Agreement in the interests of both sides
Chancellor Merkel, on Monday you’ll be meeting with the Turkish President. Quite a lot has happened in recent weeks: there was the Böhmermann incident, the forced resignation of the Turkish Prime Minister, and then on top of all this the President has also called into question the agreements made in the refugee crisis. Were you wrong about Recep Tayyip Erdogan?
No, I’ve known him for many years, and in fact I will be taking part in the United Nations World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, where I will also speak with the Turkish President about all the important issues. The aim of the EU Turkey Agreement on refugee policy is to share burdens fairly and to protect our external EU border.
Then is the Agreement really in the interest of both sides? Surely that’s the only way for it to be stable.
I am firmly convinced that it is in the interest of Germany, of Europe and of Turkey, and by the way also very much in the interest of the affected people who are fleeing war and persecution, to protect them from continuing to fall into the hands of people smugglers. Turkey is an important partner and direct neighbour of Europe. Besides, even if we in Europe were already carrying out a common refugee policy exactly in line with my ideas, that is, right up to a fair distribution of refugees to all Member States in a spirit of solidarity, such an Agreement would still be necessary because it is the only way we can tackle the causes of the refugee crisis. We should give refugees a chance to find protection as close as possible to their homes. Turkey, which is hosting three million Syrians, has assumed a very major responsibility here. It can rightfully expect for us to share the burdens. It also cannot be in the interest of Turkey for one of the largest people smuggling operations to take place along its coast, as one can imagine, and for many people to continue drowning. One of the main reasons for the EU Turkey Agreement is to avoid surrendering the Aegean to these criminals, and the Agreement has brought major progress in this area. If we Europeans take seriously our own oft invoked values, we must take on a share of the responsibility too – for receiving refugees and also for combatting the causes of displacement.
And is that enough to get both sides to adhere to the Agreement?
Of course, there are mutual dependencies; you could also simply call it the necessity of balancing interests. This is politics – and all the more so in a world that is becoming ever more closely interconnected and interlinked. This is also true of our relationship to Libya, Egypt and many other states. Of course, the fact that we have shared interests with other states does not, however, mean that a fair balancing of interests will lead us to agree with their policies on every matter. That is why we will always also voice criticism about the development of a country, both publically and out of public view.
But Erdogan also made the harsh statement to the EU, “We’ll go our way, you go yours”. This did not exactly sound like mutual dependency, but rather almost like a divorce.
I am focused on observing closely how Turkey deals with its commitments. To date it has implemented them reliably, and of course I will speak with the Turkish President about where things stand. In any event, I see every reason for Europe to honour its commitments.
You’ve known Erdogan for a long time. He’s been around for your entire time in office, first as Prime Minister and then as President. Can you assess what his deepest motivations are when it comes to Europe and the future of Turkey?
Psychological analysis is not my job. My task, and the role of policy on the whole, is to identify differences and sound out commonalities. Germany and Europe simply have a clear interest in intense cooperation with Turkey, and vice versa. Three million people of Turkish origin live in Germany, and Turkey is a neighbouring country on the external borders of the EU. In recent years it has achieved a remarkable economic rise. The Turkish President has played his part in this. But of course certain developments in Turkey are very worrisome to us. The process of rapprochement and reconciliation with the Kurds, for example, has been broken off in the past year, and in its place there have once again been violent clashes. The PKK is a terrorist organisation, this is also our German perspective, but we want the Kurdish population to have their equal place and a positive future in Turkey.
Are we merely onlookers as the Turkish Parliament works towards lifting the immunity of Members of Parliament, particularly of Kurdish politicians? Or will you talk about that too with the Turkish President?
I do not want to pre empt my talks in Istanbul, but as a matter of principle I will not omit any issue. The Turkish Parliament’s decision to lift the immunity of its members bears grave consequences, especially for Kurdish politicians. This concerns me greatly. In the negotiations for the EU Turkey Agreement, too, we always speak about questions of democracy and the rule of law. The foundations of this Agreement are clear on their own terms and are to be heeded by both sides. We represent our values and interests, and in doing so we have achieved a number of things for the people affected by the refugee crisis – for example, work permits for Syrian refugees in Turkey. Through European funds, we can contribute to better schooling for Syrian refugee children. And in our willingness to take in humanitarian contingents voluntarily, we are removing the business base of people smugglers in the Aegean.
