Foreign Minister, who worries you most at the moment – Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or Theresa May?
Many things worry us at the moment. I am currently most concerned about the future of the people in Syria, and Russia is an important factor in that. However, Turkey can also play a role. Unfortunately, the US President’s policies are an ongoing concern, as can be seen in the daily quarrels in the White House. And finally, Brexit is another major issue. A decision will soon be made on whether the UK will leave the EU with or without a deal.
You have just come back from Ankara. How seriously do you take Turkey’s attempts to improve its relations with Europe?
Turkey has an interest in normalising its relations with the EU. My visit there was a start. We need to be able to have constructive discussions with Turkey once again in which critical questions can also be addressed openly. It is no secret in Turkey that we are concerned about certain developments, for example the human rights situation and the cases of imprisoned Germans. I discussed all this in depth with President Erdoğan and the Turkish Foreign Minister.
Is there willingness in Brussels to lend new momentum to the accession negotiations with Turkey?
All of the member states know that Ankara is an important strategic partner for the EU, but how relations develop in the future will depend on what happens in Turkey. At the moment, we are focusing on other issues, such as Syria.
How would you describe our relations with the US?
Relations have changed a great deal as a result of decisions made in the White House, such as the tariffs that have been imposed or announced and the withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran. We have to get used to this situation because the US, which was a reliable partner of ours for decades, is now reviewing many things under President Trump. It is important to me to retain the close partnership with the US. But to do so, we need to adjust it.
But didn’t this institutional estrangement between the US and Germany/Europe at the structural level first emerge a long time ago? What is new about the current situation?
The main difference is that we used to work closely together as regards decisions by the White House or Congress. The outcome didn’t always tally with our wishes, but there was intensive dialogue. These days, President Trump often informs people about White House decisions via Twitter. We only have limited opportunities to put our point of view across. What happens is that we are confronted with a decision.
You have said that a counterweight to the US must now be formed. What does that mean in the case of Iran?
It means that we Europeans must remain united and try to keep the nuclear agreement going, even without the US. That is no easy task because companies facing sanctions will compare how much business they do with Iran and the US and then decide on the basis of what makes commercial sense for them. However, some companies will continue to work in Iran. We are trying to safeguard their investments. We want to work on keeping international payment channels open. We won’t follow in the footsteps of the US because the nuclear agreement ensures greater security even if it is not perfect.
Japan has announced that it will stop buying Iranian oil. Aren’t your attempts to maintain trade with Iran failing before they have even got off the ground?
Oil revenue is the backbone of the Iranian economy. Protecting this revenue against sanctions is one of the reasons for Iran to stay in the agreement, which prevents the country from restarting uranium enrichment for military purposes. We need to do everything we can to prevent that. Other countries in the region could see great potential for conflict in this. An escalating conflict with Iran would also have grave consequences for us.
The US President is not the cause, but rather a symptom of US withdrawal from the world. In view of the differences that have emerged, can “the West” actually still be described as a political entity?
Yes, I firmly believe it can. The West is underpinned by values. Democracy, freedom and human rights are US values, regardless of who is President. It remains a task of the West to stand up for the implementation of these values. Nothing has changed there. At the moment, the White House is pursuing some difficult policies, but that does not make the foundations on which the West is based obsolete. On the contrary.
But one would still have to see things in the same way. However, Trump no longer regards Europe as a partner, but rather as a competitor or even a foe.
Yes, he has described Russia, China and the EU as foes. However, we shouldn’t make the mistake of equating the US with Trump. Some changes in US politics are of a structural nature. It is not enough to think we can simply ride Trump out and hope that things will then go back to how they used to be. That is why I am thinking about a balanced partnership with the US. And in Europe we are asking ourselves how we can fill the vacuum left by the US.
Where does such a vacuum exist?
Trade is one example. It is obvious that the US President is no longer interested in free trade, but rather in protectionism. We need to form a united front on that is Europe, and so far we have succeeded.
