First of all, thank you very much much, Dr Büchele, for inviting me here today. I really was delighted, especially given that I have a reputation as a bit of a critic of Russia within the Federal Government. And so perhaps this is a good opportunity for everyone to get their own impression, straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were.
I would also like to thank you, Dr Büchele, for your introductory remarks, particularly with regard to Europe.
I think, in a year when Europe is gearing up for elections to the European Parliament, one can say it. And to my mind you are absolutely right. What you described as “Europe united” is one of the most important points on our agenda at the Federal Foreign Office.
For two reasons. To put it rather bluntly: we are living in the age of “America first”. Perhaps that will soon be followed by “Brexit first” and whatever else. But basically this is a development that has to do with the rise of populist movements putting their money on national approaches. And that is dangerous. That’s why I am firmly convinced that there can be only one answer, both as regards the values to which we are committed – democracy, freedom and human rights – and as regards our interests, our legitimate interests. And that answer is: “Europe”.
Paul-Henri Spaak, a former Prime Minister of Belgium and one of the forgotten founding fathers of the European Union, once said that there are only two kinds of countries in Europe: small countries and small countries that have not yet realised that they are small. I think there’s something in that. Especially today, in an age of challenges, an age of geostrategic power games. And by that I don’t just mean “America first”, but also China, and Russia. We would be well advised to seek unity within the European Union in order to defend our values and interests.
And the other reason why I firmly believe the correct path is not isolationism, protectionism and all the other things the populists want, is this: all the major challenges we are facing just now are very different. But there is one thing they have in common: they know no borders. Globalisation knows no borders. Climate change knows no borders. Digitisation knows no borders. Migration by its very nature is about overcoming borders. And that is why, at a time when we are facing such challenges, the only thing we can do is to remain steadfast and work resolutely to ensure that there is no relapse into national approaches, but that what we term multilateralism remains in place in future.
But the way things are going just now, this can no longer be taken for granted. And we need to do more to this end than we have been used to doing. So one thing I would add, speaking as a representative of my generation who grew up in West Germany, is this: everything that goes to make my live good and enjoyable – freedom, the rule of law, civil rights – was already there. I didn’t have to fight for it. And I know that many of my generation regard all that as being a given, because they don’t know it any other way.
If I look at developments in the world, and if I look at developments in some European countries, but especially beyond Europe, then I come to the conclusion that the era of givens is over. And that it is not just a matter of enjoying the rights we have, rights which others fought for for us decades ago. No, we must also defend these rights.
That’s why I wish there were broader political debate on a whole range of issues. And on many of the issues we deal with.
Mr Berger, whom you know from your cooperation, is here this evening too. One thing has become very clear to us over the past few months: the link between politics and commerce, two areas that come together in foreign trade, is becoming ever closer. That is why I can say to you, given that we are at a New Year reception, we may be looking back, but we are also looking to the future. The last year, with all the experiences it brought me, is one that I would call intensive.
All the conversations I have had, whether here in Berlin, in New York, Moscow, or Warsaw, have made it very, very clear just how great the challenges we are facing are, and how different the various approaches to resolving them.
And I do not get the impression that will be any less the case this year, ladies and gentlemen, and I don’t honestly think you do either.
I think this is true as much for your work in the German Eastern Business Association as it is for us in the Federal Foreign Office. Particularly, as I said, because the link between foreign policy and commerce is becoming ever closer. You can see that when you look at trade disputes, new tariffs, punitive tariffs. But also in the fact that economic sanctions have become an ever more intensive foreign-policy instrument.
At a time when fears for the future of the global economy are growing – and of course that has something to do with these developments – economic exchange with our Eastern neighbours is, as we believe, extremely important.
In my view, you and your organisation, which is a fusion of organisations, clearly illustrate how the sum of Germany’s external trade with the 29 countries in which you are active, as you outlined, Dr Büchele, is greater than our total trade with the United States and China together. I am not sure that the broad public in our country is really aware of that fact.
Trade with the Visegrad states alone is worth more than that with China, and several times more than that with Russia.
For that reason, ladies and gentlemen, the issues you deal with are issues which have a key impact on the competitiveness of the German economy.
And it is clear that “your” region, too, has been impacted by the turbulences of the global economy. The IMF has revised its global growth projection down by 0.2 percentage points, citing trade disputes in particular.
