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DW's Conflict Zone Election Debate

Simon Young
September 14, 2017

Not since the Cold War has Germany's foreign policy faced such crucial tests. Ahead of the German elections, DW's Tim Sebastian and a live audience quiz politicians from Germany's six major parties on foreign policy.

Conflict Zone - The Debate
Image: DW/M. Altmann

Conflict Zone - The Debate

++ Live Ticker ++

Ten minutes to go

Our live debate is about to start. Conflict Zone’s Tim Sebastian is preparing to quiz politicians from six parties - in English - on foreign policy ahead of the German elections. An audience of around two hundred is in the studio, made up of party supporters, politics students and journalists.

This is the only English language live TV debate of the German election campaign and we're hoping for a cracking confrontation.

I'm Simon Young, DW Political Correspondent and Conflict Zone producer, and I'll be trying to keep up with the quickfire exchanges, and provide a bit of context as we go.

So who are our six panelists?

Conflict Zone - The Debate Ralf Stegner SPD
Image: DW/M. Altmann

Ralf STEGNER is a left-wing member of the Social Democrats (SPD). He leads the SPD in Schleswig Holstein, where was previously finance minister and interior minister. In 2014 he became one of six deputy chairs of the national SPD. He has a Master of Public Administration from Harvard. He has never run for the Bundestag, but is a key figure in the SPD election campaign. He attracts a lot of criticism for his provocative style, e.g. calling for the resignation of SPD members he doesn't like.

Conflict Zone - The Debate Omid Nouripour Die Grünen
Image: DW/M. Altmann

Omid NOURIPOUR is the Greens' foreign policy spokesman. He is a member of the Bundestag Committee on Foreign Affairs, and also the Human Rights Committee. He is deputy head of the Bundestag German-American group. He is also on the board of Atlantic Bridge and the German Atlantic society. Trump's ban on people with Iranian citizenship entering the US could have affected him. (He was born in Tehran.)

Conflict Zone - The Debate Andreas Nick CDU/CSU
Image: DW/M. Altmann

Andreas NICK is a member of the CDU, Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat party. He belongs to the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee, and the CDU party committee on foreign affairs, security, development and human rights. He has a Master of International Public Policy from Johns Hopkins University. Before going into full-time politics he was an investment banker for ten years.

Conflict Zone - The Debate Stefan Liebich Die Linke
Image: DW/M. Altmann

Stefan LIEBICH grew up in East Germany. He joined the FDJ (the Communist youth organization), and, after the fall of the Wall, the Communist-successor PDS before it morphed into The Left party. He represents Berlin-Mitte in the Bundestag, and is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He stated (before the election) that the Democrats in the US got it wrong when they nominated Hillary Clinton – they should have gone for Bernie Sanders.

Conflict Zone - The Debate Michael Link FDP
Image: DW/M. Altmann

Michael LINK is a lifelong member of the FDP (Free Democrats), and he was in the Bundestag for eight years up to 2013. From 2014 until July 2017 he was the director of the OSCE office for democratic institutions and human rights (ODIHR) in Warsaw. For a long time he was a leading FDP spokesman on EU matters, and was also a junior minister in the German Foreign Ministry. He is hoping to get back in to the Bundestag after his party's four year absence from parliament.

Conflict Zone - The Debate Christine Anderson AfD
Image: DW/M. Altmann

Christine ANDERSON joined the AfD (Alternative for Germany) in 2013. She leads the party group on her local council of Limburg, and is running for the Bundestag in this election. She studied economics in California, where her first child was born. She used to be a member of the CDU. More recently, she has made speeches at demonstrations of PEGIDA, an anti-immigrant movement. She has been close to Björn Höcke, firebrand of the right wing of the AfD.

We're live!

Minute 1 - 13: The North Korea question

Nordkorea Flagge
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/W. Maye-E

Tim Sebastian launches the debate by asking about North Korea.

Germany has called for dialogue and diplomacy over the crisis over North Korea. "If you had Kim Jong-Un in front of you today - what exactly would you say to him?"

That's an unlikely scenario - North Korea is a long way from Germany, and I don't think Kim Jong-Un gets out much. But of course it's a top foreign policy concern.

The UN Security Council on Monday unanimously backed new sanctions against Kim Jong-Un's regime, after Pyongyang conducted another nuclear test.

"Avoid escalation to nuclear war by accident," says Andreas Nick (CDU/CSU). "Let's resolve our differences."

"What do you want?" would be Omid Nouripour’s (Greens) question to Kim Jong-Un. "We have to talk."

"Talking is better than anything else," says Ralf Stegner (SPD). "We have to try to learn how he sees the world."

