AFET holds exchange of views with German Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs

The AFET committee heard German Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier talk on the fight against terrorism in light of the recent Paris attacks, Germany's "open border" policy and the situation in Syria and Ukraine.

By Zeinah Mugdadi

18 Nov 2015

Please note that this does not constitute a formal record of the proceedings of the meeting. It is dependent on interpretation and acts as an unofficial summary of the debates.

Elmar Brok (EPP, DE), the chair of the AFET committee, began by saying that the exchange of views with Mr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier was particularly important in the light of the Paris attacks and also in the context of the Foreign Affairs Council taking place earlier in the morning, where the Foreign Affairs Ministers have discussed, among others, the situation in Ukraine and the entire security situation.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany) wished to thank the Foreign Affairs committee for the contacts and the dialogue they have managed to build throughout the time and also for the support the committee showed on a number of important issues, among which the Eastern Partnership or on the internal blockade in Albania. He also thanked for the opportunity to address the AFET committee on this special day when Europe is mourning the victims of the attacks in Paris. It was with sadness that he noted that the world was being torn apart by tragic events, pointing out that this time there was not a mysterious airline crash, with people from the region carrying out the attacks. This time, he said, it was different, these being clearly coordinated terrorist attacks across Paris. The situation in the aftermath of the attacks is giving rise to a whole range of new questions, he said, such as what kind of consequences is Europe to draw from all this. In his opinion, the most important question was related to how many weapons were going to be made available and how many soldiers were going to be deployed. The answer to this requires thinking and sympathy as it is not something that can easily be put aside in Europe’s agenda.

Mr. Steinmeier emphasised that EU’s way to tackle terrorism has to be dealt with now and none of the options is becoming easier since the Paris attacks, on the contrary, the whole situation is becoming more complex. The German Federal Government committed to continue working on this issue, as he put it, but stressed that European Member States cannot perform the same task. Mr. Steinmeier said that Germany would not be the 17th country on the list of those expressing their readiness to carry out air attacks against the Islamic State (IS). He said that Germany believes rather that training should be provided for those fighting on the ground against IS, namely to Peshmerga in the North of Iraq. Despite a very difficult debate in the German media, Mr. Steinmeier said that Germany has decided to provide them weapons to the Peshmerga, which in his view, would give them the possibility not only to hold the frontline, but also to manage and win back some territories, as it recently happened. He hoped that in the coming months, Germany would be able to continue this process, however he assured the committee of Germany’s continuous support to the Peshmerga. He explained that Germany maintains regular contact with the Peshmerga and that they are providing regular feedback as to what are the requirements and where there is a need for reinforced efforts. The German Foreign Affairs Federal Minister was aware that the struggle against the IS has to continue. At the same time, military action alone was not sufficient to overcome the problem posed by terrorism.

The Foreign Affairs Council also discussed the situation in Syria and ways in which the EU could diffuse it and pave the way to a political solution. Mr. Steinmeier warned that in the Middle East there was no reason for optimism or euphoria. Nevertheless, he said that the meeting in Vienna held on Saturday, November 14, as well as the Vienna talks from two weeks ago, gave rise to unexpected results, as he put it, because for the first time, all the key parties were gathered around the table. Getting Russia and the United States, or Iran and Saudi Arabia to discuss about Syria was unconceivable just recently and this in his opinion, equalled progress and represented a value in itself. Mr. Steinmeier said that the roundtable of the regional actors on Saturday in Vienna was a try to make it a constant and permanent arrangement. He was optimistic about the possibility to build on the Declaration of principle adopted two weeks ago that Europe will not accept the fragmentation of Syria and that it believed in its territorial integrity and that the future Syria has to have a form that would allow the ethnic and religious groups to work together. Although this might sound utopian, Mr. Steinmeier said that Iran and Russia actually contributed to this. Following the meeting on Saturday, they agreed on a roadmap which contains a ceasefire and which envisages the creation of a transitional government and a new Syrian Constitution and also, considers moving towards elections. The roadmap is accompanied by a timetable, a ceasefire being planned by the month of December, after discussions with the representatives of the opposition and the Government to try to get a ceasefire at least between these parties. In his opinion, the armed forces of the opposition and the Syrian army should not be fighting each other, because they would not have enough force to fight ISIS.

