You’ve been in office now for just over two months. Apart from political events, has anything surprised you?
A lovely new experience is how much confidence and how much respect Germany enjoys around the world – more than many people here in Germany believe. For example, I’ve often travelled abroad to canvass support for Germany’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Many states believe that our country wouldn’t make decisions in the Security Council based solely on egoistic motives. They sense that we want more international cooperation, not new nationalism.
And that’s despite the fact that Germany tends to hold back when the going gets tough. At least militarily.
I wasn’t confronted with any accusations of that nature. They would be unfounded anyway. Germany is one of the biggest contributors to the United Nations. Nor, as one of the biggest European troop contributors, do we need to shy away from comparisons when it comes to peacekeeping missions.
You had to switch to crisis mode almost immediately due to America’s withdrawal from the agreement with Iran. Can the accord be saved?
Yes. It won’t be easy but we’re working hard with our European partners to uphold this agreement, which affects our fundamental security interests. This accord lays down clear rules, namely that Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons. There is no such guarantee without this agreement. Germany and Europe have a basic interest in the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially in our neighbourhood. Peace and security in Europe are at stake. We cannot, and indeed will not, leave any stone unturned in our efforts to uphold the agreement.
All of a sudden, Europe is standing side by side with difficult partners such as Iran, Russia and China and against the United States. Doesn’t that constitute a fundamental breach in the transatlantic alliance?
No. Our fundamental transatlantic partnership is not in doubt. Naturally, however, we’ve seen our relations with the United States change since President Trump took up office. We have to react with prudence and common sense to decisions by Donald Trump which we find difficult to comprehend. A united European front is essential. Together we made it very clear to the Americans before the United States’ withdrawal was made known that we’ll stand by the agreement even if the US walks away.
You would have to protect German and European companies which face US sanctions if they do business with Iran. Can you do that?
Even though it won’t be easy, we’ll fight to preserve the agreement. This includes seeking ways during talks with the Europeans, Iran and the other signatories to the accord of ensuring that trade with Iran will still be possible. First and foremost, this is about ensuring that payment transactions can still be made.
Your party, the SPD, is arguing internally about the policy on Russia .....
We’re having a discussion. And I’m glad that there’s also a debate going on about this in society. In my view, that’s absolutely essential in such a fundamental issue.
Just about the tone or about the course?
In the final analysis, I believe that many people want the same thing. We’ve always said that we have to enter into a dialogue with Russia if we want to resolve the major international conflicts. Everyone wants a dialogue. However, dialogue for the sake of dialogue doesn’t add up to much. I want to see results. For that, however, we have to also clearly state where the problems lie – otherwise we won’t get anywhere. I met my Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Moscow. We not only agreed on joint higher education and research projects but also that we would resume the suspended regular security talks between our State Secretaries. And the Russian Foreign Minister assured me that Russia would once more sit round the negotiating table with us, France and Ukraine to discuss a solution to the Ukraine crisis. As you can see, our approach has achieved a very clear result: while others are only talking about dialogue, I’ve long since ensured that it will be enhanced once more.
Many in the SPD and beyond want to see a unilateral easing of the sanctions to get relations back on track more quickly. Do you agree with that?
We agreed that we would discuss the conflict in eastern Ukraine in the Normandy format, that’s to say France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine. We want to try and revive the Minsk peace process. Of course, we’d also like there to be no more grounds for sanctions at some point. However, Russia will have to honour its obligations under the Minsk agreements for that to happen.
Will you attend the World Cup?
It’s much more important that Manuel Neuer takes part in the World Cup. I’m not planning to go at the moment.