Says Germany values Sri Lanka as an important political partner in the region
Lauds 62-years of strong bilateral ties, emphasises scope for greater trade, investment and technical co-operation
Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has hailed recent political developments and other commitments to improve governance and democracy as impressive positive changes. However, he has emphasised the need to address longstanding issues of true reconciliation and keep up the economic momentum in equal zeal in the north and east.
In an exclusive email interview with the Daily FT, Steinmeier also said Germany values Sri Lanka as an important political partner in the region. Noting that bilateral relations that have existed for 62 years between both countries were strong, he stressed that there was a scope to further enhance ties with greater trade, investment and technical co-operation. Following are excerpts.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Q: How do you evaluate the 62 years of the Germany-Sri Lanka relationship?
A: Sixty-two years after the establishment of diplomatic relations the impressive development of both our countries is reflected in our bilateral relations. The main focus has shifted from development cooperation to economic and political relations. We value Sri Lanka as an important political partner in the region.
Economically, Germany has become one of the most important markets for Sri Lankan products – within the EU even the most important market. Moreover, Sri Lanka has become an interesting place for German companies; their presence has been growing considerably in the last years.
Countless private ties between our people are proof of strong bonds on the level of civil society as the core of our relationship. Many Germans got involved in the reconstruction efforts after the Tsunami hit Sri Lanka more than ten years ago. To me, it is moving to see how many partnerships from that time are still active. The high interest of Germans in Sri Lanka is also reflected in the increasing influx of tourists from Germany to Sri Lanka. In 2014 we saw an all-time high with more than 100,000 visitors.
Q: What are your thoughts on Sri Lanka’s recent political developments?
A: I am impressed by the most recent political changes which have proven the strength of democracy in Sri Lanka. I observed with admiration the high voter turnout of more than 81 % at the presidential elections. And the peaceful transition of power has set an example for many other countries. After taking office, President Sirisena and the new Government have embarked on an ambitious agenda of political change. The adoption of the 19th Amendment as one of the centrepieces of the President’s 100-day-program was just one of the important steps taken in order to strengthen Sri Lanka’s democracy.
I see this as an important contribution to enable Sri Lanka to fully tap the economic and political potential that the end of the civil war in 2009 offered. One of the biggest challenges still lying ahead is the reconciliation of the Sri Lankan people after thirty years of civil war.
Q: What is your assessment on Sri Lanka’s post-war recovery, reconciliation and how do you think Germany can help more in the country’s development process?
A: President Sirisena said that the Government has to “bring together the hearts and minds of communities.” I believe this is a very wise and responsible policy. The wounds on both sides will not heal easily but it is important that each side makes an effort to open the path for true reconciliation.
We in Germany have made our own painful experience in these matters. Through our own history we have come to believe that knowing and acknowledging the truth about the past is an important prerequisite for building a common future. That is why we believe that a credible domestic investigation of alleged war crimes during the last stages of the war is certainly painful but very important.
Q: Does this mean the years since 2009 were lost years?
A: I do believe that important occasions to further the cause of reconciliation were lost. But this does not mean that we do not recognise areas in which progress was made. After the end of the civil war the Sri Lankan Government focused on the reconstruction of the infrastructure, in particular the roads and railways in the war-torn areas in the North and East. Many housing projects have been realised, allowing people to return to their villages. One of the challenges now is to keep up the economic momentum in those areas and improve the knowledge and the skills of the younger generation so that they can earn their livelihood in the years to come.
The German Development Cooperation and GIZ support the Sri Lankan efforts with projects on social cohesion, SMEs and skill development especially in the North and the East of Sri Lanka. One of our key projects, the vocational training Institute in Kilinochchi offering 700 additional training positions, will be inaugurated in the spring of next year.
Germany will gladly continue to assist Sri Lanka on this path. At the same time I feel that it is foremost up to the people of Sri Lanka to find the right approach and the right solutions, embarking on a process that meets the grievances of all parties involved. I very much welcome the willingness of the new Government to cooperate with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Q: How can bilateral economic ties between Germany and Sri Lanka be improved, what specific role would Germany like to play?
A: Sri Lanka is already very successful in trading with Germany. In 2014, the trade surplus in favour of Sri Lanka added up to almost $ 350 million. There is still a lot of potential to foster our trade relations.
Furthermore, we encourage German companies to invest in Sri Lanka. Potential investors have been contacted. The German Chamber of Commerce in Mumbai, India will serve as an interface to match-up German companies with Sri Lanka and its economic opportunities will be the main topic of the Chamber’s annual Founders Day event at the end of May.
In the end, the investment decision will be taken by the companies themselves. We as governments can make their decision easier by creating a conducive business and investment environment.
Germany is ready to share its experiences with respective economic policy measures and we will continue to support the much-needed development of SMEs through GIZ programs.
Q: Where do you see the German-Sri Lankan relationship in years to come?
A: Our cooperation is based on a close partnership and friendship. Increased tourism and more frequent business contacts will allow the bonds between the people to grow stronger than ever. I extended an invitation to come to Berlin to my colleague Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, whom I already had the pleasure of meeting in Geneva. And hope I will have the pleasure of meeting him very soon in Berlin.