An interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the situation following the British EU referendum, published in Spiegel Online (1 July 2016)
Mr Steinmeier, is there any chance of avoiding Brexit at this stage?
I never expected all the open questions to be answered within a few days of the referendum. But after this unequivocal outcome – an outcome I wholeheartedly regret – I am surprised to find Britain quite so unprepared for a situation which, though unattractive, was not improbable.
What are you referring to particularly?
What most annoys me is that the two main Tory party rivals have turned what was simply an internal party conflict into a fully fledged national and governmental crisis, damaging the EU as a whole in the process, and are now leaving others to take responsibility for the consequences.
Who do you mean?
One could almost get the impression that certain prominent Leave campaigners didn’t actually want Brexit but hoped instead for close defeat. There is certainly no indication that anyone in the country had a plan. The fact that the British people’s vote actually has consequences appears to have left many confused and shocked – and not just among the electorate but among the politicians too. The Conservative party is rudderless, and Labour is doing just as badly.
Boris Johnson, who led the Brexit campaign, now says he won’t stand for leadership of the Tory party. Does this mean there may still be a chance of Britain staying in the EU?
I can’t judge what this means for the Tories’ leadership elections. But I do not see how the close but clear decision of the British people could be ignored. We at least would do well to stick to the facts, and the facts point to Brexit.
The UK will remain a full member of the EU, with all the concomitant rights and responsibilities, until the exit negotiations are concluded. The British Commissioner has already stepped down, however. Are we seeing any other effects at the British end?
In our view, as long as the UK has not formally left, it remains an EU member state. That is also the position of the British Government – which makes it all the more jarring to hear people in British Government circles talk about taking steps to withdraw before exit negotiations have started.
You don’t want there to be a long period of uncertainty following the Brexit referendum; you want the Brits to provide some clarity with regard to the exit negotiations as soon as possible.
The British Government needs to submit an application to withdraw from membership under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. Brussels cannot replace that with some other procedure or artificially interpret the article as having been triggered. The next move has to come from London.
But the Conservatives don’t consider that they are in a position to do that. They won’t select a new party leader, who would become Prime Minister, until September. Why are you pressing the pace?
It would be good if a politically legitimate and functional government took the reins as soon as possible. What we can expect London to produce, and I mean quickly, is a roadmap outlining when the exit negotiations with the EU are to start and how the British side expect those negotiations to look. We should also prepare for them properly. We are already in the process of setting up a task force to that end within the Federal Foreign Office.
If autumn brings not a new government but a general election to the UK, this period of limbo will continue into spring 2017. Doesn’t the German Government also have to prepare for that possibility?
I am no soothsayer. I don’t know what’s going to happen next in London. More delays would not be beneficial, indeed they would be detrimental both for the Brits and for us in Europe. The country’s economy and the City have already been responding very sensitively to the outcome of the referendum. I assume that further delay would only exacerbate this. The longer this uncertainty continues, the greater the risk of the negative economic consequences spreading beyond the UK.
London’s stance is one side of the coin. The other is that of the EU, where the choir sings in many parts. What do the 27 have to do in the coming months?
We need to establish what our stance is with regard to Britain. The 27 EU Foreign Ministers met in Luxembourg on the day after the referendum to discuss and respond to the result just a few hours after it was announced.
What does that imply?
The UK’s status outside the EU will differ significantly from full membership. In leaving, Britain will become a non-EU country and will only be able to access the European single market by means of formal international agreements. We have agreements of this kind with Norway, Switzerland and many other states. Full access to the single market will not be possible without a clearly defined and appropriate quid pro quo; there can certainly be no cherry-picking. But all that notwithstanding, the UK remains an important neighbour and partner with which we need to have good and robust relations.
Two days after the referendum, you hosted a meeting of the six founding members of the European Economic Community – France, Italy, the Benelux countries and Germany. The Chancellor advised against the formation of sub-groups, and Norbert Röttgen of the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) said the meeting had bothered other EU members and been of no substantive benefit. What do you say to that?
That’s ludicrous. Anyone who made the effort to look at the actual details saw that the people at that meeting were the very same Foreign Ministers who had previously met in the circle of 28 – mere hours after the result was announced and before the meeting of six in Berlin.
The six-pack does give the impression that others in the EU are being excluded.
This is a very German way of looking at things. It goes without saying that all 27 need to be involved, be they Eastern Europeans, Scandinavians, Mediterranean countries or the six founding members. That’s why I spoke to my three counterparts from the Baltic States right after the meeting of six on Saturday, met the Slovaks – new Presidency of the Council – on Sunday, and spoke to the four Visegrad countries – the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary – in Prague on Monday morning. I also talked on the phone to a large number of people, including the chair of the northern group and my opposite numbers in Sofia and Athens.
Are the foreign policy wranglings within the governing coalition a foretaste of next year’s election campaign?
I hope not. Anyone who tried to paint them as such would have to be unaware of the risks which Brexit brings to Europe. And as anyone who knows me would attest, I have always, both in government and in opposition, fought for the success of that Europe. I have no intention of letting up now.
Nonetheless, we do get the impression that the SPD is pushing for a quick Brexit while the Chancellor (CDU) prefers to take things gently. Are you saying that not even the tone is one of disagreement between you and the Chancellor?
We must not allow ourselves to become hysterical or paralysed by shock. We need to work quickly, listening well to one another and then acting in concert. The Foreign Ministers of the 27 members will already be holding another meeting in the coming weeks.
Is ever closer union the right path, as some in the EU are proposing?
I don’t think this is the time to take any big gambles – as some consider powerful integration measures and institutional reform to be. Nor is it the time for a technocratic debate. Our priority now must be to hold Europe together. My French counterpart, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and I have outlined how that might be achieved and what topics and direction we think are the rights ones to keep Europe united and regain the trust of Europe’s people.
In the paper you are referring to, you suggest that a group of EU countries should pull ahead of the others on, for example, asylum and refugee policy. Are you trying to start a conversation about a two-speed Europe?
On the contrary – our paper does not propose a two-speed Europe or a core Europe leading the way. It is a call for greater flexibility, accompanied by concrete proposals for enhanced internal and external security, growth and employment and, not least, European asylum and migration policy – topics on which the people of Europe quite rightly expect Europe to deliver.
How is that supposed to work?
We want to make sure that those who want to cooperate more closely are not held back by other EU members. And we want to ensure that the others are not seen as bad Europeans just because they want to proceed more slowly.
One of the Brexit camp’s strategies was to stir up fear of the allegedly powerful Berlin. As the strongest EU economy, what does Germany need to do – not least with regard to France, which is weaker – when the UK leaves?
As ever, we need to approach our role responsibly. People tend to have two expectations when it comes to Germany. Because of our size and strength, we are to be ambitious in our proposals and actions, working in concert with France whenever possible. At the same time, there are critical voices, sometimes from the same sources, which warn of the Franco-German axis becoming too dominant.
Europe policy means rivalry between the Federal Foreign Office and the Chancellery. How do you resolve that conflict?
That’s an old story that often gives grist to the journalist’s mill. I’ve been doing the rounds in politics for a while and have never known a time when the Chancellery refrained from setting priorities for European and foreign affairs. Nor can I remember a time when the Federal Foreign Office didn’t exercise its prerogative on foreign and Europe policy. It is up to those who hold political office in both to strike the right balance – and that will remain the case.
Interview conducted by Severin Weiland