Interview with Martin Schulz 'We Cannot Leave Any Room for the Enemies of Democracy'

Social Democratic chancellor candidate Martin Schulz still believes he has a chance of unseating Angela Merkel. DER SPIEGEL spoke to him about the anger many Germans feel against establishment parties and how to deal with authoritarian politicians.
SPD candidate for chancellor Martin Schulz

SPD candidate for chancellor Martin Schulz

Foto: Hermann Bredehorst/ DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Schulz, would you mind telling us what you wrote in your diary last night?

Schulz: As usual, I filled an entire page. For the most part, I summed up the press conference, in which I talked about the four main policies that we Social Democrats (SPD) would like to push through after the election. And then there was a private section, but I'll leave that out of this interview.

DER SPIEGEL: You really write in your diary every day? One page a day?

Schulz: Yeah, for the last 37 years. Unfortunately, I left it back at the hotel. But I can have someone get it so I can show you.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you simply chronicle things as they happen? Or do you also describe your feelings?

Schulz: If there is a notable moment during such an event, then I will record what happened. Yesterday, I wrote that I have to be careful to avoid changing too much.

DER SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

Schulz: I have been noticing for some time that there is a certain amount of pressure to conform to the Berlin scene, to conform to the circumstances that are defined around you.

DER SPIEGEL: You sound like Hannelore Kraft, the former SPD governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, who was fond of complaining about the atmosphere in the German capital.

Schulz: No, I'm not complaining. But in Berlin, there are certain rules -- over which you have no influence -- that you have to be aware of. And then you have to make sure that you don't lose yourself in all of those rules. You can't subordinate yourself to the rules.

DER SPIEGEL: Can you give us an example?

Schulz: There are certain reactions that you aren't allowed to show in Berlin, for example that you feel offended. If you do, the best-case scenario is a sympathetic article along the lines of: Nice guy, but he's not up to it. The alternative is to don a suit of armor and become cynical. But that's not healthy either: Cynicism is the worst characteristic a politician can have. That's why you have to have an internal balance in Berlin, so you can stay true to yourself. And I have that.

DER SPIEGEL: Have you had moments during the past weeks and months of campaigning where you thought that you were becoming overly submissive to the rules?

Schulz: I could tell you, but I won't.

DER SPIEGEL: During the TV debate?

Schulz: Oh, the debate. The former editor-in-chief of (public broadcaster) ZDF, Nikolaus Brender, described it perfectly. It was a corset based on Chancellery blackmail  in which Merkel didn't need to move and in which I couldn't move. During a car ride a couple of weeks ago, I watched a debate between Schmidt and Strauss from 1976 (Eds. Note: Helmut Schmidt was the -- ultimately victorious -- SPD incumbent. Franz Josef Strauss was his conservative challenger). My goodness, that was quite something. Back then, we still had a culture of debate. I find it frightening that in today's Germany, hardly anyone talks about the big questions  facing our future, neither about digitalization nor about education.

DER SPIEGEL: We have the impression that you have often squeezed yourself into the corset. A couple of weeks ago, you accused Angela Merkel of staging an "attack on democracy." Then you said that you wouldn't express it quite that way again.

Schulz: I used a pointed formulation because I was speaking at a party convention. The word "attack" was severe, but essentially, I stand by what I said. Merkel's irresoluteness on the issues damages this country's democratic culture.

DER SPIEGEL: Many voters see Merkel's approach to politics as healthy pragmatism.

Schulz: There is a difference between pragmatism and a lack of principles. Merkel's attempt to avoid the debate about the future of our country has led to a political vacuum that the opportunists of the day  are filling by peddling fear. And those opportunists are members of the AfD.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you saying that Merkel is responsible for the rise of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany  (AfD) party?

Schulz: No. But the AfD has naturally profited from the fact that Merkel has robbed the Christian Democrats (CDU) of their ideological core. That is why the two so-called sister parties, the CDU and the CSU (Eds. Note: The Bavarian Christian Social Union, currently led by Horst Seehofer), are actually adversarial parties and that is why the conservative wing is rebelling against the chancellor behind closed doors. Of course, the conservatives are clinging to power, but in truth, Angela Merkel has as much in common with Jens Spahn  (Eds. Note: A prominent member of the CDU's conservative wing) as I do with ...

DER SPIEGEL: ... Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán?

Schulz: That's your comparison, not mine.

DER SPIEGEL: At the same time, anger with the chancellor  and the country's political elite -- of a kind we haven't seen for a long time -- is on full display at campaign events, particularly in eastern Germany. Why?

Schulz: For me, respect is an extremely important political term. Since I began campaigning, it has been at the heart of each of my speeches. Many people have the feeling that politicians aren't paying a sufficient amount of attention to them. They hear that things are allegedly going well for the most part, but in their lives, nothing is going well in actuality. A woman can't return to her fulltime job, her daughter can't use the restroom in the run-down school, the trains never run on time, the grandfather can't find a spot in a care home even though he suffers from dementia. And then, when the refugees arrived on top of these problems, there was a feeling: You do everything for them, but nothing for us. This mixture of frustration and fear has led to this reaction. That is why it is so important to show these people: We respect you.

