SPIEGEL Interview with Martin Schulz 'The Trump Approach Will Never Be Our Approach'

Martin Schulz, the former president of European Parliament, is now running against Angela Merkel for the German Chancellery. SPIEGEL speaks with him about populism, the stability of democracy and Donald Trump.
Martin Schulz in Berlin

Martin Schulz in Berlin

Foto: Hermann Bredehorst/DER SPIEGEL

SPIEGEL: Mr. Schulz, are we in agreement that your nomination as the chancellor candidate for the Social Democrats (SPD) and your installation as head of the party were more about the party's image and less about your political objectives?

Schulz: No. But it has become very apparent that the way I practice politics is seen in a positive light. Because in times of upheaval, people wish for nothing more than composure and sincerity. The principles of the SPD have remained the same for 150 years: democracy, human dignity, justice and inclusion. We will never change those principles.

SPIEGEL: The SPD is currently riding a wave of euphoria. Only one person seems not to be enjoying it: your predecessor Sigmar Gabriel, who stepped down to allow you to take the reins.  Can you understand why he feels differently?

Schulz: In the history of German political parties, it is the first time that an incumbent party chief and vice chancellor has subordinated his own ambition on the rationale that someone else stood a better chance of being elected. I see that as a profound demonstration of character.

SPIEGEL: Certainly. But that wasn't our question.

Schulz: But that was my answer.

SPIEGEL: Gabriel announced his decision to resign from the leadership of the SPD in a lengthy interview with the newsmagazine Stern. He didn't notify anybody prior to the publication of the interview, not even you. Do you think that was the right way to handle it?

Schulz: I discussed my views about that with him personally. I don't see a need to do so again in an interview with SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL: Following his resignation, Sigmar Gabriel was named foreign minister for the remaining months until the general election in September, replacing Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has been chosen to become Germany's president. Gabriel has indicated he would like to remain in that role following the election. Are you amenable?

Schulz: His desire is understandable when you take over such an office. But I think I am going to have to disappoint Sigmar on this point. We are, after all, going to win the election and I am going to become German chancellor. And because I doubt that we are going to be able to win an absolute majority, it seems likely that a coalition partner will claim the foreign minister post.

SPIEGEL: Have you already discussed that with him?

Schulz: I would ask for your understanding that I first want to win the German election.

SPIEGEL: One of the most important issues facing the country remains refugee policy. Are you just as supportive of Angela Merkel's approach to the refugee issue as most Social Democrats are?

Schulz: I believe that we, as the largest European Union member state, found the correct response in an historic situation. But one thing is clear: The claim made by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that the refugee question is a German problem is incorrect. It is a European problem. The fact that someone like Orbán, who rejects any kind of solidarity with the German head of government, is received as a guest of honor by the Christian Social Union (eds. note: the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats) and hailed for his behavior speaks volumes. It shows that on this question, there is hardly any common ground between the CSU and the CDU.

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 6/2017 (February 4, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL: Once again: Are you grateful to Ms. Merkel for her humanitarian stance?

Schulz: I am grateful to the Germans in general, particularly those who displayed unending dedication to the refugees and who continue to do so.

SPIEGEL: On the refugee issue, Merkel pursued a humanitarian approach that the Social Democrats supported. How do you intend to draw a distinction between yourself and the chancellor during the campaign?

Schulz: Your view of politics, gentlemen, is too tactical. That's not how I think. We have to convince people that we don't merely act out of tactical considerations, but as a consequence of the deep convictions we hold. I, at least, find it good that Germany fulfilled its humanitarian commitments in the refugee issue.

SPIEGEL: No challenger can win an election if he represents the same positions as the incumbent.

Schulz: There are, of course, large differences between us. But I would never attack somebody only because they belong to a different party. Ms. Merkel's attempt to present herself as a Social Democrat was a clever move. But it's not working anymore. The divisions between the CDU and CSU have simply become too great for that. The differences between the head of the CDU and her own party are too great for that. Merkel's false advertising, with which we have lived for some time, must be revealed for what it is.

SPIEGEL: How can you be so sure?

Schulz: Ms. Merkel has long pursued the tactic of asymmetrical demobilization. She wanted to keep potential SPD voters from casting their votes. What we have seen in recent days is the remobilization of those who had been asymmetrically demobilized, as one might say in lovely sociologist language.

SPIEGEL: In the refugee crisis, Sigmar Gabriel was fond of adopting terms with a right-wing connotation, like "upper limit" and others, in an attempt to profit from the widespread disgust with Merkel's policies. Can you rule out the possibility that you might fall victim to a similar temptation?

