Interview with Ernst Reichel, ambassador of Germany to Ukraine (15.01.2019)

In “Eurointegrators,” media expert and ex-Deputy Minister for Information Policy of Ukraine Tetiana Popova sits down with diplomats, heads of international organizations, and Ukrainian power brokers to discuss Ukraine’s European integration.

In this episode, the guest is Ernst Reichel, ambassador Germany to Ukraine. Watch other episodes of “EuroIntegrators.”

The show is produced by a Ukrainian NGO Information Security and Oboz.TV.

See the text version of the interview: 

Popova: Hello. I present today a new episode of my program “Eurointegrators”. My guest today is the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany, Mr. Ernst Reichel. Guten Tag, Herr Botschafter.

Mr. Reichel, after the Fall of the Berlin Wall Germany met the question and situation of uniting the two parts of Germany into one, with uniting people with different views and beliefs into one nation. What is your recommendation for Ukraine about Crimea and Donbass?

Reichel: One should not forget that, after all, Germany was divided for 40 years, and it took the fall of communism to make reunification of Germany possible. Once Ukraine has regained the territories, I think it is important to make the people who return to Ukraine feel secure and accepted. And there is also more one needs to do: to create an atmosphere in which these people who come back feel represented. Then there is the question of an economic perspective for these people, which is, of course, also very important. Now this is, I think, an issue which is not only to be tackled by Ukraine alone, but that will certainly, at the given time, also involve the international community.

Popova: What do ordinary Germans think about the situation in Ukraine? What do they know about the situation in Ukraine?

Reichel: I think there is a lot that people in Germany can still learn about Ukraine. The image they have today is unfortunately determined by issues such as war (we just spoke about it), corruption, poverty. These are the things that come to people’s minds, I think, when they are asked about Ukraine. So, there is a lot of effort to be made, I would say, both for Ukraine itself, but also for those in Germany who know better about the situation as it exists here, about this country, to inform people about the reality – the full reality, not only aspects of it.

Popova: What do ordinary Germans think about other’s steps, because information war happens not only on the Ukrainian territory? It also happens in information spheres in the European Union, including Germany. Do ordinary Germans understand what’s going on, how some actors are using freedom of speech or even attacks on freedom of speech or disinformation campaigns on German information field?

Reichel: Well, there is a big, big public debate about disinformation and effects of the internet on political debate. So people, I think, those who are well informed, who follow the media, they have understood and they understand that there is a lot going on here, which is often also designed to manipulate the outcomes of elections, the way political debates evolve. Now, this is not only about Russia exclusively as one might tend to think here in Ukraine, but I guess there is more than Russian trolls and disinformation agents. Just think of Steve Bannon, the former White House Chief Strategist, who is now working out of Italy and Belgium and focusing on Europe.

Popova: I have some slides, which I got from the presentation of German Professor Susanne Spahn. It is about beliefs of German people in elections. It is about 2017, before the elections, and it is about what “Sputnik” and “Russia Today” discuss and describe in their news – negative or positive. And as you can see it’s easily seen that they are playing against some politicians, especially the Chancellor, and support at the same time some other parties. As you may know, in Russian TV-channels in Germany, 90% was a support for “die Alternative für Deutschland”. It, of course, somehow influences decisions. The same with “Russia Today”: this is their YouTube channel for the same period before the elections, and you can see almost the same picture, and here is their budget. I think it is even not the whole budget for the Russian propaganda on the German territory, because as I mentioned, they supported Russian-language TV-channels – they had a quite big support for the “Alternative für Deutschland”. And they even had some outdoor campaigns from Russian TV-channels for the “Alternative für Deutschland”. So, their budget is quite high, higher than “Deutsche Welle”. What can you say about it?

Reichel: Well, I think one has to keep this in perspective. There is no question that, of course, “Russia Today” and “Sputnik” are propagating Russian government positions. But on the other hand they are a marginal phenomenon in the German media landscape. They don’t have the big influence. And if you speak about people of Soviet origin who live in Germany, then we are speaking about overall 1.5 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union – of ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union – against its overall population of 84 million people.

