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World

Germany's Liberal Refugee Policy Is Criticized As A Security Threat

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Before President Obama left the White House, one of his last phone calls was to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, considered one of his closest allies during his time in office.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And just contrast that with President Trump, who has publicly criticized Merkel for taking in more than a million refugees since 2015, many fleeing the war in Syria.

MARTIN: This past week, Germany's defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, was in Washington looking for reassurances about the U.S.-German relationship. And this coming weekend, Vice President Mike Pence is expected to meet with Chancellor Merkel.

GREENE: Now, let's just remember, the terrorist attack on a Berlin market last December raised questions in Germany about the risks of a liberal immigration policy.

MARTIN: That attack was carried out by a Tunisian man seeking asylum in Germany. I asked Minister von der Leyen whether Germany is interested in pursuing an immigration ban like the Trump administration's.

There is support in Germany for an immigration ban like the one President Trump has tried to implement here in the U.S. According to a poll from Chatham House - that's a London-based think tank - 53 percent of Germans think immigration from Muslim-majority countries should come to a halt. Is that something your government is considering?

MINISTER OF DEFENSE URSULA VON DER LEYEN: No, not at all. What we have to do is have concrete security institutions that do their job brilliantly. But we are, as Germans and as Europeans, open societies who are very much dependent on interaction with other countries. And as a defense minister, I have to say that we are working shoulder-by-shoulder with Muslim Arab countries fighting terror. So we reassure them that they are allies to us.

MARTIN: There is something happening in Europe, though, right now. The far-right is rising. These political parties that used to be on the fringe have become increasingly mainstream and even have a shot at winning in elections in France and the Netherlands. They are even competitive in Germany, as you anticipate your own elections. How do you see this moment?

VON DER LEYEN: Well, I think it's our rendezvous with globalization. So if we want to solve the problems, for example, of worldwide migration, we have to be sustainable in our answers. The complex answer - where you need strategic patience, where you have to work for, as we do it now with migration crisis, the reduction of numbers - was the result of intensive cooperation with Turkey, with African countries that we have agreements now that we tell them - you keep the refugees on your soil close to their homelands. We invest in your country. This approach, which is an approach where you need time and a lot of investment and strength for it, is, in my eyes, the better approach because it's sustainable.

MARTIN: President Trump has had a lot of negative things to say about NATO, calling into question the necessity of NATO, calling it obsolete at points. He's backed off some of those comments, but they still did a lot of damage with European allies. What kind of reassurances did you get from U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on that front?

VON DER LEYEN: Yeah, he was crystal clear about a consistent commitment. And the two of us, we know that we can rely on each other. What NATO is concerned - there are two sides of one coin. The one side is all of us, and specifically Europe, we have to take a fair share of the burden. And on the other hand - and that's the other side of the coin that is very important for us, too - it has to be crystal clear that we can rely on each other as we've always done because NATO the alliance is an alliance to defend our values.

And the one and only time it was necessary to trigger a common response, an Article 5 in the alliance, was 9/11, when our American friends called us. And of course, we stood at their side. This knowledge of being able to completely rely on each other is very important for all of us. This year...

MARTIN: But as I understand it, Germany is still not up to its mandatory NATO payments. It's still not...

VON DER LEYEN: Exactly. And therefore, we are now increasing heavily, modernizing, investing. And I'm determined to move on the path I've started to increase the investment in the armed forces, to raise the amount of soldiers and to raise the budget.

MARTIN: NATO was founded as a counterweight to the Soviet Union after World War II. In light of Russia's annexation of Crimea and increased Russian aggression in the region, how does Germany view Russia in this moment?

VON DER LEYEN: Well, first of all, NATO has been founded as an alliance for something - for the common values we share. That's democracy. That's freedom. That's equality. And for a long time, we had the impression that Russia was growing more and more into a partner. With the annexation of Crimea, that is violating international law. This was, of course, a deep cut.

MARTIN: Do you see Russia as a threat in a way that you have not before?

VON DER LEYEN: I would not use this vocabulary. Russia is perhaps no more the partner they used to be. But we hope that one day, Russia will be, again, that reliable partner that respect the rules we committed ourselves to.

MARTIN: Do you think that the Trump administration - that the United States will be the kind of partner you want it to be in defending Eastern Europe's border against Russian aggression now and in the future?

VON DER LEYEN: Well, what I've seen and heard so far is my conversation with and my phone calls to Secretary Mattis, and that was enormously reassuring. And I have no doubt that the United States are completely reliable, as they have always been.

MARTIN: President Barack Obama and Angela Merkel had a particularly close relationship as two heads of state. Do you expect her to have an equally close relationship with President Trump?

VON DER LEYEN: Well, relationships have to grow. But over time, relationships are good or reliable if, in critical moments, you can count on each other.

MARTIN: Ursula von der Leyen is Germany's defense minister. We spoke with her while she was here in Washington, D.C., meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

Thank you so much for your time.

VON DER LEYEN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELODIUM'S "AUGUSTA FALLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.