Interview with Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück 'No Tolerance for Empty Blathering'

The European elections didn't turn out well for Germany's Social Democrats. SPIEGEL spoke with Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück about the SPD's chances in German elections this autumn, his party's chancellor candidate and Chancellor Merkel's leadership.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Steinbrück, we would like to talk to you in your capacity as one of the deputy leaders of the Social Democrats (SPD).

Steinbrück: That's what I thought.

SPIEGEL: If the SPD were a department store, where would it be now? On the verge of bankruptcy or would it already have filed?

German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück says that the Social Democrats still have a chance in September general elections.

German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück says that the Social Democrats still have a chance in September general elections.

Foto: DPA

Steinbrück: I think the comparison between the SPD and department store is grotesque.

SPIEGEL: We don't think so. In the European parliamentary election, the SPD captured a meager 20.8 percent of the vote. Your party's business model seems to be out of date, not unlike the situation at Karstadt.

Steinbrück: Department stores on the whole, my friends, aren't out of fashion, and neither is the SPD. There are some very successful department stores, such as Galeries Lafayette in France or Harrods in England. Much of what went wrong at Karstadt was the result of management errors.

SPIEGEL: Another parallel. There have been a number of management errors within the SPD as well.

Steinbrück: Nothing is error-free. My impression, though, is that the SPD has solidified internally. We have become more unified in the wake of the painful events surrounding the resignation of (former SPD Chairman) Kurt Beck (in September 2008).

SPIEGEL: Then why is the SPD still in such bad shape?

Steinbrück: Error analysis is something I prefer to do internally.

SPIEGEL: After a disaster like the SPD result in the European elections, is it even possible to win German general elections this autumn?

Steinbrück: A Bundestag election has its own rules. For one, there are completely different voter turnout figures than in a European election, which helps the SPD. Plus, almost half of all voters wait until the last week to decide whether to vote and who to vote for.

SPIEGEL: What did you think when you learned of the results of the European election?

Steinbrück: That the launch pad for the Bundestag election had just been damaged.

SPIEGEL: You have a strange way of looking at things. Does a Social Democrat ever become hardened? You have certainly had your share of setbacks.

Steinbrück: We don't get hardened, but we have become practiced.

SPIEGEL: At this point, how do you propose to motivate and inspire your supporters as they enter the campaign?

Steinbrück: There is a page in Günter Grass' "Diary of a Snail," which is about the 1972 election campaign, that I think everyone should read. I'm paraphrasing, but the passage reads something like this: When your pockets are filled with rocks, when your feet are heavy and when the words become stuck in your mouth, stand up and start moving. Stand up and start moving!

SPIEGEL: Don't you eventually get tired of standing up?

Steinbrück: Never. This is no time for late sleepers and self-pity. What we need now is to stay the course, and to be persistent and consistent! People are fed up with ritualized conflicts, nor do they have any tolerance for empty blathering.

SPIEGEL: Are you referring to the kind of blathering your SPD demonstrated in the Arcandor and Opel cases?

Steinbrück: Attacks are allowed. Our political opponents do it too. But voters don't appreciate the tone of a small dog as it nips at your heels.

SPIEGEL: The SPD tried to take on the role of savior in the cases of Opel and Arcandor. Why didn't the strategy work?

Steinbrück: I think it's very honorable of my party to be doing its best to save jobs. Fighting for jobs is consistent with SPD values. It's still the right thing to do, notwithstanding the experience that our position on Opel would have been welcomed by the general public 20 years ago. Nowadays, people are more skeptical when it comes to the use of tax revenues.

SPIEGEL: Your fellow cabinet member, Economics Minister (Karl-Theodor zu) Guttenberg, was sharply attacked by Social Democrats before the election. (Former Chancellor) Gerhard Schröder maligned him as the "Baron from Bavaria," even though the man is quite popular. Was that a mistake?

Steinbrück: Every time an SPD politician launches an attack against a conservative, someone calls foul. But if (Bavarian Governor Horst) Seehofer decides to attack me, it's apparently all in good fun. I think the spotlight ought to be shown onto the entire stage.

