Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in an interview with the Welt am Sonntag newspaper (published on 18 June 2017) on the situation of Deniz Yücel, the journalist in prison in Turkey, the start of the Brexit negotiations, the European Union, the G20 Summit in Hamburg, transatlantic relations, the situation in the Middle East, NATO and the death of Helmut Kohl.
Minister, the Welt correspondent Deniz Yücel, who is innocent of any crime, has been in solitary confinement in Turkey for more than three months now. Turkey is accusing him of “inciting the public to violence” and “supporting terrorism”. How do you view the situation?
We’re glad that we now have regular consular access and that he’s bearing up quite well. However, we shouldn’t be under any illusions. Relations between Germany and Turkey are so strained that it’s unlikely Deniz Yücel will be released any time soon. We hope that the ruling announced by the European Court of Human Rights will come soon – and that a solution will be found which allows Turkey to save face. Turkey has cooperated well with the court in the past.
Could sanctions be used in this situation? Turkey wants to join the Customs Union.
I’ve told representatives of the Turkish Government that we’re prepared to modernise the Customs Union with them. For this to happen, however, we’ll have to get away from megaphone diplomacy. Turkey must return to the due process of law. That means that it’ll have to release the imprisoned journalists. At the end of the day, we’ll only be able to resolve the situation if Turkey concedes some ground. We want to be able to reach out to Turkey once more. But we can’t do that if Turkey isn’t prepared to change its policies.
The Brexit negotiations are supposed to start on Monday. Would you have preferred a strengthened rather than a weakened Theresa May as a negotiating partner?
It’s clear that the British Conservatives have gambled and lost. First of all they played with the emotions of the British people, spreading fake news about Europe and failing to explain what the consequences of all this would be. Then they gambled again by calling a snap election because they thought that tactical tricks would enable them to win a larger majority. The outcome is the current difficult, indeed impossible, situation without a clear majority or a clear negotiating strategy. In this country anyone who caused so much chaos would have stepped down long before now. We’ll negotiate fairly. That means that we want to keep the British as close as possible to the EU, but never at the cost of dividing the EU 27.
And what kind of Brexit are we going to get now? Hard or soft?
Perhaps there’s now a chance of a so-called soft Brexit. That would mean that the UK stays in the Single Market. However, it would also mean, of course, freedom of movement for workers, as well as acceptance of the European Court of Justice or at least a joint court composed of Europeans and Britons which adheres to the decisions of the European Court of Justice in principle. Quite apart from all that, it would of course be best if the UK were not to leave the EU in the first place. At the moment, however, it doesn’t look as if that’s what will happen. But we want to leave the door open to the British.
Emmanuel Macron has also said that the door to exit Brexit was open. Do you think it’s possible that the British will change their minds?
I’m a Social Democrat. I believe in the power of enlightenment. I think anything is possible. Young people in the UK have shown that they’re fed up of others playing with their future. They know that their future lies in Europe.
You wrote joint papers with Emmanuel Macron quite a few years ago. Is European economic government now in sight?
I’m certain there are going to be changes in Europe. We can see that Helmut Kohl, who has just passed away, was right: he always said that a single currency union without political union and a single economic and financial policy would go wrong. However, he hoped that this would simply come about because everyone realised that there was no alternative. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. Now we’ll have to do it because the macroeconomic differences within the eurozone are still too big. Political management is needed. As long as everyone can ultimately do whatever they like, the currency union will remain a risk.
And you believe the Germans are prepared to renounce some of their budgetary sovereignty?
For the last few years, the Stability and Growth Pact has been taking away some of the eurozone states’ control over their own budgets. That’s how it should be. We can’t all do whatever we like in a single currency area. Just imagine if Germany had introduced the mark after the Second World War but all its constituent states had pursued their own fiscal, financial and economic policies. That would have gone wrong, too. We need a eurozone budget so that we can invest in growth and ease austerity.
Another question: would our sovereignty be further eroded?
Not at all, we’ll regain sovereignty if we work together more closely. This isn’t about giving up sovereignty. Rather, it’s about winning it back. Regaining the sovereignty which we as individual nation-states in the world no longer have if Asia, Africa and Latin America continue to gain influence. We’re getting smaller. We lose influence and sovereignty when we stand alone. We win it back when we cooperate with our European partners.
How do you want to convince eurosceptic voters of the worth of this new Europe?
By doing away with the nonsense which has been told for decades: that we Germans are the packhorses of the European Union. We’re not net contributors, we’re net winners. Millions of jobs in Germany depend on our European neighbours having a healthy economy and being able to buy our products. Some 60 percent of our exports go to the EU, 10 percent to China and 10 percent to the United States. That’s why I believe we can convince people that every investment in Europe is an investment in our own future. Europe may have weaknesses, but look around the world. Europe is in a very enviable position. In no other region in the world is it possible to live so peacefully and with so much democracy. People sense that, especially as there’s so much turbulence elsewhere.
So will Greece be granted debt relief soon?
