SPIEGEL Interview with German Chancellor Angela Merkel 'The SPD Is a Deeply Divided Party'

In a SPIEGEL interview, Chancellor Angela Merkel talks about the new political landscape in Germany with the onslaught of the far-left Left Party, the possibility of the conservatives and Greens governing together, calls for Germany to beef up its deployment in Afghanistan and recent Paris-Berlin tensions.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Chancellor, can you rule out that your party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) will ever cooperate with the Left Party?

Merkel: You already know the answer to that question. There are no similarities between the CDU's and the Left Party's platforms, and therefore there is no basis for cooperation. This is also the firm conviction of our members.

SPIEGEL: Those who commit themselves will eventually fail. That's politics. Did Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Kurt Beck make a mistake when he categorically ruled out cooperating with the Left Party?

Merkel: A year ago, then Vice-Chancellor Franz Müntefering argued that the SPD regional associations should be allowed to decide with whom they wish to cooperate politically. At the time, Mr. Beck consciously opposed this statement. He said very clearly that the SPD would not cooperate with the Left Party in the West, not even at the state level. The fact that he changed his position on such a key issue after the (state) election in Hesse was odd and signifies a very difficult situation for the SPD. I didn't call it a breach of promise for nothing.

SPIEGEL: Will you ever believe anything Kurt Beck says again?

Merkel: In the future, everyone will certainly evaluate the behavior of the SPD and its chairman partly in light of this experience. It's an experience that doesn't go away. But this doesn't mean that I believe that the SPD will no longer abide by any of its agreements. On the contrary, I continue to assume that the agreements reached within the federal government, within the grand coalition (between the CDU and SPD) in Berlin, are valid and will be upheld.

SPIEGEL: How can you be sure of that, if you don't know where you stand with your coalition partner?

Merkel: Because there is no reasonable alternative other than fulfilling the electorate's 2005 vote for the grand coalition, and because voters have a right to be taken seriously. However, they sense that when it comes to its dealings with the Left Party and its issues, the SPD is a deeply divided party. And the Social Democrats are undecided over whether they should emphasize the federal government's joint successes or distance themselves from them.

SPIEGEL: Isn't Oskar Lafontaine  a terribly successful politician? Almost everything that is currently happening in politics is happening because of him.

Merkel: I disagree with your assessment. However, it is correct that the Left Party's behavior has changed the party spectrum, and that having competition on the left substantially influences the SPD's policies. The question is: What is the correct response?

SPIEGEL: Are we entering another one of those periods again when everyone promises everything?

Merkel: No. Many people will be promising some things. But the standard is not what succeeds but what's important. The CDU will retain its realistic view of politics.

SPIEGEL: The CDU's majority in the Bundestag relative to the SPD has declined to only one vote. At the same time, a leftist alliance is forming that will force its way into power one day. You must be getting concerned about your chancellorship.

Merkel: The CDU won the (recent) elections by a wide margin in Hamburg and Lower Saxony. Of course, in the 2009 national elections, we will be fighting for a different majority than today. The events of the past week  have also produced additional clarification. It is now clear to everyone that the SPD plans to open itself up to the Left Party. This also clarifies things for the 2009 election campaign.

SPIEGEL: What do you, as the CDU's chairwoman, think about the shifts in the party landscape? Does the fact that the SPD is moving away from the center make things easier for you?

Merkel: I believe that the Germans feel a great need for security, in a comprehensive sense. Given the many changes in the last 20 years, this is completely understandable. My concern is that, during the election campaign, too many people will suggest to voters that all of our problems can be solved by spending money to our hearts' content. I want to give citizens a sense of security, but I also want to do what is necessary. The SPD will have to decide which road it wants to take. The CDU, at any rate, is the big, centrist people's party in Germany.

SPIEGEL: What are your power options for 2009? Free Democratic Party (FDP) leader Guido Westerwelle has said that he is disappointed in you personally, because you did not campaign for an alliance with the FDP in the city-state of Hamburg, but instead flirted with the Greens. The FDP now plans to look around for other coalitions.

