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Germany's Ambassador To The U.S. Weighs In On Europe's Refugee Crisis

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Good morning. We've heard in today's program about refugees in Syria. European leaders worry what to do with those who make it out. Germany has taken more new arrivals than any other European country. And as European leaders meet to talk about refugees today, we are joined by Peter Wittig. He's the German ambassador to the United States. He's in our studios. Ambassador, good morning.

PETER WITTIG: Good to be here. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Your country's been very generous so far. That's been widely noted. But so many refugees are still coming. I have to ask, how much more generous can you be?

WITTIG: Well, this is a crisis of historic proportions. And this is probably the toughest test for my country and for the European Union since the Second World War. Germany took 1.1 million refugees alone in 2015, an equivalent of the U.S. receiving 4.5 million. So we need a lot of energy and time and money and a strong moral commitment.

INSKEEP: When you say the equivalent of the U.S. receiving, you're saying it's a country a quarter of the size of the United States.

WITTIG: That's right.

INSKEEP: You've taken in more than 1 million refugees.

WITTIG: That's right.

INSKEEP: Could this challenge which you just described as the most severe since World War II endanger the European Union, European unity?

WITTIG: Yes, sir, I would not hesitate to say this is kind of an existential crisis of the European Union. But we are - my country and Chancellor Merkel, our leader are committed to a European solution. We have to tackle this continued stream of refugees, bring the number down. And there is no one single lever to pull. There's a set of measures. And the most important one is to work with Turkey - to help Turkey, assist Turkey to manage the border better and - to contain that flow of refugees coming into the European Union. And that's what the summit that starts today is mostly about.

INSKEEP: And in the context of that summit, do you have in mind - do Germans have in mind a number that is the most that you can take? What if it's 2 million people instead of 1.1 million people? Can you do that?

WITTIG: This is part of the intricacy of that crisis. There is - it's a crisis in flux. And we don't want to give a cap on asylum-seekers. This is a constitutional right for us. We want to help those country - those refugees fleeing political persecution and civil war - a cruel civil war in Syria. So we don't want to cap those people. But we've got to distinguish between those who really need our help because they are persecuted, because they are fleeing a war, and those who are just coming for economic motives. And we've got to be clear, those who are just coming to our country to have a better life have to return, and we've got to repatriate them.

INSKEEP: How much energy will Germany spend pressing other European nations to do more? And we'll just note that other nations have been more resistant to accepting refugees.

WITTIG: Well, Chancellor Merkel has shown tremendous leadership in this issue. We are committed to a European approach. We don't think it makes sense that nations decide on - single-handedly on national measures that won't take us to European solution. I think this is now our priority number one. And we will invest a lot - political capital, financial resources - in a sustainable European solution.

INSKEEP: Last question, just a few seconds here. Undiplomatic question but it must be asked - the United States is taking thousands more refugees, maybe, but fiercely debating that. Would you like the United States to be doing more?

WITTIG: Well, we would of course love the United States to do more. The U.S. is a generous donor, but every country that can take in refugees is a great help.

INSKEEP: Does that mean yes, you want the United States to take in more refugees?

WITTIG: The U.S. has been a great supporter of the refugees in the region, and it's up to the government and the people to decide.

INSKEEP: OK, diplomatically said. Ambassador, thanks very much.

WITTIG: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Peter Wittig is Germany's ambassador to the United States, speaking on this day when European leaders are meeting to talk about refugees. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.