Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

‘Lacking European solidarity’

Miguel Berger, a senior German Foreign Ministry official, spoke to Khaled Dawoud about his country’s ties with Egypt, the threats facing Syria and Libya, and the growing refugee crisis in Europe

‘Lacking European solidarity’
‘Lacking European solidarity’
Al-Ahram Weekly

The director of the Near and Middle East Department at the German Foreign Ministry, Miguel Berger, echoed growing European and US views that Syria’s future should not include the country’s current president, Bashar Al-Assad, but said that his removal is not a priority at the moment.
In an interview with the Weekly during a visit to Cairo last week, Berger also confirmed Germany’s support for UN efforts to mediate a national unity government in Libya. But he criticised Egypt’s backing of the commander of the Tobruk-based Libyan army, Khalifa Haftar, describing him as a “very divisive figure” who should be replaced to help overcome differences among the Libyan factions.
On the growing refugee crisis facing Germany and other European countries, Berger expressed the need for a more restrictive policy on accepting immigrants from Syria. He said there should be a distinction between those who fled their homes due to fear for their lives and those coming from refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, where they have been settled for two years or more.
 He also stressed the need for a common European policy to share the burden of the incoming refugees, adding that these refugees should not have the right to decide which European country they will settle in.
Berger said relations between Egypt and Germany are growing and that Berlin understands the threats Egypt faces in terms of terrorism both from Libya and Northern Sinai. He said German officials are encouraging Egypt to do more to improve its human rights record, maintaining that the “development of stability and democracy requires an active civil society and active democratic institutions.”
The following are excerpts from the interview:

How do you see relations between Egypt and Germany, especially after President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to Germany in June and the economic agreements signed between the two sides?
The relationship is developing. In our view, the economy is a key factor in the development of the stability of a country. So we hope that the economic reforms that have been undertaken, and others that will be undertaken in the future, will allow Egypt to reach a growth rate that will bring people into jobs, because this is absolutely necessary.
One of the key factors that might be hindering higher growth rates is a lack of energy. So I think that the contract Egypt signed with Siemens could really help to develop the energy sector in Egypt. The new discovery of gas in Egypt, which will be available in the next five to ten years, and renewable energy will play important roles.
There is a lot of interest among German businessmen about working with Egypt and investing in Egypt. But there is still a lot of red tape, especially when it comes to small and medium enterprises. What they need is what we call a one-stop shop and the least bureaucracy possible in order to invest and do business.
We feel that the stability of Egypt is a key factor for us, and a very important factor if Egypt is to be in a position to play its role. There are areas where we have different opinions, however, for example when it comes to the question of human rights and of space for civil society, and these are things that we will be discussing with the Egyptian government.

The government argues that it is undertaking a war against terrorism and that this requires exceptional measures. Is there an understanding in Germany of this point of view?
We understand that Egypt is in an extremely difficult situation, having Libya on one side and the Islamic State (IS) group in northern Sinai on the other. But in general our feeling is that the development of stability and democracy requires an active civil society and active democratic institutions, and that’s why we are looking forward to seeing an important step forward in the parliamentary elections.
These were discussed as part of the talks with President Al-Sisi when he was in Germany in June, and they are part of our meetings and talks with Egyptian officials. A formal parliament alone will not automatically guarantee more pluralism and social peace in Egypt, however. What Egypt needs is not further polarisation, but reconciliation between the social strata and the political camps in the country.

Germany was not extensively involved in Libya during the country’s revolution. However, Libya today is turning into a large problem, including in terms of the refugees crisis. What is Germany’s thinking on Libya’s future?
We have been working on settling the crisis. For Egypt, obviously, Libya is of key importance for its stability and security. I think we have all been coming more and more together to work with the UN and with Bernardino Leon, the UN special envoy, on seeing the formation of a government of national unity.
This process has been very difficult and complicated, but we have the impression we are really on the right path. Now we have to overcome the resistance which still exists among some people in Tripoli and also some people in Tobruk.
Once the national unity government is in place, the question will be what we can do to make this a success in order to strengthen Libya and build state institutions. The difference between Libya and some other countries is that the money is there. What is needed is external help to build institutions and help the Libyans take matters into their own hands.
We will need protection for the government of national unity, as there will be threats from IS, Al-Qaeda and others. And we have to be ready, and I think this goes for Europe and the US as well as for all the Arab states, to stand with the Libyans in order to make their task a success.

