Brita Wagener is the new German Ambassador to Ethiopia. She arrived in Addis Ababa a month ago after the passing of her late colleague Ambassador Joachim Schmidt. Wagener came directly from New York where she was a consul general. Wagener has been with the German Foreign Service for more than thirty years; and she served in a number of different countries such as Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, India and some others. Few weeks after her arrival, Wagner sat down with Asrat Seyoum of The Reporter to reflect on issues such as recent elections in Germany, the refugee crisis in Europe and Ethiopian politics. Excerpts:
The Reporter: What is the strategic interest of Germany in the Horn of Africa and specifically in Ethiopia?
Ambassador Brita Wagener: In general, the region is an important region in the continent, a difficult area, an area with a lot of conflict and instability. So our interest is very much in trying to contribute to keeping Ethiopia stable and trying to add to the stabilization of the region. With regard to Ethiopia, we have had bilateral cooperation for a long period of time. Diplomatic relation was first established around the beginning of the 20th century. We have always been here and we have always considered Ethiopia to be a very important country for our bilateral relations. These days, economic cooperation is our main focus. Apart from that, we have various focus areas, where we cooperate with the Ethiopian government and where we contribute financially. Vocational training and education is one, while management and improvement of agricultural productivity is the other. The third is biodiversity. We also believe these focus areas will be important to impact Ethiopia’s youth and that is the only way there will be a stable Ethiopia.
Your portfolio includes the African Union (AU) as well. What will be Germany’s interest with respect to the AU?
The AU is an important partner for us. We really try to support African countries to come together and in the long run to nurture their integration in order to make interactions and to foster economic development. The AU, for example is working on continental free trade areas, so we are trying to foster integration and at the same time we are also supporting the reform of the AU, the strengthening of the institutions of AU, in order to lead to good governance to reduce conflict potentials.
You promote the values of continental integration in Africa. Can we say this is because back home Germany is currently one of the few countries which is acting like a glue and trying to keep the European Union (EU) together? Can we say this sentiment is what is driving your support?
Definitely yes; you see the foundation of the EU is the European Economic Union. It was always driven by different ideas. One is to integrate the continent in order to avoid new conflicts and wars. It was established just after WWII and it was a peace project. On the other side, it was always meant to promote wealth for the peoples of Europe. And I think this is very much comparable to the situation in Africa. Integration means coming closer together and resolving conflicts peacefully. While at the same time, it is developing prospects for the people and the youth in particular.
With regards to the EU, we know that the AU is a very young organization compared to the EU in terms of the level of integration. However, some people claim these are very difficult times for such unions across the world. What is your take on that?
I don’t know if it is particularly a tough time for integration but I think it always needs a lot of effort to come together. May be it needs even more effort and time these days and that could be economically more difficult. But on the other hand, I think it is the task and the job of the politicians and of leaders to show and explain that integration and coming together is in the best interests of the people. Because these are projects, as I said earlier, are designed to avoid wars and conflicts and if there are conflicts it will help in resolving them peacefully. This is the whole idea; I do not pretend that this is an easy task as we can see in Europe. On the other hand, the EU has been such an attractive concept and an idea that many European countries wanted to join. Well then, of course there can be problems but Germany is very determined to try to keep Europe together.
Some would say that the Brexit phenomenon might actually end up undermining the whole EU in the future. What is your understanding of the matter?
We all regret that the British people decided to leave, though the decision to leave won in a very narrow margin. I think they have a lot of discussions within the country. Why that happens and how this can play out in the coming months could be interesting. Now we have the British Prime Minister suggesting a transitional period of two years. So it is all, still not very clear and all the pieces are moving. Well a lot of people think that Brexit has been a wakeup call for the other members. These are people who do not fully understand the benefits of the EU. However, to say that Brexit is going to undermine the whole union is something I don’t agree with. As you may know, they haven’t been with the EU from the beginning and the EU has been working before they joined in. Of course the integration is pretty strong and hence it is very difficult. It is like undergoing divorce. It will be quite cumbersome and probably a painful process. But I don’t think that this is going to undermine the whole idea of the EU.
President Emmanuel Macron gave a very important speech with regards to the future of the union and one of the issues that he raised was thinking about a common defense for European countries. How would that work?
We are at the very beginning of this idea, this has to be discussed, and there are small European military units already. But, what is important here is that these discussions are triggered and shows that there is readiness to move forward.
Another important issue with the EU is the issue of immigration. In connection to this, in most European countries, popular demand is propelling ultra nationalist politicians to the fore. Their main policy pillar is anti-immigration. However, on the flip side, countries like Germany are for a more open approach towards immigrants. Would you say that the populist parties and the politicians are obsessed with this issue?
We have just had our elections, and we are kind of worried since a similar populist party in Germany has managed to win about thirteen percent of the votes. In Germany, we are quite worried about populist and ultra-right wing views which sometimes have racist and xenophobic tendencies. On the other hand, we have to understand clearly that these are thirteen percent and that means eighty-seven percent of the population have not voted for them. But, it is clear that migration is a huge challenge for Europe and for Germany and for our societies. If you consider Germany, we have received almost one million refugees in 2015/16; that is an enormous task in a country of about eighty million to receive these people and to integrate them into the society.
