Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier on the Day of the German Family Business

10.06.2016 - Speech

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you very much for inviting me here today.

I’m faced with a great challenge: I have to bridge the time until the long‑awaited Euro 2016 kick‑off this evening. So, there’s about another nine hours to go before France plays Romania. That gives me nine hours to present a detailed overview of foreign policy. I think I’ll start with the Romans. I hope you’re sitting comfortably!

Joking aside, I’m delighted to be here to speak to you this evening. You’ll perhaps be surprised to hear that I actually spend more time talking with and about Germany’s family businesses abroad than I do here in Berlin.

I’ve just returned from a trip to South America. Especially in Argentina, let me tell you that people not only have great confidence in the quality of German products but also great hopes of German companies as a social force: in terms of a durable commitment to jobs, vocational training and infrastructure measures.

German family businesses have an excellent reputation abroad – not only in Latin America.

Here in Germany, ladies and gentlemen, your companies provide more than half of all jobs. And, Professor Hennerkes, I have to admit that it’s not often I speak to an audience in Berlin which is held in such high regard. A recent survey showed that almost 90 per cent of Germans trust family businesses. Take my word for it, that is a figure a foreign minister can only dream of. Indeed, support for Germany’s Social Democrats is just ever so slightly below that level – for the time being, at least.

But perhaps we can take advantage of your popularity, ladies and gentlemen. By that I don’t mean the SPD, but society as a whole!

Perhaps some of you followed the Kinder Chocolate discussion during the last few weeks. It was all about the children portrayed on chocolate wrappers and what that says about us Germans, about Germany. Well, as you know, this chocolate issue does have some bearing on the Federal Foreign Office. After all, we’re responsible for Germany’s image abroad. So, we in the Federal Foreign Office sat down for a long time together and thought about who should be portrayed on the chocolate wrappers – to promote Germany.

Boateng, Schweinsteiger, Khedira – definitely! We all agreed on that.

Jan Böhmermann? – Perhaps for the bittersweet dark chocolate?

No! We said to ourselves: the best advert for Germany are our small and medium-sized businesses. So, Professor Hennerkes, we need a picture of you as a child as quickly as possible! We’ll put it on the milk chocolate wrapper!


But seriously,

confidence in Germany’s small and medium‑sized companies, in your enterprises, is considerable, ladies and gentlemen, both here in Germany and around the world.

I personally believe that not only has to do with the quality of your products but also with the special mindset of many family businesses. You, ladies and gentlemen, invest your own money in your companies. Perhaps that’s the reason why you focus most especially on the long‑term effects of your actions. You’re not interested in making a quick buck. Rather, you want to see sustainability and steady growth.

Professor Hennerkes, you once said something to the effect that family businesses have patience.

Patience, far-sightedness – I’m convinced these virtues also place family businesses in a better position to withstand crises. For example, during the euro and financial crisis, German family businesses increased their workforce – unlike the major listed companies.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Far-sightedness, patience, perseverance – especially in times of crisis – not only ensure the success of companies. They are also qualities which – and I’m firmly convinced of this – are especially important here and now for our foreign policy.

For we live in turbulent times.

Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq – we’re witnessing crises and conflicts in our neighbourhood which are assuming proportions, and a complexity, that I’ve never experienced before in my political career.

The crises have not only come closer to us, but have now reached the European Union itself.

– This is at its most striking in the form of the refugees seeking shelter in Europe.

– Islamist terror is not only a scourge in the Middle East, but has also struck at the heart of Europe – with attacks on Brussels and several times on our friends in Paris.

– We are witnessing a global showdown, a new battle for the international order. In Europe, we are being forced to come to grips with Russia’s return to a confrontational geopolitical mindset. Proxy wars are being waged in the Middle East because Iran and Saudi Arabia are vying for supremacy in the Muslim world.

– All of this is happening while globalisation, the spread of digital technology and the sense that boundaries are dissolving seem to be continuing their unstoppable march – with all the opportunities, as well as uncertainties, that brings for many people.


How should we respond?

There are people here in Germany with easy answers.

“Let’s pull up the drawbridge! The world and its problems can stay outside! Let’s batten down the hatches! Let’s go to ground! Let’s hide away! We don’t need outsiders! Responsibility in the world? – Nonsense!”

Those are the quick‑fix responses.

But shutting ourselves off and putting up barriers would jeopardise our country’s future and cohesion.

What’s more, it’s the completely wrong approach to adopt as far as our foreign policy is concerned.

For it doesn’t help anyone! It doesn’t bring us any closer to solutions. We don’t live on an island. We depend on exports, free markets and open borders. Insularity and a return to focusing solely on national concerns is the wrong response for Germany – and above all for Germany’s strong export sector. That’s something we – and you – have to spell out even more clearly now and again.


It’s obvious to me that the more interconnected this world is and the more serious its crises, the more we must be able to work together and to rely on partners beyond our national borders.

And, ladies and gentlemen, no other region in the world has practised this for as long, or as successfully, as we here in Europe, in the European Union.

