An interview with Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on the situation of the German detainees in Turkey. Further topics: Russia sanctions bill by the US, foreign policy of the US Administration. Published in the Westfalische Nachrichten newspaper (8 August 2017).
Foreign Minister, Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, Brexit – Trump, Putin, Erdoğan. You have only been in office for half a year. Is your head just spinning?
You’re right, we have rarely experienced such an entanglement of crises and conflicts. That makes it all the more important to keep your eye on the ball but also to be crystal clear about your principles and positions. What we need to do is retain our composure. I don’t just mean that for me personally as German Foreign Minister, I am thinking of the European Union, too. We need vision and a shared voice to hold our own in this world in turmoil.
Which of the many crisis hotspots do you think is the most awkward?
I don’t keep a league table. All of the topics you addressed are highly complex and literally have explosive power. But one thing worrying me particularly at the minute, and that was missing from your list, is the famine in Africa. I’ve been there a couple of times in recent months. If you see the hungry children, the overcrowded camps, the families who only have left what they can hold in their hand, these are images you simply can’t forget. So I have decided we need to do even more for this region. I don’t just mean emergency aid, although of course we need to provide that too, but above all else the people there need a realistic perspective of a life in stability and peace. That is why I am travelling today to Uganda and South Sudan to have a look. What do the people there need? What happens next? How can we help more?
In US-Russian relations, the threat of a return of the Cold War looms large. Moscow is calling it a trade war. What does that mean for Germany?
It is never good for Europe if relations between Russia and the United States are bad. Also for Syria, Libya, Ukraine, the fight against ISIS and many other topics, we need the Russians and Americans to cooperate. In dealings with Russia, we need, where necessary, to present a clear, united and strong front – but also provide opportunities for dialogue and cooperation. And for us, the so-called West, it is important to stick together. The sanctions bill passed by the US Congress last week could cause harm here. Our strength in dealing with Russia after the annexation of Crimea was that the European Union and the United States were in absolute agreement on sanctions. That is something being put at risk by such steps. I therefore strongly recommend that President Trump coordinates with us closely before the sanctions enter into force. And sanctions against European companies, no way!
German-Turkish relations are also currently in the grip of an ice age. You even needed to return from your holiday at the North Sea coast. How cross are you about developments in Turkey?
I am more disappointed than cross. The Turkish Government is in the process of mercilessly undoing the progress made in recent decades. With its current Government, Turkey is distancing itself with ever increasing pace from the foundations of democracy and European values. Take freedom of the press: the trials against Cumhüriyet journalists show that in Turkey such freedom is being eroded. I have the utmost respect for these journalists who refuse to be robbed of their courage, who continue to publish. We tried for a long time to make clear patiently to the Turkish Government what a dangerous path they are on. But that did not bring about any change. Those detaining innocent Germans for an unlimited period should not rely on us pretending elsewhere that nothing has happened.
Is there currently legitimate hope that the German journalist Deniz Yücel and other German detainees will be released from Turkish prisons?
It affects me personally that Peter Steudtner, but also Mesale Tolu, Deniz Yücel and other Germans have spent months in prison without any charges being made. The Turkish Government always refers to the independent judiciary which, to put it mildly, is dishonest when you consider the smear campaign waged by the Turkish Government and media against these Germans. What is important to me is that those involved know they are not alone. We are working on a solution, time and again. Their release remains our goal. We will not back down on our demands.
Does patience with Mr Erdoğan run out at some stage? And what does that mean for Turkey’s accession to the EU? Or, are Germany’s hands tied once more when it comes to exerting massive pressure on Ankara?
For a long time, we were extremely patient, we kept reaching out and in return got further slaps in the face. Think, for example of the unspeakable comparisons to Nazis. The time for patience is over now because it is clear that this Turkish Government only reacts to pressure. So we have realigned our policy on Turkey. After Peter Steudtner’s arrest, we had to tighten up our travel advice and are looking at economic promotion tools very carefully, both at national and European level. When fewer Germans go on holiday in Turkey, it is of course first and foremost the people working in the tourist industry who feel the squeeze. I of course am very sorry about that. That is why I want to say very clearly: For me, the Turkish Government and Turkey are two different things. Turkey is and remains a wonderful country. But, quite obviously, the Turkish Government is turning the country away from the EU.
There is currently no sign of a clear foreign-policy line in dealing with US President Donald Trump. Do you agree with this analysis?
It is more Donald Trump and his people in the White House who are lacking a clear line. You hardly know who is even there because people keep getting fired. Even as trainer of Schalke 04 you would be sitting more firmly in the saddle right now. Our approach is clear: We are prepared to cooperate – based on our interests and the values which have always been the hallmark of our relations: tolerance, freedom of opinion, free trade, the rule of law, democracy. But we are neither submissive nor naive. When push comes to shove, we know how to assert ourselves. The same holds true for the new sanctions bill.
Interview conducted by Michael Giese and Wolfgang Kleideiter.