Schulz: I won't allow myself to be tempted. And you can be sure that I won't experiment with right-wing terms.

SPIEGEL: Hardly any of your statements have been quoted by your adversaries as often as your statement from June 2016 when you said: "What the refugees bring to us is more valuable than gold. It is something that we have lost somewhere along the way in the last few years. It is the unflinching faith in the dream of Europe." Do you still hold true to that statement?

Schulz: Of course I do. I can even inject more pathos.

SPIEGEL: Go for it.

Schulz: The dream of Europe is a region of freedom and peace, of security, law, democracy, tolerance and mutual respect. If you look into the faces of the refugees you will see this dream. These are people who are fleeing from war, hate, violence and unjust systems.

SPIEGEL: In your speech at SPD headquarters in Berlin a week ago Sunday, you criticized right-wing parties as being "rat catchers." Do you really think that you can bring people back to the SPD from the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany  (AfD) party by calling them rats?

Schulz: I accept this criticism That is not the impression I wanted to create. I was referring to the image of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who led people to their doom with his seductive siren song. What I wanted to say is this: The dangerous glorification of the nation state, and the baiting of minorities that goes along with it, releases an anti-democratic energy. But you are right, the formulation wasn't a good one.

SPIEGEL: Are you hopeful of convincing voters who have drifted to the AfD to return to the SPD or have you written them off?

Schulz: Many who have voted for the AfD, or who intend to do so, aren't doing so because they are dyed-in-the-wool enemies of democracy. Rather, they are desperate. Of course I want to win them back. But I don't want to speak with dangerous people like (right-wing agitator Björn) Höcke or (party head Frauke) Petry. A person who calls the Holocaust memorial a monument to shame and who calls for a reversal in Germany's culture of memory does not belong in a German parliament. (Eds. note: In a controversial speech in January, Björn Höcke, an AfD member of state parliament in Thuringia, spoke extensively of his desire for Germany to cease focusing so much on its historical guilt for the Holocaust.)

SPIEGEL: On the popular television talk show "Anne Will," you spoke of people who "attack our women" on public squares, a clear reference to the widespread sexual assaults perpetrated by foreigners of North African descent in Cologne on New Year's Eve 2015. That is dangerously close to adopting the populist jargon used by the right wing.

Schulz: No. But we have to face up to such things. When a well-organized group of young men attacks women, we have to speak about it clearly.

SPIEGEL: Are you a populist?

Schulz: I'm not a populist. But I try to present complicated issues in such a way that people know where I stand. In all of my encounters with voters, I have repeatedly been confronted with two points of critique. First: You politicians are all the same! Second: You politicians may be speaking German, but we still don't understand you! My favorite example is the famous "fine ounce" of gold. It is constantly mentioned in the news, but nobody knows what a fine ounce is. I had to look it up too. That is why I try to speak in a manner that allows people to tell me apart from my political adversaries. And I speak in a manner that the people can understand. For me, that isn't populism.

SPIEGEL: You intend to make "greater fairness" a central issue of your campaign. Linguistically, at least, that is a rather worn-out phrase.

Schulz: I don't think it is worn out at all. The question of societal fairness is always pertinent.

SPIEGEL: Is Germany a fair country?

Schulz: No. Germany is not a fair country. Millions of people believe that things aren't fair in this country. Company profits and bonus payments have increased at the same rate as precarious employment situations.

SPIEGEL: How could such a development take place? The SPD has always stood for more fairness and it has been part of the government for 14 of the last 18 years.

Schulz: If we had always been in the majority during those years, we would be further along. In the Grand Coalition (eds. note: the SPD is currently the junior coalition partner to Merkel's conservatives in a pairing called the "Grand Coalition") we unfortunately haven't always been able to implement our platforms one-to-one.

SPIEGEL: In the early 2000s, SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder introduced tough and controversial cuts to Germany's welfare and unemployment aid programs, a reform package known as Agenda 2010. Was that a mistake in hindsight?

Schulz: In the Old Testament, Solomon preaches that "to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven." In 2003, 14 years ago, the Agenda was the correct response to a phase of stagnation. On that issue, I always supported Gerhard Schröder. The fact that today we have record employment is also thanks to Gerhard Schröder. But we have also made mistakes. We should have introduced the minimum wage at the same time and taxed the super-rich at a higher rate. Because we didn't do that, many got the impression that the reforms were unfair. The Agenda was advantageous for the country, but the SPD suffered significant collateral damage as a result. It is now time to focus on fairness.