It’s therefore not only naive, but also wholly wrong to lead people to believe that problems such as terrorist threats, the crises in our neighbourhood or migration management in Europe can be addressed – and resolved – with national responses.

Even if it’s sometimes difficult, or if we sometimes get annoyed about one of our neighbours: it will only ever be possible to find answers to these challenges by cooperating with our fellow Europeans.

I say that because, of course, I hope that the British, who will be deciding in two weeks’ time whether their future lies in the European Union, will feel the same way and vote accordingly. Britain isn’t only making a decision on its membership of the European Union. The idea that the EU will simply carry on as before as “28 minus 1” if Britain were to vote in favour of Brexit is not very realistic. I believe we would then have reached a point where European integration as a whole could stall. For the arguments currently being weighed up in Britain, which are being bandied about in the referendum campaign, are arguments which we also find in other parts of Eastern or Western Europe. I therefore believe that should Britain actually decide to leave, then the EU will find itself in a serious crisis and the future of the integration process will be in doubt.

What we need is the exact opposite.

Particularly the migration debate, how the refugees are dealt with, the question of fair distribution, make the opposite outcome necessary: we have to show people that we really are able to gain control of crises. And where we haven’t yet managed to find European solutions, we have to show that we can still come up with them.

We have to stand united, not drift apart. That’s what’s needed now. What we should do is demonstrate European solidarity, for example when dealing with the refugee flows.

In the past, we said time and again that the EU had always emerged strengthened from its crises. I don’t think we can be sure of that at the moment.

That’s partly because we still haven’t mastered the past crises, which is highlighted, for example, by the situation in Greece and by the migration debate.

That’s why I’m not so sure that we would emerge strengthened from the identity crisis Britain’s exit would provoke.

And I don’t think Britain would either. And not just because of the economic fallout.

The Irish Foreign Minister recently said to me, “When did you last hear anything about the Northern Ireland conflict?” I said it had been a long time.

He asked me why I thought that was the case. And he told me the answer: because there have been no borders in Ireland since European integration – no border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. However, the moment the United Kingdom leaves the EU we will again have a border in Ireland, something which would give rise to justified concerns that old conflicts, which were believed to be over, will re‑emerge.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me come back to the refugee crisis: six months ago, the discussion was still one that threatened to degenerate into an “everyone against everyone else” scenario. Some wanted to make it a German problem. Others wanted to abandon Greece and the south to their fate. Despite all the difficulties, we have – step by step – found common solutions, such as marine rescue operations, improving border security, the EU‑Turkey agreement and support for Greece. The result of all this has not only been far fewer arrivals, but also the introduction of a genuine joint border and coastguard agency, a necessity that we overlooked in the early days of the Schengen Agreement.


For me, ladies and gentlemen, the refugee crisis, which also presents you as entrepreneurs with new challenges, shows that national go‑it‑alone efforts are not the solution.

The migration situation demonstrates how closely interconnected we are. For national and international cannot be separated in our world.

We have to remember that when we respond, not only within Europe but most especially when it comes to the regions from where people are currently coming to us.

Why are we engaged in the efforts to find political solutions to the conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East, a region plagued by crises? It’s true that we’re doing it on humanitarian grounds, out of a sense of responsibility for international affairs. Out of a sense of responsibility for those suffering on the ground. That’s one side of the coin. However, we’re also doing it because of the situation here in Germany, because of the refugee situation here in Germany and Europe. For it’s clear that in order to tackle the problem at its root and reduce the number of refugees on a durable basis, we have to help find solutions to the bloody wars which force people to leave their homes.

We can’t stand on the sidelines, complaining and giving condescending speeches. We can’t shut out the rest of the world. Rather, we have to shoulder responsibility. We have to help to resolve crises and conflicts.

That’s not an easy task. As we’ve been made painfully aware in the past, we need patience if we want to succeed.

Yes, Mr Hennerkes, we need patience!

For we can only move forward if we keep up our efforts, if we advance – no matter how small our steps may still be.


Iran shows that this perseverance can pay off.

Our negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme lasted no less than 12 years. During those years, we stood on the brink of war more than once. Last year we managed to agree on a settlement. I remember that moment well. An experienced US Secretary of State stood with tears in his eyes and said that we shouldn’t underestimate what had been achieved that day. He added that what we were signing was not just a document and that we had probably averted a war.

That’s why I say to you: a foreign minister can never give in to a feeling of impotence. I don’t believe there’s any conflict in which there’s not at least hope of getting the parties to talk to each other. Perseverance is often essential if progress is to be made, if we are ultimately to succeed despite setbacks.

It’s clear to me that we shouldn’t aim for newspaper headlines. It often seems as if only vociferous comments and stridency generate media attention. In my experience, however, no conflict has ever been decided by exchanges at the microphones. Rather, the louder and more strident comments become, the smaller the chance there is of finding solutions which save the faces of the parties to the conflict.

That’s why I’ve insisted in the case of the eastern Ukraine conflict, too, that we can only make progress at the negotiating table. One thing is for sure: the annexation of Crimea constituted a violation of international law. There’s no doubt about that.

There was a big discussion some 18 months ago about whether it was right to seek negotiations or whether we should deal with the crisis by arming the Ukrainian army.

