‘Europe should not be an appendix of international politics’ – German FM

Europe should establish itself as an independent player in the international arena, rather than tagging along with the US or any other country, Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told RT, as he advocated “a new détente” with Moscow.

RT: Mr. Gabriel, thank you for taking time to sit down with us.

Sigmar Hartmut Gabriel: Well, it is our second interview.

RT: Thank you. Can we take it as a step towards a détente between Germany and Russia?

SHG: The fact that I am giving you an interview? No. I think we should get accustomed to having more media outlets covering German politics. We also communicate with Turkish channels and newspapers. In Germany, many people watch Russian channels. So of course we should pay some attention to them, to make sure German policies are expressed in their content. I am convinced that we do need a new détente with Russia, despite of some very complicated disputes over Crimea and the situation in Ukraine. We cannot tackle global problems without working with Russia.

RT: Is that an acknowledgement that the world has become multipolar?

SHG: For Germans, that’s not news.

RT: Really?

SHG: Yes, it’s true. If you think of the Iraq war - back then, we said that we would not play any part in it, because we believe the US was wrong. We have always been in favour of a multi-polar setup.

RT: What about Syria? It’s all a bit different there.

SHG: Why? That’s probably the clearest example of why we need to work with many countries that stand against Islamic State and its allies, including terrorists arriving from Iraq. Russia, undoubtedly, has a position that is different to that of the EU, or Germany, when it comes to many of today’s issues. And it’s the same with China. The US also builds relations with countries that hold views which are not in line with their own. It’s more about looking at what divides us and what brings us together, and whether there are areas where, despite our differences of opinion, we can achieve better results if we work together. And with Russia, of course, we have many opportunities.

RT: Regarding Ukraine, you said that if the UN peacekeepers work successfully in Ukraine, and the ceasefire is observed in accordance with the Minsk agreements, it could become possible to start lifting the sanctions. Does that contradict the US position or do they support you?

SHG:  I think this is the right approach, and there is nothing new here. My predecessor Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is now the German president, held the same view. The conflict over Ukraine and Crimea is a major problem. In the 1970s, we signed a vital treaty in Europe. We committed to respecting national borders and to never launching an intervention in a neighboring country. For Germany to be a respected partner, we had to acknowledge the existing border with Poland. And we said, yes, we do – and without that treaty there would have been no reunification of Germany. We have treaties that say we cannot intervene in a neighboring country. But Russia did that, and we see this as a very serious violation of international law.

RT: Do you mean east of Ukraine or Crimea?

SHG:  Crimea, and of course the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, which Russia is involved in. Russia is also involved in the four-party format with Ukraine, Germany and France, aimed at finding a solution to the problem. Despite their differences and despite the conflict, I believe that we all can all work towards a new détente. Willy Brandt, former German chancellor from the Social Democratic Party of Germany, started the détente with the USSR in the darkest hours of the Cold War, when the troops entered Prague. I think we need a new vision for peaceful coexistence in Europe. Look at North Korea and what is happening there. If the US, China, Europe and Russia had not been working together, we would not have been able to solve such problems.

RT: He is not a madman, but it is difficult to establish a dialogue when all we’ve been hearing for so long is that he really is one.

SHG: I think that is a false assessment. We have to look at what was happening before, when he seemed to have a clear strategy. He decided, if I have nuclear weapons, no one will be able to bring me down. That is why we first should ensure the security of North Korea. It’s not about regime change or military intervention. I actually like that the suggestion that the US Secretary of State put forward.

North Korea’s nuclear programme could encourage others to follow suit. And we could end up with a very dangerous world. Our children will live in a world more dangerous than the one we have today. Other countries may say, look, it’s actually possible.

To put an end to this threat, we need cooperation, first and foremost, between Russia, the U.S. and China. And we Europeans can also play an important role in that. Germany is part of this, when we say that we want to support the Russians, Americans and Chinese.     

RT: As for Europe, you told Handelsblatt that Europe should be focused on foreignissues. I assume, you meant that it is time to have a new foreign policy, whereas before Europe was more inwardly focused. What does Europe stand for – what are its valuesand interests?

SHG: The truth is that in foreign affairs, both are important. What makes Germany different is that we used to put our interests to one side, so as not to jeopardize our values.

RT: How does that correspond with the German arms trade policy?

SHG: Are you sure this is a question for me?

RT: Yes, because you’re saying we need to have more respect for values than interests. And that makes me wonder – where are our values when we sell arms to autocratic states, like Saudi Arabia?

SHG: What do we sell them?

RT: Arms

SHG: What kind of arms?

RT: The regular kind

SHG: What makes you say that? We are not doing that. We have cut most of our arms trade with Saudi Arabia.

RT: But we used to.