Mr. Steinmeier informed that six months from now, the members of a transitional government should be nominated and the process should hence continue in such manner that in 18 months elections would take place. Regarding the question of what would be happening with Assad, he said that this was not resolved yet. He noted that some people around the table continue to support him, while others cannot consider a future for Syria with him still in function. He wished to outline that the political process was under way and that conditions will be met to allow for a ceasefire. From a European point of view, the German Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs said that it is not only important that the EU is involved, but the wish that the ongoing political process should be placed under the auspices of the United Nations, which should be moderating it. He concluded this point by saying that Germany would like to see progress and de-escalation in Syria so that the road to a political solution would be envisaged. This would help the reduction of new fighters for Al-Nusra and would contribute to the European security.

Another aspect that Mr. Steinmeier brought up was the situation in Ukraine. He said that there was no reason to celebrate yet, as the implementation of the Minsk agreement was far behind the timetable. He noted there have been continuous breakdowns in the ceasefire. It was broadly observed since September 1 and thought that it was worth continuing to work on the process. He informed that there was not any ceasefire that would last longer than 12 weeks. He also noted that there was a process of withdrawal of light weapons, while recent negotiations in Berlin agreed that heavy weapons should be withdrawn at the next stage after the withdrawal of the light weapons. Mr. Steinmeier also mentioned a demining agreement, central to the strategy that would allow the border-crossing to function and also, in turn, would allow people to circulate and give the chance to use the infrastructure. The German representative also gave account on the humanitarian progress in Ukraine, saying that only a limited number of organisations are operating, such as the International Red Cross. Regarding the exchange of prisoners, he said that thousands prisoners still remain in the East Ukraine prisons and that progress in releasing them is still modest.

In what concerns Russia, Mr. Steinmeier said that it ensured that Europe would not make any progress during the negotiations in Berlin and Paris. However, he said that there is a movement towards more progress, but that is because Russia’s priorities have moved. Russia is more interested in the military build-up in Syria, focusing on their participation there and taking somewhat away the attention from the Ukrainian conflict. Whatever the reason for this development, he said, he noted that latest discussions between Ukraine and Russia have been much more constructive than in the previous meetings. He informed that the unilateral local elections on the side of the separatists have thankfully been postponed. Mr. Steinmeier committed on behalf of Germany to continue working on trying to keep the process up and running. He however emphasised that working alone was not enough. In the EU, there is still a debate on how to deal with sanctions, this being entirely dependent on the implementation of the Minsk process. The next stage is holding elections and returning the border posts to the border control authorities of Ukraine, he further said.

In closing, Mr. Steinmeier informed that in the observation and verification of the East Ukraine, the OECD has been playing a very important role. The Swiss Presidency has committed to using all of the available options to the OECD. The Serbs have been in the Presidency for some time, but after some thought, he announced that Germany would like to take on the Presidency. He said that Germany is fully aware that the OECD is a very difficult institution and that there is an ongoing conflict which makes it even more difficult, but if it is be kept in place, one has to not lose out of sight that the OECD is one of the few organisation that survived the end of the Cold War and the conflicts in Georgia, Trans-Nistria and now Ukraine. Hence, it requires more effort and time in building it. For this reason, Germany decided to work on that, not only in mediating the conflict, but also in raising democratic issues and human rights.

Elmar Brok (EPP, DE), before giving the floor to the coordinators and the other MEPs, asked whether the EU would be in a position to get the joint alliance in acting against ISIS, should an agreement on the process be reached, or would it depend on other factors.

Cristian Dan Preda (EPP, RO) believed that solidarity should go beyond simple fine words. He reminded that in the Lisbon Treaty, there was a solidarity clause, the Article 222, which establishes that if a Member State is subject to a terrorist attack, the EU will use all the instruments, including military resources, to overcome the threat and protect the democratic institutions and to control the territory. He therefore asked whether it would be useful or worth using this article in the current situation. Secondly, regarding the Ukraine conflict and the raising of sanctions, he wished to know what his opinion was on lifting the sanctions before Russia left Crimea.