SPIEGEL: Have you congratulated your colleague Guttenberg on his public success yet?

Steinbrück: No, just as he doesn't congratulate me on my successes.

SPIEGEL: Of which there haven't been many in recent weeks.

Steinbrück: I do believe that we have achieved quite a bit in the financial markets.

SPIEGEL: Why do you think Guttenberg is currently so popular?

Steinbrück: The man has novelty value. He's quick on his feet. He's exotic and colorful. Anyone who ruffles feathers a bit in his own party makes himself more recognizable.

SPIEGEL: You certainly have experience with that.

Steinbrück: You fail to notice the division of labor that Mr. Guttenberg and the chancellor pursued when it came to saving Opel. Angela Merkel and three governors from her Christian Democrats (CDU) all pushed to impose the current solution on Opel, while Guttenberg painted himself as the last knight of pure regulatory policy. It attracted attention, but it isn't totally candid.

SPIEGEL: In the coming campaign, you will be the SPD embodiment of economic competency -- the direct adversary of the economics minister. Do you feel up to the challenge?

Steinbrück: Of course!

SPIEGEL: Why?

'He's a Completely Loose Cannon'

Steinbrück: Excuse me, but I'm not in to naval gazing. I have been a minister or a governor for the past 16 years, and now I'm supposed to write my own resume? It would seem slimy for me to do that. I draw your attention to my three-and-a-half years of work in this administration, and that's the end of it!

SPIEGEL: What, then, distinguishes you from Mr. Guttenberg?

German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück says that the Social Democrats still have a chance in September general elections.

German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück says that the Social Democrats still have a chance in September general elections.

Foto: DPA

Steinbrück: In my opinion, one can only react incorrectly to such questions. One can either overstate things, in which case you would walk out of here and say: He has a screw loose! Or one can downplay things so much that you'd say afterwards: Feigned modesty doesn't suit the guy at all!

SPIEGEL: Gerhard Schröder did very well in the 1998 election, because he spoke to a certain "New Center." Does it still exist?

Steinbrück: Such terminology is always problematic. Nevertheless, I don't hesitate to say that elections in Germany are decided in the center, not on the fringes and not in the accumulation of minority interests.

SPIEGEL: Does the party leadership know this?

Steinbrück: One member of the party leadership is sitting in front of you. I believe that the SPD is called upon to move toward a left-leaning, enlightened, middle-class center. As the SPD, I don't want to relinquish the term "middle class" or the concept of liberalism to the other side. The SDP was a liberal and enlightened party when the FDP (Free Democratic Party) didn't even exist yet.

SPIEGEL: SPD campaign manager Kajo Wasserhövel has made it clear that it's time to start polarizing and bringing things to a head. We would like to use you as an example of how this works in practice. Would you please say something sharp and polarizing about Ms. Merkel?

Steinbrück: No. It wouldn't be credible, coming from me. Ms. Merkel and I attend major financial summits together. We issue joint guarantees for German savings depositors. We are currently struggling to attain an effective crisis management. And now I'm suddenly supposed to aim my entire artillery at her? That would prompt people to conclude that Steinbrück has gone out of his mind.

SPIEGEL: And we thought Ms. Merkel was the opponent in the election.

Steinbrück: In this sort of election, there has to be some role-playing within a party. It cannot be my role to play the dog yapping at Ms. Merkel.

SPIEGEL: At the beginning of the financial crisis, you even said that Merkel proved to be a good chancellor in the crisis. Is this still true, seven months into the crisis?

Steinbrück: I have nothing to change about my assessment.

SPIEGEL: And what about (Bavarian Governor and CSU head) Horst Seehofer? Don't you want to say something sharp and polarizing about him?

Steinbrück: About him? Always. He's a completely loose cannon.

SPIEGEL: How so?

Steinbrück: He changes his mind four times a day.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Seehofer says that he believes the word "populist" is not a derogatory term.

Steinbrück: That might work in Bavaria. But I don't believe that Mr. Seehofer has a significant impact outside Bavaria.

