Foreign Minister, let’s start the New Year by imagining the future. When you think of German foreign policy in 2028, what do you envisage?
I hope it will be part of European foreign policy, as even a strong country like Germany will not have a real voice in the world if it is not part of a European voice.
What will be the priorities of this European foreign policy?
We definitely need a foreign policy in which we define European interests together. At the moment, we often define European values, but are far too weak when it comes to defining common interests. Let there be no misunderstanding – we must not downplay the importance of our values of freedom, democracy and human rights. On the contrary. But the historian Herfried Münkler is right when he says that merely adopting normative positions and only focusing on values will not be successful in a world full of people who fight hard to assert their own interests. In a world full of carnivores, vegetarians have a very tough time of it.
Germany has not learned this political toughness.
In the past, we could rely on the French, British and in particular the Americans to defend our interests in the world. We constantly criticised the United States – often quite rightfully – for acting as the world’s policeman. But now we are seeing what happens when it withdraws. There is no such thing as a vacuum in international politics. If the US leaves an area, other powers will immediately step in, as we have seen with Russia and Iran in Syria and with China in trade policy. These examples show that we achieve neither thing in the end – we do not succeed in spreading our European values, but equally we do not assert our interests.
Are you actually certain that the US feels committed to collective defence in line with Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty?
We are glad that Donald Trump and the US have confirmed Article 5. However, we should not put too much faith in this. At the same time, Europe cannot defend itself without the US, even if European structures are enhanced.
How do you see Germany’s role in the world today?
People now dream of living in Germany in the same way that those in search of freedom, prosperity and democracy dreamed of living in the US from the 18th to the 20th century.
Do you explicitly mean Germany or does this statement apply to Europe as a whole?
The European Union as a whole is certainly attractive, but Germany is particularly appealing because of its strong economy and peaceful society. And when you recall that Germany was a terrible place over 70 years ago and that people feared this Germany, it is certainly a wonderful development that we have gone from being a terrible place to a country where people long to live.
You are casting the present in an overly idyllic light.
I am also aware that it is not easy for everyone to live from well-paid work in Germany. You need skills and you need to work hard here. And I am also aware that there is far too much poverty and injustice in Germany, too. Nevertheless, our parents and grandparents created an incredibly prosperous and peaceful country compared with other countries around the world. Naturally, one must not underestimate how much all this depends on the strength of our economy. In fact, Moscow, Beijing and Washington have something in common – they do not value the European Union at all. They regard it with contempt.
Europe actually doesn’t seem to be so robust.
Apart from a few exceptions, you can say the same about most countries under authoritarian rule. So-called strong men often represent countries whose economies and social structures are weak. In many cases, asserting power and engaging in external confrontation are ways to conceal the major problems on the home front. The danger is that these authoritarian political styles are now eating their way into the western world. What they all have in common is that they place their national interests above those of the international community. Thank God we Europeans don’t do this. But that is the very reason why these countries with authoritarian leaders tend to look down on us. I firmly believe that we are in the midst of an era of rivalry between democratic and authoritarian countries. And the latter are already trying to gain influence in the European Union and to divide us. The first cracks can already be seen in Europe. In the future, we will need to do a great deal more to defend our freedom than we did in the past.
Because our liberal democracy is not efficient?
Because output is constantly evaluated today. How does something boost prosperity? How does it make us stronger? What does it have to offer in terms of technology? What political and military influence does it provide? It is increasingly rare to hear people asking if progress is being achieved democratically and freely. Europe is in a phase in which it is not providing this output in a sufficiently visible and tangible way. Youth unemployment is still far too high; we have not solved our currency problems; and living conditions are drifting further apart in Europe rather than becoming more equal. And that is why some critics say our Europe is outdated. That poses a great threat to us Europeans. We need to show that those who see us that way are mistaken, that we can agree, that we are also economically successful as a community of free and democratic countries and that we are gaining political influence. To do so, Europe needs to project its power.
Does Europe need to be feared?