Knut Fleckenstein (S&D, DE) thanked the German Federal Minister for the efforts which he has put in together with other partners to ensure that the first successes on the Iran agreement have been followed up with diplomatic efforts and also for trying to find a political solution in Syria together with the French Foreign Minister that have led to the negotiations in Paris and Berlin. He noted the recent more constructive attitude of Russia seems to be just a start, saying that diplomacy tends to make small steps at a time. He shared his contentment that the EU has been able to do things that other partners in the region have not been able to do. He said that the sanctions on Russia, the way the S&D group sees it, can only be lifted when significant progress has been achieved in implementing the Minsk process. These provisions and requirements were not decided arbitrarily, hence the rules must be observed. Finally, besides lifting the sanctions, je wished to consider doing away with the black list of parliamentarians on both sides.

Charles Tannock (ECR, UK) mentioned the Lisbon Treaty Article 42, bracket 7 on military aid assistance in the event of an attack, which has not been invoked and Article 5 from NATO. He was not convinced that the EU vehicles are going to be used at all. He wished to talk about Schengen, asking what consequence could have on the whole Schengen system and the German open door policy, given that apparently one of the Paris ISIS terrorist attackers came into Europe posing as a refugee, allegedly shipping weapons from Brussels to Paris. He also mentioned the fact that the Bavarian government wanted to take over the border control. He asked why the German police not notified the French authorities about the Montenegro car apprehended at the Austrian border full of arms, heading for Paris, a week ago. Mr. Tannock wished to know if that was a failure of communication between law enforcement and security services in Europe.

On Russia, Mr. Tannock asked whether it would not be possible to decouple Russia from the Ukrainian sanctions from what Europe has to engage on with Russia over Syria now and if it was possible to grant Assad immunity in exchange of some kind of settlement and peace and would the Turks and Saudis agree to this. On the Peshmerga, he asked what more can the EU give to them in terms of equipment in order to combat ISIS, since they are complaining of insufficient and obsolete weapons.

Joannes Cornelis van Baalen (ALDE, NL) also had a question on Schengen, but from a different perspective. If it is to be a deal on the refugee crisis and if the EU is to stop the criminals and terrorists, he said, then the control of the external borders of Schengen is imperative. He therefore asked what initiatives the German Federal Government is taking in order to ensure this is happening, he asked. Secondly, the monitoring of Ukraine-Russia border was very important in his opinion. He believed that the situation on sanctions with regard to the East Ukraine cannot be change if Ukraine cannot control its own border.

Sabine Lösung (GUE/NGL, DE) had a question on Afghanistan. She said that Germany was currently carrying out there a poster campaign to convince people not to use people smugglers to escape from their countries and come to Europe. The Afghan Minister for refugees has apparently confirmed this and asked Germany to accept more refugees and refrain from deporting any more asylum-seekers. She wanted to know more about his position on the return of the Afghan refugees. She believed that the UN should be given Syria’s mandate, as German NATO Secretary Domrose has recently raised it. Ms Lösung wanted to know if more robust support could be guaranteed for this to happen.

Barbara Lochbihler (Greens/EFA, DE) had a few questions on Syria, as follows: firstly, she asked how to overcome the divergences in agreement between Russia and the Middle Eastern countries on how to classify different groups as terrorists or not. Secondly, she wanted to know how to achieve higher protection for the population located in areas controlled by ISIS.

James Carver (EFDD, UK) asked the German Minister if he agreed that the work of Member States to best protect citizens are compromised by the security issues arising from a lack of sufficient border control. In the light of the Paris attacks, he wanted to know if Germany was considering its position on opening borders, bearing in mind the French plan to reinstate border control. Mr. Carver also liked to hear the Minister’s comments on the Montenegrin man arrested by the German police last Thursday and whether that constituted a failure of the burden-sharing obligations.

Arnaud Danjean (EPP, FR) said that there are many areas of instability around the world, yet France is alone in its stance. He wanted to know the Minister’s opinion about the call for Germany playing a more active role from a military point of view.

Pier Antonio Panzeri (S&D, IT) asked two questions: firstly, whether this discussion is taken on board at the level of awareness of the leading political classes in Europe vis-à-vis the situation of terrorism that is facing Europe at the moment and secondly, a few international observers talking about progress about Vienna said it would be very difficult after Russia’s involvement in Syria to have such a progress. After consolidating the priorities on the transitional government in Syria, moving Assad and having elections, he wished to know what priorities and objectives are on the list at the moment.

