Foreign Minister, do you trust your own intelligence agencies’ findings more than Vladimir Putin?
Yes, I do.
Does it worry you that your ally, US President Trump, can’t answer this question as clearly?
I find it very hard to understand what Trump said in Helsinki. Western intelligence agencies’ findings are drawn up carefully. These findings are extremely important for our work. It’s true that you always need to check everything thoroughly, but we should distinguish very clearly between information from reliable sources and false claims. Using fake news in politics for one’s own ends poses a great danger to the culture of debate. If fake news takes the place of facts, it is toxic for our democracy.
So why is Trump acting like this as regards the question of Russian interference in the US elections?
The US intelligence agencies have been working for months to clear up this matter. I can’t understand why a US President is openly calling the agencies’ findings into question like this. It must actually be in his own interest that the truth comes to light.
In the meantime, Trump has said that he got a word mixed up and meant the opposite. What do you think about this U-turn?
It seems to be an attempt at damage control. It’s not particularly convincing. Unfortunately, there is also still the matter of Trump’s attacks on the European Union, which he described as a “foe”. Overall, his visit to Europe showed that his conduct poses a great challenge to diplomacy.
Some topics at least, such as nuclear arms control, were discussed at the summit in Helsinki. Was any progress made?
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is one of the most important treaties in international politics. We cannot simply stand still if this treaty between the US and Russia collapses. Russia must clear up the allegations that it has violated the treaty. We need to do everything we can to ensure the agreement is kept alive. Anything else would be a threat to peace. I would have liked to see Trump and Putin agree in Helsinki on a concrete procedure for dealing with this major issue.
Apparently, they also discussed Syria.
Russia and the US must bring the various talks on the Syria question back together. Only then can we seriously start negotiating a political settlement. Ending this brutal war and the untold suffering of the people in Syria is one of the most important foreign policy issues of today.
Do you see Germany taking on the role of a mediator?
We are not pushing for this, but we are doing everything we can to help. If people want us to serve as a mediator in the conflict in Syria, we are available. We also play an important role as a large donor to Syria. We receive a great deal of respect for this – in part because our support is reliable. And we also want to be involved in shaping the political peace process. Germany belongs at the world’s important negotiating tables. We are willing to take on a leading role in Syria’s reconstruction as soon as there is a political settlement.
Do you want to address this issue when Germany is a Security Council member from 2019?
The Syria peace processes must be joined up under the auspices of the UN. We want to work on that.
Do you have other plans for the forthcoming two years as a Security Council member?
We want to continue trying to launch a UN peace mission in eastern Ukraine. This conflict remains one of the key political issues for Germany. However, we also want to look at countries that don’t receive much attention, such as the small island states in the Pacific, which are particularly at risk because of climate change. Responsible foreign policy always entails climate policy.
You could also use the time to make headway on the question of a European seat.
We will interpret our seat in the United Nations Security Council as a European seat. If we say that we need European unity, then we cannot merely speak on behalf of Germany. We need to become the German voice in the European context. We want to show that we are serious about a joint European seat. After all, that remains our goal. We need more international cooperation, not less. This concerns the future of multilateralism. The free world is defended today at the United Nations in New York.
Is multilateralism as a whole in danger because of Putin and Trump?
It is good that the US and Russia are talking with each other. But it seems that they repeatedly need to be reminded that they have enormous responsibility for peace and security throughout the world. That means no one should place their country above others.
Do you believe that the political system in the US could be damaged?
I am counting on the strength of the political institutions in the US. It doesn’t look like Congress is letting the President call all the shots. And the judiciary certainly isn’t, as we have seen. Furthermore, US civil society is active. A president like Trump will not destroy the political and social corrective forces in the US in a period of four years. The US is more than the White House.
Nevertheless, relations with the country that was formerly our most important friend and partner have changed. How are you addressing this situation?
We need to fight for things that used to be a matter of course. But not everything we define as a common interest is seen that way in the US. I could never have imagined that a US President would ever describe not just Russia and China, but also Europe as a foe. But equally, I would never have believed that Europe would have no other choice but to react so unequivocally to US measures by taking countermeasures – what a word! – in the form of tariffs.
By European standards, this was a drastic measure.
It shows how dramatic the situation is. We will always defend our interests assertively. We need to draw closer together in Europe. And we cannot allow the verbal attacks to divide us. There is a name for our national interest in Germany – Europe. If Europe fails to sing from the same song sheet, it will wind up only playing second fiddle in the future.
You speak of Europe as a single entity. However, more and more governments are calling fundamental European values into question. How should one deal with them?
