“The world is not in a good state” (interview)

14.07.2017 - Interview

Interview with Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel about the G20 Summit in Hamburg, a new policy of détente and European help for Italy in the refugee issue. Published in ”FOCUS“ on 15 July 2017.

What would you call those who committed acts of violence during the G20 Summit?

Dangerous criminals.

Some people talk about “leftwing activists”. Shouldn’t they be called terrorists?

As far as I’m concerned, we can also call them terrorists, as their aim is to spread fear and dread through terror. We just have to be careful not to flatter these violent criminals by ascribing political motives to them. The term ”left‑wing activists“ downplays their actions in an irresponsible way – and that is the first step to justifying their violence. We were able to pursue and convict the Red Army Faction terrorists during the 1970s as what they were – criminals.

Looking at the outcome of the Summit, was it all worthwhile?

Unfortunately, you can already call it an achievement these days when Heads of State and Government meet for talks in the first place. The fact that Putin and Trump finally met in person is perhaps the greatest achievement of the Summit. Apart from that, I don’t see any tangible progress. On the contrary, US President Trump even managed to have the earlier decisions on free world trade watered down and to encourage Turkey to think about leaving the Paris Climate Agreement. But what I find much worse is that the world’s actual problems – war, civil war, famine, poverty, displacement and forced migration – hardly played a real role. The world is not in a good state. And the meeting between the 20 largest industrialised nations reflects that state of affairs.

Shouldn’t there finally be a list of extremists in Europe to prevent leftwing extremists from travelling to Germany?

Yes, of course. The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) has been calling on the responsible Federal Minister of the Interior from the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) to organise this for a long time. I have advocated setting up a Europe‑wide task force without delay. Regardless of how it is set up, the fact is that we now need to make use of all available rule-of-law measures across Europe to identify the perpetrators and to ensure that what we witnessed in Hamburg cannot happen again in the future.

Mr Gabriel, you have already met Vladimir Putin three times since you took office. Is a GermanRussian Spring in the air?

Why do we meet so often? Because we have so many problems. I would welcome more relaxed relations. But to achieve that, we need to solve the problem in Ukraine. And to do that, we need willingness on the Russian side.

The debate on Russia is extremely emotional. People either love Putin or they hate him. How can that be explained?

I advise everyone to try to understand the other side’s point of view. That doesn’t mean sharing or justifying these opinions. Putin feels disappointed by the West. The EU negotiated an association agreement with Ukraine without consulting Russia. That’s how he sees it. When it comes to Germany, both the Russians and the Turks feel disappointed in love. And as we know, such feelings usually hurt the most. But I also sense an equal amount of fondness for Germany among the Russians, and that is why I am saddened by these tense relations.

Do we need a new Ostpolitik?

I was in Reykjavik recently. That is where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev talked for hours and agreed on a disarmament treaty from which we still benefit today. Why can’t we make a new attempt to work towards disarmament and arms control instead of engaging in a huge arms race? Although the signs aren’t encouraging at the moment, I am strongly in favour of a new Ostpolitik and a new policy of détente. Chancellor Willy Brandt began his Ostpolitik in 1968 after the Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia, in other words, during the most difficult times.

Should the EU lift its sanctions against Moscow?

Europe has said the Minsk Agreement must be implemented in full before the sanctions can be completely lifted. I don’t think this is realistic. The right approach would be to gradually remove the sanctions when some progress is made in order to show that it is worthwhile moving towards peace. Russia needs to exert its influence on the separatists and the US needs to exert its influence on Ukraine.

Why the US? After all, this is a problem in the heart of Europe.

The US has a huge influence on Ukraine. I for one am not happy to see the Americans withdrawing from global politics. This will make the world even less safe. Secretary of State Tillerson is doing good foreign policy work even if uncertainties remain about how things are coordinated with the White House.

High praise, indeed! You recently accused the US of acting selfishly because its new sanctions against Russia hit Europe’s Nord Stream gas project.

We also have serious conflicts with the Americans that we are not sweeping under the carpet. US foreign policy cannot be allowed to become an extension of US economic policy. A situation whereby Russia is forced into a corner by having its gas banned from Europe so Europeans have to buy gas from the US is not acceptable.

If you’re honest, isn’t part of your argument to do with the fact that Gerhard Schröder is Chairman of the Shareholders’ Committee of Nord Stream?

Your question implies that I am not honest. But ask French, Austrian or Netherlands industry. They all want the project because Russia transports gas safely and inexpensively. Is it right to differentiate here? To say it’s no problem if Russian gas is transported in eastern European pipelines and generates revenue, but not okay if Russian gas is transported to Germany, France, the Netherlands or Austria in Russian pipelines?

Italy’s Foreign Minister said he might as well be howling at the moon as regards refugee policybecause this has the same impact as his calls on the EU.

How Europe is dealing with Italy is not okay. My Austrian counterpart wants to build fences, the idea being to let the Italians see how they cope. But what needs to happen is obvious. Naturally, we need to take in some of the refugees in Italy who have a chance of being granted asylum. And all European countries need to play their part. That is simply a matter of fair play. And we need to ensure that there are stable state structures in Libya so that the scourge of people smuggling can be tackled.

But that will take years – assuming it’s even feasible in the first place.

Yes, perhaps. But during that time we cannot leave Italy to cope with its problems on its own.

What is more likely? You will remain Foreign Minister or Martin Schulz will become Chancellor?

At any rate, I’d prefer the latter outcome. Sometimes you need to make sacrifices for a good cause.

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