Minister, have the clashes in Chemnitz been noticed abroad?
Of course. My European colleagues asked me about the situation very often during the Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Vienna on Thursday.
What did you say?
That it’s shocking. Both the brutal murder and the abhorrent hounding of innocent passers-by. All perpetrators must be subject to the full force of the rule of law. However, I want to make it clear that the vast majority of people in Germany also find these attacks on passers-by unacceptable. Most people are outward-looking and tolerant.
To what extent are the extreme right-wing excesses damaging Germany’s reputation around the world?
When it comes to xenophobia, right-wing extremism and racism, Germany is viewed especially critically – and rightly so. It’s shameful for our country when the Nazi salute is seen in our streets today. Politicians need to do their homework. And the whole of society is called upon to act: we have to take a stand against right-wing extremists. We cannot shirk away from this task. We must stand up to neo-Nazis and anti-Semites. Only then can we ensure that xenophobic atrocities don’t damage Germany’s standing permanently.
Canada has had a travel warning for eastern Germany, particularly for dark-skinned people, for many years. Do you think that’s justified?
Other countries have to decide that for themselves. The fact is that, unfortunately, racist offences are committed time and again in the east of our country. However, it would be a lazy generalisation to claim that this problem only exists in the east. It’s important to point out that regardless of whether in Saxony or elsewhere: all upright democrats now need our full support.
What’s worse: the few right-wing extremists doing a Nazi salute or the many ordinary people protesting alongside them?
Both. The situation becomes dangerous when decent people don’t stand up. Racists seem much louder when decent people remain silent. We all have to show the world that we democrats are the majority and the racists are the minority. The silent majority must finally raise its voice.
My generation were given freedom, the rule of law and democracy. We didn’t have to fight for it and often take it for granted. Unfortunately, our society has become a bit complacent and we have to overcome that. We have to get up off the couch and speak out. The years of sleepwalking have to end. Our democracy is what we make of it.
How do you react when a friend or relation suddenly starts making racist comments at a party?
Experience has taught me that there’s little point in immediately stigmatising people. That’s actually counterproductive. I usually ask a very simple question: “Why do you say that?” If someone can articulate their fears then that’s the key to allaying them. Perhaps you can’t reach everyone but you can reach most people by talking about the facts.
Do you trust President Trump?
I find it jarring when Trump brands Europe as an adversary of the United States along with Russia and China. Despite all the problems, however, I haven’t lost my confidence in the United States. Not one little bit. Our friendship is based on values such as democracy, freedom and human rights – not on Presidents. We mustn’t make the mistake of equating Trump with the United States. America is more than the tweets from the White House.
You want to redefine our partnership with the United States. What does that mean in practice?
We shouldn’t react like a rabbit caught in the headlights when it comes to economic sanctions or punitive tariffs. We have to resolutely defend our own interests when faced with such actions. However, this will only work: we see ourselves as 500 million Europeans not as 80 million Germans.
Would you invite Russia’s President Putin to your wedding?
Your Austrian counterpart Karin Kneissl invited Putin to her wedding, curtsied deeply to him and danced with him. What did you think when you saw the photos?
As Foreign Minister I’m also Germany’s top diplomat. I’d therefore prefer not to comment.
When it comes to foreign policy, Europe is a fractious group of countries, not a 500-million-strong power ...
I don’t agree! Especially in the case of the punitive tariffs and the nuclear agreement with Iran, Europe has shown itself to be united and capable of taking action. However, it’s very important that certain foreign policy decisions no longer have to be made on a unanimous basis in future. Majority decisions prevent a situation where other powers only have to win over one member state in order to block everything.
When will that finally happen?
We should initiate this process after the European elections next spring.
And do you really believe that a majority decision will enable the EU to force Poland or Hungary to take in tens of thousands of refugees?
That’s not the right way to go about things. We shouldn’t allow the migration issue to divide us. Instead, I suggest that any country which doesn’t want to take in refugees should shoulder responsibility in another area. For example, combating the causes of refugee movements in Africa.
Your French colleague Le Drian says that he’s no longer prepared to foot the bill for right-wing populist governments in Europe.
There have long since been discussions in Brussels about whether shortcomings as regards the rule of law should have consequences in terms of funding. Yes, but when it comes to foreign policy debates it’s better if we Germans extend our hand to others rather than preach at them. We need a united Europe. Dividing Europe into first and second class member states would undermine the European idea.
Turkey is in crisis. Do we have to help Turkey, including financially?
We’ve no interest in seeing Turkey stumbling either economically or politically. However, what we need now is not concrete financial assistance for the Turkish economy but a normalisation of our relations. Turkey has to play its part in this.
What do you expect from President Erdogan in the run-up to his state visit to Germany?
I’m travelling to Turkey next week. There are still seven German nationals in Turkish prisons – and we cannot understand why. Individuals have had to bear solitary confinement for more than a year even though no charges have been brought against them. This is intolerable and must end.
Do you still have time to cycle or jog?
Not as often as I used to. However, I can go for a jog during trips abroad if my schedule allows. And I’ll be taking my racing cycle with me to New York when I spend a week there at the UN General Assembly in September. There’s a cycle route in Central Park and I want to cycle a few rounds in the morning before the daily marathon sessions. Maybe I can persuade one or two colleauges to join me.
Interview conducted by Roman Eichinger and Angelika Hellemann