Merkel: In Hamburg, as in any election, we initially campaigned to make the CDU as strong as possible. And then we made it clear that we favored an alliance with the FDP. In Hesse, the FDP isn't opposed to a Jamaica coalition  with the CDU and the Greens. This means that it would also negotiate with the Greens there. Nevertheless, it remains true that the FDP is the party with which the CDU has the most in common.

SPIEGEL: Perhaps it is this pragmatism that offends Guido Westerwelle.

Merkel: Guido Westerwelle is fighting passionately for the success of his FDP. I would like to have seen the FDP capture seats on the Hamburg city council. But now I have to see what sorts of (governing) majorities are possible with this election result -- no more and no less.

SPIEGEL: But you are also not too thrilled about the Greens. For example, you said: "The Greens are a party that has been deprived of its soul as a result of power-sharing." You also said: "The Greens are spineless."

Merkel: You are citing comments that I made to the Greens in concrete situations in the Red-Green coalition (at the federal level between former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's SPD and the Greens). The talks will show whether there is a sustainable basis for a shared government in Hamburg. I tend to consider potential coalitions on a substantive level.

SPIEGEL: A CDU-Green coalition in Hamburg could be quite convenient for you, because it would provide the CDU with new power options.

Merkel: One can't look at it that way. The content is what is important. On a substantive level, there are some significant differences between the CDU and the Greens. Even in areas like climate protection, which is important to both parties, their approaches are very different. The Greens want to get out of nuclear power as quickly as possible, but at the same time they are opposed to new coal power plants. This is not my approach. Besides, it seems clear to me that a "traffic light" coalition with the SPD (red) and the FDP (yellow) is currently still more attractive for the Greens than a coalition with the CDU and the FDP.

'Deployment in the South is not up for Debate'

SPIEGEL: The Grand Coalition has now been in power in Berlin for more than two years. It hasn't accomplished much. Your own contours have faded over time, because you have constantly been forced to make compromises. Do you still recognize yourself as chancellor?

Merkel: The picture you are painting is distorted in every respect. The federal government has achieved things that would perhaps have been possible only with the Grand Coalition. For the first time in years, we are in compliance with the stability pact for the euro, we have restructured corporate taxes and we have changed the retirement age to 67. We have reduced non-wage labor costs, and unemployment has declined significantly in recent years. We have made a lot of progress in promoting research and technology. We have taken the first steps toward eliminating the use of black coal. This is also an important year for Germany, because we must continue cleaning up the budget, even if the economic situation worsens. Healthcare reform, which is underestimated in terms of its importance in the establishment of a future-oriented and stable healthcare system, has yet to be implemented. One day people will look back at the work of this administration and assess it completely differently than we do today, when we are still in the midst of our work.

SPIEGEL: You once said that you planned to introduce deep-seated social reforms. Now you have become the country's supreme social democrat, and in this respect you have fallen on your face just as SPD Chairman Kurt Beck has . Is there even a yesterday for politicians, or are the present and the next election all that counts?

Merkel: There you go again with your well-phrased clichés, distortions and assumptions. Things are really quite simple: We campaigned in 2005 with a platform that was much closer to reality than what (former Chancellor) Gerhard Schroeder promised with his anti-Agenda 2010 (reforms) campaign. It goes without saying, and is part of everyday politics, that the CDU's (political) program cannot be implemented in its pure form in any coalition, including the coalition with the SPD. But we did managed to push through some of the things that are important to the CDU in the Grand Coalition. For instance, only the Grand Coalition was capable of achieving the new retirement age of 67.

SPIEGEL: Isn't it frustrating to you that some in the SPD rail against the Grand Coalition to their hearts' content, even insulting you personally, while you, as chancellor, must constantly emphasize commonality?

Merkel: Well, in return, at least, I have the privilege of being the chancellor.

SPIEGEL: You are doing well as chancellor. But what have you done with your party? The conservatives no longer exist, and the economically liberal wing is also gone. On the other hand, the party is now progressive when it comes to family policy and stem cell research. Have you hijacked the party and reshaped it according to your own wishes?

