“Simplistic answers are highly dangerous”

11.08.2016 - Interview

Federal Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier in an interview on the danger of populist positions, his upcoming trip to Russia, relations with Turkey, the refugee issue and the civil war in Syria. Published on www.stuttgarter-nachrichten.de/ and elsewhere on 11 August 2016

Federal Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier in an interview on the danger of populist positions, his upcoming trip to Russia, relations with Turkey, the refugee issue and the civil war in Syria. Published on www.stuttgarter-nachrichten.de/ and elsewhere on 11 August 2016


Foreign Minister, you say time and again that the world is out of joint. Who has the wherewithal to put it back together again?

If we could find an easy answer to that, the world we live in would be a better place! We are faced with a large number of complicated and dangerous conflicts. Whether in Ukraine, Syria, Libya or the decades‑long unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians ‑ all of these conflicts have their own history, dynamics and are explosive in their own way. They involve clashes between very different interests, and one thing is clear: without the will of the players involved to embrace a solution, we will not resolve any of these conflicts. We can see that at the moment in the Ukraine conflict, where we have succeeded in defusing the situation, but are a long way from a solution. We can see it in the civil war in Syria, where a deadly game to gain power and influence in the region is being played out at the expense of the people. It is impossible to conjure up solutions from outside.

That doesn’t sound very optimistic.

You’re right. And yet we must not stop getting involved when and where it makes sense for us to do so ‑ whether by providing humanitarian assistance or, together with the United States, Russia and Syria’s neighbours, by working to put an end to the Syrian civil war.

The United Nations Security Council has its hands tied with regard to Syria, for example, as a result of the dispute with Moscow, and a frozen conflict is developing in eastern Ukraine. Word is that you will soon be travelling to Russia in an attempt to embark on a new round of talks.

We are constantly in contact with Russia. As difficult as it is, and as arduous each millimetre of progress sometimes is to achieve, without Russia there will be no peace either in Ukraine or in Syria. And yes, I am indeed planning to travel to Yekaterinburg next week, where I will give a lecture at the Boris Yeltsin University and engage in discussions with students. Of course, I will also take the opportunity to meet the Russian Foreign Minister. We have plenty to talk about.

Unlike the Chancellor, you say that the sanctions against Russia could be eased gradually if progress is made on implementing the Minsk peace plan. What exactly do you envisage?

Sanctions are not an end in themselves. The goal of our efforts is not to uphold the sanctions but to resolve the conflict in Ukraine. That is why we have deliberately yoked them together with progress on implementing the Minsk agreements. If tangible progress is made in this area, we can also consider changing the status of the sanctions. Unfortunately we haven’t yet reached this point, but we are investing considerable time in working to get there. At the moment we are focusing on the urgently needed improvement of the security situation in the Donbas so that adherence to the agreed ceasefire can be guaranteed more effectively. No less important is the ongoing work on a law on local elections in eastern Ukraine.

Putin, Erdogan, before long maybe Trump: more and more people seem to be putting their faith in strong men with populist slogans to provide solutions. Is a new era of autocrats dawning?

The example of Marine Le Pen in France shows that we aren’t just talking about men. But seriously, in times like these, when the world is being buffeted about from one crisis to the next, many people look for simplistic answers. We can see it happening in many countries, and also here in Germany. And that is something that concerns me ‑ that ultimately this populism wants to exploit people’s fears in the face of an increasingly unpredictable world. These figures are not interested in true politics, in finding solutions for all the very real problems confronting us. And I think that is highly dangerous.

The Turkish Government will no longer receive the German ambassador, summons his deputy, prevents members of parliament from visiting Bundeswehr soldiers stationed in the country, accuses Germany of a lack of press freedom. Do we have to put up with that?

What do you mean by “put up with”? Nobody’s doing that! We have made our position perfectly clear from the outset, and the Turkish side has heard it ‑ and isn’t happy about it. Yet it also works the other way. Turkey has made it clear that it would have liked to have seen greater solidarity in response to the attempted coup. However, we can’t simply leave things as they are. Three million people of Turkish heritage live in Germany. A close and trust‑based network of personal relationships has developed over many decades, which we have to preserve. And the people in Turkey also expect us to speak out for them. In the long term that cannot work if we only communicate via the media, public statements and in front of the cameras. Even if the talks are likely to be difficult, we still have to seek to communicate directly again.

It’s all very well to say that communication channels should remain open with our large and on many issues important neighbour Turkey, but can it be right not to take any political or diplomatic steps in response to President Erdogan’s authoritarian reaction to the attempted coup? What do you think the next steps should be in dealing with Turkey?

It’s damned easy to call for tough political or diplomatic consequences in theory. But what would it look like in practice? Discontinuation of talks, silence, confrontation? That would be irresponsible. The right approach is that we have to maintain dialogue with Turkey ‑ that is all the more important when bilateral relations are difficult. That is why my State Secretary, Markus Ederer, was in Ankara at the beginning of the week to state very clearly that we have great respect for the people who have stood up to the tanks and share in the grief over the hundreds of Turkish victims ‑ the dead and the injured. At the same time we will not stop underlining the fact that we also expect Turkey’s efforts to investigate the attempted coup to remain rooted in the rule of law. We have found very clear words to express this so far, and we will certainly not abandon this position.

What lever could Germany and the European Union use to have a calming influence?

I don’t think much either of making threats or of overestimating our role. But I am quite sure that in the medium and the long term, Turkey needs Europe ‑ just as we need Turkey.

Will Europe ultimately have to find an internal solution if the agreement fails because visa requirements cannot be removed for Ankara in the current situation?

To date the agreement has neither been terminated, nor has it failed. We don’t have to carp on about it every day. Turkey has an interest in visa requirements being eased, but the conditions for this were defined before the refugee agreement and are not new. Turkey knows that it still has work to do in this area. Irrespective of this, of course we need to continue to work on finding common European responses to the migration flows. It ought to be clear to everyone that the agreement with Turkey doesn’t provide all the answers to the continued pressure of migration.

Interview conducted by Christopher Ziedler

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