CDU Governor Jürgen Rüttgers 'We Cannot Have Massive Cuts'
Jürgen Rüttgers, 58, is a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and governor of the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. He spoke to SPIEGEL about his warnings to the new federal government against imposing sweeping cuts to public spending, as well as his role as a supporter of workers' rights.
SPIEGEL: Governor Rüttgers, do you know what your colleagues in the Christian Democrats and the Free Democratic Party FDP secretly call you?
Jürgen Rüttgers: No. That's why it's secret.
SPIEGEL: Then perhaps you could tell us which of the following titles you find appropriate: "Rüttgers, the anti-reformist."
Rüttgers: I don't like it.
SPIEGEL: And, finally: "Mr. Standstill."
Rüttgers: None of it's true. I support change.
SPIEGEL: Apparently there is a wide gap between your perception of yourself and reality.
Rüttgers: I favor changes in the context of the social market economy. Anyone who calls me a closet neoliberal and obstructionist still hasn't understood the meaning of the term social market economy. It means that economic reason and social justice belong together.
SPIEGEL: Does it upset you, the fact that you're being maligned?
Rüttgers: No. I believe it is more of a reaction to the complete success of my fight against turbo-capitalism in the last few months and years. This upsets some people.
SPIEGEL: It is clear that you want to dissuade the future federal government from enacting major reforms, because you want to win your state parliamentary election next May. There are those in Berlin who accuse you of holding everything up, merely because an election is around the corner in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Rüttgers: I'm not holding anyone up. I am simply cautioning that the decisions that are now being made in Berlin have to make sense. We cannot have massive cuts. We cannot trigger major social conflicts because, as some say, we finally have the chance to implement decisions that were made 20 years ago.
SPIEGEL: Will the motto of the next eight months be: First North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), then the country?
Rüttgers: Very amusing. First of all, NRW is also part of the country. Second, we too have an interest here in restoring growth as quickly as possible. Everyone in Berlin knows that if we lose the parliamentary election in North Rhine-Westphalia, we will lose our majority in the Bundesrat (the upper house of the German parliament). Then the new government will be dependant on Mr. Gysi and Mr. Lafontaine (senior leaders of the far-left Left Party), and Mr. Wowereit (the SPD mayor of Berlin). This isn't a strategy I can recommend to anyone.
SPIEGEL: You say that nothing can happen that people could perceive as an unreasonable demand. One could also say that you are telling people what they want to hear.
Rüttgers: That's not what I'm doing. But those who feel good about threatening people with cutbacks, and who instill fear instead of awakening hope, should not be allowed to prevail. I ran my 2005 campaign without fear tactics, and I can only advise others to do the same.
SPIEGEL: Michael) Sommer, president of the Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB), has threatened mass protests if the new coalition government of the Christian Democrats and the FDP enacts social cuts. You responded by issuing an appeal not to provoke the unions. Why do you give in so quickly?
Rüttgers: Let's be specific for a moment.
SPIEGEL: That would be nice.
Rüttgers: There is no reason to stir up a conflict with the unions. Take (the issues of) protection against termination and employee codetermination. Codetermination has proven to be extremely successful in the crisis, and not an obstacle. Workers and unions make strong contributions to the survival of companies on a daily basis! This theory that they play an obstructive role was developed 20 years, but it has since proven to be wrong. The same applies to protections against termination.
SPIEGEL: You imply that voters fear change. How then could the FDP, which wants to change a lot of things, attain close to 15 percent of the vote?
Rüttgers: People are not generally afraid of change, but they want to see changes in the direction of more security, not more insecurity. That's the key difference. The FDP made gains because it wasn't part of the grand coalition. Beside, there isn't a single indication that those who voted for the FDP want a complete turnaround of everything.
SPIEGEL: But the social democratic course taken by you and Angela Merkel helped make the FDP so successful in the first place.
Rüttgers: There is no evidence to support that theory. Studies show that more than 1.1 million of our voters switched to the FDP. At the same time, however, the SPD lost roughly 900,000 votes to us, a loss of about the same magnitude. This means that if we, as the CDU, had not positioned ourselves in the center, we would have lost votes to the FDP and would not have gained votes from the SPD. That too presents an enormous opportunity. The more the SPD shifts to the left, the more it caters to the Left Party, and the greater is the CDU's special responsibility to appeal to those who would once have voted for (former Chancellor) Helmut Schmidt and (former President) Johannes Rau.
SPIEGEL: You are known as the "workers' leader."
Rüttgers: I have never called myself that. But I do like to point out that the majority of workers voted for me in 2005. I am proud that we received the largest number of votes from workers in the federal parliamentary election in North Rhine-Westphalia, just as we did in the rest of Germany.
SPIEGEL: Do you like being call the workers' leader?
Rüttgers: It appears so often in print that I can't exactly ask for a correction each time.
SPIEGEL: In reality, you seem to enjoy this reputation.
Rüttgers: I also represent the interests of workers. But the head of the DGB is right, of course, when he says that that's a privilege of union leaders.
SPIEGEL: For years, many in your party have longed for the chance to form a national coalition government with the liberals. Wouldn't this be the ideal time to transform the Leipzig reform program of 2003 into policy?
Rüttgers: No. Some of the things that were called for in Leipzig proved to be wrong during the crisis. Take, for example, asset-backed pensions. We know today that having a pension system based on solidarity is the right way to go.
SPIEGEL: What else has proven to be wrong?
Rüttgers: That the success of companies was based primarily on share prices. The entire shareholder value idea has turned out to be wrong. The most important aspect of a company isn't its share prices but its employees.