Merkel: Once again, the picture you are painting is incorrect. As party chair and chancellor, I only do well if the country and my party are doing well. The CDU has three roots when it comes to policy -- a conservative, a liberal and a Christian-social one -- and all three must be kept alive. I believe that it is important for us to continue to develop. However, if we support better childcare, we are not changing our program but merely structuring reality so that we can implement it. This establishes a basis for the freedom of choice of young parents.

SPIEGEL: Your relationship with the business elite is especially complicated. You have spoken out clearly against high executive pay and tax evaders. Now a few people are offended.

Merkel: Whether or not people are offended isn't my prerogative. When so many unpleasant things become known, such as what's currently emerging from Liechtenstein , we must call a spade a spade. Nevertheless, I consider it irresponsible and wrong to condemn businesspeople and executives across the board.

SPIEGEL: Some people are already calling it a crisis in the social market economy.

Merkel: I don't see it that way. People continue to accept the social market economy, which is a great achievement of national policy. But it is helpful for the political and business worlds to talk about the issue of ethics and the economy, as well as the relationship between the state and the economy, and that we draw joint conclusions from individual mistakes. I recently read some of the seminal writings of (former German Economics Minister) Ludwig Erhard, which are fascinating. He said, for example: "Ultimately, I demand the greatest sacrifices, and the highest degree of insight and responsibility from responsible businesspeople." His credo was that the economy and values belong together. I am firmly convinced that the overwhelming majority of those with positions of corporate responsibility take that responsibility seriously.

SPIEGEL: Let's talk about foreign policy. The United States and Canada want a stronger commitment from the Germans in Afghanistan. In the long run, can we live with the accusation of being the cowards in this alliance?

Merkel: I fail to see how we are abdicating responsibility. I am convinced that it is important for Germany, as part of the international community and the alliance, to assume responsibility in Afghanistan. Military assistance and reconstruction aid are the two issues there, and we provide both with great commitment and within the scope of our options. We need to do more in the area of police training now. Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have offered to double the number of trainers. Germany is prepared to do more in this area. All the international community has to do is ask.

SPIEGEL: You pick the less dangerous part. At least that's how the NATO partners see it.

Merkel: We agreed unanimously within NATO that Germany would operate in the north. This decision is all of two years old. The north has not necessarily become safer during this period. We have shown that we are prepared to commit ourselves to all of Afghanistan by providing "Tornados" for reconnaissance purposes. I don't think it makes sense to reduce the operations in the north and permanently move troops to the south. I believe that it is important for the Afghans that we continue working in the north.

SPIEGEL: Can't we do both? What prevents the Germans from taking part in combat operations in the south?

Merkel: Given our capacities, we need our people in the north, which cannot be allowed to fall behind in terms of development, which would make it more unstable. Germany, with its 3,500 soldiers, currently has the third-largest troop contingent in Afghanistan. We can emphasize this in our discussions within the alliance.

SPIEGEL: Are 3,500 soldiers the upper limit?

Merkel: In this mandate, 3,500 soldiers are the upper limit. It continues until October. I have no intention of changing that. In a few months, we will carefully address, in the Bundestag (Germany's parliament), the mandate starting in October, as well as the course of the Afghanistan conference in June. However, deployment in the south is not up for debate.

SPIEGEL: The relationship between Germany and France has been deteriorating  ever since Nicolas Sarkozy became president. Is the chemistry wrong between the two of you?

Merkel: A close relationship with France is of paramount importance to us, and is also one of my chief concerns. President Sarkozy and I will open the CeBIT in Hanover on Monday. After that, we will have dinner together and, in a pleasant atmosphere, discuss many issues of European policy and international conflicts. Given this circumstance, I think it's completely wrong to characterize this as a difficult period in German-French relations.

SPIEGEL: Have met you Carla Bruni yet?

Merkel: We have spoken on the phone, and I am looking forward to meeting her.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Chancellor, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by George Mascolo, Mathias Müller von Blumencron and Dirk Kurbjuweit.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.