The AfD's Christine Anderson thinks the world can get North Korea to the negotiating table. "That's not going so well these days," comments Tim Sebastian wrily.

The FDP's Michael Link thinks Germany should play a bigger role on issues like North Korea's nuclear program. 

"We don't have enough unity among the nations," says Ralf Stegner (SPD). He, too, thinks the UN is the place to keep the discussion going. There's no appetite for nuclear war on this panel!

Minute 14-18: The United States under Trump

USA North Carleston - Donald Trump beim Gespräch mit seinem Smartphone
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Rourke

Is the United States (US) under President Donald Trump still a reliable ally?, asks a questioner from the audience. She may be thinking of what Angela Merkel said back in May: "The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over."

"Maybe Trump has to experience that some of his crazy ideas won't work," says Ralf Stegner (SPD). "He's endangering the world with his tweets."

Stegner thinks the US President might be able to learn if German politicians stand up. He says: "Mrs Merkel doesn't stand up enough.

Minute 19-27: More or less NATO?

Schweden Stockholm Demo gegen NATO-Militärmanöver
Image: picture-alliance/DPR/J. Henriksson

Merkel has repeatedly said the two percent of GDP spending target will be reached eventually. But she is in no hurry. And she has had to defend herself against the charge that the result could be lower spending on Germany's social security system.

Andreas Nick (CDU/CSU) says more needs to be spent on Germany's military. "We need to spend more on our own destiny." Tim Sebastian wants to know what's the point of a bigger army if there's no military solution in Ukraine, North Korea, etc.

Nick says the German soldiers should be equipped as well as possible.

The SPD's Stegner tries to score a point by pointing out the conservatives have had control of the Defence Ministry for years.

The Greens' Omid Nouripour says he wants a greater role for the military, but also reform. His party usually strikes a pacifist tone, but tonight the line is: "We don't have enough capacity."

The AfD's Anderson says she's glad to hear the SPD acknowledging Donald Trump is the legitimate president of the United States.

The Greens' Nouripour says the partnership with America is based on the people and the values. The audience likes that, and rewards him with some applause.

"Transatlantic relations have been built for stormy weather and not for good weather," says Michael Link (FDP). "And we have stormy weather now."

Tim Sebastian asks whether the audience thinks the US is a reliable partner. A show of hands. Only a few think so.

Minute 28 - 42: Russia - Ukraine tensions

Krim Russland Ukraine Pro Russisch Demonstration 5.3.14 Yevpatoria
Image: Reuters

Now the debate turns to Russia, another key but troubled relationship for Germany.

"What should be done about the tension between Russia and Germany? What are the chances of a more open and cooperative relationship?" is the question.

The key sticking point is the conflict in Ukraine and in particular Russia's annexation of Crimea. All the parties are against accepting that, but the difference is how quickly they believe they can achieve movement from the Russians.

Conflict Zone - The Debate
Tim Sebasian, asking tough questions on foreign policyImage: DW/M. Altmann

FDP leader Christian Lindner produced an odd comment recently, when he talked about recognizing that Russian occupation of Crimea is "long-term but interim." People thought it sounded like he was ready to give in to Moscow on the issue.

"How can you have a permanent provisional arrangement?" Tim Sebastian asks. The FDP representative Michael Link says: "Crimea remains on the agenda." He wants to know why Germany's SPD foreign minister is offering a lifting of sanctions against Russia just for a ceasefire.

Ralf Stegner (SPD) says he doesn't know anybody who thinks the sanctions will work.

Tim Sebastian mentions former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder taking a job with Russian industry, and the audience likes the question. Stegner says: "I am not against him taking that job." Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

The AfD has been very close to Russia, so what do they think? "We are talking as if Crimea has been taken by the Russians," says Christine Anderson (AfD). Whoops of disbelief from the audience.

Tim Sebastian is asking what the panel would say to Putin about Syria. Stefan Liebich (Left Party) says all sides in the Syria conflict are in the wrong. Michael Link (FDP) thinks Syria could be an opportunity for Russia to play a "constructive role" in the world.

Minute 43 - 50: Migrants and refugees

Türkei Nizip 2 Flüchtlingslager
Image: Imago/Zumapress/D. Cupolo

"It has become quite clear that the current strategies are not working to limit loss of life, respect migrant rights and ensure security in Europe. What are your creative solutions to solve the refugee problem?" asks the questioner.

Tim throws it to Christine Anderson of the AfD. "Why did I know I was going to be first to answer?" she says.

The AfD manifesto says Germany's borders must be closed. "This is the answer to our internal security," says Christine Anderson. She claims she cannot just go out on the streets any more. Jeers from some in the audience.

