Minister, does the US election campaign fill you with concern or hope?
I don’t find election campaigns concerning. Elections are a demonstration of democracy. It’s possible to have different opinions when it comes to issues or style. We’ve experienced tasteless election campaigns here in Germany, too. I’m not pointing my finger at the United States. Rather, I see this election as a serious democratic race in which a lot is at stake.
What difference will it make to Germany whether Donald Trump remains President or Joe Biden becomes President?
Transatlantic relations have become more complicated with Donald Trump as President. Decisions which we found difficult to comprehend have been made time and again without prior consultation. Take, for example, the withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran. I hope that the manner in which we deal with each other changes – no matter who wins this election.
Would it be easier to deal with Joe Biden as US President?
I’m not one of those who think that “everything will be fine again” if Joe Biden is elected. For many years now, the global role which the United States adopted during the Cold War has been gradually realigned strategically. We have to accept that this basic trend won’t change structurally. It’s possible that it will be easier to reach an understanding with the Americans under a new Administration. However, we’ve learned that we Europeans must shoulder greater responsibility for our own affairs.
US Republicans and Democrats are united in their opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic. Will it be completed?
Yes, I believe that Nord Stream 2 will be completed. The question is when. We Europeans make our own decisions about our energy policy and energy supply. After all, we haven’t criticised the United States for having more than doubled its oil imports from Russia last year and for becoming the world’s second largest importer of Russian heavy fuel oil. The United States is entitled to pursue an independent energy policy. And so are we.
Following the imposition of sanctions against six individuals and an organisation by the EU in connection with the Navalny case, Moscow is threatening to impose counter-sanctions and even to end the dialogue. Has an ice age in German-Russian relations begun?
No. And that cannot be in anyone’s interest. We quickly delivered a clear European response to the Navalny case. That was necessary given the serious violation of international law. Unfortunately, however, we in Germany have other conflicts with Moscow, such as the murder in the Tiergarten and the hacker attack on the Bundestag. Our relations with Russia remain complicated. That’s why we will have to continue to find a European response when Russia’s actions are unacceptable.
You often say that there cannot be a solution without Russia – for instance in Libya, Syria, Ukraine ...
... Belarus, Armenia-Azerbaijan, Venezuela ...
... but can there be a solution with Russia?
That is what we would expect. We sit at the table with the Russians in the UN Security Council, in the Berlin Process on Libya, as well as with regard to Ukraine. In all of these settings, the aim is to find a way to end wars. And there have certainly been some positive developments with regard to Ukraine and Libya. The ceasefire in eastern Ukraine has held longer than any other since the start of the conflict. We therefore have to remain engaged in a dialogue with Russia. For there are so many people in the world who are relying on the international community to seek a dialogue with the Russians in order to end these conflicts.
The Europeans were surprisingly quick to agree on the recent sanctions against Moscow. They were slower in the case of Belarus. What is preventing the EU from becoming a visibly influential player in the international arena?
To a certain extent, at least, we made up for the wrangling over sanctions against Belarus with our quick and unanimous decision in favour of sanctions in the Navalny case. As for Belarus, we were not prepared to agree to sanctions against the Belarusian leadership being tied to other issues such as sanctions against Turkey due to its exploration for gas in the Mediterranean. The German Presidency of the Council of the EU emphatically rejected any suggestion that the two be linked. Perhaps this stand helped to speed up the decision in the Navalny case. Everyone understood that making deals has no role to play when it comes to imposing sanctions.
Turkey has shown itself to be unimpressed by the threat of sanctions in connection with Libya, as well as the natural gas dispute with Greece and Cyprus. Does Turkey’s militarised foreign policy require a change in strategy when it comes to dealing with Ankara?
Turkey seriously damaged the atmosphere of trust we, too, tried so hard to create when it sent the research vessel Oruc Reis back to the eastern Mediterranean at the beginning of the week. That’s why I cancelled a planned trip to Ankara this week. However, it cannot be in Turkey’s interest if all the conflicts in which it’s exerting influence continue indefinitely. Turkey is involved in the conflicts in Libya, Syria, in the eastern Mediterranean as well as in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Strategically, it’s surely in Turkey’s interest to de-escalate these conflicts.
Turkey is gaining influence through military means. Does this require a more robust response from the Europeans? France has already sent two combat aircraft and a frigate to the eastern Mediterranean.
There’s a risk of military escalation wherever military units encounter each other – even if the parties concerned claim the opposite. It doesn’t bring us any closer to a solution if we send troops and ships wherever Turkey is present. That would be simply throwing our weight around. We have to show that we can develop diplomatic strength through European foreign policy and that we’re not resorting to the methods of the Cold War.
Are you considering sanctions against Ankara?
The European Council decided that we would try to find a negotiated solution by December. If that’s not possible because the efforts to negotiate are being torpedoed, we will have to think about other means.
The COVID-19 situation is worsening in Europe. Has Germany been asked to provide assistance?
To the extent that our capacities allow it, we will of course offer quick help if our neighbours experience a shortage of IC beds. I told my Israeli counterpart that, too. At European level, we can now use the new early warning system to coordinate everything better than we could in spring. I’m counting on this solidarity if we have a difficult autumn.
Is there a danger that the border chaos we saw in the spring will be repeated if the number of new cases continues to rise?
We don’t want to repeat the mistakes we made in the spring. That also applies to borders. We ended up with queues stretching over several kilometres at the German-Polish border back then. And debates at the Franco-German border that we thought were a thing of the past resurfaced. That must not be allowed to happen again.
Due to the pandemic, we’ll soon have a situation again where fewer face-to-face encounters will be possible. What does that mean for your work and diplomacy?
It’s difficult to resolve the conflicts we’re dealing with at present per video conference. When it comes to wars and crises, we have to meet in person and look each other in the eyes. That’s certainly possible at the moment with the hygiene practices we have put in place. Just as everyone wants to avoid a second complete lockdown of the economy and society, I say: there cannot be a diplomatic lockdown.
Interview conducted by Marina Kormbaki