SPIEGEL Interview with Martin Schulz 'I'm Made of Stern Stuff'

SPD leader Martin Schulz twice ruled out a continuation of the grand coalition with Chancellor Merkel's conservatives. Now, though, he has little choice but to consider such an alliance anyway. He speaks with DER SPIEGEL about what that means for him, his party, Germany and Europe.

SPD leader Martin Schulz
Gene Glover/ DER SPIEGEL

SPD leader Martin Schulz

Interview Conducted by and


DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Schulz, on September 25, the day after the election, you said: "Let me be very clear: I will not join a government led by Angela Merkel." Do you remember that?

Martin Schulz: Of course. I even remember the journalist whose question I was responding to.

DER SPIEGEL: On October 28, you said in an interview that if the coalition talks between Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU) from Bavaria, the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats - the so-called "Jamaica" talks in reference to the colors associated with the parties involved - were to collapse, then "there has to be a new election."

Schulz: I haven't forgotten.

DER SPIEGEL: On the Monday after those talks collapsed, you and the party leadership once again reaffirmed that you refused to be part of a "grand coalition." And yet you are now prepared to hold talks with the conservatives after all. It is hard to see all those statements as anything other than a long series of bumbling errors.

Schulz: We were all convinced that there would be a Jamaica coalition. The fact that the parties so spectacularly failed has created a completely new political situation in the country. Politics is a dynamic process and parties like the SPD have to adapt to the new circumstances. Even if that doesn't always appear particularly elegant.

DER SPIEGEL: How could you have been so certain that the Jamaica negotiations would succeed? Why didn't you have a Plan B? That was either politically naïve or reckless.

Schulz: The election campaign showed that all four parties who sat around that table were fiercely determined to form this coalition. It was justifiable to assume it would work out. I didn't realize that the FDP had a long-term plan to position the party in a new and different way. And that the Jamaica coalition talks were being used as an instrument to achieve this repositioning. I didn't get to look behind the scenes. And neither did the media. The German president then set out a clear direction to us that neither I nor the SPD could ignore.

DER SPIEGEL: Why didn't you simply wait an hour before giving your press conference after the talks failed and repeating that you weren't available for a grand coalition? Then you would have known what the president wanted, and you wouldn't look like a flip-flopper.

Schulz: It is the party leader's job to implement the party's decisions, which, by the way, was unanimous in this case, and to then make them known to the public. I did not have prior knowledge of what the president was going to say in his statement.

DER SPIEGEL: Yet you spoke with President Frank-Walter Steinmeier before your appearance. And you still didn't know what line he was going to take?

Schulz: No, that discussion was about other matters.

DER SPIEGEL: You could simply say: We ended up rushing into an unfortunate situation without thinking it through. Now we are correcting our mistake and are prepared to hold talks. Why do politicians find it so difficult to admit they made a mistake?

Schulz: In the course of events, things changed. And that is why we have to react to this new situation. I have no problem with people calling that a mistake.

DER SPIEGEL: There are members of the party leadership who helped draw up the statement that favored new elections, only to then act as if this was the completely wrong decision. What does that say about the unity of the SPD leadership?

Schulz: Last Thursday, the leadership held an eight-hour debate, in which we spoke with each other in a very open and constructive way. This meeting was one of the best I've experienced since I started working in Berlin. You can rest assured that we have put all the tensions behind us and are now united.

DER SPIEGEL: Your deputy, Olaf Scholz, has been working against you for weeks in papers and interviews. He is demanding that the party become more "concrete" and insists the SPD could have won the election. These are targeted attacks on the party leader by his deputy. Is it really possible to continue to work together?

Schulz: I don't agree with your assessment. I was the one who asked for an open debate about the election result. And you can't then complain if such a debate takes place. I have a very constructive relationship with all my deputies. A party like the SPD needs this kind of wrangling over the best answers. I am a supporter of open, honest conflict when it's guided by the facts.

DER SPIEGEL: So, the era of intrigues within the SPD leadership is at an end?

Schulz: I do think that we have found a way to be more united. Furthermore, it's part of a party leader's job description to occasionally be the target of criticism. And also to have to take the rap for collective decisions. It's also part of the job to make sure that in the end everyone comes together. And I believe that my way of leading the party has helped me secure the support of the party grassroots. The history of the party has shown that the "Basta" approach (Eds. Note: A reference to the macho style preferred by former SPD leader Gerhard Schr öder) is only a short-term show of strength.

