Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the EU referendum in the UK and relations with Russia, published in the Märkische Allgemeine newspaper on 20 June 2016.
Mr Steinmeier, how would things carry on in Europe if Brexit won?
If the British people decide to leave the EU, things won’t simply carry on as normal the next day for the 28 members minus one. There is no doubt that Brexit would be a watershed moment. As partners in Europe, we would then have to put all our energies into protecting the integration process, which has taken decades of work and been of incalculable benefit to us and to Europe, from going into reverse. That’s why I, for one, cannot imagine a European Union without Great Britain.
Isn’t the Brexit process also an opportunity to give Europe a reboot?
The referendum has certainly led to a much more intensive conversation about what Europe really means, what values hold us together. There is self-examination going on, albeit accompanied by very heated debate. Nonetheless, I am convinced that the UK’s departure would be a major blow to the European project, so this sudden eagerness to discuss Europe is not exactly cause for euphoria. What Europe actually needs right now is the strength and passion to counteract the substantial rise in inward-looking and nationalist tendencies. We in Europe have a shared responsibility to stop our countries reverting to nationalism.
Are refugees still welcome in Germany, in Europe?
I think we have demonstrated very clearly – both in Germany and in Europe – that we do not shirk our responsibilities. A million refugees have found protection in Germany alone. So we don’t need to be ashamed of ourselves. But we haven’t been sitting on our hands in other areas either. We are working hard to expand humanitarian assistance. Germany is itself the third-largest donor for humanitarian aid. Aid agencies recognise that. However, much remains to be done. The whole international community has to play its part in rescuing people and alleviating suffering around the world. And we are not going to let up our efforts to find a political solution to the civil war in Syria.
One could also say that Germany and Europe are cutting themselves off a bit more.
It’s true that the huge refugee numbers of last year confronted our municipalities in particular with major pressures and problems. As I said at the time, we cannot take in a million more people year after year. People rightly expect the politicians to come up with solutions. That’s what we have focused on, that’s what we’re working on – while the AfD has been fishing for votes with scaremongering tactics and mindless slogans. The agreements we have at the moment are still far from perfect. But we are a lot closer to our goal of getting Europe’s external borders back under control. The crucial thing, as ever, is to deal with the primary cause behind the movement of refugees towards Europe – namely the wars in the Middle East and North Africa.
None of this can be done without Russia on board. You see Germany as a thoughtful power. Does that involve thoughtfully softening the sanctions?
I am for a German foreign policy that doesn’t run and hide when fires are started close to Europe and whole regions are plunged into chaos. I don’t mean that Germany should give itself airs; I just want our country to make a contribution that reflects our size and our economic strength when it comes to defusing crises, alleviating suffering and finding solutions. That is only possible if we face up to our responsibilities, which we are doing – and if we are guided by common sense and good judgement rather than the current mood.
What is going to happen to the sanctions?
On the subject of sanctions, I sometimes get the feeling that some people are interested not in the objective, i.e. resolving the Ukraine conflict, but simply and solely in weakening Russia. We cannot want that, even considering only our own interests. Sanctions are not an end in themselves, nor should they be run on autopilot. The point of them is to create an incentive for a change in behaviour. An ‘all or nothing’ approach, for all that it sounds good, will not do the job. That’s why I am calling for the possibility of incrementally easing sanctions if – and only if – there is substantial progress on implementing Minsk.
Is Germany something like the Kremlin’s lawyer?
I don’t know what comparisons like that are supposed to achieve, to be honest. As we all know, the nature of a lawyer’s role is such that she is mandated to take her client’s side and represent his interests. Whom do deliberately discrediting characterisations like “the Kremlin’s lawyer” serve? The fact is we are no less critical of Russian policy than anyone else, be it in relation to the annexation of Crimea or the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine. But if we want to find solutions to other major conflicts, then we have to make sure we can still put our heads together.
What do you mean by that?
We need more dialogue with Russia, not less. We are living in a world full of contradictions. At NATO Foreign Ministers Meetings, it sometimes seems like Russia is just about our only remaining military opponent. But at our Syria conferences, when the Russian and American Foreign Ministers co‑chair meetings and jointly seek solutions, it creates quite a different impression. Foreign policy has to recognise and find ways of dealing with that inconsistency and complexity. Thinking in black and white terms will not help us in our relationship with Russia!
This interview was conducted by Dieter Wonka.