SPIEGEL Interview with Angela Merkel 'In Everything I Do, I Aim to Strengthen Democracy'

Angela Merkel is running for a fourth term in office. DER SPIEGEL speaks with the chancellor about the addiction of power, the influence on politics of Germany's automobile industry and her attempts to win back voters on the right.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Urban Zintel/ DER SPIEGEL

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Interview Conducted by and


SPIEGEL: Ms. Chancellor, we would like to speak with you about power, but also about the nepotism engendered by power. Most politicians are aware that influence and power can sometimes be like a drug. Have you become addicted?

Merkel: I hope not. No.

SPIEGEL: Late former Chancellor Helmut Kohl proved unable to relinquish power and missed his opportunity for a dignified retirement. His fourth term in office wasn't good for the country or the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Are you nevertheless stumbling into the same trap as Kohl?

Merkel: Until November of last year, I thought extensively about whether I should run again. In no way did I view the decision as self-evident, and concluded that, to the degree it is possible to determine such a thing, I have the necessary strength and that I am still curious - about people and about how life and the country are changing, and about the challenges that politics present. I think that is decisive, that you don't think you already know everything.

SPIEGEL: Do you have strategies for preventing hubris and for keeping yourself from getting addicted to power?

Merkel: (laughs) I read critical articles in the press.

SPIEGEL: Oh really?

Merkel: As chancellor, I am - as it should be - constantly under the microscope from both the public and the media. It is also important to me that my staff tells me openly how they see things. And an additional good indicator is the mood in my own electoral district. When I am there, which happens frequently, no one is particularly excited or impressed anymore to meet the chancellor. People there tell me immediately what is going well and what isn't.

SPIEGEL: On Sunday, the first and only televised debate between you and your center-left Social Democratic (SPD) challenger Martin Schulz will take place. The broadcasters had wanted to include a studio audience to liven things up a bit, and they wanted more latitude for the moderators. If you are so dedicated to freedom of the press, why did you reject all of those innovations?

Merkel: This TV debate is important to me, which is why I expressed my willingness to participate in such a debate in the first place. It presents an opportunity for millions of viewers to see for themselves the kinds of politics Martin Schulz and I are offering for the next four years. It is standard that the formal modalities of the show are discussed with the broadcasters. Since the debates in 2009 and 2013, there has been a well-tested structure for the show, one that will once again be applied this year. It allows Martin Schulz and myself to hold a discussion with each other and I am looking forward to it.

SPIEGEL: Nikolaus Brender, the former editor-in-chief of public broadcaster ZDF, says that the pressure applied on the broadcasters was excessive and that this year's format is essentially the result of blackmail.

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Merkel: I have great respect for press freedoms. At the same time, however, a politician also has the freedom to decide whether he or she will accept an invitation to appear on a show or not. We have reached agreement on a proven format and I hope that it will be interesting for the voters.

SPIEGEL: The campaign would have been much livelier if there were more than one televised debate. Why were you against that?

Merkel: Because the campaign in the media takes place in many different formats, such as in citizens forums or town-hall shows. And because we don't have a presidential system in Germany, people vote for parties instead of specific candidates. From the perspective of smaller parties, even one single televised debate is a detested anomaly, because only the lead candidates from the conservatives and the SPD take part.

SPIEGEL: Your concern for the smaller parties is touching.

Merkel: The plurality of our campaign formats, including the televised debates, reflect that we in Germany don't directly vote for a person like in the United States or in France, but for parties. We have a different system.

SPIEGEL: Is it okay for government employees, such as your spokesman Steffen Seibert and aide Eva Christiansen, to lead the negotiations with the broadcasters? Shouldn't your political party be responsible for doing so?

Merkel: Because we wanted to cleanly separate work done on behalf of the government from that done for the CDU, we decided for the duration of the campaign to adopt the model of a clearly denoted and approved second job for three Chancellery employees. The goal is transparency. As such, I welcome the intention of Germany's Supreme Audit Institution to take another look at everything. At the same time, though, it is essential for the government spokesman to take part in discussions pertaining to interview formats and television debates. It was no different when Gerhard Schröder was chancellor. His spokesman also took part in discussions ahead of the televised debates in 2002 and 2005.