SHG: Yes, in the past. But when the Social Democratic Party gained power, the trade went down. For example, I put a stop to Merkel’s plan to manufacture 250,000 German assault rifles in Saudi Arabia. And the plan didn’t go through. But if you ask me to choose between values and interests – we obviously need to find a balance. Germany has its interests, but we don’t want to get to the point where we sacrifice our values - freedom, democracy, human rights, peaceful coexistence of nations - for economic interests. But our foreign policy is guided by both values and interests. You asked about Europe. And you are right, Europe is focused on domestic affairs. It was important after World War 2 – in order to make sure that a new war did not happen, and maintain peace. And Europe needs to have its own voice in global affairs. In the past, we have often said that global politics are what the Americans do. If something goes wrong, we will complain. But I think we need to find our own voice. We have partners and allies, including the US. But we are a continent that needs to make sure that it is not just an appendage of someone else’s foreign policy. We have our own interests, and we need to represent our citizens in the world. And it is in our best interests to make sure that there is no arms build-up in Europe. There is so little trust between Russia and the US that we are at a point where the disarmament treaties signed in the 1980s are greatly threatened.      

RT: The 2% goal is still being discussed. The chancellor wants to reach that goal, if I understand correctly. But the SDP wants to move in a different direction. How will the situation develop, if the Social Democratic Party of Germany does not get to play a significant role in the government?  

SHG: That’s why we keep saying that those who want Germany to stay a peaceful nation, those who support a policy of de-escalation, should vote for our party, which in my opinion, is the only possible choice in this situation. Unfortunately, Angela Merkel and some other political players, such as the FDP, plan to double Germany’s defense budget.

RT: But if the current status quo…  

SHG: Let me finish my thought.

RT: Of course, I am sorry

SHG:  Doubling defense spending means that Germany will spend over 70 billion euros per year on weapons. France, as a nuclear power, gets by with just 40 billion euros. The entire federal budget is only 300 billion. Where will we find money for education, aid for developing countries, and infrastructure, if we listen to Donald Trump and spend all these finances on defense?     

RT: President Obama also wanted this…

SHG: No, NATO never decided that 2% of GDP should be spent on defense. Somehow this argument between Merkel and Trump made it sound like we owe something to someone. But we don’t have to do this. I think it is a false idea. There will be fewer wars and refugees in Africa, when the residents of those countries get more opportunities. So, helping and investing in developing countries will bring more peace than doubling Germany’s defense budget. The Social Democratic Party will not let that happen.

RT: Since you called Germany a peaceful nation, I want to talk some more about the arms trade. How can we be the number three or four (this number varies) weapons exporter? We sell a lot of weapons abroad. I don’t think this qualifies us as a peaceful nation.    

SHG: We have made a lot of money selling weapons this past year.  For example, we sold four tanker aircraft to the UK.

We do not pretend that we don’t need the armed forces. I think that both German and NATO forces must be adequately equipped. But that is quite different from scaling up. Frankly, selling four tanker aircraft to the UK does not threaten global peace and security, and does not suggest that Germany is NOT a peaceful nation. It is nonsense.

RT: But this amount and four tanker aircraft…

SHG: It’s one of the reasons why the amount was so high. You have to understand one thing – you can have large amounts and no major problems, and on the contrary – sometimes smaller amounts cause bigger problems.

RT: Can you give an example?

SHG: Small arms. Small arms are used in civil wars all over the world. Not tanks, not aircraft, but hand guns, machine guns, RPGs. We pressured the current government into lowering the export of small arms. For example, now nobody is allowed to manufacture German small arms abroad. I am the last person to say that we don’t need to be able to defend ourselves. I just think that we need to monitor what is being manufactured and sold. In my opinion, there should be more cooperation in Europe. Even if we reach the mark of 50% of the US budget, but are only 15% efficient, it will be pointless. And it’s all because each country does its own thing.

RT: Do you support the idea of an EU Army?

SHG: I think that at this point it is not a very realistic idea. But we try to achieve the same goals without cooperation, wasting money. And that doesn’t make sense. Cooperation would make sense. But I can explain what I mean by “peaceful nation.” Germany needs to raise the issue of using monitoring mechanisms that are not working right now. We need to discuss disarmament, we have to keep the current treaties between the US (or NATO) and Russia, like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. It is a great treaty signed by Reagan and Gorbachev. It is still valid, but is being threatened. Germany’s role is to make sure that the Iran nuclear deal doesn’t fall apart. Also I think we should look for mechanisms that will allow us to rebuild the European security architecture, as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe tried to do. It doesn’t seem realistic right now because of the major conflict with Russia. But on the other hand, Vladimir Putin recently made a proposal that we need to take seriously. He basically said, “Let’s send the UN Blue Helmets to Ukraine.” We might disagree on the particulars of the mission. But it would be insane not to sit at the negotiating table to discuss the idea and its implementation. If we are able to achieve truce as the result of the UN involvement, then I think we will have to start talking about lifting sanctions. Some Europeans think that sanctions should be lifted only when the Minsk agreements are 100% fulfilled, but I don’t think it is a realistic approach.