Egypt supports the Tobruk government and its army led by Khalifa Hafter. But the US and some European countries have been launching strikes against IS and Al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq while preventing Egypt from taking similar action in Libya. Do you think you have a better understanding of Egypt’s concerns about the terror threats coming from Libya?
I have the feeling that Egypt is supporting Leon and that all foreign governments and neighbouring countries, including Egypt, understand well that the only way to fight terrorism in a serious form is by having a government of national unity in Libya. This government will have to decide on who is to fill the different posts, from the prime minister to the vice-prime ministers and the head of the army.
I think it’s the feeling of the German government and also of many other governments that Hafter is a very divisive figure, and I think there is a need to find a solution to that. But then one of the key tasks of the new government will be the fight against terrorism as part of state and institution building.

In view of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians now trying to seek refuge in Europe, is Europe paying the price for disregarding the Syrian conflict over the past four years?
I would say that in Germany we have followed the Syrian crisis very closely. We have been trying to work from the beginning for a political solution. We have not done anything militarily in Syria, but we all know that there are many players in the region with very different interests and very different ideas on how the future of Syria should look.
It has not been possible, and it is still not possible, to find a common denominator among countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE that will be able to define a joint objective for the future of Syria. Our task now is to bring all of these countries together around one table to work on a political solution to the crisis.
Our thinking is that we reached a nuclear deal with Iran that was a diplomatic solution to a fundamental problem and was the first time in many, many years in this region that this had been done. Now the question is whether we can use the momentum and dynamics of the nuclear deal and make these work in Syria. This is the basic idea of the German government.

Will that solution include Al-Assad, or will Syria’s future be without him?
Before we decide on the role of Al-Assad, let’s make it clear that everybody stands behind the idea of a transitional governing body in Syria. Then the question is how long that phase will be, what the exact elements of that phase will be, what it means in terms maybe of changing the constitution, who will organise free and fair elections, and how much time we need to have these elections.
Then we can put the question and find a solution to Al-Assad’s role in this phase. But I think it is absolutely clear that the future of Syria will be without Al-Assad. The point is to decide at what stage he has to leave and at what moment he has to leave. This will be under discussion, and it is already under discussion. But the future of Syria has to be without Al-Assad. I think that’s the understanding of everybody.

The general impression is that after the initial welcome of the Syrian refugees by Germany, there now seems to have been a reverse and you are reconsidering your openness. Can you explain where Germany now stands on the growing refugee crisis?
What we are lacking is European solidarity. Looking at the refugees, we had the growing impression that many people were already in safe places in Turkey, Iraq, and other places, including Egypt. However, they decided, through false information — and social media played a very important part in this — to trust rumours.
In Beirut, we saw hundreds of people coming to the embassy and asking where the ship that Angela Merkel had promised them was. There were rumours in the social media, or there was the impression, that our interior minister had said we estimated that 800,000 refugees might come to Germany, and this was transformed into the message that 800,000 Syrians were welcome in Germany.
So there were a lot of things going on that might have motivated people already in places outside the conflict area to think that now was the moment to go to Europe and Germany. What we see, however, is that only a small number of European countries are really willing to take people, and we are very clear that it cannot be the refugees who decide where they want to live.
If a refugee asks for refuge or asylum, this has to be in the whole of Europe. It cannot be up to him to decide whether he wants to live in Germany, Poland or Spain. There has to be a European answer.
We have to find a European answer and solidarity such that the burden will be shared by all European countries. And we have to act if we feel there are people who are migrants for economic reasons, which are viable reasons but which are not to do with political asylum.
So if we are under the impression, and this goes for many people who come from the Balkans, that there are no serious cases for political asylum, these people will have to be sent back to where they came from as quickly as possible.

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