Exclusive: Do we need to sanction each other? German minister asks after Blinken call

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s foreign minister questioned whether transatlantic sanctions are appropriate even if Washington and Berlin have policy differences following a constructive first phone call with new U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas speaks to the media as he arrives for an EU Foreign Ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium December 7, 2020. John Thys/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

Last week, in the final days of the Trump administration, the United States imposed sanctions on a ship involved in building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to take Russian natural gas to Europe.

Washington has long argued the project will increase Russia’s leverage over the region and new U.S. President Joe Biden believes Nord Stream 2 is a “bad deal for Europe”. But Russia and Germany say it is just a commercial project.

Pressed about Nord Stream 2 after his call with Blinken, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: “I think that overall we have to consider in transatlantic relations whether it makes so much sense to impose punitive tariffs or sanctions on each other.

“We want to talk to the United States about it (Nord Stream 2), but our position on this issue has not changed in principle,” he told Reuters in a television interview.

The pipeline, which would double the capacity of the existing Nord Stream link from Russia to Germany and bypass Ukraine, is a contentious issue between Berlin and Washington, which wants to sell its own liquefied natural gas to Europe.

Maas was otherwise struck by the positive tone of his first phone call with Blinken.

“I have to get used to the fact that I talk to my American colleague on the phone and we agree on almost all points. This has not been the case in the past,” he said, adding this was the basis for transatlantic relations to improve “step by step”.

Turning to China, with which the European Union last month agreed an investment deal that will give its companies greater access to Chinese markets, Maas said “decoupling” from Beijing would not be sensible.

But he said Western policy towards China could become more effective on issues of human rights, climate, fair competition and disarmament.

“All these are things we can talk about with the United States, where we can be more effective, and where we can achieve more if we represent our interests together towards China,” Maas said.

Asked if he feared U.S. foreign policy could change little under Biden, Maas replied: “I rather have the impression that not much will remain of Donald Trump’s policy of the last four years with a president like Joe Biden.”

Biden’s move to rejoin the 2015 Paris Agreement on combating climate change, and readiness to move back towards the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran were “fundamental changes compared with the last four years”.

Turning finally to a row between the EU and AstraZeneca over the Anglo-Swedish company’s delays in delivering its COVID-19 vaccine, Maas said the EU Commission was conducting “very intense” negotiations on the matter.

“The question why ordered deliveries have not been received is very open,” he added.

Reporting by Andreas Rinke; Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Catherine Evans