DER SPIEGEL: Does it affect you, when you are heavily criticized and subjected to personal attacks as you have been in recent weeks?

Schulz: Hopefully I will never be one of those people who is not affected by such things. But I also have a duty to differentiate between the things that affect me personally, and the things that one must endure as leader of a big and proud party. By the way, I think that the CDU and the CSU are far less kind in the way they treat their current leaders.

DER SPIEGEL: Former SPD leader Kurt Beck was ultimately worn down by the abuse and threw in the towel.

Schulz: I'm made of stern stuff. And the party has learned from its mistakes.

DER SPIEGEL: What position is the SPD leadership going to take at the party conference next week? Are you in favor of a grand coalition, a minority government, a continuation of the caretaker government or for a "Kenya" coalition between the conservatives, the SPD and the Greens?

Schulz: We have to discuss all these options. I hope that I will have the opportunity at the party conference to lead these discussions openly. When drafting a party resolution, we should be open to the full range of possibilities that would allow the SPD to contribute to the assembly of a government. We should under no circumstances decide that we are in favor of a conservative minority government. And nothing else. Or for a grand coalition. And nothing else. What if that doesn't work out? In the difficult situation in which we find ourselves, we should not handcuff ourselves.

DER SPIEGEL: When will you make the decision?

Schulz: When we have sounded out everything and have finally discussed the substantial matters. Then I can say what I think would be the best solution. There is nothing automatic about the SPD going into a grand coalition. At the end of the day, the party has to do what it has always done: Accept responsibility for the common welfare, but also look to its own interests. That is what other parties do as well.

DER SPIEGEL: In 2013, then-party leader Sigmar Gabriel was in a similar situation and went to the members with a clear position on the grand coalition. Recently you made the interesting statement: "I'm not striving for anything at all." Where is your leadership on such an important question?

Schulz: I'll have to correct you there. At the conference of the SPD youth wing I said: I'm not striving for anything. Not a grand coalition, not new elections. Nothing at all. What I am striving for is the improvement of living standards and the stabilization of Europe. Leadership means explaining the best way to achieve that, and discussing that within the party. There are solutions that do not involve a grand coalition and still allow for a stable government.

DER SPIEGEL: There is a tradition in Germany: Every SPD chancellor candidate who loses to Angela Merkel does not go on to play a role in the grand coalition. Would you be prepared to be the first to break with that tradition?

Schulz: Even if it bores you, I'm first going to the party conference to stand for re-election as SPD leader.

DER SPIEGEL: Looking back, how serious was the attack on democracy that you blamed Angela Merkel for?

Schulz: I stand by that claim: We need a big debate in society about how we are going to shape Europe and tame capitalism. A government must provide direction and make concrete proposals. It is one of Angela Merkel's biggest failings that she doesn't do this.

DER SPIEGEL: Over the past four years, the SPD has hoped that it would be rewarded for its effective and harmonious coalition with the conservatives. That didn't work out. What does that mean for your party: More recalcitrance in dealing with Merkel?

Schulz: We are seeing now that without the contribution of the Social Democrats, Germany cannot be governed. We are a proud and self-confident party. We should now act based on that pride, and not out of fear.

DER SPIEGEL: Then please name these points of pride that you see as the core issues in any forthcoming negotiations.

Schulz: To name just a few: We need a comprehensive renewal of the nursing care system in Germany, and quickly. The two-tier medical system must be abolished. Patients with public health insurance are waiting months to be seen by a specialist doctor, while doctors increasingly give priority to privately insured patients. That's unacceptable. We also need an educational revolution. Medicine, nursing care, education: Germany is not a modern country when it comes to these three areas. We have to adapt our policies to the social reality. These are projects that can awaken Germany out of its torpor.

DER SPIEGEL: But the country is booming, not slumbering.

Schulz: Things are going well because the economy is booming and as an export-driven nation, we are profiting from the fact that we have an excellent, high-performing SME sector. But if we want things to continue to go well into the future, then we have to break up the antiquated structures in some areas and really modernize.