No, not feared. On the contrary. Countries that work with us should feel safer than they do when they work with non-democratic regimes. Why is Europe not building any infrastructure in Africa, but instead leaving this to China? Why aren’t we able to boost economic development in our neighbouring eastern European countries in the Balkans, and instead leaving these countries to Russia’s increasing influence? In an uncomfortable world, we Europeans will not be able to continue taking it easy and waiting for the US.
That means democracy must become more efficient.
We are a very efficient country. However, it is not a question of efficiency, but rather of preserving our European business model in the long term. By the way, it’s ridiculous to claim that you can’t be both democratic and efficient. We see that in the very history of democracy, as only democracies have proved capable of learning from mistakes. One can instead ask whether a country like China, which is incredibly successful as regards economic development, is actually inefficient given its environment degradation and corruption. But China certainly sees the democratic model as weaker.
Don’t you sometimes think Europe is also dysfunctional?
For years now, we have constantly been hearing about a multi-speed Europe. We would be grateful if that really were the case, as it would at least mean we were all heading in the same direction, simply at different speeds. Unfortunately, the truth is that we have had a multi-track Europe for a long time already, that is, a Europe pursuing very different objectives. By the way, the traditional differences between North and South as regards financial and economic policy are far less problematic than the differences between eastern and western Europe.
China is constantly gaining influence in the South and East, to the extent that some European member states no longer dare to make decisions that go against Chinese interests. It’s obvious that China is the only country in the world that has a genuine geopolitical strategy.
A strategy aimed at dividing Europe?
No, but one aimed at increasing China’s influence.
Values and interests can collide. Do values lose in such cases?
No, that doesn’t happen. I am in favour of withstanding this tension and indeed creating it in the first place.
You have been accused of being too soft on Iran, where protests are taking place, as regards calling for values to be upheld. What’s your take on the situation there? Are we seeing an Iranian Spring?
That is difficult to say. A wide range of groups is involved in the protests. There are no leaders or shared political agenda. However, it is also obvious that people in Iran have reasons – economic and political reasons – for being dissatisfied. We have repeatedly told the Iranian Government that the country’s economy can only recover through greater international economic trade and investment. But the prerequisites for that are not only that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons, but also that its role in the region becomes far less bellicose. We have offered to help broker real talks and negotiations on this.
Going back to the conflict between values and interests brings us to Erdoğan.
I talk about honesty and perseverance. We have cut back our economic promotion measures as a result of the detentions and violations of human rights in Turkey.
Your Turkish counterpart Çavuşoğlu hopes that German-Turkish relations will improve soon. He refers to you as a “personal friend” and you have invited him to your home in Goslar. Isn’t that too great an honour as long as Deniz Yücel is still in prison?
My Turkish counterpart invited me to his home a few weeks ago. A lot has happened in the meantime and several Germans have been released from prison or allowed to leave Turkey following court rulings. And now I am returning the invitation. If we don’t talk with each other, the situation will definitely not improve either for our bilateral relations or for people in prison. But Deniz Yücel’s case is naturally extremely important. We are now waiting for charges to be filed against him so that we can finally react to them. At least he is no longer in solitary confinement. The Turkish judiciary also responded to our requests on that matter.
Why is this particular case so complicated?
It is an extremely public case.
Apparently, Turkey has received armaments from Germany.
Turkey is a partner in NATO and in the fight against IS – two reasons not to have restrictions on armaments exports to Turkey as we do for countries in the Middle East, for example. Nevertheless, the German Government has refused to grant permits for a very large number of armaments exports. That will remain our position at least as long as Deniz Yücel’s case is unresolved. But thinking about the conflict between values and interests, we cannot only focus on the fate of German prisoners in Turkey. Instead, we need to look at developments as a whole in the country. And that does not merely involve discussing democracy and human rights, but also very unsettling questions.
What questions? And is it wrong to think that Turkey is now tentatively reaching out to Europe again?