There is a worrying underlying trend, one that we in the Federal Foreign Office are extremely concerned with at present: the rules-based global order – and I say this quite deliberately – not just the global economic order, is increasingly being called into question.
Trade policy is becoming a foreign-policy instrument. Regrettably, national egoism and zero-sum thinking are on the increase.
This has a fatal consequence, because with the rise of nationalist approaches comes the increasing danger of serious conflicts – not only political conflicts, but also, as we are seeing at present, trade conflicts.
As current developments show, this is also true in Central and Eastern Europe, and across Central Asia to Vladivostok.
• I am thinking here of the Sea of Azov, which you mentioned earlier, Dr Büchele. This conflict and these events have shown us how quickly the Russia-Ukraine conflict could escalate at any time.
Moreover, policymakers will be intensely concerned with the discussion of Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty over the coming weeks, too. And I hope we will succeed in finding a solution. Certainly, we will be more closely concerned with global arms control in future. And in this context we want to make good use of our membership – now ten days in – of the United Nations Security Council.
• Dr Büchele, you mentioned the Western Balkans. This morning I met the Kosovar Foreign Minister. When I see how difficult relations are between Kosovo and Serbia, when I see punitive tariffs being imposed, a policy of non-recognition of Kosovo by Serbia, then this is anything but reassuring.
Ultimately, the increasing link between politics and commerce is obvious here, too.
In all these cases, it is true that if there are no universally binding rules, if there is no predictability, reliability or transparency, tensions will mount, to the detriment of all involved. This necessarily has consequences for the economy.
And that is why, ladies and gentlemen, one goal of our work at present, as banal as it sounds, is to stabilise the international order. And as I indicated earlier, that can only succeed if, above all, we Europeans stand united within the EU.
But this also applies to the question of what approach we want to take to our Eastern neighbours outside the EU.
We are of the opinion that we need a European Ostpolitik. Not like that during the Cold War, but one which has two dimensions: an internal dimension and and external dimension. Within the EU, we need a culture of common, coordinated action in our approach to our Eastern neighbourhood.
We must – and this is the reality of the current situation – at long last overcome the minimal consensus in Brussels regarding our Eastern neighbourhood. That will not be enough.
For only then will a strong, joint policy vis-à-vis our neighbours outside the European Union be at all possible.
Let me give you a few specific examples of what we are aiming for. Because the situation within the EU just now is that we are debating how the EU member states to our East in particular are to be kept in the EU. Not in formal terms, but through joint solutions to the major challenges. And I also believe we need to pay much more attention to this than we have done in the past.
That is why I am pleased that
• we are moving forward step by step with our positive Polish-German agenda, for example, on which we agreed at the intergovernmental consultations in Warsaw last November. Even if there are some points in German-Polish relations that are certainly being criticised, the fact that trade between the two countries keeps setting new records – most recently 110 billion euros – is an indication of the potential we want to continue to tap.
• The Slovak Foreign Minister and I have agreed on intensified exchange between our two Governments, something that has hitherto not existed at all.
• In addition, we will not only intensify the successful dialogue with Czechia which has been in place since 2015, but will also extend it to cover additional areas.
• By participating in the Three Seas Initiative launched by Central and Eastern European partners, we want to play our part in helping Central Europe to grow closer together at the heart of the European Union.
The position was different a few months ago, because we in Germany could not make up our minds to join such an Initiative, because there was felt to be a danger that Eastern European states would join forces in order to carry divisive tendencies over into the European Union. I reached the view relatively quickly that the best way to prevent that from happening, and to turn it into a positive agenda, is to sit at the same table and offer Germany’s services as a bridge between Eastern and Western Europe. I believe we are well suited to such a role.
Finally, it is above all a signal to our Eastern European neighbours that we take their concerns seriously, that we are prepared to involve them in our decision-making processes.
