Minister, there are more and more crises and wars. Traditional alliances are being challenged. How dangerous is that?
There are no certainties any more. So much is going on. Decades-old partnerships have become fragile and proven agreements are being called into question.
That presents very special challenges for foreign policy.
Wouldn’t that be the time for the UN to play a proactive role?
The key to resolving political conflicts lies with the United Nations, and the UN Security Council in particular.
Many conflicts can only be resolved effectively there. That’s not easy, especially at a time when multilateralism is under great pressure because many people, particularly populists, are proclaiming a return to the nation-state. What’s more, at the very time when they are needed so urgently, the United Nations and the European Union are preoccupied to a certain extent with their own problems.
What’s the state of transatlantic relations in the Trump era?
The United States is much more than President Trump. Having seen the checks and balances which the judicial branch, Congress and civil society have established during the last few months to counter some of the President’s decisions, I’m not worried about America. Naturally, Trump isn’t an easy partner. We all know that by now. However, the United States remains our most important strategic partner outside the European Union – no matter who sits in the Oval Office.
Shouldn’t Europe finally take on more responsibility itself?
Yes, in future we Europeans will have to look out for ourselves more. We’re working on it. The European Union has to finally get itself ready for a common foreign policy. The principle of unanimity in line with which the European Union makes its foreign policy decisions renders us incapable of taking action on many issues. We’re in the process of transforming the European Union into a genuine security and defence union. We remain convinced that we need more and not less Europe at this time.
What about the trade dispute?
What Jean-Cleaude Juncker agreed with President Trump in Washington was certainly a success. However, that doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Punitive tariffs on steel and aluminium haven’t been dropped yet, nor has the matter of high tariffs on cars been resolved. We’ve gained time. That’s good. Now we have to make use of that time. Both sides will ultimately suffer if we slap punitive tariffs on each other’s goods. The European Union will now conduct further negotiations with Washington.
There’s still no European solution in sight in refugee policy.
There’s no point in forcing all EU partners to assume the same responsibilities when there are fundamentally different views on an issue. Most European states will be willing to devise a joint strategy. Those who refuse will have to shoulder more responsibility in another area, for example by providing funding to combat the root causes of refugee and migrant movements or for other EU issues. That would be wiser than constantly focusing on the fact that Europe doesn’t speak with one voice on the refugee issue.
It’s in the interest of us all if fewer people have to flee their countries of origin and are able to live there.
There’s a heated debate about whether sea rescues are resulting in a larger number of refugees. Isn’t this argument cynical?
Sea rescues and the international law principles on which they are based are intended for exceptional situations. For example, when a ship gets into trouble on the high seas. People smugglers are exploiting this by putting people at risk on the high seas in the expectation that they will be rescued. Some 1500 people have drowned in the Mediterranean during the last few months. I’m not unmoved by that. Indeed, I find it unacceptable. It goes without saying that saving lives is our humanitarian responsibility.
Italy, Spain and Greece are complaining about the burden. What should be done?
We have to distribute the refugees arriving at Europe’s coasts among the EU countries which are prepared to take them in. We cannot leave the countries where they land, such as Italy or Spain, in the lurch. They need our support.
We cannot pretend that those rescued in the Mediterranean are Spanish or Italian refugees. That won’t work in the long run. We need a European solution and solidarity. The migration issue must not be allowed to divide Europe.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is coming to Berlin on a state visit at the end of September. Is he welcome in Germany?
Regardless of whether we like Turkey’s presidential constitution, Erdogan is the country’s elected president. There are more than three million people with Turkish roots living in Germany. It would be a grave mistake to declare that the representatives of the Turkish state aren’t welcome in Germany.
Isn’t there a danger that internal Turkish conflicts will be imported into Germany?
There would be a much greater danger if we weren’t talking to each other.
If, as in the case of recent disagreements, we argue publicly and vociferously via the media instead of talking to each other, then the conflicts in Turkey would be more likely to be acted out in Germany’s streets. We will only make progress if we engage in a sensible dialogue and openly address differences of opinion.
You want to speak frankly to Erdogan. What about exactly?
There is a whole host of unanswered questions. For example, there are German nationals detained in Turkish prisons. We cannot understand why. Freedom of the press and of opinion is a precious asset, especially for countries which want closer ties with the European Union. There are many problems which we intend to openly address at all talks. They won’t be swept under the carpet during the state visit.
President Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear agreement with Iran. Now sanctions have been imposed on Tehran. Is there a threat of escalation?
I hope not. We're working extremely hard to make sure that doesn't happen. We continue to believe it’s a mistake to abandon the nuclear agreement with Iran. No-one is claiming that the agreement is perfect. However, it’s certainly much better than the alternative – no agreement. Iran lies in Europe’s wider neighbourhood. We’re fighting for the agreement because it serves our security interests by creating security in the region as well as transparency. An escalation would be extremely dangerous. The agreement has helped to ensure that this doesn’t come about. The destabilisation of Iran can result in a situation which no-one can want.
However, isn’t Trump right when he says that the regime in Tehran supports terrorism and is further destabilising the region?
Of course, we haven’t forgotten Iran’s problematic role in the region, for instance in Syria, or the ballistic missile programme. We also openly address human rights issues. But anyone hoping for a regime change shouldn’t forget that whatever follows may present us with much bigger problems. Iran’s isolation could boost radical and fundamentalist forces. Chaos in Iran – such as we’ve experienced in Iraq or Libya – would further destabilise a region which is already unsettled. No responsible politician can seriously want to see that.
How do you intend to prevent an escalation?
We Europeans are working to ensure that the economic aspects of the agreement continue to function.
For example, we want to uphold international payment transactions so that Iran is still able to engage in trade. Whether Iran can sell oil will be crucial. There could be serious economic and social consequences if the country’s oil exports collapse.
Then we would have instability in the country and that could be extremely dangerous.
You’ve given assurances to European companies hit by the US sanctions against Iran. What concrete support do you want to provide?
We will offer advice. What’s more, we intend to safeguard investments and we have to ensure that payment transactions can still be made. We are working with the European Union on this.
Of course, we’re under no illusion. Companies faced with the decision of jeopardising their business with America, which is many times larger than their business with Iran, are of course concerned and will examine their options.
President Trump has said he’s prepared to meet Iran’s President Rouhani. Could such a summit help bring about détente?
Anything that can help stabilise the situation in Iran and the region is good and should be welcomed. However, it’s by no means certain that such a meeting will actually take place. It would be a mistake to believe that it’s possible to deal with Iran in the same way as with North Korea. There’s no comparison. A meeting alone won’t fix the situation.
Interview conducted by Andreas Herholz