SPIEGEL: Is it really a valid argument to say that your predecessor did the same thing?

Merkel: Yes, it is common practice.

SPIEGEL: Why do you rely on German military planes to travel to your campaign appearances?

Merkel: I also take advantage of the ability to fly with helicopters belonging to the federal police force, and both privileges are consistent with rules that have been in place for decades. A chancellor must be accessible at all times and be in a position to execute their duties as best they can. I must have the ability to immediately return to Berlin if necessary. There are also security considerations. Of course, the party must bear the costs of these flights in accordance with the rules, and the Budget Committee in German parliament is also aware of these things. Everything is transparent. In 2005, when I was the challenger to Chancellor Schröder, who was able to take advantage of military aircraft, I used a plane belonging to a private company and didn't take advantage of the legally guaranteed ability as party chair to likewise use military aircraft.

SPIEGEL: Still, using such aircraft is an extreme advantage enjoyed by incumbent chancellors.

Merkel: I don't agree. I am always on duty, even when I am at party events or on vacation. I don't complain about it, on the contrary. You could also say that it is a competitive advantage for a challenger to be able to focus exclusively on campaign appearances. It all evens out.

SPIEGEL: You think so?

Merkel: Time management for candidates without government functions is different than it is for me. No matter where I am, I always have to have my duties as chancellor in mind.

SPIEGEL: The world is your stage while your challenger has to make due with visiting factories and market squares.

Merkel: I am quite enjoying this campaign, but I still have to take care of the duties associated with my office, which I also very much enjoy.

SPIEGEL: Your former government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm became chairman of the public broadcaster BR shortly after leaving the Chancellery. Your media advisor Eva Christiansen was a longtime member of a ZDF advisory board. Your spokesman Steffen Seibert came from ZDF and has a guaranteed right of return. Everyone talks about the critical distance that state broadcasters allegedly maintain from the state. Does it really exist?

Merkel: There are many examples of politicians moving into business and of people moving between journalism and politics. Former SPIEGEL journalists, for example, have advised German foreign ministers - something that should actually fill you with pleasure because it shows the degree of respect we have for quality journalism. Guaranteed rights of return also exist in public service, it's nothing special.

SPIEGEL: If Mr. Wilhelm had worked for a Social Democratic chancellor, do you think he would have been hired by BR?

Merkel: That is something you have to ask BR.

SPIEGEL: Let's continue on the subject of nepotism for just a moment. Matthias Wissmann, with whom you once served in Helmut Kohl's cabinet, is president of the German Association of the Automotive Industry. Eckart von Klaeden, who used to serve in the Chancellery as a state minister, is now Daimler's chief lobbyist. Your former head of strategic planning in CDU party headquarters, Joachim Koschnicke, became head lobbyist for Opel for a time and is now once again managing your campaign. Another top party official, Michael Jansen, is now a lobbyist for VW ...

Merkel: ... and don't forget: Thomas Steg, former deputy government spokesman and a member of the SPD, is also working for VW.

SPIEGEL: Correct. Are you surprised that the German automobile industry has the feeling that it exerts significant control over German politics?

Merkel: If it really does have such a feeling, it is mistaken. We are back to where we just were a few minutes ago: Should someone who used to work in politics be allowed to move to private industry? I think they should. At the German post office and at Deutsche Telekom, such exchanges have a long tradition. If, for example, certain environmental regulations for the automotive industry are being introduced, expert exchange with the industry is helpful. It's not the contacts that are decisive, rather it is decisive what politicians ultimately do with the information provided by the industry and with the requests they make before then taking independent action. From the introduction of the catalytic converter onwards, we have repeatedly made political decisions that have demanded quite a bit from the automobile industry.

