Minister, you are a very popular politician. Why isn’t the Social Democratic Party benefiting from that?
The popularity of individuals is no longer automatically associated with their party. That change has been happening over many years.
Was ist das Sozialdemokratische an Ihrer Außenpolitik?
Foreign policy is supremely unsuited to party-political jockeying. What Social Democratic foreign policy means to me is responsibility and reliability. Nationalists and populists will find in me a resolute opponent. We want to be peacemakers. My foreign policy is about going around Europe and the world with an out-stretched hand rather than a wagging finger.
Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdoğan is visiting Berlin this week. A year ago, you said that if Turkey took German citizens hostage, we would have to be prepared to take things up a notch. Five Germans are still being held as political prisoners. What should our next move be at this point?
If we want to make progress on that, we need to talk to one another more. That’s starting to happen again now. How things develop down the line will partly depend on Turkey. The points I keep raising very emphatically in my discussions with Turkey are the prisoners, the handling of freedom of the press and of opinion, and developments in the justice system.
Are you seriously saying that talking to one another more constitutes “taking things up a notch”?
We have already increased pressure on Turkey: negotiations on accession to the EU have been shelved. Pre-accession aid from the EU has been cut. And the German Government’s public statements about Turkey have been unequivocal.
Has that changed anything?
It is very much in the Turkish President’s interest to get his relations with Germany back on an even keel, and we obviously look forward to seeing what he will do to make that happen. Whether the EU completely scraps Turkey’s membership prospects for the long term is also in Turkey’s own hands. I will add that German industry is also applying pressure now. More and more companies are finding it too risky to invest in Turkey, because they feel they cannot rely on the government.
Have we reached the stage where private companies are standing up for human rights ?
Well, why not? Companies are an important part of civil society, after all. On the ground, the impulse stems mainly from companies’ concern for their own Turkish staff working in Turkey. If they are falling victim to the Turkish justice system, that won’t exactly encourage investment.
Does Erdoğan have to be welcomed with military honours and a state banquet when he visits Berlin?
The Federal President has invited him, and Mr Erdoğan is Turkey’s elected head of state. Besides, the format of the invitation in and of itself is surely less important than what we actually discuss with Turkey.
The list of guests turning down their invitations to the state banquet has been growing. The German President might end up all alone with Mr Erdoğan in Schloss Bellevue that night.
Everyone is free to decide whether or not to accept their invitation. But it would be somewhat hubristic to imagine that Mr Erdoğan will be annoyed if people don’t come. Irrespective of whether people personally think the state banquet appropriate, the more critics use the opportunity to be there that night, the more it will say about our culture of respecting freedom of opinion.
The United States’ relations with Turkey are also bad, and it seems the US wants to distance itself from the role of trying to keep Turkey within the Western alliance at all costs. Is Germany gradually inheriting that role of binding Turkey to the West?
I do think that it would be good for us strategically to play our part in that – by dealing with the tensions in our bilateral relations, talking to one another sensibly again and mapping out a route that would allow for Turkey to retain a chance of pursuing EU prospects if it wishes to develop in that direction.
And is the United States distancing itself permanently?
The US is more than just the White House. It remains our most important non-European partner when it comes to defending democracy, freedom and human rights in as many parts of the world as we can – despite the constant provocations from the current president. Essentially, I believe that just sitting out Mr Trump’s presidency and thinking everything will go back to normal afterwards is an untenable strategy. Certain changes are structural in nature and don’t depend just on Trump personally. There is a stronger focus on domestic dynamics and less willingness to get involved in crisis and conflict management around the world. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that we alone could replace the US in any area. We would be overreaching ourselves. But we will have to work with our European partners to try and fill the vacuum left in particular areas together.
You recently called for an “alliance of multilateralists” to that end. You don’t seem to mind that this would indirectly weaken other multilateral alliances, like the EU or NATO.
It will do the opposite. In certain parts of the world, we are seeing a rejection of the rules-based order and of multilateralism. The United States have withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. It is not enough for us simply to raise our eyebrows in astonishment. We are going to need strategies to keep our international organisations functioning. That is the purpose of the alliance of multilateralists. We need to coordinate more often and more closely with one another. This is about channelling and amplifying the voices of those who believe in multilateralism within our existing organisations. That – sadly – is sorely needed.
As justice minister, you were able to draft laws; as foreign minister, you have to make do with the power of words. At what point in the last few months did you notice that the power of words is limited?
When, in spite of weeks of effort by numerous countries, the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran.
How do autocrats and populists change the diplomatic sphere ?
In a globalised world, connected by digital technology, facing a changing climate, we ought to think on a large scale and for the long term. These issues do not stop at national borders. What’s actually happening, however, is that short-termism and small-scale thinking are on the rise. The situation we have in Europe was once described by Paul-Henri Spaak, a former Belgian prime minister and a founding father of the EU: we have only two types of country – small countries, and small countries that have not yet realised they are small. Any that’s why I think Europe needs to organise itself with much more internationalism and unity if it is still to have a chance.
Minister, you are not only a member of the Social Democrats; you are also a big fan of Hamburg football club. Which is in a worse state at the moment – the Social Democrats or Hamburg?
are in the promotion zone. The Social Democrats are in government. What’s supposed to be bad about that?
Interview conducted by Marc Brost and Michael Thumann