DER SPIEGEL: Two months have passed since the election. Have you figured out yet why the party did so poorly?

Schulz: We still haven't completed our analysis. I myself made mistakes, for sure. And we lacked a path to power. But I also believe that we have to scrutinize the policies we have pursued for the past 20 years.

DER SPIEGEL: Where do you think the party went wrong?

Schulz: In 2003, Helmut Schmidt said: Predatory capitalism exists, we have to civilize it and we can do that via Europe. He was right. We haven't tried hard enough.

DER SPIEGEL: A lot of people aren't particularly excited about Europe at the moment.

Schulz: I don't have that impression. And even if that were the case: Should we just bury it as a topic? That's nonsense. If we want to create new rules of globalization, then we can't just think in terms of the nation state. The nation state has long offered protection. But it suffers from the fact that many citizens increasingly fear that it can no longer protect them: The threat of transnational terrorism is growing. Freedom of movement rules in Europe facilitate social dumping. Regardless of the make-up of the next government, it must have clear ideas on how to overcome the lack of direction of recent years.

DER SPIEGEL: That sounds a lot like the motto for a possible grand coalition.

Schulz: No, it's just healthy common sense. In order to get a handle on this crisis of confidence, we need more Europe, not less. We need a common European tax policy that closes these tax loopholes. We need a common European social policy that prevents social dumping. We need an effective securing of our external borders and a smart way of fighting terrorism. Acting as a state within a national framework is no longer enough. The chancellor has completely failed to convey that throughout her years in power. We need a re-start for Europe.

DER SPIEGEL: All these demands sound wonderful in the abstract. Many people, though, harbor doubts that the many EU member states will ever come to agreement on such common approaches. Each member state is only thinking of its own short-term advantage.

Schulz: The situation, however, has changed completely. France is ready for a European revolution and it is Germany that is pulling the brakes. For a long time, it was the other way around. You don't have to agree with the details of every single one of Emmanuel Macron's suggestions, but he's right about the idea of a new foundation of Europe. Europe's Social Democrats have long demanded this. If we really want to, we can create a different, better Europe in the coming years.

DER SPIEGEL: How exactly?

Schulz: A few examples: I want to end tax dumping. States that have a common currency should not be engaged in tax competition. We need a minimum tax rate and a European finance minister, who would be responsible for closing the tax loopholes and getting rid of the tax havens inside and outside the EU. It is also clear that we have to reach common standards in our economic and labor policies. We cannot continue to just talk about technical details. We have to inspire enthusiasm for Europe. Macron has shown how it's done.

DER SPIEGEL: You recently said the SPD must return to questioning the system as a whole. Does that mean a return to class warfare?

Schulz: Take the financial crisis: It became obvious that we had completely failed to impose rules on unbridled speculative capitalism. That destroyed financial systems, hollowed out state systems and deeply shook our social stability. Can you recall the debate about "locust" hedge funds - even if it's a terrible term. The speculator capitalists roamed the land, stealing the substance from companies and throwing away the shells. And we were powerless.

DER SPIEGEL: Nothing has improved since then.

Schulz: You are right. But as one of the richest and largest markets in the world, Europe can set global standards. And if a French president is prepared to at least consider clear rules in the Eurozone, then it would be fatal if Germany were not to react.

DER SPIEGEL: Is the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, really the right partners to tame predatory capitalism?

Schulz: I also wish the SPD had an absolute majority. But it is also true that, if you want to push through your own policies, then you need to form alliances - regardless of what type. Many Christian Democrats also feel that it can't go on this way. Jean-Claude Juncker is one example. He was the prime minister of Luxembourg for 18 years. Yet it was the Juncker-led European Commission that was the first to demand that a multinational company pay ¿13 billion in back taxes. And other Christian Democrats also realize that it's the small and medium-sized businesses that will be brought to their knees by this development. Many conservatives and Greens also recognize the dangers.

DER SPIEGEL: Since it is a key ministry in European politics, doesn't the SPD almost have to demand the Finance Ministry?

Schulz: It remains to be seen if and how we would enter a government. I can only advise everyone not to get caught up in speculating right now about ministerial roles for themselves or others. One thing is certain: Giving a positive response to Emmanuel Macron will be the core element of any negotiations with the SPD.

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

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