SPIEGEL: At the so-called "diesel summit" in early August, it was decided that companies would only have to carry out software updates, the cheapest solution for the automobile industry. It won't be sufficient to bring down nitrogen oxide emissions. Why does the German government always let the automobile industry off the hook so quickly?

Merkel: I don't think it does. It is more about enforcing our own ideas regarding how the automobile industry must regain the trust that they have destroyed.

SPIEGEL: The automobile industry systematically cheated German politicians. They developed computer systems to produce fictitious emissions test results. When the deception was discovered, the diesel summit was convened, which only decided to impose software updates - even as everyone at the table knew that it wouldn't be sufficient. How are Germans supposed to conclude that politicians are standing up to the automobile industry?

Merkel: Your version of events is extremely truncated. We made it clear from the beginning that the software update was just a first step, no more, but also no less. It is undeniable that this software optimization has had an effect, because it eliminated what you correctly refer to as cheating - namely that the emissions systems were controlled by the software in a way that meant they only worked properly in a very narrow range of temperatures and under extremely specific driving conditions. Following the update, the full capability of the exhaust system will always be deployed, and not just partially.

SPIEGEL: Do you trust them? Do you think they will suddenly be honest?

Merkel: I am just as disgusted with this deception as you are, with this cheating of customers. Starting on September 1, new regulations will finally be in effect calling for emissions tests to be performed under real driving conditions. We also need premiums for the trading-in of old diesel vehicles for new ones. At an additional summit this fall, we will examine whether the measures taken by the automobile industry have had the desired effect and whether additional measures will have to be taken. In addition, I have invited representatives from those municipalities most affected by nitrogen oxide emissions to come to the Chancellery on Sept. 4 to discuss how best to use the fund established jointly by the automobile industry and the German government to change traffic patterns in our cities and to improve infrastructure for electric vehicles. Everything we do must ultimately be aimed at regaining the trust of drivers, at ensuring that strict emissions regulations are being observed and at ensuring that our automobile industry offers models that are suitable to our climate standards and our future.

SPIEGEL: Are you in favor of retrofitting hardware in the automobiles affected?

Merkel: Hardware updates are expensive and extremely technically complex. As such, we must consider very carefully whether such a retrofitting requirement for engines would really bring the results that we need because doing so would eliminate significant scope for the automobile industry to invest in new and more modern technologies. I think we should consider all other options first.

SPIEGEL: Once again, you are of the same opinion as the automobile industry.

Merkel: That's not the point. I look at what is best for the future of the vitally important German automobile industry, because it provides 800,000 people in Germany with good jobs. I look at what is good for the people who currently own a diesel vehicle and are concerned about their resale values. And I look at what is good for climate protection and for reducing nitrogen oxide emissions. Sometimes I reach conclusions that the automobile industry likes, and sometimes I don't. The government must carefully weigh all sides, because I don't want the automobile industry to regress from where it is today. That wouldn't be good for our country. I am interested in ensuring that a strong branch of our economy remains strong and innovative.

SPIEGEL: In the U.S., customers that were cheated have received up to $16,000 in damages. Why hasn't the German government required companies in the country to make similar payments?

Merkel: Our warranty and liability laws are fundamentally different than they are in the United States. The goal of the measures we have taken is to make sure carmakers make the necessary repairs to the vehicles. Emissions systems have to work as they were envisioned when the car models were approved. That is why we required companies to carry out recalls. That must take place without additional costs to the customers.

SPIEGEL: You have said that the end of the combustible engine is in sight, but you declined to offer any kind of a timeline. Isn't that enough to completely confuse drivers?

Merkel: No. At the Paris climate conference, we resolved that the 21st century would be the century of decarbonization. We adopted national goals to be reached by 2050: We want to cut CO2 emissions by 80 to 95 percent. This century, we will reach a point when the vast majority of cars will emit no CO2 at all, but we have to be open about the technology that gets us there: electromobility, synthetic fuels or hydrogen fuel cells could ultimately end up being decisive. The transformation is already underway when it comes to hybrid automobiles and purely electric vehicles. We must continue energetically down that path. We will continue to need combustible engines as a bridge technology for decades to come. The focus shouldn't be on bans, but on the next stages of innovative development.

