Interview with German Opposition Leader: 'Merkel's Track Record Is Disastrous'

Sigmar Gabriel, 53, is the national chairman of Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which hopes to return to power after national elections in September. In a SPIEGEL interview, he discusses recent controversies surrounding the party's chancellor candidate and his view of critical issues.

Leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party Sigmar Gabriel advocates "fairness, security and social provisions" for Germany. Zoom
Maurice Weiss/ DER SPIEGEL

Leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party Sigmar Gabriel advocates "fairness, security and social provisions" for Germany.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Gabriel, do you regret not being the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) chancellor candidate for the elections in September?

Gabriel: No, why should I?

SPIEGEL: Because Peer Steinbrück, the SPD's candidate, recently came under fire for his earnings as a guest speaker at corporate events while still serving in parliament …

Gabriel: ... Oh, God ...

SPIEGEL: ... and then he caused a stir when he said that Germany's chancellor isn't paid enough. One could get the impression that Steinbrück is determined to see German Chancellor Angela Merkel hold on to her job.

Gabriel: This debate probably shows more about how one can purposefully blow misunderstandings out of proportion during a campaign. In an interview just a few weeks ago, I said myself: "I find it inappropriate that the German chancellor earns less than the director of a mid-sized savings bank." At the time, there was general agreement. But now Peer Steinbrück repeats this phrase, and suddenly there's an enormous fuss. That's just silly. For him, it wasn't about calling for a higher salary for the office he's pursuing himself.

SPIEGEL: The question is what an appropriate annual salary for the chancellor might be. Should it be €1 million ($1.3 milllion)? Or €17 million, the salary of Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn?

Gabriel: I find another question much more important. In contrast to these inconceivably high salaries at the boardroom level, why is the honest work of completely normal workers so poorly paid?

SPIEGEL: If you were the SPD's chancellor candidate, would you have been foolish enough to complain that the chancellor is underpaid?

Gabriel: I find nothing scandalous about Steinbrück's description of the facts. However, the discussion should revolve around the earnings and pensions of completely normal workers in Germany rather than around the top salaries in politics and business.

SPIEGEL: The SPD is hovering at a maximum of 30 percent in current opinion polls, and there wasn't any jump to speak of since Steinbrück was chosen to be its chancellor candidate.

Gabriel: In any case, 30 percent is still seven percentage points more than it was in the previous election for the Bundestag (the federal parliament, held in 2009), and that is pretty good nine months before the Bundestag election. If you count the Pirate Party, there are now four parties on the left side of the political spectrum. On the right side, there is only one and a half: the Union (made up of Chancellor Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU), its Bavarian sister party) and the now almost invisible FDP (the business-friendly Free Democratic Party). It's clear that the Union has it easier for the moment in this situation. But we're right at the start of the campaign. At the end, it's obviously our goal to have considerably more than 30 percent.

SPIEGEL: The only question is how. At the moment, one of the major issues is the euro crisis. Why should Germans vote for the SPD when its Bundestag members have backed all the bailout packages put forward by Chancellor Merkel's government?

Gabriel: There's a long tradition in Germany of having the government and the opposition seek consensus on foreign-policy matters. Opposition for the sake of opposition is a rather simple-minded concept, one that applies more to the (far-left) Left Party than to the SPD. But one doesn't have to belong to the SPD to realize that it was Ms. Merkel who endorsed the demands of the SPD rather than the other way around.

SPIEGEL: Would the EU-related policies of an SPD-led government look different from Chancellor Merkel's?

Gabriel: Yes, they would. For one, we would have focused on growth much earlier. Meanwhile, the austerity policies that Ms. Merkel has forced on Europe have driven it into an economic crisis. But that is also Ms. Merkel's manner. I realize that it's popular in Germany. For a long time, Ms. Merkel thought she didn't have to do anything at all; she got what she wanted thanks to Germany's economic strength. It will probably be a long time before we dispel the mistrust toward Germany's power in Europe.

SPIEGEL: One could also say that Merkel defended German interests in Brussels.

Gabriel: If only that were the case. But renouncing growth stimuli and allowing unchecked speculation on the financial markets have made the crisis bigger rather than smaller. Now things are going to get really expensive for German workers and taxpayers. If Europe falters economically, it will affect Germany particularly hard as an export country.