Popova: We face the same situation before our future election. There is some foreign influence on our election, as well as on your election, which gave the result even in Germany, which could of course and would, I’m sure, have result in Ukraine too. But in reality, it is foreign influence on decisions of our citizens, or your citizens in your situation. And the question is how to stand against it in overall.

Reichel: Well, I think the most important factor in this is to become aware that you are being manipulated. But influences that come from all sides are normal in a democracy. One has to be a little bit cautious about saying: “Stop! Everybody should stop trying to influence the opinion of people”, because that’s the essence of democracy, of course, that one has a debate.

Popova: But it’s not about stopping. It’s about at least naming, I would not say even shaming. There is such concept like “naming and shaming”. I’m not even speaking about shaming, just at least naming. Because what Susanne told me, when we met, that unfortunately the main editors of both “Russia Today” and “Sputnik” were present on the main German TV-channels in prime-time, and they were introduced as editors of independent media.

Reichel: I don’t know about this case, but certainly all opinions, also those of Russia, of the Russian leadership as it exists today, they have their place in a debate in an open society.

Popova: Do you see any threats of such populism – we see what happens in France – some political parties’ ideas in overall for the European Union and for the European integration, sustainability of the European Union?

Reichel: Nowadays, I think, people in the UK have in some parts a different view of the circumstances under which they took the decision to leave the European Union, when the referendum took place. This is one of the typical examples of populism, if you like, but this is a phenomenon which exists in all our societies nowadays. But at the same time I’m very confident that we haven’t seen by far the end of the European Union yet, and we won’t see it. I think, on the contrary, that there is a counter impulse that has been given, that populism and populist criticism of the EU have made people restart to realize what an achievement the European Union is. In particular, Germany and France, in fact, stand for this, and on 22nd of January Germany and France will sign a new and reinforced friendship treaty. The relationship that France and Germany have developed since the Second World War is a tremendous success story.

Popova: Yes, but in the same time we have these protests in France for more than one month.

Reichel: Yes, we have these protests in France.

Popova: I’m not sure that Emmanuel Macron will agree with you.

One more guest will join our program now. It’s an ex-Deputy Head of the Administration of the President of Ukraine Dmytro Shymkiv. Hi Dmytro, thank you for joining our program. You were one of the creators of the National Reform Council of Ukraine and you were one of the presenters of “Ukraine-2020” strategy with main priorities and goals for development od a country. What has been the results of these reforms so far?

Shymkiv: Analyzing the results of our 4-year period, I would say that the direction of Euro-Atlantic integration is a priority for the country, and all the reforms were conducted in that way and context. We achieved good result in security block – I mean the percentage of GDP that was spent on security. Our Armed Forces trying to follow NATO standards. Unfortunately, the judicial reforms and the issue of proceedings are not progressing. Regarding the economical field, especially the issue of energy independence, I see the positive dynamic. At the same time if to mention the questions of life expectancy, the per capita income – our expectations were higher, and we felt too optimistic. We hoped that Russian aggression would end much earlier and the country would renew economic growth. But despite the negative factors, we have some signs of economic stabilization. So, analyzing our strategy by 2020 we realize that we have some directions with a progress, and we have some directions with a lot of work to be done.

Popova: Dmytro, you are famous for your digital experience. You were a General Manager of “Microsoft Ukraine”. What do you think about Ukrainian cyber-security and how Ukraine is prepared to cyber-threats, especially concerning elections?

Shymkiv: We looked on all kinds of attacks against Ukraine, the President’s Administration is a target for such attacks in any country. The challenge is that no one feels fully protected of those treats. During the last years here in Ukraine we faced constant influence of Russian secret services and hacker groups who aimed to destabilize Ukraine. I mean elections, information policy, different media, attacks on infrastructure, business companies, well known virus Petya that effected country`s economy.  So, what has been done? In President’s Administration we have a strong system of cyber-security, with assistance of USA we have got well trained specialists, they fight the different attacks every day. The overall situation in a country is not so good.  We have challenges in election data system and the President asked the election commission to pay more attention to that. So, we want to see more progress here.

Popova: In Germany, there is a law about hate-speech in social networks. What do you think, Dmytro, should we try to adapt or imply such kind of law in Ukraine?