Javier Nart (ALDE, ES) highlighted that the first thing to be dealt with when fighting ISIS is the logistics. Since there are seven bridges used by ISIS to get their supplies, bombing them would already do away with one pressing issue for the EU. Secondly, he insisted on the need to stop ISIS in getting their resources and supplies from surrounding countries. He considered outrageous that it took five years for the EU to find out where and whom to bomb.

Takis Hadjigeorgiou (GUE/NGL, CY) wished to come back to two things that have not been sufficiently discussed. Firstly, he highlighted the idea of supporting the Peshmerga at a time when they are being fought by Turkey and at a time when the EU is supporting Turkey and also the role of Israel in the whole situation, which is being ignored, Israel being interested in Syria becoming a satellite country. Secondly, he pointed out that Daesch’s financial strength is oil. Hence, he asked how come the EU has not bombed one single oil refinery. Mr. Hadjigeorgiou also asked the view of the German Minister on the current situation in Cyprus.

Andrej Plenkovic (EPP, HR) believed that the EU should not decouple the temporary occupied parts of Donbass and the illegally-annexed Crimea, this being a very important message for the EU’s Ukrainian partners. Secondly, as a follow-up on the Normandy activity, he emphasised the possible need for nominating by the whole of the international community a high personality to lead the reintegration of the territories. He believed this was the next step to be taken.

Kati Piri (S&D, NL) asked how would he assess the role of Turkey within the Syria talks, Turkey having faced itself some attacks form ISIS. Also, she wished to know the expectations of the German Minister on the upcoming EU-Turkey Summit, as in the EP, there is a dissatisfaction about linking the migration talks with the Turkey EU-accession talks. Ms Piri asked whether there were ongoing talks with Turkey on legal and safe ways for refugees. Finally, she demanded to know what the position of the German government was on the recent statement by Angela Merkel that cooperation with Turkey should be increased in all areas.

Eduard Kukan (EPP, SK) wished to know how the Minister was seeing the Western Balkan region in the future in light of the very often political crises, and on what issues to focus. On Serbia, he asked what would be in his opinion the biggest challenge that this country has to overcome in order to be able to proceed with the opening of chapters of negotiation. Mr. Kukan was interested in the cooperation between Serbia and Kosovo on migration and therefore, he asked the Minister if the two parties were receiving enough financial and political assistance.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany) thanked for all the questions and focused on the ones regarding Syria in the first part. Mr. Steinmeier was quite worried about the timeframe established in Vienna on Saturday on the way forward on Syria, as it was very demanding: in only six months, an interim government should be in place, a ceasefire should be agreed on and elections in which both the Syrians and the diaspora would participate have to take place. However, he believed that the work should actually start with this timetable, when all the players are around the table. He emphasised that this was not a question of time per se, but rather of how quickly things can be moved on the substance, highlighting that some misunderstandings regarding the term ceasefire should be cleared. To the question regarding the ceasefire serving ultimately the goal of ISIS, he disagreed and said that it would actually not serve their purpose, but it would mean the cessation of hostility between the government and the opposition groups, which would make them focus their fire on ISIS and Al-Nusra. Whether these groups are the only ones to focus on, that was in dispute, he said. He also explained that among the players at the table, there are some who restrict the radical Islamic fundamentalist groups to Al-Nusra and ISIS, while others also include those who, at a fear, cooperate in terrorist attacks with ISIS. Mr. Steinmeier said that only when moving along the path of a ceasefire, could they decide to whom they would apply the ceasefire options.

The German Federal Foreign Affairs Minister agreed with all those saying that all Member States find themselves in a similar situation in the current context. The tragic event have been shocking and dreadful, but one should not also forget the Madrid and London attacks. In his view, the European solidarity means cooperation between intelligence and security services, as the most urgent issue is to minimise the risk of similar attacks for the short-term in the EU.