I insisted that we should go the negotiating table.

Today there’s sometimes some dismissive talk about what Minsk actually means. However, we should remember the danger which the conflict in Ukraine poses. Today we’re talking about a conflict which is confined to the Donbas region. On the road to Minsk, however, there was a danger that this conflict would spread. The first decisive success of Minsk was that we managed to contain the conflict to one region.

Nevertheless, I don’t want to make the situation out to be better than it is. The security situation as a whole is still unsatisfactory. Not nearly enough progress has been made in the political process. Yet, that is no reason to abandon our efforts. I will continue as long as the parties say that Minsk is the only option.

Even if progress is slow.

What does that have to do with sanctions, which is a major issue?

First of all, what’s the purpose of sanctions? There are some in Europe who say: the sanctions are working. The Russians are in considerable economic difficulties. We just have to turn the screws a bit tighter and then we’ll have them.

However, I believe that sanctions are never an end in themselves. The aim shouldn’t be to force a partner to its knees economically. Rather, the purpose of sanctions is to persuade a partner to behave differently and in this case: to bring them back to the negotiating table. That worked in Minsk for the first time. The question now is: what should we do about the sanctions? I said last week that we're following the all‑or‑nothing principle at the moment. That means that not until the Minsk Agreement has been implemented down to the last comma and full stop can we consider whether to also start lifting the sanctions. In the past, at least, this all‑or‑nothing principle hasn’t proven to contain enough incentives to ensure that the Minsk Agreement really is implemented more quickly. That’s why I suggested that we should be allowed to consider whether there isn’t a more intelligent way to implement the Minsk Agreement and the sanctions regime. That’s why I said that we should consider whether, if we succeed in making significant progress in the implementation of the Minsk Agreement, we can then gradually start lifting the sanctions. I believe that could produce an incentive which could even accelerate the overall process in which we find ourselves.

What’s more, I also commented on the relationship between Russia and Europe – that we should move away now from this idea of finality.

You know, my Canadian colleague said to me during the NATO Council session last year: “We need to decide now whether Russia is our friend and partner, or our adversary and foe.” You have to be several thousand kilometres away from Europe to ask a question like that. The question as to whether Russia is friend or foe, partner or adversary is not the crucial question for us. Rather, what counts is that Russia is a huge neighbour which we can‘t completely ignore in European politics.

That’s why, despite all the difficulties we find ourselves in: we need a critical dialogue with Russia – not only about Ukraine and German‑Russian relations but also on Syria, Libya, Nagorno‑Karabakh and many other crises.

In Syria, that’s more necessary than ever: after five years of civil war, 300,000 deaths and 12 million people losing their homes.

I believe that, despite how messy this crisis is: with the Vienna Process we have for the first time got those parties at the negotiating table who need to be there if a settlement is to be reached: Europe and the regional players, principally Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. But first and foremost: the US and Russia.

None of this will guarantee success or even progress in the negotiations. The current situation is far from satisfactory. However, without this constellation there would have been no agreements on a ceasefire or humanitarian access. And after all, 800,000 people who were previously completely cut off are now receiving humanitarian assistance.

Let‘s hope that together we’ll manage to bring representatives of the regime and the opposition to the next round of negotiations in Geneva.


Whether we look at Europe, Ukraine, Iraq or Syria: shutting the rest of the world out, sealing our borders, throwing up our hands in resignation – that’s not the solution. Rather, we have to persevere in our quest for solutions. We have to keep the channels of dialogue open and make use of them.

And where such channels don’t yet exist, we have to try and create them.

I want to close with a story which illustrates what that means in concrete terms.

The story is about Libya. Just a few sea miles from Europe’s coast, until only recently about a hundred armed groups fought each other while the state sank into chaos and thousands of refugees were sent across the Mediterranean by people smugglers. Given this situation, we said last summer: if we want to somehow put this state back together again then we have to at least try to get the key parties to the conflict round the negotiating table. So we set to work. First of all, we identified the key groups and then we invited them to Berlin for talks. We even sent an aircraft to Tripoli to pick them us. However, and this is often the day‑to‑day reality of foreign policy: these groups were sworn enemies .... Until then, these people had only fired at each other but never spoken. So they refused to get on the same plane! Everyone wanted their own plane. At that point I said “There won’t be any extra planes. If you can’t even pass this test, there’s no point in going any further.” Our first partial success? They got on the plane.

When they landed at Tegel airport that evening, they all wanted to disappear straight off to their hotels. All different hotels, naturally. At which point we said: “But we want to invite you to dinner!” To which they replied: “Oh, that sounds good.” And we said: “So you can get to know each other.” And each group said: “But we don’t want to get to know them!” Well, what do you do in that situation? We were prepared: dinner was on a steamboat on the Spree ... No‑one can get away from there! So we chugged up and down the River Spree for three hours and didn’t moor the boat until they had eaten and spoken to each other. The next morning we were then able to start the real political talks. So, ladies and gentlemen, if you have a big dispute in your company, just hire a steamboat and off you go!

Thank you very much.

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