Foreign Minister, where in Europe is the situation particularly critical at the moment?
In London. I have rarely experienced such chaotic buck passing between parliament and government. But I am less concerned by this state of affairs than by the consequences it will have. None of us are making a good impression in this. Neither the United Kingdom, nor we Europeans. Some people are laughing at us.
People are laughing at us?
Countries looking for examples of how to discredit our liberal democracy certainly have reason to laugh. Not just at Theresa May, but also at our handling of the crisis.
Because we have allowed it to get this far. However, I’m pleased that the other 27 states in the European Union have managed to stand united in a difficult situation. The chaos is plain for all to see and has acted as a deterrent. But of course that’s not why it came about.
A sort of collateral benefit?
What did the Germans do wrong? Was the refugee policy in 2015 something that the Brexiteers capitalised on?
That may, regrettably, have been used to that effect by the Brexiteers. Yet I also often hear the opposite sentiment when I am abroad: Your actions then saved Europe’s reputation. But the right-wing populists who wanted to fuel fears of perceived threats to cultural identity abused it for their own ends. Not only in the Brexit referendum.
Did we make any other mistakes?
Yes, in parts of the EU, our rhetoric has been interpreted as a policy of preaching at others. That was unhelpful before, during the financial crisis. German foreign policy needs to be stretching out its hand rather than wagging its finger.
In which areas will the absence of the United Kingdom be most strongly felt with regard to German interests?
In the areas of the economy and trade. The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU will cost jobs. In the field of foreign and security policy too, the EU will be worse off without the strength of the British. That is why we’re seeking to carry on cooperating as closely as possible, in the interest of our own security.
What form does your day-to-day relationship with your British colleague now take?
I have just spoken on the telephone with Jeremy Hunt. Funnily enough, the crisis has brought us even closer together. Hunt, who was personally against Brexit, is a great colleague and a good bloke. Although he was against it, he now has to implement it and wants to work with me to ensure that the United Kingdom remains part of Europe even in the wake of Brexit. There’s hardly any colleague with whom I have more contact. Germany and the United Kingdom share identical views on freedom, democracy and human rights. That’s why we need to make sure that the British remain strong Europeans even outside the EU. I personally am highly motivated to work with my friends in London to achieve this.
What do you think of the ultimatum issued by the EU on Thursday evening?
In view of the chaos in London, we need clear deadlines. It is time that the UK said what it wants.
What’s going to happen next week?
I believe in the common sense of the people. And so I appeal to the British people to rediscover their famous pragmatism. Although we would have liked to see a different outcome, the British people voted for Brexit. In the case of a second referendum, British society could face another serious rift. So our only option is to strive to ensure an orderly rather than a chaotic Brexit.
You can’t exclude the possibility of a chaotic Brexit?
No one can. And the threat has increased in recent days.
How do you view the conduct of the Labour opposition?
It’s not my place to judge that. But in the case of such important issues as Brexit, all stakeholders – government and opposition – urgently need to put aside all party political considerations.
After Russia, China is the next player wanting to destabilise Europe. What’s your take on its efforts to win support in Italy?
Former Belgian Prime Minister Paul-Henri Spaak once said that there are small countries in Europe and countries that have not yet realised that they are small. In a world with giants such as China, Russia and our partners in the United States, we can only hold our own when we are united as the EU. And if some countries should think they can do clever deals with the Chinese, they will come down to earth with a bump and find themselves dependent on China. Lucrative offers in the short term acquire a bitter after-taste sooner than you might expect. China is not a liberal democracy.
Will it become one?
It doesn’t seem likely at the moment. China has brought millions of people out of poverty and into the middle classes without democratic change. Its self-confidence has increased with its economic success, and now it is ruthlessly pursuing its own interests on the global stage. If, in turn, we want to uphold our own interests, we can only do so in cooperation with the other European countries.
But Italy is the best example of the fact that this common denominator does not currently exist in the EU. Who is leading Europe?