Do you understand the criticism that is levelled against conditions in Turkey here in Germany?
Yes, of course. What’s more, the criticism also reflects a major interest in Turkey. Turkey is our partner in NATO, and is experiencing the conflict in Syria up close. There is regular shelling in the border town of Kilis, and part of the border is controlled by IS. One has to be aware of this. It is always better to speak with one another than about one another. What irritates me is that I sometimes observe what seems almost like an enjoyment of failure. First it was said that the Agreement would never come about and there was no point in even bothering to try. Then when we had it, the word was that it would never work. In the meantime, the number of refugees arriving in Greece has fallen by some 90%. When new problems come about, we immediately hear that it is now finally clear that the Agreement is truly doomed to fail. This is not how I think or work. The implementation of the Agreement is a process, and we will continue working on it consistently. If some things take longer – freedom to travel for Turkish people, for example – because the preconditions for them have not been met yet, then we see how we can manage and what next step we can take.
So far, Turkey has been unwilling to restrict its anti terrorism laws. These laws are also used against journalists and members of the political opposition. Do we need to insist on such changes because Turkey is our neighbour, or should we be more cautious because Turkey is not an EU member country?
We have been talking about visa free travel for many years now. In 2013, the two sides drew up a list of criteria that have to be fulfilled for this. These criteria concern standards in Turkey, and they simply necessitate changes in the country.
This pleasure in failure that you mentioned, is this a German trait?
I do not see this only here in Germany. My understanding of politics, by contrast, is that I want to contribute something to success. This is often very arduous, and it takes a long time. When difficulties come up, I try to overcome them or find different paths so that we manage to meet a challenge.
The opponents of your policies say that the refugee problem has already been resolved through the closing of the Western Balkan route.
There is no doubt, as I have said often enough, that the closing of the Greek Macedonian border has considerably reduced the number of refugees arriving in Germany. This was not, however, a sustainable solution. I have been and remain a supporter of a pan European approach that includes every EU Member State, especially when they are particularly affected by a problem. If, however, as with the closing of the Greek Macedonian border, some states choose to proceed without Greece and to the disadvantage of Greece, this is not a pan European solution. This approach led to the fact that between 20 February and 20 March, some 45,000 refugees came to Greece and were stranded there. This major influx of refugees continues to burden Greece massively to this day because the distribution of refugees to other EU countries still has not really made much progress. It cannot be a European principle that some countries join together to attempt to solve a problem against the explicit will of – and to the burden of – another member country, and on top of that a Schengen country. This makes it all the more important that the CDU, CSU and SPD had already agreed on joint positions for a pan European solution at the beginning of November, and the protection of the EU’s external borders was a very important point in this. The Agreement with Turkey was also a part of it, including visa free travel, humanitarian quotas and financial assistance for refugees in Turkey.
The Aegean has always been a very special space, a centre of culture and civilisation. This was the case in the Hellenistic period, in Byzantium, and in the Ottoman Empire. Only since Greek independence and the collapse of Ottoman rule which it initiated has this region been a source of great trouble and instability. Do you also consider the Agreement with Turkey to open the door for our relations with other Mediterranean countries, perhaps even to offer an opportunity for stability?
Germany is located in the middle of Europe. The EU, however, extends from Greenland to the Mediterranean. How well we will live in Europe depends largely on the relationship to countries in the Mediterranean that we develop – not only Turkey, but also Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. We must do our utmost not to reinforce differences, but rather to work together to find common solutions. The NATO mission in the Aegean is an example of this. Two NATO countries are working together there, Greece and Turkey, even though there are tensions between the two countries. Now we must demonstrate whether we can credibly implement what we always preach: our adherence to our values, our humanitarian approach, the protection of human rights.
Doesn’t Europe also have a debt to pay? The nationalism, the arbitrarily drawn borders in the Arab world – all of this didn’t come out of nowhere.
