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"Nothing can be taken for granted any more."

03.08.2018 - Interview

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas talks to DuMont Medienhaus.

Mr Maas, if you had to sum up the current situation in the world in one sentence, what would you say?

Nothing can be taken for granted any more.

Optimists believe that the present situation is merely dangerous, while pessimists think it’s without hope.

I would never say that there’s no hope. I’m even confident that we can successfully tackle the new challenges, uncertainties and dangers. At least, that’s what I hope to achieve when I go to work every day.

Is President Trump the biggest problem facing Foreign Minister Maas and the German Government?

No. There are many conflicts which we need the United States to help us resolve – whether it be in Syria, in the Israel-Palestine conflict or in Ukraine. We need the United States for this just as much, by the way, as we do Russia. Trump may create new problems for us, but that doesn’t make him our biggest problem.

It’s regrettable that Trump calls into question alliances which have developed over decades with a tweet. What’s more, he really doesn’t stand by what has been agreed. Does the Chancellor speak with him in clear enough terms?

We, including the Chancellor, have taken a very clear stand. However, it’s also important to stay calm and not to react to every provocation. We want the transatlantic partnership to have a future. But that doesn’t mean saying yes to everything. If we want to uphold the partnership, we have to readjust it and, where necessary, create counterweights. It’s crucial that Europe stands united. Commission President Jean Claude Juncker demonstrated in the trade dispute that success can be achieved if Europe brings its weight to bear.

What’s the biggest problem when dealing with Trump?

I could never have imagined that an American President would ever call Russia, China and the European Union in one breath as foes of the United States. The biggest practical problem is the quick expiry date of his comments. On occasions, Trump has corrected himself within 24 hours or declared that his own words were a slip of the tongue. We expect a certain degree of reliability, a reliability which our side provides.

During your trip to Asia, you put forward your plan for an “alliance of multilateralists”, possibly centred around Germany and Japan. Did you propose this as an alternative to the transatlantic partnership?

No, I believe it’s more like a sheet anchor. Europe must assert itself while defending the values to which it is committed: democracy, the rule of law, human rights, as well as free trade – values, incidentally, on which the transatlantic partnership was built over the last few decades. We want to coordinate more closely with those who share these values and take a stand against those who cross red lines. We don’t need another summit for that. Rather, we can incorporate it into existing formats.

It looks as if you and the Chancellor are in complete agreement on all of these issues. Do you have any chance at all to make your own mark as a Social Democrat Foreign Minister?

When it comes to foreign policy, it’s important that the German Government shows to the outside world that it stands for continuity. The image we presented to the world a few weeks ago during the disagreement on migration wasn’t good. We were confronted with many questions from abroad: “What’s up with you? You’ve always brought stability to foreign policy. Is that over now?” There’s a lively debate between the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Chancellery behind closed doors. But we speak with one voice to the outside world. Anything else would be irresponsible. After all, Germany has a vital a role to play in the current global situation.

Europe is falling apart because – especially with regard to refugee policy – many member states are safeguarding their own interests with no consideration for their partners. To what extent is Germany to blame for this development?

There were problems in Europe before the migration debate and the events of 2015. However, even in difficult situations – both in the case of the punitive US tariffs and of the nuclear agreement with Iran – we’ve shown that Europe stands united.

The situation is very different when it comes to migration.

It must not be allowed to divide Europe. That also applies at present to the issue of who takes in the refugees rescued from the Mediterranean. We made mistakes in the past because we left the Italians to cope with this problem on their own. That destroyed a great deal of trust and we cannot allow that to happen again. Germany therefore has to make it especially clear now that we’re contributing to a European solution.

The EU is like a car in which everyone wants to take control of the steering wheel. How do you want to change that?

In the case of the refugees rescued from the Mediterranean, we need to find a European solution within the next few weeks. We cannot leave Italy and Spain in the lurch. That doesn’t mean that each of the 28 member states has to make the same contribution towards resolving this situation. Those who don’t participate should contribute in other areas, for example in combating the causes of migration. It won’t be possible for everyone to make the exact same contribution in every issue.

Is it plausible to believe that the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban will do more in future to combat the causes of migration?

If Orban wants the migration flows to abate, then he should realise that combating the causes would be an important contribution. In other words, it’s in his own interest to play a part. By the way, the European Union isn’t a club in which everyone can do whatever they like.

You believe that an effective Europe is the answer to Trump’s “America First” policy. Why aren’t you bolder and actively promoting the vision of the “United States of Europe”?

If I were to put such a wonderful vision on the agenda, I don’t know whether I would advance anything in practical terms. Some would use that as a pretext to show even less solidarity with their partners. That’s not what I want.

Federal Interior Minister and CSU leader Horst Seehofer now has to reach bilateral agreements on a transit procedure in order to quickly send back around five refugees a day at three border crossings at the Bavarian-Austrian border. How do you rate his chances?

The most important question is with how many states is there any hope of reaching such an agreement. Spain and Greece signalled their readiness early on. As for Italy, its readiness to take back refugees will largely depend on how much European solidarity we ourselves show when it comes to taking in those rescued in the Mediterranean.

So the other countries will want something in return? 

A price has to be paid for every agreement. That’s by no means objectionable in my view.

Will we see a new escalation in the dispute between the CSU and the CDU about refugee policy after the Bavarian summer holidays?

I don’t think so. The CSU has realised that it won’t do them any good in the Bavarian election campaign. And I think it’s clear to each and everyone now that this debate didn’t help anyone in the Government. I’m counting on the ability of everyone concerned to think rationally.

So you believe that the CSU can be rational?

Yes. I believe that the CSU is able to act rationally.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to visit Germany next month. What message should he take home with him?

All the issues which we’ve been talking about for a long time now will be discussed. For instance, there are still German nationals detained in Turkish prisons. We simply cannot understand why this is so. Turkey’s military activities in and around Afrin in north-west Syria will also be discussed. At the same time, however, we want to further normalise our bilateral relations. This is vitally important to us as a country with three million citizens with Turkish roots. However, Turkey also has interests, not least an interest in good economic relations.

In the debate about Mesut Özil’s resignation from Germany’s national football team, you said: “I don’t believe that the case of a multimillionaire living and working in England says much about Germany’s capacity for integration”. Do you regret this comment, which many regarded as foul play?

Although the debate is important, I don’t believe that a professional football player is the right point of reference. For the discussion during the last few weeks shows that the reality in Germany is more complex. Many people from an immigrant background are confronted with marginalisation and hostility in many different ways. We have to address this in earnest. The social media help us to see more of this reality in our country today. If that leads to more people speaking out against racism, hate and hate speech, then it’s been worthwhile.

Were you surprised when former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called your remark “intolerable”? He said you were calling into question whether Özil really belongs here.

I wasn’t surprised. But I don’t want to say any more.

You’ve spent countless hours on planes since taking up office. Do you still find the idea of flying to a faraway destination on holiday appealing?

Yes. My trips as minister have nothing at all to do with holiday. The trip to Japan and Korea lasted a total of 57 hours – 26 of which were spent in the air. I therefore enjoy being at home all the more. But even for a foreign minister, going abroad on holiday has its appeal.

Do you believe it would be possible to spend a pleasant day at the beach with Donald Trump?

Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t really care.

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