“Patience and caution have not borne fruit”

03.08.2017 - Interview

Interview with Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on current developments in Turkey, the refugee situation and transatlantic relations. Published in Stern magazine on 3 August 2017.

Mr Gabriel, while still on holiday, you upgraded the travel warnings for Turkey. Did this have an effect on the Turkish Government?

It certainly did. The Turkish Government obviously noticed that we’re very serious. Several phone calls have taken place, and they are once again starting to respond to our concerns. Still, all this is simply not enough right now. The core issue is that Turkey is becoming less and less of a democracy. And that innocent people are being detained there. Nine of them are German citizens. Until this issue has been resolved ...

... each of them is, after all, facing a sentence of more than 40 years.

This is how politics works in Turkey: Mere political opposition against the government is already considered terrorism. What we’re saying is that we cannot accept terrorism being defined this way. If you provide us with evidence pointing to certain individuals’ involvement in the attempted coup, then we will follow up on that. If they can expect a fair trial in Turkey, without torture or the death penalty, then we will even extradite organisers of the attempted coup, because we of course condemned it when it happened last year. But the Turkish Government must give us evidence against people who are currently residing in Germany. That is exactly what it has not done so far. What we can by no means accept is the government’s strategy of using this attempted coup as a pretext for suppressing all dissent in Turkey. That is not in any way compatible with the rule of law. If this path is pursued, we will not find any common ground.

Do you have a red line?

I do not use these terms, because the situation can change very rapidly. Who would have ever thought that innocent German citizens would be detained in Turkey? Or that thousands of employees of the country’s judiciary, administrative authorities and public sector would be fired just like that? It’s plain as day to us that, if Turkey continues to move in this direction, it will never be part of the EU. The repeated announcement that the death penalty should be reinstated marks the end of current relations between Europe and Turkey. That’s perfectly clear.

But the EU has been issuing unmistakable warnings for quite some time – without any reaction so far from the Turkish side.

Unfortunately, you are quite right. However, we are now seeing that the Turkish Government does react to economic pressure. Tourism is a sector of critical importance to Turkey. To be honest, this sector is already now in very bad shape. The fact that Turkey’s authorities are now suspecting more than 600 German companies of supporting terrorism – ranging from Daimler to BASF to the local döner sandwich shop – is simply unacceptable. When we responded by warning against investments in Turkey, the Turkish Government immediately stopped this nonsense and declared it to have been a “misunderstanding”. That was good. However, it does not in any way affect basic developments in the country.

These days, can diplomacy still succeed without economic pressure?

Such pressure is often needed. That’s something I’m not happy about. It pains me to have to resort to it. Even when issuing travel warnings. Whom do they affect? Small hotel owners, shops at the local beach, and everyone in western Turkey whose income depends on Tourism. These Turkish citizens are the most pro‑German in the entire country.

So the effects of travel warnings are actually felt by the wrong people?

Yes, they are. Still, we insist that these measures are not directed at the Turkish people.

They are also not directed at the approximately three million people in Germany who have Turkish roots. It doesn’t matter if they hold a German or a Turkish passport. They are all part of our country. They have made great contributions, for which we should be grateful. They’ve helped build our economy, and they enrich our country’s culture and public life. We do not want them to feel out of place in Germany. But we also urge them to understand that our country cannot stand on the sidelines and watch injustice occur in Turkey.

Was your previous policy too soft?

It’s true that the attitude of showing understanding, being patient, and not reacting to provocation has not helped much so far. Erdoğan, after all, has likened us to Nazi Germany. We didn’t respond tit for tat. Great kindness and patience and restraint have not borne fruit. That’s bitter. It’s not nice to discover that pressure is what’s needed to change the situation.

Is the Turkish Government at risk of doing long‑term damage that can’t be repaired?

Yes, there’s actually a severe danger of that happening. Turks and Germans share a truly rich history. That’s something we must protect. Current disputes cannot be allowed to destroy this great accomplishment. There is in fact a Turkey that is much more important than the country’s current government. However, we cannot sit by idly and do nothing. The upgraded travel warning is due to the fact that we cannot be sure that innocent German citizens will not be detained.

Is there a real danger of that happening?

Imagine you’ve been travelling to Turkey for years to visit friends. One of them may be a suspected supporter of the Gülen movement. All of a sudden, you yourself will be suspected of terrorism.

Do you have any indications that German citizens are being mistreated in prison?

No. But incarceration is bad enough. There is a German translator and journalist who has been imprisoned together with her two‑year‑old son. A two‑year‑old child! The woman at least also has German citizenship. We have proposed that she be released and remain in Turkey until she stands trial. This request has so far been denied.

Your current term of office will be ending soon. Which crises besides the one in Turkey will you be devoting your attention to, before the end of the electoral term? What do you want to wrap up before then?

I’m sad to say that not many things will get “wrapped up” in the next few years. These days, we’ll already have accomplished a lot if we stop the world from becoming an even more dangerous place. In recent months, we’ve been very active in Africa, as part of efforts to address catastrophic famines there. We’ve spent and raised lots of money. Because a military response alone will not help. Only when people are given the opportunity for a brighter future will they stop leaving their homes to embark on the dangerous journey to Europe. I will travel again to South Sudan and to Uganda. Wolfgang Niedecken of BAP, the band from Cologne, will accompany me. He has a project there that aims to reintegrate former child soldiers.