SPIEGEL: The SPD is calling for a new growth program. Who is supposed to pay for it?

Gabriel: First of all, we need taxation of the financial markets. Speculators in banks and stock exchanges must finally make a contribution to tackling the crisis. It was only when the SPD threatened to reject the EU fiscal pact that Ms. Merkel was willing to advance financial-market taxation. Second, we need to stop spending more than 40 percent of the EU budget on agricultural subsidies. And then the German finance minister also continues to make a good deal from the high interest rates paid by crisis-struck euro-zone countries. We need to reinvest part of this money back into Europe.

SPIEGEL: "German Money for Europe." That doesn't exactly sound like a winning campaign slogan.

Gabriel: That might be so on first glance. But a growth program is far better than constantly leading the Germans to believe that Europe won't cost any money while at the same time secretly forcing German taxpayers to be increasingly liable for European banks via the central bank.

SPIEGEL: During the campaign, will you also make an issue of German arms shipments to authoritarian states, such as Saudi Arabia?

Gabriel: Yes. It's downright scandalous that the chancellor speaks of value-oriented foreign policies and praises the pro-democracy movement in the Arab world, and then delivers tanks to dictatorships like Saudi Arabia. We need to return to our old policy of no weapons to crisis zones. I'm not proud of the fact that Germany is one of the world's largest arms exporters. It's also unacceptable that the Federal Security Council meets to make decisions on arms exports without any public or parliamentary oversight. We're not in the Cold War anymore. The Bundestag needs to be informed whenever the Federal Security Council approves an arms deal.

SPIEGEL: Which domestic policies do you plan to attack Chancellor Merkel on?

Gabriel: First and foremost, it has to be about values and principles, which have been neglected under Ms. Merkel's leadership. Three issues will be important to us: fairness, security and social provisions. Fairness not only with the distribution of the tax burden, but also with a view to the minimum wage, for example. Security, meaning that effort and achievement once again lead to a secure job and fair pay. And making provisions for the future through better educational opportunities, ranging from day care centers to all-day schools. Merkel's government track record is disastrous in all of these areas. Under her aegis, the division between rich and poor in the country has become even larger.

SPIEGEL: The picture you paint is much too bleak. For example, unemployment is at its lowest point since German reunification in 1990.

Gabriel: Of course, Germany speaks happily about the upper 10,000 in society, but too little about the everyday life of normal people. We argue over quotas for women on supervisory boards but speak much less about the women working the cash register in supermarkets or as caregivers. Why does hardly anyone talk about the fact that women in Germany earn 22 percent less than men? In any case, an SPD-led government will introduce a bill that outlaws this unequal treatment.

SPIEGEL: At the moment, your party is championing higher taxes more than social justice. A year ago, SPD chancellor candidate Steinbrück said: "One cannot provoke the strong in terms of their willingness to achieve and alienate them to the point that they terminate the social contract." Don't you think he's right?

Gabriel: Of course Steinbrück is right. That's why we also won't raise taxes to the level of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's era. At the time, the top tax rate stood at 53 percent. We are for moderately raising income taxes on annual earnings above €100,000 to 49 percent, while simultaneously using the tax on assets to make sure that the wealthy in Germany are also doing their part to help finance the polity.

SPIEGEL: Gerhard Schröder, Germany's SPD chancellor from 1998 to 2005, is perhaps best-known for his radical -- and widely unpopular -- "Agenda 2010" reforms of the labor market and welfare system. He recently said that the SPD would have been one of the strongest social democratic parties in Europe had it confidently stood by his Agenda. But you seem to view the Agenda as more of an embarrassment.

Gabriel: On the contrary, I defend many parts of Agenda 2010, such as the program for all-day schools or the consolidation of unemployment and social benefits, to name a few. But looking back, one has to say that there were also some mistakes, such as underestimating what would result from liberalizing the labor market -- namely, a gigantic low-wage sector. I believe that the Agenda wasn't sufficiently balanced in social terms. We didn't introduce an asset tax at the same time. We didn't push through a minimum wage at the same time. Now we have a chance to add what was missing back then.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Gabriel, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by René Pfister and Gordon Repinski; translated from the German by Josh Ward

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