“This is about equipment, not rearmament”
Interview by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas with the Tagesspiegel on relations with Turkey and the United States, Venezuela, arms exports, Germany’s membership of the UN Security Council, disarmament, German defence expenditure.
Mr Maas, there is again a serious threat to freedom of the press in Turkey. The Government wants to throw out German correspondents as well as journalists from other countries, including the Tagesspiegel’s correspondent Thomas Seibert. What’s your view of these events?
Preventing journalists from doing their job is incompatible with our understanding of freedom of the press. We find it unacceptable that several German and other European correspondents are unable to freely go about their work. There is no free democracy without a critical press.
What does that mean for the development of German Turkish relations?
Our course of action is clear: we will continue to call for journalists to be allowed to work without any restrictions – also in Turkey. My Turkish counterpart knows that. We’re keen to maintain a functioning dialogue with Turkey so that we can also discuss critical issues of this nature.
You’ve been Foreign Minister for almost a year now. How has the office changed you?
I hope that my office hasn’t changed me, at least not as a human being. One of the major challenges for anyone actively involved in politics is to ensure that an office or power doesn’t change them.
Do you see many ministers who have succeeded in this, either in the past or in the present?
One man who passed away just a few days ago showed us how a politician can remain true to themselves. I’m talking about Klaus Kinkel. He carried out his duties as Justice Minister, Foreign Minister and Deputy Chancellor with total commitment, yet he remained a modest man. I have great respect for that.
And vice versa: how have you changed your office?
We’ve set some new priorities. I firmly believe that we have to do everything we can to keep Europe united and to make it more efficient. Only then will we have any chance of safeguarding our interests on the international stage. Of course, we are also focusing on other continents: for example, we’re going to launch a Latin America Initiative – we decided that a long time ago before the current situation in Venezuela developed. German and European foreign policymakers could make even better use of the potential Latin America has to offer. What’s more, Germany has been a member of the UN Security Council since the beginning of the year. We have many projects. In particular, we intend to put arms control back on the agenda.
Coming back to Venezuela, to what extent can the EU influence the situation there?
It’s very important that there is sustained international pressure. We in the European Union are prepared to impose additional sanctions if necessary. We won’t accept Maduro’s strategy of playing for time. Our support for Juan Guaidó is rock solid. The fact that the Maduro regime no longer wants our ambassador in the country certainly won’t change that. The Venezuelan Government’s decision is incomprehensible, it will exacerbate the situation and won’t do anything to ease the tensions.
Where have you done especially well during the first twelve months?
Ultimately, others have to decide that. It was important to me to build confidence – not only with those countries whose views we share anyway, but also with difficult partners. We’re playing our part in the efforts to resolve the world’s crises, for instance in Ukraine or in the Middle East. For example, we’re now a key partner in the push to end the war in Yemen. We organised a stabilisation conference in Berlin to support the UN in the peace process. We’re doing everything we can to get the hostile parties around one table. Our partners also recognise our reliability and our commitment to upholding a rules based order. They therefore believe that German foreign policy can help resolve international conflicts in future. That increases our political influence.
Until the end of March, the Government wants to discuss whether to extend the ban on arms exports to Saudi Arabia. What will be your decision?
First of all, we’ve decided not to allow any arms exports to Saudi Arabia in March either.
That means you won’t be going into the negotiations with your coalition partners with your own position?
Yes, I will. We’ve not only banned any new exports to Saudi Arabia, we’ve even stopped exports which had already been approved. We did so not only in the light of the Khashoggi case but also because we want to exert pressure and make it clear that we expect Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help foster a peace process in Yemen. We’ll be observing this in the time ahead.
That means that if Saudi Arabia contributes to the peace process then exports will re start?
That depends on how things develop. At present, conditions are not such that arms supplies could be justified.
Can the restrictive German arms export policy be maintained in the long run? Germany’s special rules are a source of great annoyance to France and the UK because they block the supply of jointly manufactured goods to certain countries ...
We have to differentiate between arms products which we alone manufacture and joint projects for which we supply parts. No-one has a problem with supplies to NATO partners. The problem with joint projects is partly technical. The solution cannot be that we no longer supply certain components or spare parts which then results in supplies to Spain or Poland also being blocked. We have to avoid consequential damage of that nature.
How do you propose to solve this problem?
By differentiating between components or spare parts which, for example, are intended for Saudi Arabia and those intended for NATO member countries or NATO’s allies. We’re talking to our partners about this.
Why won’t the Government allow EU partners to make decisions on exports in line with their own laws and regulations?
