, and many are returning to their homes. Since February, humanitarian aid has reached more than 800,000 people who for weeks and months had been cut off from the outside world.

Yet the ceasefire is constantly being violated...

It is true that there have been massive violations of the ceasefure in Aleppo and the surrounding region. But our meeting last Monday in Paris, and especially the direct talks between United States and Russian representatives, did result in a significant reduction of violence in recent days, and at least for the moment have halted the impending spiral of violence.

Can there be peace in Syria if Assad remains in power?

In the long term, certainly not. That is why the focus during the next phase of negotiations must be to work on the intended formation of a transition government. On Tuesday, we will meet in Vienna, in the format of the contact group on Syria. Our top priority must be to create the conditions for resumption of the Geneva negotiations on a political process.

Russia plays a key role in efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria, as it does in other international conflicts. Should Germany help bring Russia back into the international fold?

In any case, isolation is not a political stance. We have had very different experiences with Russia: On the one hand, there has been Russia’s annexation of Crimea in violation of international law, and its destabilisation of eastern Ukraine. Almost at the same time, however, Russia also helped bring about the success of negotiations on the Iranian nuclear dossier. By taking a realistic view, it becomes obvious: We need Russia to come to grips with the great international crises. In Syria, this is now an uncontested fact. And I will go as far as to predict that, for our efforts to stabilise Libya, we will also need the assistance and inclusion of Russia.

You have argued repeatedly for bringing Russia back to the G8. Why?

The general attitude is that we are doing Russia a favour by letting it participate in certain fora. We sometimes forget that it is also in our interest to invite Russia to share international responsibility. No doubt, there are unresolved issues in our relationship. Yet particularly in times of crisis, we need formats that allow us to break our silence and to return to the negotiating table. There are no convincing historical precedents that isolation or exclusion of others can bring us any closer to world peace. That is why the most important industrialised countries should have a shared interest in bringing Russia back to the G8 – if, for example, Russia does its part to implement the Minsk Agreement.

In June, the EU sanctions on Russia are set to expire. Can all 28 Member States again be convinced to extend the sanctions?

We are seeing that there is increased resistance within the EU to extend the sanctions, and that compared to last year it will be harder to reach consensus. But despite the extreme difficulties, we must work to achieve this consensus.

Mr Steinmeier, you are highly popular within your party, and you are one of the most popular politicians in Germany today. Why don’t you now step up to the plate and come to the aid of the SPD?

The best way to help is to do what you do well – and in my case, that’s good foreign policy. Also, we have a party chairman, and it is his prerogative to run for Federal Chancellor. At this week’s SPD conference on fairness and equity, he once again demonstrated how he can lead the way.

And yet, dissatisfaction with Gabriel is growing within the SPD. How can this then be true?

There can be no doubt that the party is in a difficult situation. Sigmar Gabriel himself has said that, given the circumstances, it is normal for there to be a debate about party leadership. It is a fact that no one deserves the support of the party as much as Sigmar Gabriel does. No one has as much respect for the SPD, or has done as much to strengthen it. Sigmar Gabriel has created the conditions for the SPD to become re-engaged in crucial debates, he has reformed the party’s structures, expanded the party’s convention, and involved party members more. Some have unfortunately forgotten this.

If Gabriel were to vacate the chairman’s seat, would Olaf Scholz or Martin Schulz be the better successor?

That question does not need to be asked.

The interview was conducted by Stephan Haselberger and Hans Monath.

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