SPIEGEL: Was that a lesson that your CDU also had to learn?
Rüttgers: You are talking to someone who launched an internal debate within the party on this subject and who, as a result, came away from party convention with poor voting results. But it isn't about whether or not I was right. It's about recognizing the social market economy as the most successful economic model in world history.
SPIEGEL: You don't want unreasonable demands to be made on people. How is this supposed to work, given the record federal debt?
Rüttgers: We don't need to impose sweeping cuts in the first two years, but an economic policy oriented toward supply and demand. That's important, so that we don't destroy the delicate recovery. People need security, not fear of the future.
SPIEGEL: So those sweeping cuts are simply being postponed by two years?
Rüttgers: We will have to decide, in a second phase, where we want to cut costs. One example that comes to mind is reducing bureaucracy. We must also look for ways to make the government operate more productively.
SPIEGEL: Economics Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has said: "We will have to give up some of the things we have come to cherish." We were not under the impression that he was referring to bureaucracy.
Rüttgers: We will certainly discuss many proposals, but only when the time comes.
SPIEGEL: How seriously are we supposed to take the FDP and the Christian Democrats, as they now discuss billions in tax cuts?
Rüttgers: Some cuts will certainly be possible, but they will not approach the enormous dimensions some have been dreaming about.
SPIEGEL: FDP leader Guido Westerwelle says that he will not sign the coalition agreement without significant tax cuts.
Rüttgers: That's exactly what we are discussing with him at the moment.
SPIEGEL: It sounds as if you felt that you had to make Westerwelle see the light.
Rüttgers: No. The question is what we can afford. All the proposals we are discussing cost money. If we raise the deductions for children, we will also have to raise subsidies for children, because not every family will take advantage of an increase in deductions. We will have to carefully run the numbers on all of these proposals.
SPIEGEL: You once said that it's one of the Christian Democrats' delusions that tax cuts automatically create growth. But that is exactly the argument your party is currently using.
Rüttgers: I said that tax cuts don't automatically lead to new jobs. I believe that a majority of the CDU now feels the same way.
SPIEGEL: We're not so sure about that. Your economic wing refuses to accept a Rüttger no-change policy. The chairman of the CDU association of small and medium-sized businesses, Josef Schlarmann, is demanding a signal of change.
Rüttgers: Why shouldn't there be one?
SPIEGEL: Mr. Schlarmann pointed out the areas where he wants to see reforms: protections against termination, minimum wages, inheritance and business tax.
Rüttgers: You don't always have to agree when you're in the same party. Labor law has never been as flexible as it is today. Anyone who wants reform simply because it was once decided in the past is ignoring reality.
SPIEGEL: You called for a general revision of Hartz IV four years ago
Rüttgers: and I was worried you might have forgotten that.
SPIEGEL: Hartz was revised after that. The payment of unemployment compensation for older citizens was extended. What other changes would you like to see?
Rüttgers: First of all, I believe that we do in fact need a revision of Hartz IV, but not something completely new like the citizens' payment the FDP is now calling for. This citizens' payment would cost an additional 25-45 billion, depending on the estimate. We don't have the money for that.
SPIEGEL: What do you want to see revised?
Rüttgers: We have to raise the Schonvermögen (personal assets a welfare recipient must use up before being eligible for assistance under the Hartz IV welfare program for the long-term unemployed). This means that Hartz IV recipients would be allowed to keep more of the money they have saved for retirement. At the moment, they are treated worse than those who haven't saved anything at all. That's not fair. Besides, it would be a good idea to allow Hartz IV recipients to earn more supplementary income without it being deducted from their social benefits.
SPIEGEL: If Hartz IV is to be modified and expanded to such a degree, shouldn't it just be renamed?
Rüttgers: I don't want to get into semantics. Our goal is to make sure that it benefits people. If we manage to eliminate the greatest inequities, we will have achieved a great deal. Hartz IV is unfair.
SPIEGEL: In the summer, when you offended the Romanians, we had the impression that you were willing to do anything for a few votes. Why are you campaigning at the expense of minorities?
Rüttgers: I didn't offend the Romanians. I wasn't talking about minorities, or even about policies toward foreigners. I made a mistake by using the wrong wording when speaking out in support of Nokia workers in the Ruhr region.
SPIEGEL: The wrong wording? "They come and go as they wish, and they don't know what they're doing," you said, referring to the Romanians. That's quite clearly insulting.
Rüttgers: I apologized several times for that. The Romanians accepted it. What else should I do?
SPIEGEL: But it wasn't the first time you've used foreigners in your election campaigns. There was also the matter of children and Indians.
Rüttgers: The sentence that was criticized at the time read: "Instead of Indians in front of computers, our children must be in front of computers." I was talking about our education efforts.
SPIEGEL: You like to refer to your predecessor, former governor and subsequent German President Johannes Rau. Do you actually believe that Rau would be satisfied with the way you are doing your job?
Rüttgers: Johannes Rau made a strong mark on this state and its self-image. I believe, particularly after a change in government, that it is very important not to behave as if one had to reinvent the world. The things that work ought to be continued, and one should build on those things.
SPIEGEL: Many Social Democrats are outraged over the way you have simply co-opted their "Brother Johannes."
Rüttgers: Social Democrats who use arguments like that are merely showing that they equate their own party with the state. I don't refer to Johannes Rau as an SPD politician, but as the governor and later German president. I don't know why it should be so outrageous for me to attempt to continue the tradition he established with the tools at my disposal.
SPIEGEL: Governor Rüttgers, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Ralf Neukirch and Markus Feldenkirchen
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan