Europe must learn to become a global player

22.02.2018 - Interview

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel talks to the “Braunschweiger Zeitung” about Germany’s role in the world and in Europe, German prisoners in Turkey, the work to have Deniz Yücel released, European foreign policy, Brexit and transatlantic relations.


Does the power vacuum left by the US have something to do with [Germany’s growing importance]?

To some extent, yes, it does. For many people in the world, Germany symbolises the strength of the law rather than the law of the strong in international relations. But Germany also has the largest economy in Europe. No matter how important and essential France is, if Germany sneezes, the rest of Europe catches a cold. That’s why our European neighbours in particular are asking nervously when we will form a government.


A strong European partnership would require Germany to also play a military role, not least because the UK is leaving the EU.

Yes, we know that we need to do more to equip the Bundeswehr. Despite this, we managed to agree that every additional euro spent on the Bundeswehr will mean an additional euro is spent on humanitarian assistance and development aid. That is a unique situation in the world. This mechanism is the opposite of what US President Trump wants. At last, security is not merely defined as military security. Instead, the fight against hunger, poverty and deprivation plays a part in security so that new breeding ground for war, civil war and terror is not constantly created.


Why did you take the risk [of getting so involved personally in Deniz Yücel’s release]? This could definitely have been detrimental to your position, as you yourself just said.

You don’t become a minister in order to reduce risks to yourself, but rather to make sure others don’t face them. The aim was to have someone released from prison because I believe he was innocent. By the way, Deniz Yücel is the seventh German [to be released]. His case was the most complex. However, five Germans are still in prison in Turkey and we are working just as hard to secure their release.

You met Turkish President Erdoğan in Rome and Istanbul and negotiated with him on Yücel. How did those meetings go?

A while ago, President Erdoğan said that Gerhard Schröder was the only German who understood Turkey. When I read that, I asked Gerhard Schröder if he would be willing to go to Turkey to try to talk to Erdoğan. He did so in agreement with Chancellor Merkel. My Turkish counterpart Çavuşoğlu then invited me to visit him in his constituency. We spoke very frankly at that meeting. The first step was that Deniz Yücel’s detention conditions were improved, as I had requested. At the end of 2017, various cases were fast-tracked and human rights activist Peter Steudtner and others were released from prison.

You then invited Çavuşoğlu to your home town of Goslar at the start of the year.

Yes, it soon became clear that we needed to meet again. One of these meetings took place the evening before Erdoğan visited the Pope in Rome. We spoke about the war in Syria and Turkey’s military operations, which are rightfully viewed with grave concern. However, we also talked about Deniz Yücel. At our second meeting in Istanbul just one week later, we spoke in detail about the next steps in the case, which the Turkish side was going to fast-track. That was what I wanted to achieve. It’s a nice feeling when an exciting year as Foreign Minister ends on this note. Everything else just fades into the background.

Nevertheless, our reader Hans-Herbert Holletzek from Salzgitter would like to know how Mr Gabriel can expressly thank a government that was responsible for breaking the law and for persecuting and imprisoning people.

I am grateful to the Turkish Government for keeping its promise to first improve Yücel’s detention conditions and then to fast-track his case. This ultimately led to the court verdict and his release. I don’t think it will help those still in prison if I do not thank the Turkish Government. These prisoners are our main concern now, not whether or not we pat ourselves on the back.

But as we see it, such detentions are inherently illegal.

Naturally, we pointed that out as our main argument. But the Turkish Government only promised to fast-track the cases. It didn’t want to comment on the case. It said that was a matter for the court.

And there are still many political prisoners in Turkey.

Yes. And of course we also want to and will talk with the Turkish Government about the rule of law, which simply has to be the standard for us in Europe. There are still differences of opinion between us. But it has become slightly easier to talk about them.

Turkey has very concrete hopes that Yücel’s release will result in help with battle tanks. Prime Minister Yıldırım said so very openly at the Munich Security Conference. Was a deal done?

No. How often do I have to say that publicly?

But what Yıldırım said clearly seems to imply there was a deal.

No, it doesn’t. The Turkish Prime Minister said that he hopes relations with Germany will improve. That is self-evident. And we also share this hope. But Turkey did not make any concrete demands in Deniz Yücel’s case, nor would we have offered anything or indeed had anything to offer.

In an interview with “DER SPIEGEL” last year, you yourself said no arms would be exported to Turkey as long as Yücel was in prison.

Turkey is a partner in NATO. And that means we usually have certain forms of arms cooperation. After all, we have no interest in Turkey buying weapons from Russia. However, we said that in cases where there is a serious dispute, like the one we had with Turkey, we cannot simply go back to business as usual. And now there is the military conflict in northern Syria. We cannot, and indeed must not, supply anything.

But German arms play a role in the conflict, as has been proven.

Yes, because a German Government, of which I was not a member, agreed to export arms more than ten years ago, and apparently without setting any conditions. If I recall correctly, this occurred with the approval of a Green Party Foreign Minister.

Your speech at the Munich Security Conference was widely praised, you were successful in Deniz Yücel’s case and you are very popular with the public. Your ratings are higher than ever before, although you can be regarded as difficult at times. Now it seems that you gave your farewell speech in Munich. Does that hurt?

It was a speech about foreign policy, no more and no less. The fact that all the commentators were highly complimentary about it doesn’t change anything.

Will you simply be a backbencher in the future?

I am already a Member of the German Bundestag. I’m not getting involved in speculation on who might be in the future cabinet. As I have said, it will all sort itself out.

Our reader Lars Schirmer commented that some company or other will take pity on Gabriel and that he’ll be able to seek refuge in a supervisory board.

This concern shows just one thing – the widespread suspicion that politics are always a dirty business where you are subsequently “rewarded” in the business sector for your conduct. Politics are not dirty and you are not rewarded in the business sector. But why should business people not be able to go into politics and vice versa? I don’t mean as a backhander, but rather because they are good at what they do.

You are now 58, surely too young to retire. Horst Seehofer is 68 and wants to become Federal Minister of the Interior.

He is welcome to do so. I will definitely not be looking for that sort of role in ten years’ time. But everyone should decide for themselves.

While you are pouring us a coffee, that reminds me to ask you how people in Turkey reacted to the photo of you pouring a cup of tea for your Turkish counterpart Çavuşoğlu in your conservatory at your home in Goslar a few weeks ago.

There was a huge and positive reaction in Turkey, apparently because people were surprised to see that I own a Turkish teapot and know how to make Turkish tea.

Was Yücel released in part because you are more aware of Turkish sensitivities than other people are?

It is no secret that I was married to a Turkish woman, got to know the country a bit and feel a great sense of connection with people in Turkey as a result. Diplomacy is also important in the digital age. You have to put yourself in other people’s shoes and understand how they think, feel and function. That doesn’t mean you accept their interests, but you do need to understand them. Talking to people is diplomacy’s only tool.

In your speech in Munich, you urged people to fight for freedom. Aren’t the world’s democratic countries working well enough together?

It’s like this. Once again, the major new conflict is between liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes. These regimes see themselves as more successful and on the rise. The US regards the international stage as an arena in which the stronger side wins. That greatly weakens the idea of the West, as the strength of the law is crucial to this idea. If the US were to leave the western community, it should not think that the space it leaves will remain empty. The US withdrawal in Syria brought Russia and Iran to the fore. China is a country with a huge geo-strategic idea. We in the West do not have an answer. We are fighting to keep the US on side, but Europe is not simply at America’s beck and call.

Along with its economic clout, should Germany take on greater military responsibility in the future?

Europe needs to learn that it has historically focused on internal issues with the aim of safeguarding peace and creating prosperity. It has never been a global player. We left that to the French and British and in particular to the Americans. However, that is not how things will continue. We will have to get involved. But that doesn’t mean focusing all our efforts on military aspects. We also need to play a greater role in preventing crises, providing humanitarian assistance and helping build police forces and the judiciary.

What role should Europe play in Syria? There is a conflict between the Americans, who support the Kurds, and the Turks, who disapprove of that. But both are NATO members.

We want to help the US and Turkey to find common ground. But the entire conflict is extremely complex. The Kurdish militia YPG, which was successful in the fight against IS, now seems to be reaching out to Syrian ruler Assad. For their part, the Turks are worried about a large Kurdish area coming under YPG control. They see the YPG as nothing but the Syrian wing of the PKK, which, by the way, is banned in Europe and here in Germany. We are witnessing a brutal battle for power and influence in Syria, especially now after IS has been defeated and, worst of all, we are seeing inconceivable suffering being inflicted on the civilian population.
But it is also true to say that we Europeans play almost no role in this power struggle. We are trying to help via the Red Cross, Red Crescent and United Nations. However, we have virtually no influence on the military power architecture.

So what can Europe do?

We need to support anything that fosters the process of building democracy and drafting a constitution in Syria. Negotiations in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations are the only way to improve the situation. However, the problem is that in the meantime, people are still dying. The talks between the US and Turkey must lead to de-escalation, not only because two NATO partners might end up fighting each other, but also because people are enduring unimaginable suffering.

The British have traditionally seen themselves as Europe’s link to the US. Prime Minister May is making robust demands of the EU so that things remain that way after Brexit. Can the EU be blackmailed?

On the contrary. In the meantime, the UK Government has realised that it is not easy to explain the disadvantages of Brexit to the public. Now it is making demands of the EU in order to offset these disadvantages. Our answer is that we didn’t want Brexit. But if that’s what the UK Government wants, it must be willing to explain the consequences to its public. With regard to foreign and security policy, however, I am in favour of keeping the UK as close as possible to the EU, as we will continue to champion the same values.

The Netherlands is saying that a smaller EU doesn’t need such a large budget. What is your view on that?

If you say we don’t need such a large budget, you also have to say which tasks we no longer want to do. We can’t say that we want to enhance our defence capability, improve development cooperation with Africa, invest more in research and development and tackle youth unemployment in southern Europe, but at the same time to cut our budget.

Because everyone does their own thing.

There are many things we cannot do on our own as nation states. China intends to have the ten top technology companies in the world in 2025. If we do not invest now, we will end up longing for the good old days when we were dependent on four or five Californian companies. The EU will not become stronger by waiting around.

US President Trump has demanded that European countries double their defence budgets. How do you feel about that?

That would mean 70 billion euros in Germany alone – a crazy amount. In comparison, France, which is a nuclear power, “only” spends 40 billion per year. If we Germans doubled our net payments to the EU, that would come to just 26 billion euros. However, we are more likely to safeguard peace by enhancing Europe rather than boosting our defence budgets.


Interview conducted by André Dolle and Armin Maus.



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