Shymkiv: I know this question in Germany was widely discussed. I am sure this is a serious issue to tackle. The country has clearly defined the red lines, and this is very important as Germany is a very tolerant state and nation which always finds the right compromises but always takes care of its own security.

Reichel: Well, I think, to make big social networks responsible for hate speech, to make them responsible to monitor it and to counter it is in principle the right idea. And we, the government, are trying to, that law that has been passed tries to create this responsibility. But at the same time, as Dmytro said, it is also important not to go too far in limiting this freedom of speech in the Internet.

Popova: Do you have any recommendations from the German partners for Ukraine in a path of its reforms towards membership in the European Union in future, I’m not saying about tomorrow, and in NATO?

Reichel: I think, here again, one has to find the right balance between ambition, insistence, determination on the one hand, and strategic patience on the other hand. Those who promise that integration into NATO or into the European Union is a prospect of a year or two, they are not giving you the real picture.

Popova: Even in 5 years?

Reichel: I don’t know. I guess 5 years is highly unlikely too. Okay salesmanship is all right, it is right for the Ukrainian government to promote what it has done – but what really counts is concrete reform action. Ukraine has committed itself to security sector reform some years ago already in the NATO context, but not very much has happened. It is still not to be understood really, according to western standards, why SBU monitors the adherence to commercial regulations. This is not, in our understanding, a job for the Security Service.

Popova: Are there any problems for the German companies with a “commercial department of SBU?

Reichel: Such stories exist. But, what I’m saying is, that according to western standards, which I think Ukraine also wants to adhere to, this shouldn’t be a job for a security institution. But this is a matter for other civilian agencies.

Popova: Ukrainian exports to the European Union in 2017 grew by 30%. The European Union export during the whole year grew by 21%. In the first half of the last yeah Ukrainian exports grew by 19%. But at the same time trade quotas for some products, very important for Ukraine – agricultural products, are finishing during one month. What should we do with that and how can you recommend developing economic relations between the European Union and Ukraine, and Ukraine and Germany?

Reichel: I agree, there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about trade with the European Union. I would expect this trend, which you have described, to continue. The factor which is holding the potential back is not so much these individual cases of quotas, but rather that we have still a lot of work to do in Ukraine with what we call “regulatory convergence”, that is the adoption of the EU standards and regulations to Ukrainian production.

Popova: But quota issues are quite important. I spoke to the former acting minister of finance, and there is quite a lot of agriculture products in a list of quotas, and they are exhausted for one month. That’s I think not fair, especially if the European Union wants to develop Ukraine.  I think it’s rather better to give opportunity to make fishing for Ukraine by itself, then to give every day new fish.

Reichel: The big picture is that the entire DCFTA and the additional autonomous trade preferences, which the EU has given Ukraine without Ukraine giving the same preferences to EU products, really are a tremendous opportunity for Ukraine, which Ukraine is using. But of course, there are also the interests of the EU farmers, which come into this mix; the whole free trade is not only about the interests of Ukrainian honey producers, but also, of course, the European honey producers. They don’t want to be pushed completely out of the market by cheaper Ukrainian products. So, there is a balance one has to find after all. This is a calculation or a way of thinking common to all trade relations. And also, Ukraine is known for quite a few protectionist measures.

Popova: Do we have such types of quotas for the European products?

Reichel: Well, I’ll give you one example, where Ukraine actually openly violates the DCFTA with the EU, and that is a ban of exports of raw wood to the European Union. The treaty foresees free trade, but the parliament has imposed a ban on the export of raw wood to the European Union. This is the protectionist measure to the benefit of the furniture production industry, and to the disadvantage of the wood production industry.

Popova: We were speaking about quotas for exports. But I doubt that Ukraine has some quotas for the European products to be imported into Ukraine. I think we do not have such issue.

Reichel: Quotas, in this context, only means that there is a limited amount of, let’s say honey, you can export to the European Union without customs.

Popova: Yes, I know. Export more but with more expensive price.

Reichel: Ukraine also raises customs duties on a lot of products. And the DCFTA, which we have been speaking about, defines in which areas such customs duties are as an exception admissible and where, and that’s the general rule, there are no customs. And that is agreed between the two countries.