We need to take people’s fears seriously, particularly those of the eastern European member states. We must certainly not provide right-wing populists with any material for their propaganda. We cannot go through Europe patronising others. We need a new Ostpolitik in Europe. Yes, there are some countries in Europe whose governments are making decisions we don’t like. We must not hesitate to point out shortcomings as regards the rule of law. At the same time, we cannot exclude anyone. Eastern Europeans, Italians, Austrians – we need them all. It is our job to keep Europe together.
Emmanuel Macron has drawn up a positive vision for Europe. Are you happy about that?
Yes, very. President Macron does not only have some nice ideas. He has also proved that you can win an election by campaigning on Europe. Germany must not be too shy and retiring in this regard. We should throw ourselves bravely into this battle and fight resolutely for Europe.
Macron cannot reform Europe on his own. Where is Germany in all this?
I firmly believe that we must not hesitate to take Macron up on his offer. We need to join forces with France on a very wide range of issues and to further Europe not by behaving like head teachers, but rather by serving as a motivating force. We took the first steps on financial and currency issues at the Franco-German summit in Meseberg a few weeks ago.
The banking union, the European Stability Mechanism and the eurozone budget – are these things enough to further the EU?
No. For example, we also need a common European foreign policy. We need to take a clear stance. I see one main way to do so – we need to end the curse of unanimity, which often leads to policies based on the lowest common denominator. This system is a blatant invitation to foreign powers such as China to divide us and to make use of individual member states’ potential to impose a blockade. I suggest that the European Council swiftly defines the first areas that can be decided immediately by a majority vote. This does not mean renouncing our sovereignty. On the contrary, no European country can achieve its national goals in any kind of foreign policy conflict on its own. Be it Iran, Ukraine or Syria, the answer to such conflicts is always the same – Europe must act as one. Otherwise, there will be no solution!
Refugee policy is the biggest obstacle to European integration. Could this dispute divide Europe?
We must do everything we can to make sure that refugee policy does not drive us apart. That is why it is so important to reach compromises on migration policy that are supported by all EU partners. Not all of this always completely reflects my personal views. But I cannot tell Horst Seehofer that countries cannot go it alone and then refuse to accept a European compromise when it is clear that we need to compromise in Europe. Those who call for European solutions must be prepared to make concessions. European solutions can only be achieved if everyone – regardless of whether they are on the right or left – is capable of making reasonable compromises.
One of the compromises involves holding centres in Africa. Could this happen?
I have nothing against solutions that meet rule-of-law and humanitarian criteria. But there is still a long way to go. North Africa’s governments currently reject the idea of holding centres. And it is not realistic to think that people who know their chances of being allowed into the EU are practically zero will wait in these centres.
A humanitarian disaster is currently taking place in the Mediterranean. Must refugees who are rescued there be taken to the EU?
The Libyan coastguard at any rate brings people it prevents from making the crossing back to Libya.
What are your views on the work carried out by non-state rescue initiatives?
I have great respect for the work of private individuals and organisations who save people from drowning. However, we cannot allow their humanitarian work to be exploited by people smugglers. We cannot leave these individuals and organisations to deal with the situation on their own. Naturally, all of them must comply with international maritime law. The Libyan coastguard, but also the international Mediterranean missions, must work on ensuring that people do not risk their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Does it disturb you that the captain of the rescue ship, Lifeline, is on trial despite having saved 230 lives?
I don’t feel good about this. It is not good that people who save lives end up on trial. But if the Maltese judiciary has questions, it has the right to investigate and clarify them.
Was the deportation of Bin Laden’s alleged bodyguard Sami A. to Tunisia lawful?
The courts must decide on this question.
The question is even more controversial, as Tunisia has now been declared a safe country of origin. Can a country where there is a threat of torture be “safe”?
Even when a country is classified as a safe state of origin, we check whether an individual is at risk of being tortured. I would caution against generalising. Just because we do not agree with all political developments in the Maghreb countries, we should not describe them as countries that torture people.
You travel a lot, but it doesn’t seem to be doing the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) much good. Why is that?
Many of the topics I work on are cross-party issues. I represent Germany. It is equally clear that I fight against the resurgence of nationalism and for greater international cooperation not only as Foreign Minister, but also as a Social Democrat. Apart from that, I believe that people have become more sceptical about parties and politicians overall in recent times.
The past weeks of crisis in the government have hardly served to win back people’s trust.
Regrettably, the argument in recent weeks between our government partners, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU), really made people feel more fed up with politics and politicians. The SPD behaved responsibly and reliably during this crisis.
Do you want the CSU to now focus on government work?
That is not what I want – it’s what I expect of my colleagues. This concerns the fundamental virtues of cooperation – responsibility and reliability.
Interview conducted by Marina Kormbaki and Gordon Repinski