We want to shape the future of the European Union and European foreign policy together with them. This offer is all the more pertinent post Brexit – completely irrespective of whether it is an orderly or no-deal Brexit. Brexit, on which crucial decisions are due to be taken next week, and which we hope will at least take the form of an orderly withdrawal, will necessitate some strategic reorientation. We will have to intensify our bilateral relations with the United Kingdom, because it is far too important a partner, in both political and economic terms. But we in the European Union will see how much we will miss the British. And there, I believe, lies potential for Eastern Europe, potential we can take up.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The core element of a new European Ostpolitik is, naturally, our relationship with Russia. Partly, of course, because of the geography. Partly because of our shared interest in security in Europe. And partly because of the close ties between Germans and Russians. And that also has something to do with the history of our country and with Russian history. However, I also believe it has to be said – and to be quite honest, it is no more than reality – that Russia has gambled away trust over the past few years. Nevertheless, we are committed to having Russia as a partner in foreign policy, because we know that no solutions can be found to the major conflicts – in Ukraine, obviously, but also in Syria and elsewhere – without Russia.
And the fact that, for a few days now, we have been on the United Nations Security Council along with Russia, is another reason for close coordination, as I have agreed with my counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.
Also because there has been a lot of discussion and much has been written about what relations with Russia are like under Foreign Minister Maas, or how they have developed, but I sometimes have the impression that no-one has actually looked very closely at what is actually happening.
Allow me to mention a few examples. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a large number of bilateral formats have been suspended. Some of them are going to be revived: for instance, the German-Russian High Level Working Group on Security has been in place again since mid-November. It has already met several times and is utterly essential for joint consultations on and coordination of security policy issues. And Germany was the one in NATO who called for the NATO-Russia Council, which had also been extinct for a good while, to be convened; not only was the motion carried, but the Council has in fact met and is due to meet again to discuss issues relating to the denunciation of the INF Treaty.
This month, I shall be travelling to Moscow once again to meet my Russian colleague and talk not only about the future of the INF Treaty, but also about economic reform in Russia, something many of you have already stated very clearly is vital, with continued economic reform being the prerequisite for any future massive investment in Russia on your part.
Ladies and gentlemen,
That is why we want the closest possible cooperation with Russia, based as much as possible on trust – and this must also be a priority of European Ostpolitik.
But to get to that stage, we need a real, honest dialogue. We also need clear principles. The more complex our relationship is, the clearer the language must be. So I believe it is right that wherever there are problems – and there are problems – we should address them frankly. To be honest, I don’t know that anything else would be possible with Sergey Lavrov anyway. And I also said quite frankly that this, too, is a prerequisite for gaining Russia’s respect in foreign policy. So: ask Sergey Lavrov about our cooperation! Count the formats and initiatives we have launched or revived at bilateral level over the past few months. It is more joint and bilateral activities than there have been in recent years.
And then we come to a matter which follows me almost everywhere I travel: Nord Stream 2. It can occasionally be pretty grotesque: here at home, you’re not exactly regarded as understanding Russia, but wherever you travel abroad, you’re constantly being criticised for a project with Russia, namely Nord Stream 2. So, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to talk a bit about that.
It is true that this issue is addressed repeatedly in various formats and organisations by many of our Eastern European neighbours, with whom I am keen to maintain good relations. But it has now also become an issue in NATO. And even sitting in the United Nations General Assembly, listening to the US President’s speech, I have to hear that we in Germany are taking the wrong course, because taking part in this project is making ourselves dependent on Russia. That there is objectively no truth in that is not something I need to spell out here, I don’t think. Various other things in that speech I had the privilege of listening to took a bit of getting used to. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, the US President criticised three countries: Iran, Venezuela and Germany. I don’t feel quite right in that company. And I think that came across in some of the TV coverage.
However, I want to state quite clearly here today, ladies and gentlemen, our position on Nord Stream 2 has not changed. It is not a case of Germany and Russia going their own way.
That is what we tell all the project’s critics – both in Europe and in Washington. Questions relating to European energy policy must be decided in Europe, nowhere else. And of course, and this is something else I want to state, we are not indifferent to Ukraine in all this.