First of all, the German Government has to abide by German laws and regulations – and they also apply to supplies for joint projects. We’re talking to our partners about this issue. In the case of supplies of political significance, national governments will always reserve the right to make the final decision.
Is the dispute about arms exports to Saudi Arabia possibly only a foretaste of more serious disputes in future when it comes to the greater integration of arms production in Europe?
We’ve had joint projects for some time now in Europe and we’re working on more. Our partners wouldn’t be involved if they didn’t see any advantages for themselves. But they obviously do.
Is the SPD prepared to relax the strict German rules in the interest of closer European cooperation?
It’s not as if Germany has always insisted on imposing its own conditions on EU partners. However, it’s clear that Germany’s arms export policy is restrictive, and it will remain so in future.
According to recent surveys, the majority of Germans are more afraid of Donald Trump than of Vladimir Putin. Is that justified?
Well, you would have to ask those who took part in the surveys. The fact that they feel that way is alarming.
How has it come to this? Aren’t German politicians able to explain to people who our allies are and who targets missiles at us?
The outcome of the surveys reflects the reaction to decisions made in the White House. I’m thinking of the withdrawal from the climate treaty or the nuclear agreement with Iran. I’m thinking of the remarks by the American President implying that NATO was superfluous. There have been some disconcerting messages. I can completely understand that many people in Germany draw certain conclusions from this.
You’ve just called the findings “alarming”. Do you think that people are drawing the wrong conclusions?
We’ve made it clear time and again that the United States is more than the White House and remains an important partner for us – regardless of who is President at any given time. However, Donald Trump might as well think about the impact his policies have on partner countries. Americans themselves value the transatlantic partnership and, above all, the Germans and want to have good and close relations with us. This is borne out by very reliable surveys. Our image doesn’t seem to have suffered in the United States.
The United States and Russia are withdrawing from the INF Treaty banning intermediate range nuclear missiles. What will this mean for Germany?
The world will be a less safe place without the INF Treaty. If the INF Treaty were terminated, we would have one fewer disarmament treaty.
You quickly ruled out Germany’s participation in a nuclear rearmament to protect ourselves from the new threat. How should we protect ourselves?
Even the Americans have said that they don’t intend to station new land-based intermediate-range nuclear missiles. I have invited military experts, academics and diplomats to a conference in Berlin on 15 March to discuss what form arms control should take in the 21st century. For some time now, the reduction in nuclear weapons has no longer been the only issue. This is just as much about limiting modern weapons which are currently being developed due to technical advances and for which there aren’t sufficient international rules at present: cyber weapons, killer robots, autonomous systems. We have to create the arms control rules for the future, not only but also for intermediate-range nuclear missiles. Otherwise it would not be complete.
Asia is now the scene of strategic confrontation. However, China is refusing to accede to a treaty on limiting intermediate range nuclear missiles.
That is one of the reasons why the United States and Russia no longer want to be unilaterally tied by the INF Treaty: China is free to do what it likes, while others are also arming themselves: for example, North Korea, Pakistan or India. If Beijing has rejected controls so far, that doesn’t have to be the end of the discussion. China must have a seat at the table. We have to exert pressure there.
How might that work? Through an initiative in the UN Security Council initiative, where Germany currently has a seat?
We first of all have to ensure that this issue is put back on the political agenda. During the decades since the end of the Cold War, there wasn’t such a great need to talk about this. However, we must have this debate because there are clear threat scenarios. Our position is that the new rivalry among the major powers must not result in a general arms race.
Do we still need a nuclear deterrence?
I’m afraid so. Unfortunately, there are nuclear weapons. And past experience has shown that mutual deterrence helps to ensure that these weapons aren’t used.
It’s American nuclear weapons that provide this deterrence for Germany ...
Yes. And not only for Germany.
So will we remain dependent on the United States given that France doesn’t want to extend its protective nuclear umbrella to Germany?
We in Europe will have to think more about our security as a whole. We have to shoulder more responsibility. It would be a terrible mistake to put off having this debate.
Macron is also calling on Germany to do more in the defence sphere ...
We intend to increase our defence expenditure to 1.5 percent of GDP. Everyone knows that the Bundeswehr has problems with its equipment. And this is about equipment, not rearmament.
Can our partners rely on us to stick to our pledge to increase spending to 1.5 percent by 2024 even though tax revenue is no longer rising so fast?
Our partners know that the Germans aren’t prone to making empty promises. They know they can rely on us.
Interview conducted by Christoph von Marschall and Hans Monath.