Federal Minister of Justice Heiko Maas has provided his thoughts on the terror threat in Germany, his country’s planned operations in Syria and the refugee crisis, in an interview with EURACTIV’s partner Tagesspiegel.
Heiko Maas was born in 1966 in Saarlouis, Germany. He studied law in Saarbrücken before serving in the Landtag of Saarland. He has been the SPD group’s leader there since 1999 and was their Spitzenkandidat in 2004, 2009 and 2012. For a short time he was Saarland’s Minister of Economics, before starting his current role in December 2013.
Maas was interviewed by Stephan Haselberger and Hans Monath.
What do you hope to gain from the German army’s deployment in Syria against the so-called Islamic State?
The goal of the Syria operation is to weaken the terrorist militia and paralyse them. For Syria to be politically restructured, this is a prerequisite.
Should Germany prepare itself to fight this war against IS for the next decade and to do so, not just in Iraq and Syria, but also in Libya and other African countries?
No one can say for sure how long this operation will last. But, the government has not issued a blank cheque here. The mandate will last for a year.
Is that so Germany has the option to extract itself from the alliance against IS after one year?
That will always stay in the hands of parliament. However, I fear that we will have to be persistent in this fight. It is absolutely clear that bombs and fighter jets will not be enough to win this one. In the end, we will need a political solution.
So far, the mission is limited to reconnaissance flights and naval operations. Do you believe that sooner or later, Germany will be compelled to do more, militarily, at the behest of its partners?
The Bundeswehr’s (German army) mandate has clear, demarcated objectives. Our decision is entwined in a diplomatic process. At the Syrian peace talks in Vienna, containing the violence caused by the civil war and restructuring the political landscape were the main objectives. German foreign policy did well to help facilitate these talks and get people around the table who initially did not want to meet.
Will the Bundeswehr be protecting German security in Syria?
Naturally, this operation will be in the interests of the entire continent’s security. We want the military operation to destroy the operational bases of those that have perpetrated the brutal attacks that have been seen on European soil.
Is it not true that this will elevate the terror threat in Germany?
Germany was already a target for potential attacks. The risk cannot get any greater. Additionally, the threat of attack cannot stand in the way of our fight against IS. On the contrary: the terrorists want us to be afraid.
Will security laws be tightened in order to combat this threat?
We already have comprehensive anti-terror law. We have already shored it up in order to better tackle those who stand with IS. We are in a better position to stop the financing of terrorism. We have done what is necessary and will continue to do so in the future. But, the rule of law must be safeguarded in light of this threat. If we tighten security laws after every attack or act of terror, just to propagate a subjective feeling of safety, then there will not be much left of the law of the land or our freedoms. That is exactly what the terrorists want. This is an area in which failure is not an option.
In hindsight, are you glad that the SPD approved the data-retention legislation?
Our law is certainly better, having not been forced to decide on this matter in the aftermath of an attack. We were able to come to a factual and balanced compromise.
Is there a connection between the terrorist threat and the influx of refugees, given that the EU is struggling to secure the external borders and that there are potentially 200,000 making their way towards Germany, their identities unknown?
No. Refugees are not criminals, they are victims. IS have so far not taken advantage of the situation to smuggle terrorists into the Union. If they were to actually do so, then it would be for one sole purpose: to discredit the refugees and turn the debate in Europe even more sour. The attacks in Europe have shown us that the majority of the perpetrators had already been living among us for some time.
There is one area that we must address: our children. Many of the terrorists were born in Europe. They have been in our nurseries and our schools. They have gone to our churches and mosques. Their radicalisation took place under our very noses. That is why we must do more to make sure that our young people do not join IS.
One of the Paris attackers used a refugee route that passes through Greece to get to Europe..
These are the kinds of statements that the terrorists want to use to stir up distrust in Europe against the refugees and Muslims. They want to divide society. We should not fall into this trap.
What does that mean?
We must better integrate the people that we welcome, at a faster rate. We need to use data better. However, this applies regardless of the terrorist threat.
Is it necessary to slow down the refugee influx into Germany?
We’re working on that. Germany is in a position in which by the end of the year we may have welcomed over a million refugees. But, when so many people arrive in such a short period of time, integration becomes an enormous challenge. We will help the people in need, but things have to be slowed down.
Your leader, Sigmar Gabriel, has proposed quotas. Is this an idea that is supported by a majority in the SPD?
Yes. We want to settle the issue of immigration, ideally through immigration laws, but also through the use of quotas. It is clear that the fundamental right to asylum must remain untouched and available to those who need it.
The ruling coalition wants to limit family reunification, as well as changing the way language courses are financed and how refugee health-care for pregnant women, minors and the disabled is provided. How much is this to do with your party?
I cannot imagine why the Union parties are blocking the healthcare measures. Especially given that it goes completely against their Christian values. I believe that the issue of language courses will be agreed upon and we will find some middle ground.
The chairman of the Jewish central council, Josef Schuster, has called for a cap on the number of refugees from the Middle East. He has stated that they come from backgrounds where anti-Semitism and homophobia are an integral part of their cultures. Is this right?
His analysis is not incorrect, but the consequences of what he is saying certainly are. No one who comes here has the right to impose their cultural values or religious beliefs on the values of our constitution. Men and women are equal and people are free to follow whatever sexual inclination they wish. Should people try and deny their children rights, they are entitled to under the law of the land, then we will act.
It is, of course, more preferable to educate newcomers about the values and rules that they are obligated and expected to follow in their new home. This is why we rely so heavily on language and integration courses. This is not just the concern of the government, of course, all of society, including religious groups, are responsible. We will defend our values in this way.
The CDU wants refugees to formally agree to follow the values you have just talked about. Are you in agreement?
A mandatory agreement does nothing to integrate newcomers into society. It is purely symbolic. It is inexplicable why only refugees would have to sign this document, not German citizens who are guilty of integrating poorly into society. Why should refugees living in temporary accommodation have to commit to this, whereas people who shout racist slogans outside their homes do not? We all have a responsibility to uphold the law, regardless of if we are new to this country or were born here. We are all equal in the eyes of the law.