That is why, ladies and gentlemen, President Putin’s assurance last year that natural gas would continue to be pumped through Ukraine, including when Nord Stream 2 is built, is an assurance we have to work to get implemented. But it is an assurance - and this assurance would not exist if we were not involved in this project. If, as some people want, we withdraw from the project, some people assume the project will then come to naught. I cannot judge that. The message from Russia says different. And even if Denmark does not grant authorisation, there is already an alternative route through international waters which does not need Danish approval. And who’s to say it won’t be possible to find other suppliers who would build the pipeline anyway, just a bit later. But there is one thing you have to realise, as I always tell my Ukrainian friends: if we do not make the effort, and if we do not have the possibility to talk to the Russian side about this while Nord Stream 2 is being constructed; if we are no longer involved and if, because of sanctions, the European companies – we’re not just talking about German companies – are forced out, then there will be no-one else lobbying for an alternative gas transit through Ukraine. You should have a think about whether that is really your aim.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is our stance on this question. We also believe that this position reflects Ukraine’s interests, and that any other approach would mean even greater problems for the Ukrainian side. There is no need for me here to go into the matter of having to consider whether Washington might impose unilateral sanctions over Nord Stream 2.
That is not the correct course, as I have told my colleague Mike Pompeo several times.
However, Nord Stream 2 aside, the question of sanctions will continue to concern us.
And so I would like to stress once again, because it is a question not only of American sanctions, but also of EU sanctions, that in our view, sanctions are never an end in themselves; rather, they are a political instrument. No-one is more determined than Germany and France to find a political solution to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine at long last. My colleague Jean-Yves Le Drian and I will try again in the coming weeks to sit down with our Ukrainian and Russian friends. True, the stand-off in the Sea of Azov has not made things easier, but this cannot become a persistent conflict. Yet the efficacy and duration of the EU sanctions continue to depend on this conflict.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Important as Russia is, Ostpolitik is more than our policy on Russia. A new European Ostpolitik must also cover Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, the Southern Caucasus, the countries of Central Asia and South-Eastern Europe.
Because “the East” has long ceased to be a monolithic bloc clearly delineated from the West.
With that in mind, we want to use next year’s tenth anniversary of the Eastern Partnership and our EU Council Presidency in 2020 to provide new impetus.
In Ukraine, the focus will be on implementing reforms more quickly and consistently. Powerful anti-corruption institutions and consistent decentralisation are the priorities here. There are many joint projects with Ukraine in this context.
We will also continue to seek a resolution to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, because as long as it continues, there will inevitably be limits to the region’s general potential for development.
In the Western Balkans, the European perspective remains key to regional stability. For the transition process to be successful, it will therefore be important for Europe to keep its promise: whoever implements reforms successfully, whoever cooperates with neighbours, like Macedonia, must also advance in the accession process. This was the promise we made these countries, and promises should be kept. If we do not keep our promise, these countries will find another geostrategic orientation, not Europe. And that cannot be in our interest.
Regional cooperation is the buzzword in Central Asia, too. Recently the countries of the region have been working more closely together, and as the EU we want to respond to that.
One important element in this connection is the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy, a project we pushed hard for in Brussels, and a project which many of you are supporting in joint formats. I would like to thank you very much for that. We regard this not as a rival to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative but an offer of closer cooperation on the basis of recognised rules and standards and designed above all for sustainability.
We have no interest in granting countries in the region loans with which we ultimately make them open to blackmail. There are some who have had different experiences. That is why this is an important initiative and a really good offer for countries in the region, and we will continue to pursue it with great commitment.
That is one reason why we set up a joint working group with German business. I hope that together we will make gradual progress in that body.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Without a doubt, 2019 will be a challenging year in foreign and trade policy. But I believe the conditions and opportunities are good. I have tried to sketch out a few of them here, and also to highlight our political support for them. The fact that we have focused much more on Eastern Europe in foreign policy in recent months is an indication that it will be possible to make use of these opportunities.
Your companies make vital contributions here. In the end, Germany will remain a key state for development in Eastern Europe. When it comes right down to it, however, your presence on the ground is also of particular significance.
You show the governments of these countries the advantages of an open, networked, free economy with clear and fair rules.
Let me assure you of this: wherever the Federal Foreign Office and its missions abroad can help you, be it in Berlin, at trade fairs or business events in the region, do not hesitate to approach us. We will do whatever we can.
In the end we are not only a partner in foreign trade and investment; we are also a partner in working towards a rules-based world order, a partner in strengthening relations with countries and people in the area from Prague to Vladivostok.
That is our goal, and I think it is your goal, too. So, notwithstanding the challenges, 2019 will also offer great potential, and I would be delighted if we were to work as closely together as we have done in the past.
On that note, allow me to wish you all a happy and successful 2019.