RT: Speaking about the election campaign, and an opposition party, you said: “we’ll have Nazis in the Bundestag again.” What do you mean by that?

SHG: I’m no good at lying. The truth is, AfD leaders are just neo-Nazis. It doesn’t mean... 

RT: But you…  

SHG: Please, let me finish. It’s a very important matter. I’m not saying all AfD supporters are Nazis. But everyone who votes for them has to know it’s led by neo-Nazis. They openly admit it when they say that we need to make a U-turn in how we see our history. What does that mean in terms of the Holocaust Memorial, Auschwitz, aggression against other European countries? What does it mean to make a U-turn with our history? Grab what we had back then, what we got under criminals? I have to be honest about how I feel when I come to the Bundestag and see – for the first time since 1945, since the end of WWII – a Nazi taking the floor at the Reichstag. It’s depressing. And we need to say this out loud, to say, “Listen, there are many reasons to be dissatisfied with policies now and then, but thanks to our parents and grandparents Germany became a great country. Many people come here to use the opportunities created by democracy, freedom and social security. For many people we are what America was back in the 19th century. Let’s prevent them from ruining the treasure left in our care by our parents and grandparents.” 

RT: But you know that after Nazism was eradicated, NSDAP members were among the Bundestag lawmakers. And I wonder if you’re downplaying that.

SHG: The fact that they were members of the National Socialist German Workers' Party  does not mean that they promoted Nazi ideology in the Parliament.     

RT: But they were Nazis…  

SHG: Right now you are talking to a social democrat whose fellow party members fought with people like the ones you referred to. Our ancestors were sent to concentration camps, prisons and other penitentiary institutions. Willy Brandt was exposed to libels from former Nazis. Since then there have been none in our Parliament, even the old members of the National Socialist German Workers' Party, who would openly promote Nazi ideas. But it is being done…      

RT: It means you see a line between…  

SHG: I don’t draw any lines, I am just telling you the truth. You have people at the top of the AfD who incite a particular sentiment in other people, who promote Nazi propaganda. Germany has not seen anything like this. This threat ought not to be downplayed. What you are doing right now – and please do not hold any grudge against me – is an outrageous disregard to the fact. You cannot really compare the 1960s with…      

RT: You seem to treat members of the National Socialist German Workers' Party differently from the Nazis from the AfD?  

SHG: The German Parliament has never given the floor – either in Bonn or in Berlin – to people who promote Nazi propaganda. I think it will change. Once again: not all members of the AfD and not all of their voters are Nazis. But you have to be aware of the fact that some of the party leaders do have those ideas and they want to encourage other people to act in a particular way. It is not just Alexander Gauland, there are other people who have lived off the state, who get a state pension and are now pitting the people against the government. We know it can happen and it is happening right now. It is outrageous. But there are also people with really dark intentions. It is people who will not work for the peace of our country or Europe. We need to talk about it out loud.

RT: I would like to refer to a quote by Hillary Clinton who once called half of Trump’s voters a ‘basket of deplorables’. Do you have a concern that by talking in this way you only mobilize those people? We saw that in the US people responded to such statements in the following way: “No, it is not true and I will vote for them anyway.”      

SHG: First of all, I think we need to stop lying that there is no such issue at all. Voters need to act responsibly, too. You can’t say: “I want to live in the country, use the opportunities provided by the democratic system, and then – disappointed by something – vote for politicians who will destroy democracy. Unlike other countries, this nation had prior experience of what could happen if these people become part of society. I have never seen an election campaign like this one before, with so much ferocity, even violence, when members of democratic parties are exposed to verbal and sometimes physical attacks during door-to-door campaigning. The country is in a good shape and we want to keep it that way. We do not want discord and division.

Here are my two major points: we must expose the real intentions behind the ideology of people like Björn Höcke, and at the same time talk to our citizens about their concerns. I have always argued that Germany is facing the challenge of a dual integration: we need to help refugees settle down here and at the same time unite people who already live here. You shouldn’t create an impression that the authorities are doing everything for one group of people and nothing for the other.

I think Angela Merkel made a major mistake when she refused to back the idea of a minimum level of pension benefits. It is something our nation needs. Then I would be able to tell those communities that are seeing a wave of refugees: “We will compensate your expenses on refugees and will also provide the same amount for your own residents.” We need to pay to improve our schools, healthcare and child protection services so that people do not have a false impression that the authorities have forgotten about them.

But there is one thing we cannot agree on. We cannot downplay the threat of what is happening in the minds and, unfortunately, hearts of some of the AfD’s leadership. This is a dangerous path for the country.                      

RT: It means there will be no détente policy towards the AfD in the Parliament?  

SHG: There cannot be any détente in our attitude towards Nazis, neo-Nazis and right-wing populists. I cannot allow myself to downplay the threat as you do.

RT: Mr. Gabriel, thank you for your time.

SHG: Thank you!