“We needn’t respond in kind to every provocation”

17.03.2017 - Interview

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in an interview with the Spiegel (18.03.2017).

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel talks to the Spiegel news magazine (interview published on 18 March 2017).


Mr Gabriel, how long will the Federal Government continue to let itself be insulted by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan?

To put it plainly, I still have the right to choose who may insult me. Not everyone, I believe, has this privilege. What has been said over the past few weeks is so off the wall and absurd that it’s even hard to continue listening. I admit, it takes a lot of self-composure. But I do believe we needn’t respond in kind to every provocation.

But not reacting actually strengthens Erdoğan.

Far from it. If we respond to provocations in a very severe way, then that only helps the Turkish President, because he needs a bogeyman for his campaign: He can then say, “here’s humiliated Turkey, and there is the arrogant West.” We must not bolster that friend-foe image.

So are the entry restrictions that were imposed by the Dutch Government a mistake?

Our Dutch partners were not in an easy position, considering they were in the final days of an intense national election campaign. Unfortunately, the Turkish side did not at all help to de-escalate the situation. To claim there is any similarity between the Netherlands, of all countries, and a fascist state, is entirely absurd. This liberal country suffered greatly under the murderous actions of the Nazis. Drawing a parallel between the Nazis and the Dutch social democrats unfortunately proves that, in politics, a race to the bottom is always possible.

Do you think it is right that Austria, too, is forbidding such political rallies?

Maybe my Austrian colleague’s intention is to do nothing less than what the Turkish President is doing with Europe, namely to exploit the difficult topic of relations between Europe and Turkey for the purpose of making political capital in his country. This is very short-sighted. The executives of political parties may still have a right to do this, but statesmen don’t. Regardless of whether we like or don’t like what Mr Erdoğan is doing, Turkey is Europe’s neighbour. We will need to continue to have relations with Turkey after the referendum, and vice versa.

Germany’s restraint has not had a great impact – Erdoğan has accused the Federal Government of using Nazi practices.

Unfortunately, authoritarian individuals tend to interpret restraint as weakness. Maybe they even feel it confirms their actions. I can understand everyone who says: “Why don’t you put your foot down?” But in the end, such accusations are so ludicrous that we need not take them seriously. Reacting in kind only aids Erdoğan’s campaign effort.

Erdoğan recently upped the ante: He claimed that the Federal Chancellor is attacking Turkey in the same way the Dutch police used dogs and horses to attack Turkish demonstrators.

It’s true, this statement is completely disrespectful and inappropriate. But my advice is to remain calm – even if it is difficult to do. We won’t respond with rude comments, but we will draw clear distinctions. We have permitted Turkish citizens to cast their vote on the constitutional referendum on our territory, yet we have also made very clear that we can and will take all measures that may become necessary if Ankara does not respect German rule of law.

What exactly does that mean?

This primarily concerns Turkish politicians holding rallies in connection with the constitutional referendum. Section 90a of our criminal code penalises anyone who insults or expresses contempt of Germany’s constitutional order.

Erdoğan has already done so.

I’ve informed my Turkish partners accordingly. I told them that, if these developments continue, then we could be faced with a new situation. It is permissible to express criticism – even sharp criticism – of Germany, and certainly also about German politics. But there are limits, and these are imposed by our own laws, including by the criminal code. Section 90a is one such limit. Anyone who violates the criminal code should know that they will not be permitted to proclaim their political views in our country. It is not only Turkey that deserves respect, but also Germany.

Why do you permit Erdoğan’s envoys to come to Germany to campaign for doing away with Turkish democracy?

Despite all the unfortunately justified criticism that is being made, no one, not even the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, is saying that Turkey’s referendum will effectively bury its democracy. There are presidential systems in other countries, too, where the Head of State can him or herself fire ministers and may issue laws by decree. One example is France. This does not mean, however, that I consider the changes to the constitution to be without danger.

What is your greatest concern?

It is all the proposed constitutional changes, taken together, that worry us. Our greatest concern is for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. If Turkey is truly a country under the rule of law, as Mr Erdoğan maintains, then I wonder how he can know and may claim, prior to any trial, that Deniz Yücel, a correspondent for Die Welt newspaper, is a terrorist and a spy.