All of us in Europe – including the CDU and CSU – pledged back in 2015 following difficult negotiations that there would be debt relief in 2018. Since then, the Greeks have completed a reform programme which we in Germany would never dream of undertaking. Despite that, the Greeks are still well-disposed towards Europe and champions of the European idea. I think the Greeks are now entitled to hear us say: ok, you kept your word and reformed your country. Now, we’re going to keep our word and relieve you of some of your debt burden.
The G20 Summit is being held in Hamburg on 7 and 8 July. Are you expecting more than a bland final communiqué?
The meeting of Heads of State and Government of the major industrialised countries has rarely been as important as it is now. I’m hoping for progress on trade issues, signals on climate protection and more help for Africa.
Are you fine with people protesting peacefully against Trump in the streets of Hamburg?
Yes, of course. Any citizen can demonstrate against anything or anyone in this country, as long as they do so peacefully. Also against the new US President. However, there will be Heads of Government at the G20 Summit in whose countries the rule of law is in a much worse state than in the United States. I sometimes wonder why it’s always the United States which provokes such opposition. Despite all the frustration and all the differences of opinion which we have with the current US Administration, one thing holds true: We Germans and Europeans have closer ties with the United States than with any other region in the world.
Have you noticed a paradigm shift by the Trump Administration in its relations with Russia: first approval, now sanctions?
It would have been good if the new US Administration had made a fresh start with Russia, sought new contacts and new negotiations. We cannot overcome the conflicts in Syria, Libya, Ukraine and elsewhere without Russia. Barack Obama’s attempt to humiliate Russia was a serious mistake. I’m still hoping that Washington will rectify this error. At the moment, however, it looks as if Washington and Moscow are actually turning away from each other.
What’s your assessment of the crisis in the Gulf? Is Qatar really promoting terrorism more than Saudi Arabia?
Sinister organisations and terrorism are being promoted around the entire region, not just by one state. This is often not necessarily down to governments but rather private individuals and foundations which are tolerated by the states. In some cases, this is still happening today. If the crisis ultimately does any good, then hopefully it will lead to all the financing of terrorism being effectively banned. The situation seems to have defused somewhat during the last few days. I hope that continues.
The situation in the Gulf is unstable, but Germany is supplying arms. Shouldn’t we stop that completely?
What arms are we supplying?
Machine guns to Oman.
Look at the numbers. As a rule, this is about very small quantities needed to protect the government, among other things. Oman is one of the most stable and peaceful countries in the region.
Sub-machine guns to the United Arab Emirates.
Also in very small quantities and intended for the protection of the royal family.
Helicopters to Saudi Arabia.
Non-combat helicopters! In truth, we’re supplying hardly anything now. What we’re still supplying is down to European contracts, which we have to honour. Unfortunately, we can’t publish the inquiries we get. The public only sees what is authorised. I can assure you that it’s only a fraction of the inquiries. Incidentally, supplying Saudi Arabia with patrol ships isn’t morally reprehensible. Saudi Arabia has every right to protect its coasts. We don’t supply tanks and small arms. For example, since 2013 I’ve been successfully blocking the construction and supply of 250,000 German assault rifles authorised by CDU and FDP.
As was decided in NATO, however, you have to raise the defence budget to two percent of GDP in the medium term.
That’s what Mr Trump wants to see. However, NATO merely decided that we wouldn’t make any further cuts and would move towards the two percent target. No-one objects to a better-equipped Bundeswehr. The SPD supports that. After all, for the last 12 years the Bundeswehr has been subject to cuts carried out by CDU/CSU ministers. However, an almost doubling of the defence budget is absolute nonsense. Especially if cuts had to be made in the social welfare budget, as called for by prominent CDU politicians. What we really need are disarmament initiatives. Helmut Schmidt introduced the NATO Double-Track Decision, which stated: we’re ready to defend ourselves but prepared to enter into disarmament negotiations. Ultimately, this led to the ban on land-based nuclear missiles in Europe. It is precisely this which is again at risk. Today the whole world is arming itself. Martin Schulz and the SPD will therefore work actively to bring about disarmament. Germany should be a force for peace and not the world champion in armament. Unfortunately, the CDU and CSU take a completely different view.
Your party, your generation railed against the "eternal Chancellor", Helmut Kohl. What was his greatest achievement? What, in your view, remains of Kohl, what was his legacy?
Helmut Kohl was a great German statesman, both a German and a European patriot. German unity and European unification are indivisible. Helmut Kohl realised that straight after 9 November, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and put it into practice – wholeheartedly, with great prescience and good fortune. Today we could do with his far-sightedness when it comes to Europe instead of the often prevailing pusillanimity.
The summer holidays are drawing closer. Does a Foreign Minister have any chance of a summer holiday?
If you asked my wife she would tell you that I’ve never had an uninterrupted family holiday. Something always happens. When I was Environment Minister nuclear power plants broke down, when I was Economics Minister there was trouble with Tengelmann...
Great prospects for the summer then!
My wife says that this time I’m going to build sandcastles for my daughters for 14 days rather than castles in the air in Berlin.
Interview conducted by Sascha Lehnartz and Daniel Friedrich Sturm.