The EU urgently needs to become more capable of taking action in the foreign policy arena. To this end we need to get away from the principle of unanimity in foreign policy. One country cannot always be allowed to stop all others from acting. In future, majority decisions should also be possible in certain areas. Incidentally, we shouldn’t confuse the current Italian Government with the country as a whole. We didn’t try hard enough to understand the Italians during the refugee crisis. Dublin didn’t work for them. The Italians felt abandoned. We need to take a critical look at ourselves and ask ourselves to what extent that fostered anti-European tendencies.
Salvini’s popularity ratings are very high. His policy against Europe is going down well.
At the moment. But what the right-wing populists are trying to do there will not be economically or financially sustainable in the long term. We need patience in foreign policy. In Hungary, too, the current policy model will not last in the long term. We Europeans in the centre need to think beyond that. In a crucial phase for the future of Europe, it will be important to hold the EU together. Nobody should be made to feel that they have been left alone or that they no longer have a role to play. Otherwise we will ultimately be helping those who run election campaigns in these countries based on contempt for Europe.
Did the EPP make the right decision in opting just to suspend the party of the Hungarian Prime Minister Orban rather than to throw it out? Should the EPP integrate these right-coingers?
Viktor Orban tried to influence the European election campaign by resorting to personal insults in a most irresponsible manner. It is important to put a stop to such behaviour.
How did you feel about Emmanuel Macron’s push towards more Europe and the response to it from the new leader of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany?
Emmanuel Macron was pleasantly constructive, complex and forward-looking. Unfortunately I couldn’t detect that to the same extent in Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s response.
In what way?
It was clearly composed and formulated for internal purposes, targeting the disappointed Merz supporters in her own ranks. That would explain the unnecessary provocative remarks.
What provocative remarks?
Well, for example the proposal to dissolve the parliament in Strasbourg. Of course, France regards that as an unnecessary impertinence, which doesn’t help anyone in Europe. Europe is not a cost-cutting project.
The Austrian Chancellor said in his response to Macron that Europe needed to regard itself more as a growth and innovation continent if it wanted to have a future.
Yes. We are currently negotiating the future financial framework of the EU, and there we need to be much more decisive about investing in research and science. In Macron’s statement, I missed a focus on the world outside. Our hand must remain outstretched to Europe's neighbours. We want to be surrounded by friends and partners. How should we deal with the Western Balkans, for example? We are still unclear on this in some areas. The Russians and the Chinese sense that, and are making fateful offers.
Indeed, if you look at what is happening in Albania or North Macedonia: either we make an effort, or they will drift away. We cannot allow Europe to start fraying at the edges.
Let’s come back to the issue of innovation: the Americans and the Chinese say that in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI), there is no longer any third place. We as Europeans are already out of the running.
If the Americans and Chinese write us off in that area, we should be particularly motivated. At the end of the day, innovation also needs coordinated values. Digital transformation and AI are concerned with economic growth as well as civil rights and security interests. At the same time, we Europeans and especially we Germans need to invest even more in these future technologies. The modernisation of Europe must be reflected in the EU’s budget. We need more funding for crucial future sectors such as education, digital transformation and innovation.
Let’s talk about the United States. Were you surprised by Donald Trump’s initiative to recognise Israel’s sovereignty of the Golan Heights?
Our international position and stance has not changed following Trump’s tweet. We do not recognise the annexation – in accordance with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. Our concern is clear: unilateral steps make conflict resolution more difficult and threaten the foundations for a negotiated two-state solution.
You are regarded as a particularly close friend of Israel. Do you also see this as a chance for the country’s security, surrounded as it is by enemies?
We can see the unspeakable role of the Syrian regime and above all the militias under Iran’s control in south-western Syria. Israel has very valid security interests here. And concern for Israel’s security will always be a fundamental tenet of German foreign policy. At the same time, it wouldn’t help anyone if we were not to voice our concern when we see that a long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in jeopardy. That is why we have also clearly stated that it is crucial not to allow the current situation to escalate. That cannot be in anyone’s interest.
What about the transatlantic relationship? Isn’t US President Donald Trump right to insist on two percent of budget expenditure for defence?