SPIEGEL: In times of globalization and digitalization, where politics can no longer exert influence in many areas, how can you promise greater fairness?

Schulz: I cannot guarantee people absolute fairness. I can only promise that I will do everything in my power to secure fairness or create a greater degree of fairness. The old fundamental principles must continue to apply, even in our changing society: Democracy knows neither master nor slave. Equal education opportunities for all, no matter where they come from and no matter who their parents are. Equal access as well when it comes to digitalization.

SPIEGEL: That sounds nice enough, but it's also rather ambiguous. Let's be a bit more concrete. How do you intend to limit the number of temporary jobs and limited contracts?

Schulz: Labor Minister Andrea Nahles (SPD) has already achieved a lot in that regard. We could limit the admissibility of temporary and limited work to a much greater degree if we had the necessary parliamentary majorities to do so.

SPIEGEL: How do you intend to limit the number?

Schulz: We need to roll back precarious employment models. Temporary and limited contracts were initially seen as a way of introducing more flexibility so as to bridge periods of need in certain phases of production. Some employers have taken advantage of the model to push down wages. In general, we must strive for equal pay for equal work.

SPIEGEL: How high do you think the minimum wage must be to guarantee a dignified living?

Schulz: At least we now have a minimum wage. I am more worried about the fact that it is still regularly ignored, sometimes with criminal intent. We have to implement more controls; the agency responsible must become more active.

SPIEGEL: Is the current maximum tax rate of 42 percent fair? Back when Helmut Kohl was chancellor, it was as high as 53 percent.

Schulz: We absolutely have to increase the taxation of significant wealth. But I'm not interested in using controversial terms like wealth tax or inheritance tax. It's the principle that's important to me. And that is: People who work hard for their money cannot be placed in a worse position that those who allow their money to work for them.

SPIEGEL: Could you be a bit more specific?

Schulz: The share of wealth held by the minority is much greater than the share held by the majority. We have to draw our own conclusions from that and it has to change. Regarding concrete proposals for confronting the issue, we have a working group in our party addressing the issue. I don't intend to get ahead of them in this interview.

SPIEGEL: Does Germany need a wealth tax?

Schulz: Please understand that I first want to talk with people in the SPD who are developing the framework of a tax concept.

SPIEGEL: Among leftists, there is a great deal of sympathy for the concept of an unconditional basic income. Is that an idea that you find attractive?

Schulz: I believe that dignified work is a value in itself. As a party of labor, the SPD must work together with the unions to ensure that people can make a living with their work. That is why I am not a proponent of the concept of unconditional basic income. I am, however, very much in favor of decent wage agreements, secure and lasting jobs, employee participation in decision-making and the examination of the social justification for claims and payments.

SPIEGEL: The Agenda 2010 reforms included the introduction of reduced state aid to the long-term unemployed, a payment program now known colloquially as Hartz IV. The Hartz IV system includes a number of levers intended to pressure recipients into looking for a job, with many of those levers leaving Hartz IV recipients even less well-off. Leftist parties like the Greens and the Left Party, two groups with which the SPD could ultimately form a governing coalition following the September election, have demanded that those levers be eliminated. Do you agree with the demand?

Schulz: No, not completely. If there is unfairness within the Hartz IV system, then we must have the possibility to check it on a case-by-case basis.

SPIEGEL: What do you intend to do to slow down the rapid rise of rents in Germany's large cities?

Schulz: To promote the construction of social housing. I think the law passed to slow down the rise of rents is a good idea, but it doesn't work to a sufficient degree, in part because the CDU and the CSU have blocked necessary improvements. For a long, long time, we have ceded the entire real estate branch to speculators. That was wrong. It was also unfortunate that state subsidies for residential construction were long frowned upon as government charity.

SPIEGEL: Still, we have to point out that almost everything that you are now criticizing was passed with the help of the SPD, including the demise of social housing construction.

Schulz: Construction Minister Barbara Hendricks (SPD) has long since begun revitalizing the social housing construction program. Having a place to live is a fundamental right and the state must establish a framework that ensures that apartments are affordable. But it is correct that we need more courage than we have shown in recent years.

SPIEGEL: Courage?

Schulz: The construction of social housing and the attempt to support families seeking to buy their own homes are all projects from the 1960s and '70s. It all sounds old-fashioned, but it is actually completely modern.

SPIEGEL: What characteristics must a courageous chancellor candidate have?

