Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the US presidential election, his trip to Turkey and his nomination as candidate for the office of Federal President. Published in the Bild newspaper (15 November 2016; abridged) and at www.bild.de (14 November 2016).
Minister, you are standing as the joint CDU/SPD candidate for the office of the Federal President and will most likely be elected Head of State on 12 February 2017. How do you feel on a day like this?
First and foremost, I’m grateful for the considerable support and encouragement I’ve received from people both inside and outside the world of politics ‑ and from across the political spectrum. It’s great to experience that. But this trust brings with it responsibility. I’m very aware of that.
The United States has just experienced an election campaign of unprecedented harshness. When will we in Germany see the first election campaign à la Trump?
Here, too, we have tough and heated discussions about political positions. However, I really can’t imagine that we’ll have an election campaign like the one in the US in the next few years. The populism which is also spreading here in Germany and is descending to ever greater depths, on the other hand, is a very different matter. The “lying media” allegation, the incitement of hatred against people from other cultures, the readiness to play the nationalist card, the desire for isolation ‑ I’m witnessing all of that here in Germany. We have to be extremely careful. My appeal to everyone is: nip this in the bud!
Ultimately, the US presidential candidate who called the Chancellor “insane” and whom you called a “preacher of hate” won the day ...
We can only hope now that after a polarising and dirty election campaign, the elected President won’t conduct himself the same way as Donald Trump the candidate. I hope he will soon realise that the world out there is a lot more complex than he seemed to believe, that climate change is no hoax and that NATO is not a superfluous institution.
Why are democracies currently so susceptible to parties like the AfD here, the Front National in France or politicians such as Orban in Hungary or Erdogan in Turkey?
There are many causes. However, one thing is patently clear: the world has become more complex. Many people are worried and are looking for security, something to hold on to. They believe their way of life and standard of living are under threat and fear that something will be taken away from them. Political rabble-rousers shamelessly use this to further fuel these fears and offer simple “answers”. Anyone who knows me will realise that I’ve never looked for the easy way out and never shied away from expressing uncomfortable truths for which there’s no public applause. I’m confident that this approach will ultimately prevail.
You’re travelling to Turkey today – where the government is currently taking brutal action against all its critics. Will you speak frankly to President Erdogan?
We’ve never minced our words. Whenever we’ve been unhappy with developments we’ve expressed our opinions in no uncertain terms to our Turkish partners. The mass arrests, the dismissals, the repression of the press and the opposition ‑ we’re deeply concerned about all that. At the same time, Turkey is much too important to us, due to the close interpersonal ties between our countries for a start, for us to break off the dialogue at this difficult time. That’s why I’m going to Ankara.
How long can Europe sit back and accept this conduct from an EU accession candidate?
What do you mean by “accept”? We stand by our principles. Nevertheless, we diplomats aren’t Jedi Knights who can change things by waving around our lightsabers. Rather, we have to pursue the much more difficult path of dialogue. However, we won’t take Ankara’s decision for it ‑ the decision as to whether it closes the door on the EU once and for all and turns away from the West. It’s up to Ankara. If it decides to reinstate the death penalty then that would be a clear signal that it wants to turn its back on EU membership for good.
Interview conducted by Nikolaus Blome and Rolf Kleine.