It is important to stick to things that have been agreed. If we have committed ourselves to that, like all other NATO allies, then it still applies. And we have worked out a way of reaching 1.5 percent by 2024.
Two percent was promised.
We will move towards that goal step by step. And it will not be a rearmament debate but a debate on equipment because planes need to fly and ships need to sail.
How capable are we of defending ourselves at the moment?
In recent weeks I have visited Afghanistan, Mali and Iraq. Everywhere I went, I met German soldiers who are doing incredible work in an outstanding manner. These men and women deserve for us to enable them to perform their often very dangerous duties with the best possible equipment.
Is there anything about Trump’s foreign policy – Nixon once used the term “madman theory” – that impresses you?
If he manages to denuclearise North Korea with his unconventional diplomacy, I will say: Well done, Mr President. But at the moment, there are unfortunately few grounds for optimism in that area. I believe that foreign policy particularly depends on reliability and trust. With uncoordinated terminations of agreements and unilateral troop withdrawal plans, Trump creates considerable uncertainty, even among his closest allies.
Let’s talk about the East. Should Ukraine write off Crimea for now, after five years of annexation?
No, of course not. That is and remains a violation of international law. If we were to recognise unlawful annexations after a certain time had passed, we would just be asking for the next one.
Putin has won in Syria, hasn’t he?
Russia is trying to use military influence to compensate for the lack of economic clout it has on the global stage. As it is doing in Syria. If we want to find political solutions in the Syria conflict, it will not be possible without the Russians. There, Russia will be able to show whether it can provide political solutions rather than shaping conflicts through military means.
Are you, is German policy too nice to Putin?
If there is now to be something akin to peace in Syria under Assad, will Germany have to send the refugees back?
We are currently negotiating the establishment of a constitutional committee. The aim of this committee will be to set in motion a constitutional reform, at the end of which elections should take place in which the Syrian people will be able to choose their own leaders. The issue of human rights will play a major role along this path. Many refugees have had their land seized: if they return, they will have nothing. Furthermore, refugees are at risk of reprisals and torture. As long as that is the case, nobody will want to return to their country. And we will not send anyone back who is at risk of such a fate.
After this bloodbath, do you have serious hopes that a reform process in Syria will result in a country to which refugees will be happy to return?
If I didn’t have hope, I would need to look for another job. In the field of diplomacy, these processes are very, very arduous.
Then let me ask you three quick questions. How do you view Erdoğan’s instrumentalisation of German football stars for his cause and to keep Germans with Turkish roots loyal?
More important than the guest lists for star-studded weddings is the fact that Germany is home to three million people with Turkish roots. They include not only football stars but also our neighbours, fellow pupils, colleagues and friends. We have a responsibility to ensure that political tensions do not put our human ties under strain. That is why I am working very hard to make constructive relations with Turkey possible. Some recent developments give me cause for concern – for example freedom of the press and human rights. We will continue to seek constructive and clear dialogue with Turkey on these issues.
Where will Venezuela go from here? What’s your view of the arrest of the aide of the interim president Guaidó?
Our support for Juan Guaidó remains rock solid. We condemn the arrest of his chief of staff and appeal in no uncertain terms for his release. This arrest has escalated the conflict in Venezuela further. We are working hard to bring about a peaceful political solution with the goal of free and fair presidential elections. The humanitarian situation continues to worsen, the population is starving and suffering from disease – despite the fact that we have made available five million euros in humanitarian assistance for the people in the country. Maduro is refusing the Venezuelan people all assistance from outside amid a dramatic state of emergency. I think that's disgraceful. We will keep up the pressure so that the assistance finally reaches the people.
Are you concerned about the recent election results in the Netherlands?
The fact that right-wing populist and nationalist parties have gained considerable support is bitter. This is a trend that we are unfortunately also seeing in other European countries. We are tackling it. It shows that it’s high time the last of us woke up. We cannot give free rein to the fearmongers in the EU. On the other hand, pro-European forces also gained ground. I hope that the Government will continue along its pro-European course, for the Netherlands is an important partner in the EU.
Thank you for talking to us.
Interview conducted by Ulf Poschardt