Regarding military engagement, he believed that neither France, nor any other European nation, believes that NATO intervention would help. Instead, he considered more appropriate to request greater commitment from Middle Eastern states. As easy as a military response might seem, it would not help the situation on the ground. He said that the EU has to undertake a long and difficult route in order to reduce the intensity of the conflict and bring about political solutions. He specifically said that this was not a question about the number of tanks and air combat jets in an already highly armed area, but rather a question of hard effort. There is no use to measure the solidarity by the standard of doing the same thing as the UK, he said. Mr. Steinmeier considered that the Member States should have different points of focus and avoid redundancies. Bombing the dessert did not help to progress in the fight against ISIS. For this reason, he said that the EU’s response must match the complexity of the challenge, the complexity raising from the fact that the war in Syria is being held on many fronts and ISIS is precisely benefiting from that. In Mr. Steinmeier’s view, the EU must reduce the number of fronts, so that ISIS and Al-Nusra can be combatted, this being a challenging demand, but the EU must make progress in that regard. He also said that France announced that it would go to the UN Security Council with the aim of having a Joint Resolution of the Security Council and make sure that solidarity is being declared by the international community.

Moving to the topic of Turkey and migration, he believed that Turkey was a key country in dealing with the refugee crisis and that forms of cooperation must be found in order to be able to predict the flows of migrants arriving in Europe. He informed that the migration dialogue was underway with Turkey, but whether it led to satisfactory conclusions, he said it was difficult to say. However, Mr. Steinmeier said that expectations are high and on the table from both of the sides. He said that apart from the financial support, Turkey has other far-reaching demands in what concerns accession and visa questions. For the EU, all depends on whether Turkey can protect its Western borders so that the EU can have an idea of how many people come to Europe and can make provisions for migrants in their own countries to keep them there.

On Afghanistan, he replied that it was not a case of posters, but Germany has for some months been working on counter-propaganda. The smugglers’ propaganda was about long-term jobs, immediate housing and other such promises, which in his view, had to be countered, but not only through posters, but going through electronic media and social networks. He said that Germany tried to correct these first impressions being disseminated by these people. Their intention is not to contain Afghan migration or to send back asylum-seekers, but many of them do not receive asylum in European countries. For this reason, this process should go hand in hand with the availability of alternatives.

In relation to Ukraine, Mr. Steinmeier said that his task is to ensure that the need for sanctions do not longer exist, hence saying that sanctions are being kept in place or prolonged means for him that nothing has been achieved. He said that the common task is to ensure that the Minsk process continues. Following some small progress achieved, he encouraged to follow this course and see if the complex implementation phase continues, only at that point can the EU move forward. He reiterated that the future of sanctions is highly dependent on the implementation of the Minsk agreement. By the latest in February, he announced, they would see whether the results of elections are in line with the Berlin and Paris agreements. If everything goes in the right direction, then there would be a lot more legitimacy and it would translate in a huge step forward.

On Western Balkans, he believed that the Berlin process has brought them back on track and that the process of coming closer to Europe has been consolidated. During this process, he said, they have identified the remaining obstacles. He noted the British-German initiative to get things moving in Bosnia Herzegovina which worked well for some time, but said there are some threats at the moment. He also noted the current developments in Macedonia which all have observed and which showed that there is not a uniform financial support. He commented about Serbia that it does not seek money from Europe. Germany was the only EU Member State that provided bilateral financial support to this country, knowing the heavy burden placed on that country.

With regard to Cyprus, Mr. Steinmeir said that if there are encouraging signs at the moment in Foreign Affairs points of EU interest, it is indeed in the long conflict in Cyprus, where Northern and Southern parts are negotiating constructively. He hoped that a solution would be identified and that it would be used positively.

Elmar Brok (EPP, DE), before closing the discussion on this item, said that ISIS must be defeated and support for the Peshmerga shows that this is indeed possible. He believed that supply lines must be broken and then isolate them more. Also, support with regard to oil and money needs to be cut completely. However, Mr. Brok insisted in not mixing up things. The EU is confronted at the moment with two simultaneous challenges: fighting terror and dealing with a major refugee crisis. He said that the EU must make sure that in the public debate, these two issues will not be linked. Refugees are victims of terrorism and not terrorists. As previously said, Member States alone cannot deal with it. In closing, he disagreed with the statement that Europe has failed. On the contrary, these crises provide an opportunity to be stronger.

 

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