SPIEGEL: If we were to translate that for regular people, what you mean is: If you form a coalition with the Green party after the Sept. 24 parliamentary elections, the combustible engine will quickly be passé, but if you form a government with the business-friendly Free Democrats, it will take a bit longer.

Merkel: I am not talking about coalitions. I am talking about the CDU campaign platform.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Merkel, in the U.S., the president shows disdain for the judiciary and for the media - and, more broadly, for democratic values. Is democracy losing momentum around the world?

Merkel: I hope not. For my part, in everything I do, I aim to strengthen democracy in Germany and beyond. The United States is also a strong democracy. As we are seeing in Poland, for example, and also in Hungary, it is important that we have counterweights in democratic systems, and I believe they are still strong in America.

SPIEGEL: When Barack Obama was here in November, he referred to you as a guarantor of democracy and also as a defender of Western values. But since you have been chancellor, voter turnout has been historically low. How can you explain that?

Merkel: Happily, recent state elections have seen higher turnout than in previous elections. When people have the impression that an important decision must be made, they go out and vote. And voter turnout in general elections tends to be much higher than in state elections.

SPIEGEL: Ever since you have been chancellor, turnout has stalled. Some say that you have lulled democratic debate to sleep. Do such accusations bother you?

Merkel: To be more precise, turnout in 1998 was 82.2 percent, in 2002 it was 79.1 percent, in 2005 it was 77.7 percent, in 2009 it was 70.8 percent and then it climbed again in 2013 to 71.5 percent. I am predicting that turnout will rise once again this year. For me, a campaign is the opportunity to present my party's ideas about our country's future. In interviews and at campaign appearances, I speak exhaustively about these ideas, about the challenges facing us and about the political solutions we propose. Campaigning is more than just attacking and insulting one's opponent. People see how quickly the world is changing and that we are facing huge problems and uncertainties. And now they are deciding which parties and which politicians they would like to work with in shaping the future.

SPIEGEL: Helmut Kohl and Franz Josef Strauß, the late governor of Bavaria, didn't agree on much, but they were united in the belief that German conservatives could not allow a party that was to the right of them on the political spectrum to win seats in German parliament. Now, it looks as though the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) is going to do exactly that. Were you unable or unwilling to prevent that from happening?

Merkel: I am fighting to ensure that the CDU is as strong as possible. We had huge problems to confront: first coming to terms with the euro crisis and then, in 2015, the admission of the many refugees who came to us. We would now like to use good arguments to win back voters who may have turned away from us during those years. That is what I am trying to do at the many appearances I am making these days. But in the euro crisis and in refugee policy, to name two examples, I took necessary decisions in accordance with our country's interests - and in accordance with the values that we have invoked in so many speeches and which now had to be lived out concretely.

SPIEGEL: The CDU always said that immigration has to be carefully controlled. Is the rise of the AfD not an inevitable consequence of your policies?

Merkel: In the summer of 2015, we were faced with an extremely difficult humanitarian situation. I am convinced that our reaction was reasonable and correct. But because the CDU stands for orderly and controlled immigration, we have begun addressing the causes of flight and combatting migrant smuggling - and we have taken corresponding measures in the form of the EU-Turkey deal.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe there was ever a moment when you left too much room for the AfD on the right wing of the political spectrum?

Merkel: No. If you take a look at our domestic security policies, for example, you will see that we have done everything necessary within the framework of our values.

SPIEGEL: Do you see it as a compliment when people say that you are the best Social Democratic chancellor that Germany has ever had?

Merkel: If I listen to the SPD's chancellor candidate, it doesn't seem as though I have earned that title. But seriously: Voters have no use for such categorizations. They rightly expect us to do our work as best as we possibly can. And that is what I am doing.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Chancellor, we thank you for this interview.

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