Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel talks to the Magdeburger Volksstimme newspaper about Europe, Turkey’s EU membership aspirations, Poland’s demands for reparations, the Ukraine crisis, the North Korea conflict and refugee policy (interview published on 19 September 2017).
You have thrown yourself into your new role as Foreign Minister with such gusto, it looks like you think it’s the best office you’ve ever held. Do you?
Whatever office you hold, you have to put everything you have into it. But I will admit that being Germany’s Foreign Minister is of course a great job. That’s not to say it’s easy. The world is unsettled, with North Korea, the refugee crisis, starvation in Africa and violent conflicts right on our doorstep. We Germans and we Europeans need to do more on these issues. What helps me here is that, on my foreign trips – to France, Greece, Turkey and many other countries – I am meeting people with whom I have previously collaborated as chairman of the Social Democrats or as Economic Affairs Minister. I am able to make use of that network in my current role.
Beset by crisis, the world has become difficult terrain for a German Foreign Minister, starting with the differences we have with our EU neighbours. Can Jean-Claude Juncker’s speech on the state of the union help bring us together?
What I find most important is the plan to finally create a Europe of social standards. After all, nobody is going to fall in love with an internal market where whoever pays the lowest wages wins. The same pay for the same work in the same place – applying this principle will finally put an end to that destructive competition. Until now, the internal market has known only competition, without rules. That has meant that contracts usually go to whoever pays the lowest wages and maintains the worst social security, since those companies can always offer the cheapest prices. But if you live in Magdeburg, you can’t pay your rent on Romanian wages. If EU companies want to get contracts here in Germany, they must therefore be subject to the same labour standards that apply in Germany. And within Germany too, we need laws to make collective bargaining agreements apply to everyone. I lived in Madgeburg for more than four years and am often in the Mansfeld-Südharz district in eastern Germany, as my wife’s family lives there. It is frankly an embarrassment to see how low some wages are in East Germany even though the same companies pay much better wages in the West, because the collective bargaining agreement applies there.
Germany’s current policy makes a preliminary rejection of Turkey’s application to join the EU not unlikely. But Chancellor Merkel and the SPD contender, Martin Schulz, are now advocating an immediate stop to negotiations. Can Germany make that happen?
As is often the case, there are divergent interests within the EU on this issue, including economic concerns. But we are also reaping the results of the finger-wagging attitude adopted by certain members of the German Government, which has resulted in allergic reactions from some of our neighbours in the past. That said, I think we are basically in agreement across the EU. After all, Mr Erdogan doesn’t actually want to join the EU. Martin Schulz simply said aloud what the vast majority of Germans feel and know.
Of all its fellow EU members, Germany’s biggest problems are currently with Hungary and Poland, with issues of rule of law and a refusal to cooperate on refugee policy. Now Poland has added its demands for reparations. How are you, as Foreign Minister, handling this push from Warsaw?
Our friendship with Poland is one of the greatest gifts that we Germans have been granted. I am – the German Government is – profoundly aware of that. We have a very dense network of friendly ties between our two countries and between our communities. There’s European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder and the German-Polish Youth Office, to name but two examples. My home town of Goslar, for instance, has a very well-established relationship with Brzeg in Poland. We will not let all of that be destroyed. We sense that responsibility, and I am hopeful that the Polish Government does too.
To help calm the Ukraine crisis, you offered European assistance for reconstruction efforts on condition that the Minsk agreements were met. There is no progress to report, however.
The crucial thing for me is whether we finally manage to bring about a functioning ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. That’s why I suggested to President Putin half a year ago that we should send a UN peace mission there if necessary. He repeatedly rejected the proposal, but he has now given his approval. We have not agreed on every point of what this UN mission should look like, of course – but Russia has made a major concession. We should seize this opportunity to say, “Let’s talk about what the UN mission should look like.” And if that results in the ceasefire being observed, then we should start removing the sanctions against Russia step by step and helping Ukraine with its reconstruction efforts in the Donbas region. We need to breathe new life into détente efforts with Russia. The Russians have opened the door; rather than jumping to slam it shut again, we should try to open it further.
The sanctions on Russia have been criticised by many, including Western voices. When can these barriers be removed?
The sanctions were important, as we couldn’t turn a blind eye while Russia used violence to redraw borders. However, it is unrealistic to think the entire Minsk peace agreement has to be implemented before sanctions can be lifted. The sanctions were imposed step by step, and they should be lifted step by step. And we should tie the first major sanctions-lifting step to the establishment of a genuine ceasefire. That way the Russians will see that it’s worth their while.
Would Germany be biting off more than it can chew if it took on a key role in the North Korea negotiations, as the Chancellor is hoping to do?
I wasn’t very happy that Angela Merkel proposed that publicly. Now is actually the time for quiet diplomacy. If you talk about it too loudly, the outcome can very quickly become the opposite of what you intended. North Korea gaining nuclear weapons presents a massive threat, from which we in Germany and Europe are not exempt. If North Korea succeeds with its illegal nuclear and missile programme, others will take it as an example. Other countries will try to gain nuclear weapons too, including countries near us. The world would then be a far more dangerous place than it was in the time of East-West confrontation. We would have a situation with lots of small nuclear powers. I am convinced that we need to do two things right now. For one, we need to increase the economic pressure on Pyongyang. For another though, we need to use our diplomatic channels – first and foremost our channels to Russia and China, which has the greatest influence on North Korea. I made our position on that clear when I was in Beijing yesterday. At the same time, we support the US Secretary of State in his far-reaching proposal to North Korea, i.e. that, if it gives up on gaining nuclear weapons, there will be no intervention, no regime change, no military operations.
Germany’s refugee policy includes closing off the EU to migration, setting up holding centres in Africa and giving billions of euros to other countries, like Turkey, to hold back the influx of refugees. Tackling the causes of refugee movements is also on the agenda. What should we expect that to look like in real terms?
Africa’s population is set to double in the coming decades. As everyone knows, if living conditions there don’t improve, no EU border wall would be high enough to stop people setting out on the perilous journey to Europe. We therefore need to double not our military spending, as Ms Merkel and Mr Trump propose, but our development aid. And we need to be more consistent in sending those people back who can’t stay here long-term. The others, those who do find asylum here, need to be given language classes, education and training opportunities. And at least equal importance goes to reassuring our own people that no‑one will be left behind. All too often, I hear people say, “You find money for the refugees, but not for us.” It was therefore a big mistake for Angela Merkel and the CDU/CSU to stand in the way of minimum pensions and not provide funds for renovating schools. After all, the money is there. The FDP want to squander it on tax cuts for higher earners, the CDU/CSU on doubling the armaments budget. We in the Social Democratic Party want to renovate schools, combat poverty in old age, introduce a minimum pension and above all give our rural communities more money to help the people who live there.
Interview conducted by Steffen Honig