Interview by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel with the “Nordkurier” newspaper on North Korea’s nuclear programme, the crisis in Ukraine, developments in Poland, disarmament and arms control. Published on 7 September 2017.
We have a lot of pressing issues in the world, of which North Korea is currently the most pressing. The crisis in Ukraine is also still an issue. And in recent months, there has also been unsettling news from Poland, which is more or less on our doorstep. How do you see the situation there?
If you look at Poland, you first have to be aware that the Polish Government was elected because people felt they weren’t benefiting enough from the country’s economic growth. The Law and Justice (PiS) party was elected more as a social party than because of its authoritarian touch or nationalism. But of course, what the Polish Government is doing now is extremely problematic. It is curtailing what we see as the separation of powers and the rule of law to a very alarming extent. Nevertheless, I have great faith in the Polish people’s love of freedom and intransigence when it comes to democracy and the rule of law. I have visited Poland many times. The Poles were among the first people to stand up to the communist regime. We owe them a great deal. Despite all the difficult developments in Poland, I would always say there are reasons to trust in the Poles’ love of freedom.
As Foreign Minister, you often have to ask yourself how to deal with statesmen who do not behave as one would wish. Many people in our region foster German-Polish relations by doing voluntary work. Now some of them are saying they feel they should take a stand by cutting back on this work.
I would advise them to do the opposite, that is, to work on having more cultural exchange, more town twinning, more youth exchange and more contacts, and not to withdraw because that would only play into the hands of the nationalist conservatives in Poland. Obviously, I can’t tell people what to do, but I would welcome greater investment in German-Polish exchange and efforts on our part to understand the country and what is happening there more clearly. I am happy about each and every volunteer who says that now more than ever, they want to continue their work.
In the case of Turkey, for a long time you also advocated not withdrawing, but rather listening, despite all the problems. Martin Schulz, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) candidate for Chancellor, has now called for the EU accession talks to be discontinued. Did he agree on this with you first?
Yes, of course. One always needs to distinguish between two things. A conflict with a government should not give rise to the impression that one doesn’t want anything to do with the people. Turkish President Erdoğan is keen to give the impression that we have a problem with Turkey or the Turkish people and that this is why are distancing ourselves from Turkey. The truth is that he is distancing Turkey with breakneck speed from everything that has to do with the rule of law, democracy and freedom of expression, and as a result it is de facto inconceivable to discuss the country’s EU accession with this Government.
Were these talks a good idea in the first place?
I personally have to say that I was always a bit sceptical. Turkey is a country that is very different from us. Instead, I advocated thinking about what forms of partnership we can find for countries such as Turkey, Ukraine and, in the future, the United Kingdom that would not involve full membership, but rather a close partnership. Under the current circumstances, as long as Germans are in prison in Turkey, we naturally cannot even talk about an improved customs union. That also applies as long as Erdoğan continues to exploit the disappointed love felt by many Turks towards us Germans and Europeans for his nationalist glorification.
German citizens were arrested in Turkey just a few days ago. What can you and the German Government do to help in such cases?
Fundamentally, I would say that our concerns with Turkey will not end when Erdoğan releases the Germans, but keeps all the Turkish citizens in prison. Erdoğan is making many Turkish people homeless because they have to flee. In this situation, we should remember that Turkey gave asylum to many Germans during the Nazi era. When they were stripped of their citizenship here, Turkey did not enter the term “stateless” in their passports, but instead very sensitively used the word “homeless”, which was written as “haymatloz” based on the German “heimatlos”. And this word became part of the Turkish language. We should now offer Turkish people a home. One way we do this is through scholarship programmes and other measures. There will be a time after Erdoğan, and one should not lose faith that better times can come again. But as long as he is pursuing these sorts of policies, we must make sure we do not help him to succeed by providing Turkey with more loans and economic assistance. That is not acceptable.
Many countries that were close partners of Germany just a few years ago are struggling with political crises. How do you see our own situation?
We need to take care in Europe to stick together. That does not only concern Poland. Here in Land Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the right-wing NPD and AfD are very strong and spreading anti-European propaganda. One must be aware that destroying the European Union, as the AfD and NPD have set out to do, would cost us millions of jobs. We produce more cars, machines and wind turbines than we need. We sell 60 percent of this surplus to the European Union – not to China or the United States. Our European neighbours only buy our products when their economies are doing well. The European Union is not only a guarantee of peace in Europe – although thank God it is that, too. It also guarantees us Germans a life in an economically successful country. If our children and grandchildren want to continue having a say in the world, then we Germans must have the greatest interest of all in keeping Europe together. There is absolutely no need to look at Turkey or the United States. We have enough to do on our own doorstep.
We’d like to stick with foreign affairs and ask you about Russia. As Minister-President of Land Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, your fellow SPD member Erwin Sellering called for dialogue with Russia and opposed the current sanctions. His successor Manuela Schwesig wants to continue this course. Is that wrong?
No, it is absolutely right. I myself attended the Russian Day in Land Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania at the invitation of Erwin Sellering. Just last Tuesday, Vladimir Putin suggested using an UN mission to enforce a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. I have been suggesting this approach to the Russians for months. Their reaction so far was very reserved. We should use this to relaunch a policy of détente. Even during the most difficult times of the Cold War, Willy Brandt drew up his policy of détente with Russia and Poland. In 1968, when the Warsaw Pact invaded Prague, no one thought that the Iron Curtain would disappear or that we would have a united Germany. I think what we urgently need is to relaunch the policy of détente, partly because we will need Russia in many other issues around the world, including North Korea. We must work together in the world – the United States, Russia, China and Europe.
In your speech to the German Bundestag on Tuesday, you called for a reduction, rather than an increase, in arms expenditure. In view of security concerns, do you think the public will accept this idea if other parts of the world are arming themselves?
Well, I didn’t call for us to disarm unilaterally. Instead, I said that the whole world is talking about rearmament. Germany must be the advocate – and Europe must become the advocate – for arms control and international disarmament. We already had a nuclear arms debate in the East and West during the 1980s. In the end, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan met in Reykjavik and agreed on a treaty that still applies today – the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. That created enormous security for us Germans. Now the treaty is in great danger because the United States and Russia do not trust each other.
And it would help to spend less on arms?
I can only urgently advise doing everything in our power to relaunch the arms control instruments. These are instruments for bad times when there is no trust. I simply think what Mr Trump is demanding of us is crazy. And I am truly appalled that Ms Merkel wants to go along with his demands and double Germany’s arms budget to 70 billion euros per year. Germany only has a budget of 300 billion euros. I would prefer to double what we spend on education. France is a nuclear-weapon power and “only” spends 40 billion euros on defence, so I think it is completely unnecessary for us to double our spending. Europe spends roughly half what the US spends on defence – but only achieves 15 percent of its efficiency. How about we double efficiency rather than expenditure? That is why I personally cannot understand the Federal Chancellor’s policies.
Interview conducted by Christoph Schoenwiese.