I do not think about refugee policy in terms of the category of paying off debts, although of course we must always be aware of the long lines of history. The creation of the European Union is the pre eminent success of the post war era; it overcame divides and so called hereditary enmities. 100 years after the start of the First World War, the Federal Government initiated the Western Balkans Conference. It is taking place for the third time this year, now organised by France. In the Western Balkans one can see how quickly old rifts can open up again. The task is always to overcome what separates us and foster what joins us together, on the basis of our values and interests.
A transformation of the political climate, a strong polarisation, has taken place in the past year in Germany and perhaps throughout Europe. The convictions that are formed in such phases often linger in people for decades.
This is a period that is testing whether we will stand by our fundamental political convictions – yes or no. There are convictions that make up the very core of the Federal Republic of Germany: to me these are our commitment to the inalienable rights and freedoms in the Basic Law, to a social market economy, to the EU, to NATO, and to the right of Israel to exist. Every Federal Chancellor must make their decisions within this framework. Yes, recent months have led to a polarisation of society, but the overwhelming majority of people still say that they are willing to offer refuge to those who are truly seeking protection from war, terror and persecution. We can be proud of this. What we have experienced in the past year is in a certain sense the arrival of globalisation on our doorstep. We will learn how to better protect our European external borders and how to combat the causes of displacement more intensely: wars, hunger, deprivation and climate change. If people see that we are serious about this, there is no reason they should not change their views. You see, my party, the CDU, bears in its name the idea of a union. This is something inviting. This Union has always brought people together across class and religious divides: Protestants and Catholics, workers and businesspeople. This invitation by the Christian Democratic Union to overcome polarisation is addressed to everybody: also to Jews, Muslims, and atheists, if they commit to our values and principles.
Nonetheless, a new political force has emerged alongside the Union – the AfD (Alternative for Germany). CSU Chair Seehofer has blamed your policies in the refugee crisis for this. Horst Seehofer has quoted Franz Josef Strauß’s statement that there must never be a democratically legitimate party to the right of the Union. What does this statement mean to you?
On the one hand, this statement is correct in that we in the Union must always strive to integrate people towards the middle – in that we, for example, offer solutions for internal and external security as the party of security and bring order and governance to conditions that people experience as disorderly. We thereby give concrete answers to people’s real worries and concerns. If, however, the Strauß quote is understood to mean that principles ultimately must be softened or given up entirely so that people do not turn away from the Union, principles that make up the very fabric of our country and of the Union and that form the core of our convictions, then this statement does not hold true for me. We must never give up European integration with the common currency and freedom of travel, the NATO community of shared values, or the protection of human dignity, especially for people in need. By the way, the CDU and the CSU can best integrate if we find common solutions.
What you are saying reminds me of your 2015 New Year’s address on Pegida: do not follow them, for they have a lot of hate in their hearts.
We have freedom of opinion and of demonstration, but the citizens also have a right to know my position.
There was fundamental disagreement about the question of whether to take in Syrian refugees even though we were not obligated to do so under the Dublin rules. Will this disagreement be permanent?
This disagreement is undeniable. I believe it’s very important in such situations for us to be able to see that despite this disagreement there is much more common ground than there are differences between the CDU and the CSU.
The refugee situation in Germany has improved significantly: there are very few people arriving now, the reception centres are empty and now we are puzzling over whether we even need so many civil servants. Yet your party’s approval ratings are not rising; in fact, they’re falling.
The world is still full of threats, of violence and war. Just look at the situation in Libya. Worries remain. Unemployment used to be the focus of concerns, now it’s our security or our relationship to Islam. Time and again we have to say that the Basic Law is open to everybody, but also binding for everybody. Attacks on homes for asylum seekers are just as forbidden as the assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. We’re increasing our police force in order to give people even more security. We’re striving for better and earlier integration in order to learn from the mistakes of the past. These processes take time.
In Pakistan, to name just one example, merchants have displayed pictures of you. You are venerated and loved there. But recently you have also been hated, especially in Germany. How do you deal with this?
As the Federal Chancellor I have to live with both. I’m working on solutions to the problems and challenges that we face, and I live with the reactions. I notice them, but they do not inform my decisions.