Martin Schäfer, who was born and bred in Bremen, is Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier’s spokesperson. In an interview with the Weser‑Kurier, he talks about Europe and his trips with the Foreign Minister. Published on 9 December 2016.
Mr Schäfer, the UK voted for Brexit and Donald Trump would like to get rid of free trade agreements as soon as he becomes President. So let me start with an awkward question: why should Germany remain in the EU?
As a German Foreign Minister once said many decades ago: Europe is our future, we have no other. That’s it. No other country benefits as much from European integration as Germany: we initially benefited when we were welcomed with open arms by those subjected to a brutal war of aggression at the hands of Hitler’s Germany. Then we profited when the economic miracle and our export industry started to thirst after more and more new markets and today we’re reaping the advantages of a community with a common destiny in a world which is out of joint, working together with friends and partners who share our values and interests.
Is the European idea outdated?
We have so much to thank Europe for. Without Europe there would be neither peace nor freedom and prosperity in Germany. However, it’s not enough to simply celebrate past achievements. Germany may be big by European standards, but it’s rather small on a global scale. If our voice is to carry weight in a troubled world and in turbulent times, if we want to preserve our free and tolerant European way of life, then we have to cooperate with our European partners.
You’re on the road on behalf of the Federal Foreign Office canvassing support for Europe and the EU. Has it really come to the point once more, where the benefits of Europe have to be explained to Germans?
European integration is under fire and at risk more than at any other time during the last few decades, both from the inside and the outside. It’s under attack from those with all too easy answers, who see Europe as a burden, as dead weight, and not as something which offers opportunities for a better future. It’s also under attack as a result of the crises and conflicts which have moved closer to our borders during the last few decades, in Syria, in Libya and in Ukraine. Our museums of history show us where nationalism and isolationism, hate and xenophobia can lead, even in Europe.
Do you feel German or European?
I feel both. And I also see myself as a native of Bremen and of northern Germany. I don’t believe these terms are mutually exclusive. Indeed, I think they go well together.
Mr Schäfer, you were born in Bremen and did your school‑leaving exam in Achim. How did you subsequently become the Foreign Minister’s spokesperson?
It was all down to a long chain of fortunate circumstances and right decisions which took me to America, Switzerland and France while I was at school and university, and then around the world and for the last six years here to Berlin during my time at the Federal Foreign Office.
No politician spends as much time on the road as Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier. And you’re almost always with him. Are there any countries in Europe which you haven’t visited on an official trip?
There are some: San Marino and Gibraltar, the Vatican and Andorra, among others. But I have been to Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, and I’ve been to Brussels, Paris, Vienna, Kyiv, Warsaw and Moscow countless times.
Tell us what a normal week in the life of Mr Steinmeier’s spokesperson is like.
Perhaps I can tell you about the last week or so: ten days ago I was in Minsk for negotiations on the Ukraine crisis, eight days ago in Beirut and in a camp for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, on Sunday in Thessaloniki, on Monday morning in Athens, in the evening there was a visit from US Secretary of State Kerry here in Berlin, this morning I was in Hamburg for the OSCE Summit, in the evening I was in Bremen, and between appointments I attended the Federal Press Conference. Fortunately, not every week is that busy.
You were the spokesperson before Frank‑Walter Steinmeier took up office. Have you ever worked out how many kilometres you’ve flown during the last few years?
I think it must be well over one million and around 300,000 per year with Frank‑Walter Steinmeier.
Which trips stand out in your mind?
I have countless memories. Today, we’re still so occupied with the conflict in eastern Ukraine. I therefore often think about the two days and one night in Kyiv in February 2014 when, in the hours after the deaths of dozens of people in Maidan Square, Foreign Minister Steinmeier tried so hard along with his French and Polish counterparts to prevent an open civil war in Ukraine and negotiated for 30 hours without a break with the Ukrainian President and the opposition.
Steinmeier’s gin and tonic get‑togethers with aides and journalists during flights home are legendary.
Hmmmmmmh, Frank‑Walter Steinmeier has just written about that in his recent book “Flugschreiber”. It’s well‑known that he needs a boost to protect him from malaria when he heads south ...
So you also have some fun on the job?
A German Foreign Minister has even more responsibility than he would normally have in these conflict‑ridden and crisis‑stricken times. The mood is serious and very concentrated also on the flights, which we use for consultations and for final preparations. Naturally, however, there are also happy moments or ones where the enormous pressure is lifted after a difficult trip, as well as bizarre situations about which we can laugh together. The Foreign Minister is sometimes on the go for several consecutive days. Then there are relaxed moments or times when we talk about things which have nothing to do with politics.
In November, Steinmeier officially received the support of Angela Merkel and the CDU for the Federal President election. Were you with him when the call came?
On the day of the decision by the party chairpersons of the grand coalition, Frank‑Walter Steinmeier was at the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels. I was with him.
When you go on trips with the Foreign Minister as often as you do, do you develop a personal relationship?
If you work so closely together under great pressure and so much tension and spend so much time together, then deep trust and great loyalty, empathy and a degree of warmth are absolutely essential. I have the greatest respect for the tireless commitment with which Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier works for our country, for European integration and for the peaceful resolution of conflicts, in Syria as well as in Libya or in eastern Ukraine, often to his physical limits.
You’re Steinmeier’s spokesperson. Do you now know exactly how his mind works and what you have to say in the Federal Press Conference?
Well, I’m usually with him: during talks with his counterparts, during internal consultations at the Federal Foreign Office, during public appearances and on trips. That gives me a clear picture of the German Foreign Minister’s political aims and ideas. And I work with a great team headed by my deputy, which prepares everything. We’re also very present in the social media.
Politicians and political spokespersons are often the target of satire. You’ve been on ZDF’s satirical heute‑show. How do you deal with mockery in the media?
In Berlin you’re likely to be patted on the back for a laugh on the heute‑show, as long as it wasn’t too embarrassing. When you have to answer questions from journalists in the Federal Press Conference hundreds of times, without any prior warnings or a safety net, then things go wrong now and again. I don’t find that so bad. However, the anonymity of the social media leads many people to make ugly comments. I try to laugh about them, but sometimes I feel a bit anxious about what some people say and think.
You haven’t lived in the north for quite some time now. What do you think about Bremen?
Bremen and the surrounding area is my home and always will be. My parents live in Achim and I still have lots of friends here. It’s always nice to come home.
Does the city‑state still have a chance of surviving?
I don’t see why not. The people of Bremen shouldn’t simply relinquish almost four centuries of freedom, self‑determination and imperial immediacy.
What springs to mind when you think of Bremen?
Live and let live. Dykes, the Weser and Werder. Freedom, tolerance and open‑mindedness in the city with the key to the world.
Interview conducted by Mathias Sonnenberg.