The Social Democrats’ last chancellor was known as “comrade to the bosses.” Gerhard Schröder actively courted Germany’s business leaders, and he certainly put his proximity to them to good use. He steered the country for seven years on an economically friendly course. His successor, who is cut from a different cloth, has kept her distance from the management class. Angela Merkel certainly knows what she has in someone like Siemens boss Joe Kaeser, who has been referred to as the government’s “foreign minister of the economy.”
Just six weeks before the election, however, the winds have suddenly shifted. Martin Schulz, the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, has distanced himself entirely from Mr. Schröder’s business-friendly approach, lamenting the “multi-million euro managers at VW, at Daimler, who have slept through the future.” Mr. Schulz’s rhetoric on the topic has been only modestly successful. His larger point is grist for the mill for many citizens, most of whom are convinced that the problem has much to do with incompetence on the part of politicians. This isn’t the first time, after all, that the titans of industry have been in a politician’s crosshairs.
It stands to reason that the SPD’s chancellor candidate should ponder these facts before taking pot shots at management...
This isn’t to say that the scheming of parts of the auto industry should be endorsed. The SPD’s candidate, of course, can take whatever position he wants on the diesel scandal. What Mr. Schulz seems to be forgetting, however, is that prominent members of the SPD have sat or currently sit on the managing boards at some of these companies, not least of which at VW, where the company’s human resources manager Karlheinz Blessing, for example, served as the SPD’s secretary general. Christine Hohmann-Dennhardt, who was responsible for integrity and legal affairs as a member of VW’s board, was the SPD’s justice minister in Hessen. After a year at VW, the staunch Social Democrat was given a seven-figure severance package. It stands to reason that the SPD’s chancellor candidate should ponder these facts before taking pot shots at management, lest he wing one of his own.
According to Mr. Schulz’s logic, the state needs to intervene more forcefully in companies’ operations so that they don’t “sleep through the future,” as he put it. For both the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in Lower Saxony, the government’s shares in VW are sacrosanct. Former and current leading politicians defend their engagements at VW and steadfastly endorse their positions that VW as a company is very important for the country and jobs.
Extending Mr. Schulz’s logic even further, Malu Dreyer, the state premier of Rhineland-Palatinate, would have to buy shares in BASF, Baden-Württemberg’s state premier Winfried Kretschmann would need Daimler shares, and Bavaria’s Horst Seehofer would need to secure some kind of operational control at BMW. Furthermore, Ms. Merkel would have seats on the boards at Deutsche Post, Telekom and Commerzbank. This would be utter nonsense. At VW, it’s become apparent just how difficult a state premier’s dual role of balancing the requirements of public office and the company’s compliance requirements can be.
On the campaign trail, the chancellor’s tone against managers has been much softer than Mr. Schulz’s. The substance of Ms. Merkel’s message, however, isn’t far off the SPD candidate’s. To be sure, she needs to hint at a certain distance between herself and the auto industry. With her pronouncement that an abandonment of combustion engines is fundamentally right, she’s killing two birds with one stone. She’s positioning herself and her party as a potential coalition partner for the Greens while distracting potential voters from the fact that many of her closest advisers are high functionaries in the auto industry. The ubiquitous photo ops with carmaker bosses won’t appear again until at least after the election, though.
In the six weeks running up to the election, manager bashing is a hot topic. It’s fodder well-suited for the campaign trail, as candidates attempt to speak to the emotions of potential voters. But Mr. Schulz and Ms. Merkel should think long and hard about the end game and should abstain from widening the chasm between industry and citizens. After all, every campaign comes to an end eventually. After the election, the next government will expect industry to continue contributing to the welfare of its citizens, if only to deliver on promises made during the campaign.
Campaign games aside, the deindustrialization of the country would prove fatal. The campaigns should not be allowed to poison the electorate’s mood against the economy. This is doubly the case for Mr. Schulz. On the very day he lampooned VW’s and Daimler’s managers, it was revealed that none other than former chancellor and SPD campaigner Mr. Schröder was to sit on the board at oil giant Rosneft. Just how difficult Mr. Schröder’s activities have become for his SPD colleagues is revealed in the general secretary’s reaction to the news: It was Mr. Schröder’s “personal decision.” Within the SPD, the former chancellor’s proximity to Vladimir Putin is “devastating” to the party’s campaign, according to reports. It was not for nothing that Mr. Schulz wanted to call Mr. Schröder to talk about the former chancellor’s new gig.
It’s high time to put a damper on the rhetoric of outrage and get the clean diesel flowing.
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