May be not everybody is entitled to stay and we are looking to sent back those people who are not entitled for a refugee or asylum status. But even with those who are entitled to stay, it is a huge challenge. There are a lot of efforts, programs and a lot of commitments from the society to integrate these people in Germany. We admire Ethiopia in this regard because you are also a country with a very open policy towards refugees from your neighboring countries. Be it due to natural disaster or conflict, Ethiopia has been extremely generous in receiving displaced people into the country.
Since we are talking about refugees, the Ethiopian government is now considering integrating most of these refugees stationed in different camps. How do you see such initiatives?
We very much encourage these kinds of policies of integrating those people into the society. First of all, you never know when they will be able to go back to their home countries, and it’s always a very difficult problem keeping people in camps; and trying to support them in their camps and completely rely on assistance. We always think it is a good idea to try to integrate refugees into the labor market and also into the communities.
With regard to the issue of refugees in Europe, the general policies at the government level (mainly Germany) are more accepting and more integration oriented, while the popular drive retains sentiment of anti-immigration. Do you see the public and governments in Europe differing in opinion significantly?
The populist movements try to capitalize on the lies. The situation and probably the big number of refugees who are coming in have somehow increased their popularity. But on the other hand, there is a big sentiment of welcoming refugees in Germany. When looking at our history, during the Nazi regime, we had forced out so many people so we know what it means and our constitution is also drafted in a way that those people who are persecuted politically or who are fleeing from war are entitled to come to Germany. So this is the sentiment which is quite spread among a large part of the population.
Still on the refugee matter, one of the complementing strategies for Europe to deal with the refugee crisis is to offer financial and other technical support for source countries so that they can create jobs and retain refugees at the source. We have instances especially in the Horn of Africa that some of these financial resources are actually funding some regimes like Eritrea with concerns as you can imagine for counties like Ethiopia. So, how would you evaluate such concerns?
In general, I would not say that we are financing regimes, even supporting certain regimes. Most of the money we give is going to these international organizations like the UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP and other organizations that work with refugee population in order to support them in the host countries. Of course, for example, as far as the case in Syria is concerned there is a lot of money going to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan in order to enable them to support these huge number of refugee population in their countries. But, even in this case, most of the money goes to the international organizations that are working with the refugee population.
As you mentioned earlier the AFD party has gained some thirteen percent of the parliamentary seats. There are some media reports that compare this party with the Nazi party. Is that a danger for Germany?
These populist movements can be found in any number of countries, including the US. So, it is nothing particular to German. I think Germany is particularly sensitive to the issues because of our history. And that’s why democratic forces in Germany are very much worried about the rise of these populist movements. So far, they haven’t been as successful as they would have wanted to. An example for this is what happened in France, the Netherlands, and Austria. So, we are still hoping and working to keep them a minority. In Germany, for example, it is very clear that none of the other parties who are represented in the parliament are going to form a coalition with them. So, it is very clear that they are in the margins. On the other hand, it is a signal to our politicians that obviously the needs, the thoughts and the ideas of a lot of people have not been duly taken into account. So, I think it is a two-way thing. One has to kind of marginalize them politically but we also have to address certain problems and find out why the electorate is voting for these movements or parties.
You have some provisions in Germany’s constitution, to prevent elements like the Nazi party to come to power right?
Yes, you are right. If they are clearly a Nazi party they can even be prohibited, which could be quite a cumbersome procedure because we are a liberal and open society. You cannot just prohibit a party since it has to be done by the Supreme Court. It is quite a complicated procedure. So, it happened once after WWII. But, there has been an effort to prohibit one party, which calls itself the National Democratic Party. We have also other rules such as symbols of the Nazi era being forbidden. You are not allowed to use the swastika and in the same context we have a provision in our penal code, which penalizes the denial of the holocaust.
There is political unrest, which lasted for the past two years here in Ethiopia, and I hope you are already briefed by your staff members here and I assume you are well aware about the current political situation in the country. Last year, amid the state of emergency, the German Chancellor paid a visit to Ethiopia. So, what is your take on the whole situation in the country?
As you have mentioned Chancellor Angela Merkel was here last year, two days after the state of emergency was declared. I think at that time she had a very open discussion with the Ethiopian authorities and have spoken about the need for reform not only in the electoral system but also in the way the police is dealing with the situation of the unrest and so on. We were very reluctant to continue on with our development cooperation because of the situation: the state of emergency, human rights and freedom of the press and so on. We were very relieved when the state of emergency was not extended. We are still working on bilateral cooperation in order to enhance the government infrastructure and train the police to deescalate the situation of unrest. But of course, we are worried when there are signs of unrest and conflict in the country. Quite a number of lives were lost and a lot of people were displaced due to the conflict. So, I think the first thing we would really like to see is some investigation into what really happened and also taking those who are responsible to court. We always think that investigating and trying to find out what happens is always the first step that should be taken to fix the problem.