DER SPIEGEL: Your party, the SPD, has been part of the government for almost the last 20 years, aside from a brief, four-year interim. Doesn't your party share some of the responsibility for this problem?

Foto: DER SPIEGEL

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 38/2017 (September 16th, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.

Schulz: (Former German President) Johannes Rau (of the SPD) had a wonderful sentence for us Social Democrats: We are the protectorate of normal people. Our task is that of making the lives of average income earners a little bit better every day. That is the opportunity the SPD has against a chancellor who avoids being pinned down and who gives the impression that she doesn't know how the majority of the population is doing.

DER SPIEGEL: Many Germans see the chancellor as being down-to-earth.

Schulz: It could be that she has this image. But her entire platform can be summed up in a single sentence: Trust me, everything will be fine. She isn't saying what she wants or what her vision is for the future of our country. It drives a lot of people crazy. They feel they are being patronized to.

The door opens and one of Schulz's bodyguards comes in carrying his black, synthetic-leather diary, imprinted with the logo of Germany's Sparkasse savings bank. The candidate opens it up and pages through it: "These diaries give me the invaluable ability to correctly recap my life."

DER SPIEGEL: Polls seem to indicate that many voters aren't as critical of the chancellor as you are. They are seeing authoritarian governments taking power all over the world and believe that Merkel is needed to help protect Western values.

Schulz: At the international level as well, she tries to avoid taking a position for as long as she possibly can. But you have to have a clear position when confronting a man like Donald Trump.

'We Must Take a Principled Stand'

DER SPIEGEL: But Merkel is doing that. She said: "The times in which we could completely rely on others are over to a certain extent."

Schulz: That is true. She received a lot of praise for that sentence. But it drives me nuts. What, exactly, does "a certain extent" mean? And what about "others?" Where are we? Donald Trump's brand of politics is leading the great nation of America into a dead-end. He triggers global crises with a single Tweet and insults entire sections of the population. That is not what we stand for. That's how I would have formulated it. A clear message, that is the only language that Trump and autocrats like Putin or Erdogan understand.

DER SPIEGEL: Merkel is proficient in the art of diplomacy. Are you denying that?

Schulz: I am also proficient in the art of diplomacy. But when our fundamental values are under attack, you can't reply with a carefully phrased statement. These people cannot be given the feeling that we Europeans will fall into line or even that we are afraid of this macho posing.

DER SPIEGEL: Erdogan, Putin, Trump: Are they all in the same category for you?

Schulz: Seehofer's friend Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, has expressly thrown his support behind "illiberal democracy." In Ankara and Moscow, but also in Washington, many hold similar views. We must take a principled stand against these ideas. The autocrats hate our lifestyle, they have disdain for our enlightened liberalism and they belittle our refugee policies. You have to tell them: We have no room for your way of thinking.

DER SPIEGEL: Sigmar Gabriel, a fellow member of the SPD and Germany's current foreign minister, has a different approach. He is interested, for example, in making concessions to Putin and, under certain conditions, loosening the sanctions currently in place on Russia.

Schulz: Sigmar Gabriel and I are in agreement. The difference between Turkey and the Russian Federation is that Russia has a permanent veto in the United Nations Security Council. That makes realpolitik more difficult. Still, Putin must be clearly told that he must uphold his part of the agreement on the Ukraine conflict. Otherwise, we won't be able to lift the sanctions.

DER SPIEGEL: The election on Sept. 24 will mark a turning point for our country: For the first time, a right-wing populist party is likely to win seats in the federal parliament. What is your reaction?

Schulz: It makes me want to fight. We cannot leave any room for the enemies of democracy. For my entire political career, I have been fighting for a strong Europe and against the siren song of the right wing.

DER SPIEGEL: You have referred to the AfD as a "disgrace for Germany." Don't such comments serve to strengthen their group identity?

Schulz: They have that anyway. The leaders of the AfD are racists. You cannot make any concessions to them.

DER SPIEGEL: The established parties in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, will soon be facing a practical question: How should parliamentarians deal with the AfD?

Schulz: That is a difficult one. I have had experience with such people in the European Parliament. Marine Le Pen, for example, once told me completely openly: Yes, of course I am here to do away with this place. And you're providing me with an official car to help me do so. That's how these people think.

DER SPIEGEL: What does that mean in practice?

Schulz: Bundestag rules and procedures will apply to the AfD as well. But it would be disastrous to cooperate with them in parliament -- as the CDU has already done in the state parliament of Saxony-Anhalt.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you think Germany's domestic intelligence service should maintain surveillance of the AfD or specific members of the AfD?

Schulz: The racist rhetoric that extends all the way to the top of the party shows that one must assume that an attitude is prevalent -- not just in the grassroots, but also among party leadership -- that is not consistent with the basic values reflected in our constitution.

DER SPIEGEL: The AfD also represents a huge problem for the SPD. In May state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, hardly any party lost as many voters to the AfD as did the Social Democrats. Aren't you hitting your own people with your comments about the AfD?

Schulz: No. I believe it is important to stand up to the party's functionaries but we have to avoid hammering on its supporters. We have to fight for the support of every single voter.