Schulz: To not think tactically. To not constantly think: If you say this, then you'll be in trouble. And if you say that, the others will be unhappy. People are tired of that kind of thing. I want to liberate myself from that kind of thinking. It is also courageous to occasionally admit that there are certain things one can't do. Or to say: I don't yet have a comprehensive tax plan. But I'm working on it.

SPIEGEL: What is the maximum percentage of votes that the SPD can hope to receive in the upcoming election?

Schulz: An absolute majority.

SPIEGEL: And now, what is your serious answer?

Schulz: No idea. I hope that we will be able to convince a lot of people that we are the best party in this period of upheaval. We will do better than current surveys show. And those surveys are, in fact, trending in a positive direction.

Election polls: A Spark of Hope

Election polls: A Spark of Hope


SPIEGEL: What can you do better than Angela Merkel?

Schulz: I don't know. I am only thinking about how I can win over a broad majority for me and for my policies.

SPIEGEL: But you do intend to present yourself as an alternative to the chancellor.

Schulz: CDU head Angela Merkel has tried for years to serve two sides: the conservative side by holding up her CDU party membership. But then at the same time she acts as though she were also a Social Democrat. I don't have this hydra-headed nature. In the end, people will vote for the Social Democratic original.

SPIEGEL: Donald Trump was successful in reaching out to those American men and women who have been left behind -- the workers and normal people who used to vote for the Democrats. What can the SPD learn from Donald Trump's electoral success?

Schulz: People must once again be able to trust that Social Democratic politicians understand the lives they live. I can say that of myself. I know their problems: the problems of those who work hard, who must slave away. The couples who have two incomes but who can nevertheless barely cover their rent. The people who get stuck in traffic on their way to work. The people who have to wait in vain for a train to come just as they are supposed to be picking up their children from daycare. I can say with a clear conscience to those people: I understand your problems. And I will do all I can to decrease them.

SPIEGEL: Can you also learn something from the way in which Trump led his campaign?

Schulz: Yes. That one shouldn't run such a campaign under any circumstances. What baseness! The overstepping of all bounds necessary for the fundamental consensus of democracy! It takes my breath away.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe that Trump is a danger to democracy ?

Schulz: Very much so. A person who brings the former head of the right-wing extremist Breitbart News into the National Security Council is gambling with the safety of the Western world. Donald Trump must be taken seriously. He is fulfilling his dangerous campaign promises.

SPIEGEL: Horst Seehofer, the head of the CSU, recently praised exactly this aspect of Trump's leadership.

Schulz: That astonished me. If we, like Horst Seehofer, no longer judge the content of people's actions, but merely their form, then we are entering dangerous times indeed.

SPIEGEL: How should Germany react to Trump?

Schulz: With a real strengthening of the EU. Trump has a clear goal: the division of Europe and the destruction of the European domestic market. The fact that Brexit propagandist Nigel Farage was the first European he received in his tower speaks volumes. That is why we must strengthen the European domestic market and work even more closely together in Europe. That is absolutely compulsory for Germany.

SPIEGEL: Do you think that Angela Merkel has thus far struck the correct chord with respect to Trump?

Schulz: Trump is the freely elected president of the U.S. and as such deserves respect. But she cannot remain silent in the face of actions that we cannot accept. Gerhard Schröder offered a clear German NEIN to an American president's war of aggression that was in violation of international law. That took courage. Ms. Merkel did not join him at the time. If Trump now begins to take the wrecking ball to our set of values, we must say clearly: That is not our approach.

SPIEGEL: What will the long-term consequences be of Trump's recent travel ban on the citizens of seven primarily Muslim countries?

Schulz: Such a generalized assessment of people is unacceptable. I find it shocking, particularly for a country which, more than any other, always stood for freedom, tolerance and immigration. (…...) For the United States of all countries to issue such a decree shows that we are living through an epochal shift. If we aren't careful, the elementary foundations of our pluralistic democracy will be threatened.

SPIEGEL: How would you deal with Trump were you to become chancellor?

Schulz: It is impossible to swear an oath to the German Basic Law without realizing that our constitution is among the most liberal constitutions in the world. As the head of government in such a country, I would stand up to all those who call into question this free, open and tolerant model of society.

SPIEGEL: What specifically would you say to Trump?

Schulz: I would make it clear to him: Your approach will never be our approach. What the U.S. government is currently starting is a clash of cultures. We should approach this clash with self-confidence and say: We have a different societal model. We have a different understanding of democracy, as do the majority of voters in the U.S. We must now, in the 21st century, protect democracy, one which rests on fundamental rights for all, regardless of skin color, gender, race or religion. Nothing less than that is at stake.

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

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