Some CSU party members are demanding that German soldiers be withdrawn from Incirlik.

And others are even calling for our Ambassador to be withdrawn. What nonsense! We need Turkey for the Counter-ISIL Coalition, we need Turkey for Syria, and we must prevent Turkey from becoming an obstacle to efforts to stabilise Libya. It is helpful to remember that Turkey was not even excluded from NATO when it was a military dictatorship during the 1980s.

So much for NATO’s much-professed community of values.

Again and again, there will be a difficult and tense relationship between values and interests. At that time, Turkey would not have been a suitable member for the community of values. However, back then, as well, we did not want to lose Turkey to the old Soviet Union. We believed that the military dictatorship would come to an end. And that is what happened. Today, we by no means want to push Turkey towards Russia. The problems this would lead to are much more severe and would certainly have greater consequences for our children and grandchildren than the insults we are talking about today.

Erdoğan is being quite tough in his attempts to use Turkish leverage on Germany.

President Erdoğan is exploiting the fact that many people in Germany with Turkish roots do not feel they have been truly recognised and accepted in our country. Let me give you one example from my home town of Goslar: A couple of years ago, I noticed that many apartments in an old working-class district were being bought by Turkish families that, for the most part, had been living in single-family homes in a newly-built district. I asked them, “Why are you moving from your single-family home to an apartment?” Their answer was: “We’ve done everything we could, but we simply did not blend in with the community. Here, we again have a community.”

When you see Turkish flags at election rallies in Germany, is the first thought you have that we Germans made mistakes?

There are reasons, after all, why Erdoğan has such an easy time campaigning in Germany. We have not managed to offer dual citizenship to people who have worked here for the past 30 or 40 years. I once met a 63-year-old father who pointed to his son and said: “You’ve given German citizenship to this young man, who has not yet done a thing for the country. But me, after 40 years of paying taxes and social security contributions, I don’t get that. I’m not even allowed to vote in the mayoral election of the town in which I’ve lived for decades.”

Your first wife was Turkish. How much has this influenced your relationship to Turkey?

You’re right. I am very much a friend of Turkey. The Turkish have strong emotions in both directions, that is, they are capable of great friendship and of great rejection. This likeable and difficult country is close to my heart. And I know how much affection they feel particularly for us Germans. We have millions of people here in Germany with Turkish roots. They are great people. They long ago stopped being so-called guest workers, and they have become citizens of our country. We must not let the electoral campaign in Turkey divide us. Now more than ever we need to show that we support the Turkish citizens who are here in Germany. We must tell them: “We are grateful to you, because you helped build up our country.”

Have you ever felt that Turkey should be part of the European Union?

I’ve always had reservations. But I was part of a minority in the SPD that held this view. I discussed this with Erdoğan several times. He was still Prime Minister at that point. I told him that I believed the current state of the EU would make any enlargement extremely difficult. Even if Turkey were to meet all of the requirements. The EU was itself first in need of fundamental reforms, I insisted.

And what did Erdoğan say to that?

He said he was not absolutely insisting on membership for Turkey. What he wanted was for Turkey to be brought in line with European standards, so that his country would be modernised. The EU made a big mistake back then. Erdoğan succeeded, also by using the prospects of EU accession, in silencing the voice of Turkey’s military in Turkish politics. In this situation, the EU should have opened the negotiating chapter on the judiciary and fundamental rights. Ms Merkel, who was in a government coalition with the FDP at the time, along with the conservative parties in Austria and France, prevented this from happening.

The former EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Günther Verheugen, is accusing Ms Merkel of sharing responsibility for the EU and Turkey drifting apart, because she did not pursue the accession negotiations in good faith.

I myself thought that Ms Merkel’s concept of a privileged partnership was misguided, because it would make the Turkish side feel like second-class Europeans. Today, after the Brexit vote, the situation is entirely different. We are well-advised to establish a “special relationship” with the United Kingdom after it leaves the European Union. This will be an important learning process for the EU. Maybe some of those experiences can serve as a blueprint for other countries. In any case, EU membership for Turkey is today more out of reach than ever before.

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