Speech by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel to bid farewell to State Secretary Steinlein and welcome State Secretaries Lindner and Sontowski

14.02.2017 - Speech

Colleagues here at the Federal Foreign Office,
Representatives of the Staff Council,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It’s not very long, just a little over a fortnight, since you gathered here in the Weltsaal to bid farewell to Frank-Walter Steinmeier and welcome me. And now it’s already my turn to invite you to the next round of hellos and goodbyes.

Even in the short time I’ve been at the Federal Foreign Office, I’ve learnt that change is part of the routine. However, I hope it’s not going to carry on at quite such a rapid rate.

State Secretary Steinlein, Stephan,

Now that Frank-Walter Steinmeier and you are moving to Schloss Bellevue, and given that both your surnames contain the German word for “stone”, one might say that the Stone Age at the Federal Foreign Office is over.

To some people’s ears, that might sound as if it were something to be relieved about. But the real experts know that the Stone Age was an extremely productive era!

New instruments were discovered. Here at the FFO, you would talk about toolboxes.

Forms of peaceful coexistence were practised ‑ sort of forerunners of the OSCE. Whether Germany had the chairmanship back then, though, is something we will never know...

In short, Stephan, there is absolutely no doubt that it is largely down to you that the most recent Stone Age here at the Federal Foreign Office has been such an important one. Important for the ministry itself – because you were one of the key minds and drivers behind reform at the FFO. But also important far beyond the walls of the ministry; important for German foreign policy, which had to prove its worth in times of crisis. The fact that it was so successful is of course thanks not only to the Minister, but most especially to his closest advisers.

“Closest adviser” ‑ that sounds almost too distant for the relationship between you and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “Alter ego” would be a bit more like it. At least, that’s how I saw it. During our time in opposition together, whenever there was something that had to be discussed between party headquarters and the parliamentary group – and on the very rare occasion when there was something to be argued about – there were times at the end of a long day when I didn’t really know any more who I’d actually been talking to, Frank-Walter or you. But basically it didn’t matter. Because to talk to one of you was to talk to the other as well. That is the great strength of what was not only a long-standing professional connection, but above all a good friendship.


In recent years your political biography has been interwoven with that of Frank-Walter Steinmeier. But it began long before that. With the events of 1989 you learnt that change, particularly democratic change, has to be fought for. You can’t just let change wash over you; you can and have to shape it. It was clear to you that change in Germany had to be embedded in the idea of a united Europe. Reunification had to be a manifestation of European integration policy. Even before reunification, you nurtured contacts abroad, with our European neighbours.

So it is no coincidence that your only two foreign postings took you to France, as the GDR’s last ambassador there, and then to the Embassy in Warsaw, as a representative of reunited Germany. France and Poland: very early on, you focused for yourself on these two key points of orientation in German foreign policy.

Your biography reflects the change in our country. Indeed, you helped shape this change. In the best Prussian sense, you shouldered responsibility for the polity. Without ever pushing yourself to the fore. To paraphrase your academic and political teacher, Walter Ullmann: you decided to “serve the planet”. And the good thing is that this service is to continue, in a key position, in a crucial phase in which we have to fight for cohesion in our own country, but especially also in Europe and beyond, in a world which might otherwise go down the nationalist route.

I am sure I speak for all the colleagues here today when I wish you all the very best in your new position. Thank you very much indeed for everything you have done here at the Federal Foreign!

State Secretary Lindner, Walter,

Welcome back to Berlin! To a very wintry Berlin... I must say, when I saw the photos from your farewell in summery South Africa, I almost felt guilty about fetching you back to Berlin. But only almost.

There are the wildest rumours going around about the reasons for your appointment as State Secretary.

Some people think the appointment of Walter Lindner points to certain conclusions about the next government coalition. It’s going to be a Kenya coalition, they claim. Of course that’s nonsense.

So is the rumour that Walter Lindner is just going to be working part-time at the Federal Foreign Office, and playing the flute with the Berlin Philharmonic in the evening.

It’s not that I doubt your musical talent ‑ I’ve heard it myself, after all – but we need all your energies for the Federal Foreign Office!

Esteemed colleagues,

I am delighted that, in Walter Lindner, we have a new State Secretary who is entirely familiar with the diplomatic stage – and sometimes uses it for music of all kinds. He is someone who invariably understands his diplomatic activity as taking him right to the heart of events, and he has no fear of getting involved. Because diplomacy is not an aseptic job that takes place under laboratory conditions. Diplomacy happens exactly where things are bubbling up, where life is.

Walter, I have seen for myself on several occasions just how close you are to people. At the end of a visit we paid together to a slum in Nairobi, a local woman invited us to enjoy her home-made ‑ or rather hut-made ‑ mandazi and sukuma wiki. I wonder when you’ll be introducing these east African dishes in the FFO canteen?