DER SPIEGEL: Two years ago, Sigmar Gabriel went to an event held by PEGIDA, the Islamophobic group that has been holding demonstrations in Dresden and elsewhere since the fall of 2014.

Schulz: He went to a discussion at which PEGIDA supporters also were allowed to speak ...

DER SPIEGEL: ... and was heavily criticized for doing so by some in the SPD. Did he go too far?

Schulz: We have to listen to people who are attracted to the AfD. That isn't a mistake at all. You can also win them back. Of course, there are a lot of angry voters who are ideologically charged. But there are also a lot of quieter voters who plan on voting AfD to send a message. We can never give up on them.

DER SPIEGEL: When your candidacy was announced in January, your public approval ratings rose dramatically, before then falling just as dramatically. What is your explanation for that?

Schulz: Let me read you what I wrote on Feb. 17 as the poll numbers shot up (opens his diary and begins reading): "The SPD has risen by six percentage points. (...) In direct Schulz/Merkel comparison, I am at 49 to 38. That is a trend, but I doubt that it is lasting because such changes can't really happen in such a short amount of time" (closes his diary). From the very first day, I didn't trust the polls. But still, the desire for an alternative to Angela Merkel was clearly visible. The potential is there.

DER SPIEGEL: How much do you regret not taking a ministerial position in the government?

Schulz: Not at all. I could not credibly say that I wanted to replace Merkel if I was serving as one of her ministers. Certainly not if I had taken over a ministry on the same day I was nominated as a candidate for the Chancellery.

DER SPIEGEL: But look at Sigmar Gabriel. He wasn't particularly well-liked as head of the SPD, but he is very popular as foreign minister and speaks with an authority granted by his office -- an authority that you are lacking. The division of roles was wrong.

Schulz: No. Foreign ministers are always popular when they are not seen first and foremost as advocates for their own party. Guido Westerwelle was the least popular foreign minister because he abused the position of foreign minister to benefit his party, the Free Democrats (FDP). Sigmar Gabriel is as popular as he is because he is an excellent foreign minister and also has a clear position. But me? Governing the country with Merkel in the morning only to turn around in the afternoon and say that the coalition must be dissolved -- nobody would have understood such a thing. And more than anything, that would have been a violation of my principles.

DER SPIEGEL: The situation looks the same as it has always been: The SPD slaves away as Merkel's junior coalition partner but Merkel ends up getting credit for every success. Is that the curse of the grand coalition?

Schulz: We'll only know on Sept. 24. There are far too many voters who haven't yet made up their minds for us to be able to say how the election will turn out. I can see that at my campaign appearances: In front are those on whom I can depend, while in the back are the ones who haven't yet made up their minds -- but who ultimately join in. I am reaching the people.

DER SPIEGEL: It smells like a repeat of the grand coalition.

Schulz: That is nonsense. There is a systematic misconception of the CDU in Germany. Between the CDU's platform and our own, there is a trench the size of the Atlantic. But for years, the CDU has been trying to conceal it. The reality is: The CDU is a right-leaning party without a vision for the future. At the moment when it loses power, it will break apart.

DER SPIEGEL: But when you look at the four points you have promised to push through, they read like an invitation to the CDU to begin talks. Volker Kauder, conservative floor leader in parliament, has already said that the four points could easily be taken care of together.

Schulz: The four points are more of a divorce letter than an invitation.

DER SPIEGEL: Excuse us?

Schulz: Ms. Merkel is avoiding retirement issues. She simply doesn't want to do anything, although she knows that doing nothing means that real pensions will fall. That is preprogrammed old-age poverty. In response to our national education initiative, the chancellor said the federal government had already made enough money available. Another clear difference. And when it comes to wage fairness: It was Ms. Merkel herself who blocked the establishment of a right to return to a fulltime job after going part time for a period. Yet everyone keeps saying that our platform is identical to that of the conservatives. It's crazy.

DER SPIEGEL: Talking about the grand coalition seems to get you rather worked up. Why don't you come out and say that the SPD won't play the role of junior coalition partner under Merkel?

Schulz: Because I really don't have time at the moment for coalition debates. The voters will decide what the next parliament will look like. Those who wish to form a coalition with us can take a look at our platform and then they are more than welcome to talk to us.

DER SPIEGEL: In 2013, the SPD surveyed its members about forming a coalition with the conservatives. If there is an opportunity for the SPD to join the government in some form or another after the election, will you do the same thing this time around?

Schulz: Yes. The membership survey was a great moment for inner-party democracy. We can't go back, nor do we want to. Our members are pouring their hearts into this campaign. But people don't join the SPD just to put up posters. They join because they want to help steer the party.

DER SPIEGEL: Ahead of the 2013 election, then-SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück said that he would under no circumstances join a cabinet under Merkel's leadership. Why haven't you done the same thing?

Schulz: Because I want to become chancellor. Because we can't defend our liberalism, our prosperity, with sleeping-pill politics. I am convinced that I will be able to form a government following the election. You don't think so, I can see it in your faces. Of course. But I believe in it and that is what I am fighting for.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Schulz, we thank you for this interview.