SPIEGEL: Let's keep trying. How about Free Democratic Party (FDP) Chairman Guido Westerwelle.

Steinbrück: Too loud. Always an octave too shrill. And sometimes a hypocrite! Especially when it comes to the subject of tax evasion.

SPIEGEL: And isn't Westerwelle also the man for the financial sharks? That's what the SPD claimed on its campaign posters ahead of the European elections.

Steinbrück: One can always argue about posters. I think it's perfectly legitimate to run a negative campaign. The CDU has done so in the past. Let me just remind you of the phrase: "All roads lead to Moscow!" (Eds. note: a reference to an anti-SPD poster used by the CDU in 1953.)

SPIEGEL: Until now, the SPD's vision of power has included the option of a coalition with the FDP and the Greens, the so-called traffic light coalition. After the European election setback, wouldn't it be appropriate to say that the option is nonsense?

Steinbrück: No. Even in the face of powerful headwinds, you can't just throw everything overboard.

SPIEGEL: On the one hand, Westerwelle is your great adversary. On the other hand, he is considered an attractive coalition partner. How do you propose to resolve this contradiction?

Steinbrück: Since Mr. Westerwelle isn't exactly squeamish when it comes to attacking the SPD, I don't understand why we should be turning the other cheek.

SPIEGEL: What will the SPD do if Westerwelle rules out the traffic light coalition once and for all? That would eliminate the last option for the SPD to name the chancellor.

Steinbrück: First, I don't believe that he'll do that. Look at the word games he used in the week leading up to the FDP national convention. Second, there are probably some people around him who say: No matter what, don't do that. You don't know what will happen on Sept. 27.

SPIEGEL: Wouldn't it be more attractive for the SPD to simply say: We want to continue the grand coalition with Merkel's conservatives?

Steinbrück: The mood in the general population may favor such a model, but there is a different mood within the parties in question. Both the CDU/CSU and the SPD feel walled in and inhibited in a grand coalition.

SPIEGEL: Do you feel that way?

Steinbrück: I'm rather pragmatic in that respect. The stairs are swept from the top, which means: The SPD wants a two-thirds majority. If it doesn't get it, it wants a simple majority. And if it doesn't get that, it will enter into a two-party coalition with the Greens. If it doesn't get that, it'll join a traffic-light coalition. If that doesn't happen, it'll join a grand coalition -- under SPD leadership, of course.

SPIEGEL: These days, how much do you miss campaigner Gerhard Schröder, a man who truly loves to hog the limelight?

Steinbrück: He's a unique specimen.

SPIEGEL: The question was how much you miss him.

Steinbrück: A man like that can be useful, which doesn't mean that a different style isn't effective. Schröder has a great deal of entertainment value, but I wouldn't advise anyone to try to emulate him.

SPIEGEL: There are doubts over (SPD chancellor candidate) Frank-Walter Steinmeier's suitability as a motivator. The press has described him as dry. Is this a problem for the SPD?

Steinbrück: You can't exactly bake a man to your specifications. Most of all, one shouldn't alienate a candidate. A hybrid of Einstein, Tarzan and (once-popular German actress) Inge Meysel doesn't exist. Besides, the images of politicians in the media aren't always accurate. I've had my share of experiences in that regard. Steinmeier is a humorous person, relaxed in conversation and politically convincing. I find him very easy to laugh with.

SPIEGEL: Given the current state of the SPD, it's important to motivate and assume leadership. Can Steinmeier do this?

Steinbrück: The motivation for the SPD must be that Steinmeier is competent and knows a lot about governing. With someone like that in the Chancellery, I know what I have: A man with a sharp, analytical mind, good government management skills and a sense of direction. Ms. Merkel, on the other hand, lacks that sense of direction.

SPIEGEL: Wouldn't Peer Steinbrück be the better candidate?

Steinbrück: Everyone around me knows that it was never up for debate. It's not me, nor do I have the necessary qualities.

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

Interview conducted by Markus Feldenkirchen and Roland Nelles Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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