Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel left, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull review an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony prior to a meeting at the German Chancellery in Berlin. Photo: Bloomberg
Berlin: Malcolm Turnbull and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have discussed submarines, people smuggling, and the humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian civil war in their first ever one-on-one talks held on Friday in the German capital.
While they canvassed the refugee crisis, Mr Turnbull expressly declined to “advise” European governments on their management of the refugee challenge, a refusal seen as a pointed repudiation of the recent speech of Tony Abbott in London where he warned that good intentions were leading the European continent into “catastrophic error”.
And, they’ve agreed that bombing achieves only so much and that the west must focus more attention on reaching a negotiated settlement of the Syrian conflict, opening the prospect of dialogue with the murderous extremists of Islamic State – and or the conditional backing of the criminal despot of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull addresses the media with German Chancellor Angela Merkel following talks at the Chancellery. Turnbull said ‘there needs to be a political solution’ in Syria. Photo: Getty Images
In his clearest enunciation of a position on Syria since coming to the prime ministership, Mr Turnbull appeared to diverge from the Abbott approach of doing more militarily, instead telling reporters after the talks during a joint press conference that it was “perfectly clear” that the solution to Syria would be political, not military.
“You asked me about Mr Putin and Mr Obama in terms of Syria, the one thing that is perfectly clear there and perhaps I’d leave the rest of this to the Chancellor but one thing that is perfectly clear in Syria, that the solution will ultimately be a political one,” he said.
“As you know Australia has made a very significant military commitment to the struggle against Daesh or the so-called Islamic State, and we are working there with the Iraq government and of course with our allies the United States, the UK and others, but ultimately there needs to be a political solution to this absolutely catastrophic situation in Syria.”
Not preaching turn-back-the-boats policy… Unlike Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull declined to ‘advise’ European governments on their management of the refugee challenge. Photo: Sean Gallup
The observation is a signal that Mr Turnbull is likely to convey to Mr Obama when the pair meet in coming days on the sidelines of the G20 in Turkey and APEC in The Philippines.
His assessment of the conflict now looks like being less hawkish than was the case under Tony Abbott who was known to be privately critical of the Obama White House for dithering on Syria and refusing to commit American boots on the ground – a commitment military planners says is necessary to actually take and secure territory and successfully drive IS back.
In response, Mrs Merkel, widely regarded as the pre-eminent leader in Europe, also backed a political solution.
“A political solution is required and I am pleased to note that the second round of the Vienna talks will take place tomorrow, not only with Russia and the United States of America being present but also Iran and Saudi Arabia being at the table,” she said.
The two leaders were also quizzed on the millions of displaced Syrians as a result of the conflict.
She said it was vital that there was a fair distribution of the refugees in Europe, of the 160,000 currently planned for resettlement.
But Mrs Merkel did share one area of concern with Mr Abbott, calling for more to be done to wrest back control of the narrow sea lanes between Greece and Turkey, which she said were currently under the control of people smugglers and traffickers.
“This is unacceptable and we’re working on that but we’re doing so in cooperation with Turkey and I think we have set out on a good path here.”
On the commercially sensitive, if also potentially lucrative submarine evaluation process currently underway on bids from Germany, France and Japan, Mrs Merkel was careful not to apply public pressure, while gently reminding her Australian guests of Germany’s advantages over the rivals.
“Well, we believe that our company (ThyssenKrupp) can offer good quality and that is I think something that should speak for itself and this is what the tendering procedure is about,” she ventured.
“We want to believe that our offer is attractive as regards the ability to produce in Australia, as for the rest, it’ll be a fair procedure, fair competition as is the rule with such procedures all over the world but I want to be clear the German government supports the German offer, which have been submitted by private business, you know.”
The Chancellor’s emphasis on the fairness of the process and its requirement in such matters all over the world could be seen as subtle reminder that Germany had no truck with the process under Mr Abbott’s rule in which Japan was understood to have been given a head-start as informal favourite.