What about security policy?
The aim of the “America First” policy is that the US will no longer play the same role in the international order as it did in the past. We Europeans also need to have an answer to that. There is willingness in the EU to work more closely together on security and defence policy. A European Intervention Initiative has been proposed, and many member states have now joined it. We need to improve how we coordinate our defence efforts in Europe. Overall, this creates an opportunity for Europe, as we have the ability to combine military means with civil capabilities in order to resolve conflicts.
Isn’t that a way to convince your own party that defence expenditure does in fact need to be increased to 1.5 percent of GDP, that is, to around 60 billion euros, as the Chancellor promised at the last NATO summit – a figure not yet reflected in the budget by Social Democrat Finance Minister Scholz?
The question is how we adapt to a different situation in the world. How we ensure our own security affects society as a whole. We need a debate on this issue. In the case of the Bundeswehr, the priority is not procurement, but rather repairing existing equipment. And naturally our civil engagement is at least equally important.
A key component of security policy is the United States’ nuclear security guarantee for its European allies. After what the US President has said about NATO, isn’t it vital to think about having a European nuclear deterrence posture?
No. What is clear, however, is that nuclear deterrence will remain necessary for NATO as long as there are nuclear weapons and the situation remains as it is. That makes it all the more important to put disarmament back on the international agenda. Russia is suspected of having violated the INF Treaty, which restricts the number of medium-range missiles. Russia and the US are both accusing each other. We urgently need a real dialogue on this topic again in order to uphold the treaty. Our political aim is global disarmament, not new nuclear armament.
US withdrawal has also left a vacuum in Syria, but Europe was not able to fill it.
It is a bitter blow that it did not prove possible to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Syria. We are currently working hard at the diplomatic level to prevent a new catastrophe in Idlib.
This situation in Syria has played a part in Germany’s greatest domestic policy crisis – the refugee crisis.
It is true that the international community has not been able to bring about a political settlement to the war that has been raging for over seven years in Syria. There are complex reasons for this and many parties are involved. We are highly active in humanitarian assistance for Syria. The aim now is to bring the various factions – on the one hand, Russia, Iran and Turkey, and on the other, the UK, France and Germany, as well as Saudi Arabia and Jordan – back together under the auspices of the UN. The fact that this has not been achieved so far is one of the greatest failures of international politics in the past decade.
Who bears the greatest responsibility for this?
First and foremost, those who have waged this war are responsible for people’s suffering. We are now at a crucial crossroads in the Idlib region, where over three million people currently live. At the moment, we are working flat out to prevent a terrible bloodbath there.
Do you think that Russia has a restraining influence on the Assad regime?
The statements by Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov are relatively clear – Russia is involved in military strikes. The fact that there has not yet been a large-scale offensive in Idlib is mainly because Russia and Turkey have not reached agreement so far.
It is often said that many crises cannot be resolved without Russia. In fact, Moscow has often caused crises in the first place or made them worse. The West hasn’t come up with an answer to that so far.
The war in Syria would probably have ended a long time ago if that had been the aim of Russia and other countries.
The same could be said for eastern Ukraine.
Exactly. In both cases, the result is that there will be no solution unless Russia cooperates. That is why Germany is playing a major role in seeking to resolve the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. In both cases, we are trying to achieve something through diplomatic channels.
Russia’s interest in German involvement in Syria concerns funding for reconstruction. What are the minimum requirements for a post-war order in Syria before there can be any talk of money?
There will have to be a credible political process in which all Syrians can participate. Humanitarian access must be ensured throughout the country. We want a political settlement in which many people who fled Syria see prospects for returning to their home country.
What price is Russia demanding for playing a constructive role in resolving the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine?
