In this interview with Rudaw’s Alla Shally, Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia Armin Laschet discusses the economic success of his region, Germany’s relations with the Kurdistan Region and support for post-war infrastructure building. Mr. Laschet sheds light on Germany’s immigration policy, Berlin’s position on the war in Syria and the Middle East conflict as a whole.
Rudaw: Let’s talk about relations between the German region of North Rhine-Westphalia and Kurdistan Region. You are aware that economic conditions in the Kurdistan Region improved following the decline of ISIS. There are some German companies that want to invest there, some worked in the Kurdistan Region before the war on ISIS, and some Kurds went back to the Kurdistan Region to work there. In general, how are your relations with the Kurdistan Region?
Armin Laschet: You described it beautifully. Many German companies invested in the Kurdistan Region because they found the best opportunity in the autonomous region of Kurdistan where the conditions were very good. Germany helped the Kurdistan Region in the war against ISIS, which has not yet been destroyed completely, but is defeated credit to the bravery of the Kurds. That is why Germany, including its North Rhine-Westphalia region, should take part in rebuilding the Kurdistan Region.
How do you want to strengthen your political relations with the Kurdistan Region?
North Rhine-Westphalia region, should take part in rebuilding the Kurdistan Region.
There are very good relations between the German government and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). There are also good relations between some German regional politicians and the KRG. They meet with each other on occasions. We will next meet at the Munich Security Conference, which a Kurdish delegation will participate in. A delegation from Kurdistan also came to the Christian Democratic Union Party’s meeting in Hamburg. This way, they show an interest in what happens in Europe and Germany as well.
Let’s speak about the immigration crisis. A wave of immigrants came to North Rhine-Westphalia region. How did North Rhine-Westphalia open its doors to immigrants and how many immigrants did you take in over the past three years?
The North Rhine-Westphalia region took immigrants in a very special way. Most immigrants came to North Rhine-Westphalia region, which admitted nearly 300,000 immigrants from 2015 to 2016. And this has put much pressure on the region where, the issue of immigrants aside, we have housing problems. Yet, we provided them with accommodation and services. We took many immigrants. Now some of them want to return to their home countries, claiming the war in their countries has ended and they want to take part in rebuilding their countries.
Will Germany send Syrian refugees back to their home country after the situation calms down there?
Yes. I believe there are currently some safe places in Syria. But we will make a decision on this matter on the basis of our foreign ministry’s report. The ministry will be analyzing the situation. The foreign ministry says they will not send anyone back to Syria unless the situation improves there. Most Syrians should go back home after the situation improves, a peace process starts, and elections are held.
Great injustices are being committed to the people of Afrin in Syria. In addition, there are problems in Hasaka and Qamishli in Syria, which are under constant threat from Ankara. Are you aware of this? Will you take this into account in deciding asylum cases?
Most Syrians should go back home after the situation improves.
Yes, this will be considered. For now, we will not send anyone back to Syria. The international community should pressure Turkey to leave the places it has invaded in Syria once a peace process commences in Syria. No demographic changes should be made to these places. These places should not be invaded. Syria should remain united and Kurds should achieve their language and political rights within the framework of Syria.
In your view, how could a successful integration be achieved?
We have many Kurds living here who learnt German very quickly. The Kurds are very interested in integrating into German society. A successful integration is viable when people who come to this country are given a chance to study or learn a profession and not lose that chance. It is possible when they work and adapt to the environment. It is viable when they make a living themselves by working, rather than depend on welfare benefits.
We have many Kurdish success stories in the North Rhine-Westphalia region. Kurds show great respect to the new freedoms they find here when they arrive here, which is why they integrate with the German society better than some other groups.
Let’s speak about Turkey. Do you think Turkey is breaking with European values?
The Kurds are very interested in integrating into German society.
This is a very tough question. Turkish politics has seen many ups and downs in recent years. When Erdogan became prime minister of Turkey, he tried to improve relations with the Kurds. Kurdish language was suddenly permitted to be used and many other things changed too. Many unthinkable things were allowed.
But the situation changed and became tense after a few years. Press freedoms, freedom of expression, and minority rights were restricted following the coup in Turkey – which is still unclear who was behind it. Relations between Europe and Turkey were very bad at the time. After Erdogan visited Germany, it became clear he was trying to improve relations with Germany and Europe. But no change has been made in these relations so far. We need to see Turkey taking more democratic steps.
Why hasn’t the European Union been able to improve its relations with Turkey and pressure it at the same time?
Because it is very difficult. We can warn Turkey diplomatically about its role in neighboring countries, but should know what we will achieve using this manner. It might work. If it does, fair enough. It might have bad implications too, notably Turkey’s presence in Syria and Afrin. We should be treating such situations in a diplomatic manner. We will need Turkey and Russia if the peace process continues in Syria. Nonetheless, we should make it clear to Turkey what our principles are. And this needs diplomatic skills.
Germany assisted the Kurdistan Region in the war on ISIS and trained Peshmerga forces. How can your party continue to have a role in resolving the Kurdish cause in the Middle East?
My party has an indirect role in this. But this is a question relevant to our foreign policy that can be reflected in what Chancellor Merkel does. I think all German parties should remember the important role played by the Kurds and support them at an international level. It is useless to pay attention to them only in times of danger. The importance of Kurds became apparent when ISIS emerged. They should be given concrete support at times.
It is useless to pay attention to [Kurds] only in times of danger.
During the war on ISIS, there were disagreements over whether to send weapons to Kurdistan, which according to our laws is a conflict zone. We didn’t know if we should send them weapons. Finally, Germany decided to give weapons to Kurds due to the dangerous situation and the massacres that ISIS wanted to commit and did eventually. We only sent them weapons. It was the brave men who put their lives in danger and fought ISIS. Europe and Germany should be grateful that ISIS was stopped this way.
The EU failed to respond effectively to the migrant crisis and then BREXIT undermined the EU even further. What does the EU need to regain its strength and posture?
The EU needs to stand for its values. The problem with the EU is not that it can’t make decisions. Rather, the problem is that some member states are not prepared to take this path and go along with the union.
In the crisis of immigration, it was the eastern countries of Europe who were not prepared to show unity. To date, they don’t accept the equal-distribution system for immigrants. However, we reached a deal on protecting borders outside the union in which they all want to take part.
Only people whose lives are in danger qualify for asylum rights.
I think both decisions are related to each other. We all should be equal in providing assistance to immigrants who have entered the union and equally protect and fortify borders outside the union. BREXIT will unfortunately hurt the European economy as well as Britain. After BREXIT, all the 27 member states should coordinate better and be more united.
There are many questions in the world that cannot be resolved by one country alone. Questions like foreign policy, homeland security, immigration, technology, smart machines in which China and US are leading, can be resolved together. We as Europeans should work harder to compete.
Will bringing in laborers limit illegal immigration?
The law that allows the importation of laborers encourages legal immigration. If this law is effective, literate and competent professionals will not come to Germany illegally. That is why we should differentiate between job immigrants and asylum rights. Only people whose lives are in danger qualify for asylum rights. People who seek to improve their living conditions do not qualify for this right. The latter can come to Germany by applying through this law.