Andreas Nick (CDU/CSU), Merkel's party man, is defending the policy of welcoming migrants. He is making the case for better control of who can come, and more cooperation with other European countries.

What about Merkel's plan to send more people back to Libya? "Libya is not a viable state to provide this solution," says Nick. And he points out that the idea is to send people to their countries of origin.

Omid Nouripour (Greens) says there are many "dirty deals with dictators" these days, such as in Turkey. He thinks that should not be the result of the migration problem.

Stefan Liebich (Left Party) says: "Some people speak about protecting our borders. (...) They want to protect them against people asking for help." That is wrong, he believes. But can Germany manage the numbers? Liebich says: "Most of these people are asking for help from poor countries and they are getting the help there." Strong applause, and not just from Left Party supporters.

Minute 51 - 60: Turkey

Türkei Istanbul Cumhuriyet  Prozess
Image: Getty Images/C. McGrath

Now the debate moves on to Turkey. "How do you insist on human rights in Turkey but avoid alienating a huge and important country?"

That is a tricky balancing act, and Germany has a huge problem with Turkey at the moment.

Andreas Nick (CDU/CSU) says a short term solution is difficult to achieve, but you have to keep the relationship alive. Is there no limit to the human rights abuses you will tolerate?, asks Tim Sebastian. He claims the government has raised the concerns again and again.

"This country has no chance whatsoever of joining the EU," says Michael Link (FDP). He thinks Turkey can be forced to address the concerns of the West.

The Left's Stefan Liebich thinks it is time to end the refugee deal with Turkey. But he does not think there should be an end to the EU accession talks. Suspend yes, but you have to keep in mind the half of the Turkish population who look to the EU for democratic support.

Ralf Stegner (SPD) says: "What Turkey is really afraid of is the stopping of economic ties." The refugee deal is needed to help the desperate.

Christine Anderson (AfD) says: "Of course we have to stop the deal with Turkey. What did Merkel go down there making that deal for?" she asks, when she knew human rights violations were going on.

Minute 61 - 69: Brexit

EU-Fahne mit ausradiertem Stern, Symbolfoto Brexit
Image: Picture-alliance/Bildagentur-online/Ohde

Tim Sebastian has taken a question on Brexit.

"Some senior officials talk of punishing the UK over Brexit. What's more important: being tough on Britain or maintaining good relations?" asks an audience member.

Brexit has not played much of a role in the German election campaign. It was not even mentioned in the TV debate between Merkel and challenger Martin Schulz.

But Germany exporters are keen to continue selling to Britain, even when it leaves the EU, so "good relations" are key.

Stefan Liebich (Left Party) says it is time to change the EU. "I think the people in the UK will regret the decision. We have to show that such a decision has consequences." He says: "It's not a punishment, but a logical consequence." Just imagine how German that will sound in the ears of Boris Johnson and friends.

Conflict Zone - The Debate
Politicians from Germany's six major parties answered tough questions from Tim Sebastian and the audienceImage: DW/M. Altmann

Ralf Stegner (SPD) says Brexit is a "tragedy for Europe and a catastrophe for England."

He doesn't think the majority wanted what is happening now. Is he keeping the door open if there were a change of mind? "Yes, we should always keep it open." Eager clapping from the audience.

Michael Link (FDP) agrees that Brexit is bad for everybody. What has the EU learned from Brexit?, asks Tim Sebastian.

"We need to keep the EU together while not centralising it too much."

Andreas Nick (CDU/CSU) says: "We have a vested interest in maintaining strong and friendly relations with the UK. But the British government may have to learn the hard way." He thinks the EU needs to find answers to the big issues, such as border control and defence. He proposes a European Monetary Fund.

Christine Anderson (AfD) quotes Merkel on German exports to the UK, and says the Chancellor does not respect her own people. She thinks there is a temptation to punish Britain.

Minute 70 - 75: Closing question

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G20 summit
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka/dpa

Final Question: "If you had to choose, out of the UK, the US, Russia or Turkey, which would you consider Germany's closest partner under the current circumstances and why?"

That's a bit of a teaser. Of course they would rather say France! Or the EU.

Stegner (SPD) says America, but not necessarily the US President. "We very much miss President Obama."

Nouripour (Greens) plumps for the UK, in or out of the EU. "I am very disappointed with Theresa May, but at the end of the day this is Europe."

Nick (CDU/CSU) goes for the US: the most important relationship.

Liebich (Left Party) says he would not choose because international relations are too complex. Tim Sebastian tries to make him, but he won't play along. Someone suggests Cuba, but he won't go for that either.

Anderson (AfD) says she applauds the UK for its Brexit decision, while Link (FDP) wants to remain allied with the US -"independent of the president."

The clock is against us and that is the end of the debate!