Russia has a great interest in Western involvement in reconstruction in Syria. Neither Russia, Iran or Turkey will want to rebuild the country on their own. Reconstruction will require an international effort, and Germany is prepared to play a part. Russia is not interested in a never-ending war in Syria. However, stabilisation can only come about through reconstruction, the return of millions of refugees and a stable political system that also appeals to the Syrians who fled the country as refugees. Russia needs us, and we have defined our conditions for this clearly.
Other conflicts are geographically closer to Russia, namely the frozen conflicts that Russia could thaw any time it likes if it wants to safeguard its influence through unrest. Why should it be otherwise in Syria?
Because Russia has no interest in widespread instability.
When you took office, you said that Russia defines itself in contrast to the West. Following Putin’s recent visit, do you seen signs for a “reset” in German-Russian relations?
At the moment, we and our partners are doing everything we can to persuade Russia to refrain from carrying out further military strikes in Idlib. We need dialogue with Russia in order to achieve this. We have made new agreements, for example on bilateral dialogue on security issues. There will be a German-Russian Year of Universities and Science. We need to do two things – talk with Russia, but also state our expectations clearly. That is currently the case concerning the conflict in Syria because we do not regard a major offensive against Idlib as acceptable in any way.
To what extent will Brexit weaken Europe’s foreign policy influence?
I don‘t think it will have a significant impact. We are drawing up joint foreign policy guidelines with the UK for the post-Brexit period and will continue coordinating foreign policy closely with the UK in the future.
EU chief negotiator Barnier was recently in Berlin. Is there more optimism or pessimism?
We have no interest in a hard Brexit. However, we cannot rule it out. We also do not want a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Not all those who have issues with Europe want to leave the EU like the British do. However, other EU members are also showing signs of wanting to reverse integration. How do you plan to counter that?
Europe is facing more challenges as a result of the vacuum in foreign and security policy left by the US, so we need to do everything we can to keep the EU united. That also applies to the EU members with which there are currently disputes, that is, Hungary, Italy and Poland. We will only be able to deal with the challenges in trade policy, economic policy and foreign and security policy if we stick together. We also need to find solutions with the Central and Eastern European countries that ensure the Union is not at risk as a whole.
As regards migration policy, the idea that Germany should call the shots has not proved successful.
An idea like that would be the opposite of what we need.
Chancellor Merkel’s decision three years ago to leave the borders open and to relocate refugees arriving in Germany throughout the EU has generated significant opposition in the Union.
Some EU countries are prepared to follow this path. I think we need a solution in the foreseeable future. Realistically, not all members states are going to participate in a relocation mechanism. Those who don’t must take on responsibility in other areas, such as addressing the root causes of migration and getting involved in EU projects in Africa.
Following Macron’s election in France, many people heaved a sigh of relief and said that the wave of right-wing populism and nationalism had been stopped. But that isn’t the case. What should politicians do to counter the upsurge of nationalism and populism that can be seen everywhere in European countries?
First of all, it’s not like that everywhere.
But you can’t deny that there is huge unrest almost everywhere in European societies.
Yes, this development does exist in the EU. But populists’ ideas are no help when it comes to dealing with the great challenges. It is a misconception to believe that we can resolve the problems by reverting to nationalism.
But why are reasonable arguments by reasonable people increasingly not getting through? Germany is doing better than ever, and yet there is a level of rage that can’t be explained by the actual circumstances.
My job is to help ensure that this development does not continue. I think the best way is to be successful in what we do. Politicians should solve people’s problems rather than explaining these problems to them.
You recently said that people are “sleepwalking”. What exactly did you mean by that?
In recent years, we mainly focused on material issues on Germany. That is an important part of our quality of life. However, we were remiss as regards the values that make Germany a good place to live. Too many people believe that freedom, democracy and the rule of law can simply be taken for granted. That is not true. The values that make Germany a good place to live and the freedoms we enjoy will not continue on their own. Instead, we need to stand up for them together.
Interview conducted by Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger, Berthold Köhler and Johannes Leithäuser.