This issue will be on my agenda up until my last day in office, however long that may be. This will be an African century. Africa’s population is set to double, to three billion people, over the course of only a few decades. Either we’ll succeed, together as Europeans, in stopping war and civil war in Africa, as well as in fighting hunger, poverty and hardship there, or we’ll see even greater numbers of refugees coming to Europe.

Martin Schulz is currently being accused of campaigning on this issue.

I don’t at all understand this accusation. In Italy, it’s plain to see that Europe has an unresolved refugee problem. Italy is already now facing a catastrophe. We are knowingly walking into the same situation that occurred in the Balkans in 2015. So it’s entirely justified for the SPD Chairman and candidate for Chancellor, Martin Schulz, to warn about this and call on Chancellor Angela Merkel of the CDU to not ignore this issue.

It will be a critical one during the coming months, and probably years. Refusing to talk about it prior to the Bundestag elections – as the CDU and CSU are doing – ultimately seeks to leave voters in the dark.

Are you expecting a second large wave of refugees?

We’ll know the truth after the Bundestag elections. It’s plain as day, after all. Currently, refugees are travelling via Libya to Italy, where they’re being stopped. But Italy cannot accommodate any more. And once again, there is no sign of European solidarity on this issue. European Heads of State and Government must negotiate solutions right now that prevent a sudden opening of the floodgates. Just like in 2015, Germany and Austria will bear the greatest burden.

So do you think it’s a good thing that Martin Schulz has touched this sore spot?

Martin Schulz is doing the right thing. Above all, he’s telling the truth. He’s right to say that Angela Merkel should support financial sanctions being imposed by the European Council on countries that do not agree to take in their fair share of refugees. Europe, after all, is not a community from which you expect only benefits, one in which you only participate if it means more money. Consequently, countries that opt out cannot count on the solidarity of those who agree to take in refugees. Those who care for refugees must be rewarded, and those who shirk their European responsibility must face cuts.

Shouldn’t the refugee flows be addressed closer to the source – in Libya, not in Europe?

Yes, that’s also true. What are we actually doing in Libya? Many say we should build refugee camps there. It’s a great idea – the only thing is, to do this you need a functioning state. Right now, refugee camps there are being controlled by truly evil militias. A German diplomat has written to us, saying that conditions there are much like those in concentration camps. I have visited one camp that is under the control of the Libyan Government. Conditions there are bad enough.

Prior to my visit, they released 400 people, so that it would be a little less cramped. Truth be told, we first need the country to have state structures. What is more, the EU Member States, the Gulf countries, Egypt, and several other countries must stop constantly pursuing their own national interests in Libya. This only leads to every militia being the proxy of another country, so that a national government has no chance of success.

Could you imagine a diplomatic solution being achieved in Libya under Germany’s leadership?

It must always be Europe that assumes a lead role. The dilemma of European external action is, after all, that everyone keeps saying we need a common foreign policy. In truth, however, every nation wants to prove that it has the best foreign policy. The reasons for this lie in Europe’s history. Europe is not a political actor on the international stage, but rather was founded for internal purposes. We must now assume an external role. We must learn – and I’ll now use diplomatic language – to take robust action. This means using the military to, for example, advance peace processes. Until now, we’ve always left this to the United States. Sometimes, also to the British and the French. But we haven’t learned to perform this task as a common Europe.

What you’re saying sounds exactly like what the US wants.

Their position on this is correct. This is our neighbourhood, not theirs. We are good at fighting hunger and poverty. What we’re not capable of is providing military protection, so that peace even stands a chance. We Europeans – with the exception of the French and the British – want to distance ourselves from these unpleasant tasks. We want to build United Nations villages, but we insist that others protect them. We’ll need to answer some very unpleasant questions.


Do you think you can find more common ground with the United States during this electoral term?

We certainly are very interested in trying to do so. I will now do something unusual and say something good about the new US Administration: During the past months, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has shown how well European and American policy can work hand in glove. During the Qatar crisis, he adopted the same position we did. That is, he chose not to isolate Qatar. We jointly looked for ways to keep the Gulf countries together. This pulled these countries back from the brink of war. Tillerson is also the one who is campaigning to prevent a trade war between Europe and the United States. But can we imagine cooperating with Donald Trump in the long term? Despite all of the bewilderment regarding the Trump Presidency and the uncertainty connected with it, the West would be much weaker without the United States. No country in the world is closer to us than North America, both in terms of politics and culture. That is why I think we don’t need to wear sackcloth and ashes in our discussions with the US side. We mustn’t be submissive. We must try to keep transatlantic relations alive, and we must try to find common approaches together with the Americans.

Is Russia still a reliable partner?

It’s my impression that Russia has gotten two messages. Vladimir Putin had hoped to win China as a partner on an equal footing. This did not happen. The Chinese are very self‑confidently saying: There are actually only two superpowers left in the world – us and the Americans. Russia’s second hope, namely that it would have a much easier time dealing with the new US Administration than with the Obama Administration, which they viewed as being too unpredictable and soft, has also turned out to be false. Therefore, Russia is carefully redirecting its attention toward Europe.

Are you beginning to feel sad about these being your final days as Foreign Minister?

Believe me, no one is happy to leave this office. Still, I am truly not thinking about the time after the Bundestag elections. My advice to all politicians is: Once you’re appointed to an office, work as hard as you can up until the very last day. And don’t think about what comes after. Do the very best job you can during the time that you are given.


Interview conducted by Christian Krug

Related content


Top of page