Turkey is currently trying more to make itself less dependent on Europe and is looking towards the East. Is that in our interest? And are we safeguarding western values in Turkey or at least in Europe in this way? Or are we making ourselves weaker overall? At the same time, Turkey is in breach of our European values. This conflict is difficult to withstand and it rightfully leads to discussion and debate. We need these debates. It is wrong to believe that one only needs to refer to values in order to always be on the safe side. But what we do urgently need is an informed discussion on this. Simply accusing each other of betraying values does not get anyone released from prison or make us stronger.
The Federal Chancellor is not a big fan of such debates.
There is no other way. We need to discuss the strategic challenges of foreign and security policy with the public – and to do so without having a ready-made answer to every question. Unfortunately, we don’t have experience in this or a real structure for strategic discussions. There is no think-tank culture in Germany. One task of foreign policy will be to develop these intellectual skills in Europe and Germany.
That would mean a former German foreign minister would work for a think tank and not in the business sector.
Yes, that wouldn’t be a bad idea. But I wasn’t planning on submitting my application in this interview.
With regard to the standstill in Berlin, are other countries amused or genuinely concerned about it?
I have heard various opinions, but there is concern that the stable Germany is no longer quite so stable.
What is your view on this?
I don’t share this concern, as our country is very stable economically and politically. Some countries have functioning governments, but their institutions don’t work. It’s the other way round in Germany. Europe is my only concern. There is a risk that time is running out. Fortunately, we have a genuinely pro-European French President, but we also have the next European elections in 2019, when it will be crucial that the pro-European parties have a credible manifesto to counteract anti-European sentiment on the left and right.
The Chancellor has been keeping Emmanuel Macron waiting for an answer for months.
It’s better to have a good answer than the wrong one by the Free Democratic Party. Macron’s idea is a Europe that protects its citizens. That includes defence and the fight against terrorism, but also fair social standards and tackling tax evasion by large companies. It is a really good concept. I hope we will have a clear decision in the spring in favour of working with France.
You yourself have said that Germany and Europe must also be respected at military level.
There are many grounds for increasing our defence budget appropriately. But doubling it? That would mean over 70 billion euros – per year! France, a nuclear power, spends 40 billion euros per year. Do we really believe that our European neighbours will still think it’s such a great idea in ten years’ time when a huge central European army has been established in Germany?
Do you mean that our European partners are afraid of a heavily armed Germany?
Some French people have already asked me if we are serious about this.
Mr Gabriel, not so long ago you told us that your role as Chairperson of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) was the best job you had ever had. But isn’t it actually the case that being Foreign Minister is a dream job for you?
You can’t compare these two roles.
I joined the Falcons, a long-standing children’s and youth movement from the Social Democratic workers’ movement, when I was 15. And I still recall a type of social democracy that one hardly finds any more these days. The history of this party ...
... was so romantic and glorious ...
Yes, you can mock its history if you forget the battles that Social Democrats fought, often paying with their lives, to defend and create freedom and democracy in Germany. Without the SPD, we would have hardly any of the things we now value in our country. But I admit that every chairperson of the oldest democratic party in Germany has had a very emotional relationship with the SPD.
Foreign policy is less emotional?
Actually, one could wish foreign policy were far less interesting. During the financial crisis, people said “banking has to be boring again”. One can only wish the same for foreign policy. But it looks like it will take some time before foreign policy becomes boring again. Things would certainly be better if it were dull.
Have you also found foreign policy stressful and lost sleep over it?
Standing in a Somali refugee camp that is home to over 150,000 refugees and not knowing what you can actually do is not something you just shrug off. I was moved when I showed my five-year-old daughter photos from Somalia to explain to her why I had been away. She stood up, went to her room, got her piggy bank and said, “you can take this for the children there”.
A future Social Democrat.
As she usually isn’t willing to share anything at all, that seems to indicate she won’t be joining the SPD in the future. (Laughs). But that is exactly why it was so moving.
What do you expect to happen, Mr Gabriel? Will you have to leave your job as Foreign Minister soon?
It is always better to expect that. Willy Brandt was right when he said we are elected, not chosen by God.
Mr Gabriel, thank you for the interview.
Interview conducted by Christiane Hoffman and Klaus Brinkbäumer.