Walter, I look forward to working with you. And let me assure you, spring will arrive in Berlin at some point!


State Secretary Sontowski, Rainer,

A few minutes ago I described Stephan Steinlein as Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s alter ego. Something similar could be said about our relationship. But there are a few differences. Steinmeier and Steinlein: not only their names are similar, but also their temperaments. To reassure everyone here in the room: that’s not the case with us! He’s the quieter one, I hasten to add. Not a bad qualification for a State Secretary at the Federal Foreign Office.

State Secretary Sontowski and his staff at the Federal Foreign Office will look after political coordination vis-à-vis the other federal ministries and the Länder. Bringing these tasks related to the function of Deputy Chancellor back to the FFO probably isn’t a bad thing for the ministry. Certainly, Rainer Sontowski has a wealth of experience of negotiations with the Federal Finance Ministry!

On that note, I am confident that with you, Rainer and Walter, the Federal Foreign Office is now even stronger!


Esteemed colleagues,

I am very glad that we have sorted out the urgent personnel issues quickly, that we have got our trio of State Secretaries Ederer, Lindner and Sontowski together. I am very grateful to State Secretary Ederer for staying on and ensuring continuity.

An active German foreign policy can only succeed, however, if we have good members of staff, as the Federal Foreign Office most certainly does, but also if the political and administrative leadership is well organised. It can only succeed if we all, you all, here in Berlin, in Bonn and at the missions abroad, put our entire energy into it!

We’ll need it. Because we can all see that the uncertainties remain and may even increase. This week we have the meeting of G20 Foreign Ministers and the Munich Security Conference. Everyone is keenly waiting to see what impressions and signals are given, because we do not yet know whether interests will play a role in the relationship between the United States and Europe and perhaps even between the United States and the rest of the world. That’s nothing bad, not even if the interests differ, because there are competition procedures for that, institutions that ensure balance. Nor do we know whether we need to be concerned that American domestic and foreign policy is going to operate on ideological lines. In that case, it is difficult to find a balance. Ideology which assumes that America is the very opposite of what it actually is. Because America definitely isn’t the land of the white man and the white woman. Nor is it a country which became great and strong by aiming for national hegemony and cultural and ethnic homogeneity. If that turns out to be American policy now, then we have difficult times ahead, because Europe and Germany are the exact opposite of this ideology. The Federal Republic of Germany was founded after the Second World War as a rejection of the idea of national hegemony and as a rejection of the idea of ethnic homogeneity. To that extent, we are the exact opposite of what seems to be emerging over there, at least in American politics.

What can we do? Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Obviously, try everything possible to debate and balance interests. But I believe we also need to prepare ourselves for Europe being given greater responsibility. The good news is that whatever we achieve in preparing for the worst will at the same time help us deal with the best case scenario. In the end, the aim is to make Europe stronger – in all the different aspects of its activities. At a time when Europe is showing weakness, some people find this scarcely conceivable. But I want to tell you about one example which I would never have thought possible when I was a young man. It shows just what potential there is in German foreign policy, but also in Europe. You will have read that after the Netherlands put military units under German command some time ago, Czechia and Romania are now talking about doing the same. Leaving aside the question of how important the military issue is in Europe, this is an astonishing development. As a young man, I would never have believed that those very countries which had been devastated by my parents’ and grandparents’ generations would ever be willing to align with German military structures. The fact that this is possible today shows how strong the ties of trust are in Europe, despite some differences, conflicts and hard confrontations. And I believe that, notwithstanding all the difficulties we have in moving closer to each other, we can build on this trust, trust which has evolved since the establishment of the European Union. I believe there is no reason to be discouraged. It must have been courageous men and women who invited the Germans ‑ the Germans!‑ to the European table after 1945. I cannot imagine that the citizens of France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg were particularly enthusiastic about the idea. But they did it nonetheless, and they succeeded in convincing the majority of people in their countries that the European integration project was the only way to a good and secure future, also for those countries which had so recently been attacked by us Germans. Why am I saying this? Because I believe that, in times of doubt, it is useful to recall these experiences. Because I believe that the resistance we need to overcome in our population and in the populations of other European states is less than that faced back then by Robert Schuman and others. Because I believe that they created something wonderful. And to my mind at least, the continent of Europe is, despite all the problems, the region of the world where one can live a life with the greatest democracy, freedom and social security. I believe that the greatest civilisation project of the 20th century is unparalleled even now in the 21st century. We must work to make this Europe stronger and more self-confident so as, in the best case, to create new partnerships with many, also with the Americans. And in the worst case, we must be strong enough to ourselves remain true to the values which we call Western values, which is not a geographical terms, but a political and cultural one, the idea of cohesion. That will be at the heart of our work over the next few months. Let me thank you already for helping us work towards this goal. I believe we will achieve it, with the help of our trio of State Secretaries.

Thank you very much.

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