Interview by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel with “SPIEGEL ONLINE” on relations with Turkey and Russia and the nuclear conflict with North Korea. Published on 14 September 2017.
Turkey has issued a travel warning for Germany. How far can we expect escalation to go with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan?
The Turkish Government’s travel warning is absurd. We have decided simply not to react to it. The Turkish President apparently has no interest whatsoever in returning to normal interaction. But what is actually much worse is that more and more German citizens are being arrested in Turkey. Each time we have to fight hard to secure consular access, although it is guaranteed under international law. There are never credible reasons for the arrests, and even after months on remand, the criminal charges remain completely unclear – an unbearable situation for those affected.
Cem Özdemir, leader of the Greens, has accused the German Government of being too soft on Erdoğan.
That’s nonsense. And he knows that.
That’s all you have to say?
I value Mr Özdemir’s commitment to human rights in Turkey and elsewhere. However, statements like that have nothing to do with Turkey, but rather with his own election campaign. We have reduced economic assistance, tightened our travel advice and cut arms exports to Turkey to virtually zero, which is not very easy to do given that it is a member of NATO. I don’t know what else Mr Özdemir wants. We aren’t going to break off diplomatic relations with Turkey. That would give us even fewer options as regards helping Germans in prison in Turkey and securing their release.
And what about the calls by your party leader and candidate for chancellor, Martin Schulz, to halt the EU accession negotiations with Turkey?
What he said is merely what the vast majority of Germans know and think, namely that it would be a farce to continue negotiating with Erdoğan’s Turkey on EU accession. In the long run, German politicians cannot continue arguing against their own public. By the way, Erdoğan himself no longer has any interest whatsoever in accession.
At EU level, the mood seems to be different.
In the EU, there are differing interests on this issue, as is so often the case. For a long time, the European Parliament has been calling for the EU accession talks to be suspended, while others are thinking about their national economic interests. How should we continue talking about EU membership with a man like Erdoğan as long as he is imprisoning our citizens and many of his own people for no reason? There is no doubt in my mind about that. We are not distancing Turkey from the EU – he is.
The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) is taking a tougher stance on Turkey. Are we right in thinking that you have also changed your position on Russia, just in the other direction?
We urgently need to seek a new start with Moscow. Henry Kissinger backed me up on this when we spoke recently. Otherwise, we will enter a very dangerous world.
And that’s why you want to ease the sanctions against Russia and achieve a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine before the terms of the Minsk Agreement have been met?
I would like to say why there is a threat of the world becoming more dangerous. If North Korea arms itself with nuclear weapons, many other countries will start doing the same thing, including countries near us. A world that has many small countries with nuclear weapons would be far more dangerous than the East-West confrontation of the past. This can only be prevented if the US works with Russia and indeed also with China. We need a new policy of détente.
Going back to the sanctions against Russia.
I already suggested years ago that we should gradually ease the sanctions in return for gradual implementation of the terms of the Minsk Agreement. It’s simply unrealistic to say that these steps will only follow when the Minsk Agreement has been implemented in its entirety. A truly sustainable and lasting ceasefire would be an important step. To this end, President Vladimir Putin has now presented a proposal that represents a significant departure from his previous position – if he means it, that is. We should now take this idea as a basis for discussion – not least because the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces in eastern Ukraine suggested by Putin is what we have been urging for years. I myself have repeatedly spoken with him about this, and Angela Merkel also did so at my request.
But Putin is setting other conditions.
That’s right. But in the meantime, he has made some concessions towards us, so we would be well advised to follow up this initiative. We should start talks without delay in New York. If it works out and we get things off the ground quickly, we should of course also make concessions by easing some sanctions.
Could it be that the opinion held by your fellow SPD member Gerhard Schröder is showing through here?
And what if it were?
If Gerhard Schröder had given me this advice, I wouldn’t hide it. But believe it or not, I am capable of thinking for myself.
The former Chancellor is going to be chairman of the management board of the oil company Rosneft. Mrs Merkel has criticised him for this, as has Martin Schulz. Would you take a job like that after your career in politics?
The question is ridiculous.
Because Martin Schulz and I are currently campaigning to win the general election.
You recently gave an interview to the controversial Russian television station RT Deutsch. Prior to that, you had met Russians of German descent in Jena. Is this an attempt to win votes from this group?
And what if it were? We German politicians need to get used to the idea that not only our established media exist. There are also social networks, as well as foreign television stations that broadcast in German. We also talk to other media outlets, such as Al Jazeera. And why shouldn’t we talk to Chinese stations, too? And as regards RT, I for one do not want to leave its viewers to the devices of the AfD.
You honour a station like that when you grant it an interview as Deputy Chancellor and Foreign Minister.
I don’t understand what you mean. At any rate, I reach people of Russian descent who live here in Germany and don’t read “SPIEGEL ONLINE”.
You would also achieve that with the right-wing nationalist “Junge Freiheit” weekly newspaper, but we don’t see you giving it an interview.
RT is not “Junge Freiheit”. As German democrats, we have an interest in our voice being heard in authoritarian countries.
But RT is a Russian propaganda instrument.
That’s more of an argument for granting it more interviews. You can believe me when I say that I am also capable of making my position clear to RT.
Interview conducted by Florian Gathmann and Severin Weiland.