“Diplomacy isn’t a Catholic marriage”

22.04.2017 - Interview

Interview with Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on German‑Turkish relations and Asia as a key region for Germany’s future. Published in the Rheinische Post on 22 April 2017.

You’ve established a new Asia department in your ministry. Why?

Asia is a crucial region for our future – both economically and politically. We can’t create a stable global order without the largest continent, one with four billion people and one third of global GNP. This is only possible with a strategic focus, with strong ties with the region, with regional experts and those with knowledge of the region’s languages, as well as with a coherent policy throughout the entire Federal Government. We want to achieve all that with this new department. It’s all about structures and it’s all about minds. We want to create a new awareness of the importance of a major world region.

Will this pivot to Asia, that’s to say a foreign policy focus on Asia, be at the expense of transatlantic relations?

Diplomacy isn’t a Catholic marriage. It adheres more to the principle of an open relationship. If we want to step up our partnerships with one region that doesn’t have a detrimental effect on our relations with other parts of the world. The United States is Germany’s closest and most important partner outside Europe, and it will remain so despite the somewhat bumpy first months of the Trump Administration.

China is Germany’s most important trading partner. Nonetheless, German companies are complaining about ideas being stolen. How can we ensure fairness?

The fact is that the future of German industry partly hinges on our relations with China. Therefore, we need fair and clear rules for our trade. German companies in China must be treated the same way as Chinese companies in Germany. We’re working on this. Next week I’ll be meeting the Chinese Foreign Minister within the framework of our strategic dialogue and this issue will be at the top of the agenda.

Is an EU‑China free trade agreement desirable in the long run?

First of all, we want to conclude an EU investment agreement with China allowing fair market access for companies on both sides as quickly as possible. There are no immediate plans for a free trade agreement, but it’s a good idea and it’s a distinct possibility in future. We’ve noted with interest that the Chinese Government has spoken out time and again recently in favour of an open international trade system and against protectionism. It’s important that these words are backed up by actions. We’ll be watching this carefully.

Is there also a way to foster the exchange between China and Germany in the cultural sphere, for example through exchange programmes?

Yes, fortunately there’s great interest on both sides. The better our cultural and interpersonal relations are with China, the better our political and economic relations can be. Last year was the German‑Chinese youth exchange year, with many young people visiting the partner country. We want to continue promoting such projects in future and make them one of the focuses of our ties with China.

What role can the EU play in the nuclear conflict in North Korea? Are we standing on the sidelines?

North Korea is resolutely continuing to develop its nuclear and missile programme despite the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. This isn’t a regional problem but, rather, a matter of peace and security for all of us. That means we can’t be indifferent to what Kim Jong‑un is up to in East Asia. The EU is already playing a key role in implementing the tough sanctions against the repressive regime in Pyongyang. Ultimately, a sustainable and durable resolution of the conflict can only be achieved through diplomatic and political means. Together with our partners, we’re looking for ways which will lead back to a dialogue process. Of course, that’s not easy with a regime that’s as difficult and awkward as the one in Pyongyang. Something we shouldn’t underestimate is that due to our experience as a divided country Germany’s views are sought‑after when it comes to Korean issues.

Should the EU break off the accession process with Turkey completely and cease providing democracy aid funding?

Hasty decisions along the lines of “We don’t want to talk at all any more” won’t get us anywhere. There’s always a day after. The issues we have and want to discuss with Turkey – from Deniz Yücel to relations with the EU and the brutal conflict in Syria – aren’t decreasing in number. That’s why, following this historic vote in Turkey, both sides have to work hard to open up again and bring together every single channel of communication. It won’t be easy, for the very close decision has left Turkey deeply divided and international election observers have also voiced their criticism loud and clear. Rather than making hasty political decisions, we now want to carefully discuss together how to deal with this difficult situation. Ultimately, however, it’s up to Turkey whether it wants to distance itself even further from Europe. We’re certainly not holding back when it comes to expressing our concerns about developments in Turkey during the last few months. What’s happening in Turkey – the arrest of deputies, members of the opposition, journalists – in no way comes up to democratic standards. Nor, unfortunately, did recent events in the days following the referendum make us especially hopeful about the future.

What can be done to support Turkey’s civil society?

Turkey has a strong civil society which is pro‑democracy and pro‑European. Anyone who like me has frequently visited Turkey during the last few decades can only be amazed by the huge progress the country has made. Therefore, people in Turkey certainly don’t need our advice. But perhaps they do need concrete help. We could, for example, organise exchanges between journalists or carry out projects on the ground, for instance in support of media projects and independent reporting. We’re supporting academics and have introduced scholarships. Youth exchanges are especially important to me and we want to greatly increase their funding before the end of the year.

Interview conducted by Michael Bröcker

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