Popova: In one of your interviews you mentioned that raising of sanctions against Russia is not realistic. But at the same time, we have this aggression in the Azov Sea… What do you think, will it be possible to still implement some sanctions because of this aggression? Aggression which is actually not helping Ukrainian exports from this region, which is already not very optimistic region, a bit kind of depressive region because of the occupied territory close by. So what will be German input to negotiation of G7 about Azov Sea situation?

Reichel: Well, what I meant when I gave this interview you refer to, was that there are demands here in Ukraine for additional sanctions which go beyond what the European Union can likely do. We have spoken about populism a few minutes ago. And we have several EU governments on record which say they want to abolish Russia sanctions. Now, Chancellor Merkel together with other governments has succeeded in maintaining the sanctions regime as it exists, but it is unlikely to be agreed within the EU to go far beyond what the level of sanctions is at this point of time.

Popova: So, do you think because of the Azov Sea situation no sanctions will follow?

Reichel: I don’t know about this. For the time being we have tried to, and we are in fact trying to discuss the Azov Sea with Russia, and to create a mechanism which ensures free access to the Azov Sea through the strait of Kerch. And we want to ensure the release of the captured sailors.

Popova: What does the government of Germany think now about the project of “Nord Stream-2”? Taking in consideration the existing tension in European Union, about sanctions to some companies, could the project be stopped, or could contracts be somehow changed in order to give Ukraine some extra-guaranties? Because looking at the actions Russia do in Ukraine, in a situation when they can attack – they do attack. There is an opinion that if Russia do not need more export through Ukraine – they can easily attack the half of Ukraine.

Reichel: I don’t feel I have the role of an advocate of “Nord Stream-2”, but I feel I do have to repeat a few facts. And the main fact is “Nord Stream-2” is a project by “Gazprom” with financial involvement of European firms, but not only German firms for that matter. So, there is no German money, no German government money in “Nord Stream-2”, this is not a German government project. For the companies who are cooperating with “Gazprom” on this, for instance Shell, this is a commercial issue. For Ukraine, it is clearly a political issue, as you described. Chancellor Merkel understands and has recognized that this is also a political issue. And she is making big efforts to ensure that Ukraine remains a gas transit country for Russian gas. You have asked a little bit about whether at all “Nord Stream-2” at this stage can still be stopped by, for instance the German government. My answer is, and that’s also the answer of legal experts, who have looked at this – very likely no, because the construction permits have been granted by all the countries who have waters which connect with “Nord Stream-2”, with one exception of Denmark, which has still not decided; but to withdraw these permits for political reasons is not possible under law. There is no legal reason to do this, only because one has change one’s political opinion. So, that would lead to the quite absurd situation that for the project that is not a German government project the German government would then suddenly be obliged to pay damages to “Gazprom”. So, all of this shows you it’s not as simple as people often think, who say: “This is bad. This is not in accordance with Ukrainian interest. This has to stop”. When you look at matters more closely, it’s more complicated. That’s all I’m saying.

Popova: Recently your Foreign Minister did a note of protest regarding the publication on “Myrotvorets” website data of your former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, concerning “Nord Stream-2” by the way. And before, ambassadors of G7 already made a note of protest regarding this website. What are your expectations on future steps from Ukrainian government towards these publications?

Reichel: My government and G7 as a whole have from the beginning been very critical of “Myrotvorets”. This is a little bit sad and worrying story, because with “Myrotvorets” Ukraine is showing an unfriendly face to the outside world. And it is simply under our values, which I believe should also be and are the values of Ukraine, it is not acceptable that freedom of speech and freedom of press are put in such jeopardy by putting out there personal data of journalists or branding them as collaborators with terrorists. This is simply not what we as the European Union, and I think also not what Ukraine really stands for. And therefore, yes, we would expect and hope that those who have influence and who are supporting this website, as we know, withdraw this support. I think that’s not the kind of image that Ukraine wants to send out to the world.

Popova: Yes, definitely, with journalists, this is really a terrible thing, because put in danger of journalists’ life, especially of those who is working on the frontline, as we need support of foreign press in situation of Azov Sea, as an example.

Thank you, Mr. Ambassador, for joining our program. Thanks to all who watched us. See you in a week.

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