It’s freezing cold outside when Gerhard Schröder invites us into his comfortable office near the zoo in Hanover. The former chancellor has just returned from representing Germany at Fidel Castro’s funeral in Havana and will be traveling to Turkey afterwards. But a number of things are also turning frosty in world politics. Which immediately takes us into a discussion about the dividing lines between East and West and maintaining stability in a world threatening to fall apart at the seams.
Mr. Schröder, who has drawn criticism in Germany for a closeness with Russian politicians and businesses since leaving office, says he’s less worried about Donald Trump than most mainstream politicians. Nor is Mr. Schröder particularly worried about Russian President Vladimir Putin. The key, he insists, is that the U.S. and Russian leaders find better ways to talk to each other.
Mr. Schröder, what a year: refugee crisis, Brexit, Donald Trump, now a terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin. Is this still the world you know and understand?
Gerhard Schröder: It’s become more complicated but there were threats in the past. The horrific attack in Berlin is but one in a series of acts of terror that we have been experiencing for over 10 years in Europe – in Paris, London and Madrid. We must fight this form of terrorism with a strong state, but not abandon the liberality in our society. The federal government must maintain this balance.
Donald Trump immediately called for an all-out war to put an end to IS.
You know, I’m relaxed on the subject of Trump. How we all cried out when the former actor, Ronald Reagan, was elected U.S. president. Mr. Reagan may have then economically practiced pure neoliberalism, but together with Mikhail Gorbachev, he also contributed to the end of the Cold War. He had gathered a good team of advisors around himself. It is to be hoped that a President Trump will be open to good advice. Moreover, the democratic institutions in the U.S. are strong enough to build up a counterbalance to the president.
I don’t believe that Trump will have success with his reindustrialization.
But everyone is nervous about the populists, such as just recently during the presidential elections in Austria and the constitutional referendum in Italy. Should we be frightened of the citizen again?
No, not at all. But we democrats do have to fight. The Austrians have just demonstrated that it can be done when they voted against right-wing populism. The outcome of the referendum in Italy is regrettable because the change in the constitution would have been important to give the government more power for further reforms, since not only the institutions but also the economy and social systems in Italy are in urgent need of reform to become more competitive and above all to get young people working. Matteo Renzi’s labor market reform was only the beginning.
Why did Mr. Renzi not convince the Italians then?
All reforms need time before they take effect. That is something we learned from the Agenda 2010 [Mr. Schröder’s own labor market reforms in Germany]. Mr. Renzi was unable to get across how important it is for Italy to carry out further reforms. Instead, his opponents such as the comedian Beppe Grillo, slandered him as being undemocratic. I’m all for giving Mr. Renzi a second chance. That would be good for Italy and for Europe.
Mr. Trump has also promised to bring core industries back to the U.S. But the U.S. corporations will continue to produce in countries with cheap wages.
I don’t believe that Trump will have success with his reindustrialization. But I think saying “I’ll take care of the cores of our industries” is good. That is the task of politics, especially also in a country like Germany where around 22 percent of the value creation is still taking place in manufacturing. And something that also cannot be forgotten is that every industrial location creates work not only for suppliers but also for a wide variety of service providers.
Doesn’t German industry then especially need the trans-Atlantic free trade agreement TTIP?
No. I’m against TTIP, because power politics is playing too much of a leading role for me and not cooperation. TTIP, as it now stands, is not being conducted on an equal footing.
What do you mean by that?
Just look at the pressure the U.S. government is currently putting on German companies. It is specifically aimed at weakening competitors.
There’s no question that there was wrongdoing and that it must be punished. But what Americans are demanding in compensation and penalties is a bit much, enough to threaten the very existence of even those major companies. And nobody can tell me that measures like those taken against VW aren’t also about weakening a competitor of the U.S. carmakers. Even the Americans aren’t usually that environmentally conscious.
Sounds as if you have written off our partners in the West. By implication, does that mean Germany needs a new Ostpolitik?
Don’t worry, despite all the criticism, the trans-Atlantic alliance remains our basis. Nonetheless, we Europeans need good relations with Russia. So far, Russia has been more of a geopolitical problem to the Americans. They wanted to prevent the rise of another power alongside China. Perhaps this attitude will now change with the new U.S. administration. That would be an opportunity for us Europeans, since Russia is our immediate neighbor. We are dependent on a good relationship with Russia and, conversely, Russia also with us.
Considering Crimea, Ukraine, Syria – Vladimir Putin isn’t making it easy for the Europeans.
That’s true, but the West isn’t making it easy for the Russians either. George W. Bush terminated the [Anti-Ballistic Missile] ABM Treaty in 2001 that limited the number of ballistic missiles and by doing so damaged the international security architecture. Setting up missile defense in Eastern Europe directed against Iran und Russia was another mistake. And then came the U.S. plan to admit Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. The Russians feel like they are surrounded and that’s why they reacted wrongly in eastern Ukraine.
You really like playing the role of pro-Russian apologist. You would probably also even defend Russia’s brutal bombing in Syria.
No, I won’t do that. We should instead ask ourselves how we can find a way back to a political progress so that a measure of stability, perhaps at some point peace as well, can be created in Syria. It was a mistake of the West to continually state that the dictator Assad must first be removed. Of course he has to go eventually. But this can happen at the end of a political process, not at the beginning.
To sum it all up, the West is to blame for everything. Mr. Putin not at all.
Once again, it is a matter of finding a political solution. It can’t be done by military means alone. Whoever believes that is mistaken, no matter whether he is sitting in Moscow or Washington. And then the question must be asked which conflict stirred up the region the most. That was the last Iraq war. It destroyed Iraq as a state, ignited a civil war, set denominations and ethnic groups against each other and created the basis for the emergence of IS.
Have you talked with Mr. Putin about Syria?
Look, if I talked publicly about confidential conversations, then I would no longer be able to have them, no matter with whom. So I don’t answer such questions as a matter of principle.
Who is more dangerous: Mr. Putin or Mr. Trump?
Those are categorizations that don’t help. We Europeans will have to work with both.
You must like the fact that Mr. Trump thinks Mr. Putin is so great.
I would like it if America and Russia would figure out together how the conflict in Syria can be ended. Without these powers, none of the global challenges can be resolved. So if decent relations between the countries come into being through a good working relationship between the presidents, certainly no one can have anything against it.
You could be the one to mediate.
It’s best not to overestimate yourself. Maybe the next Social Democratic chancellor could undertake that.
I always used to get mad when elder statesmen would publicly put in their two cents.
Since you’ve already raised the subject: do you actually know who the Social Democrats’ candidate for chancellor is going to be?
No. And I won’t take part in speculating. I always used to get mad when elder statesmen would publicly put in their two cents.
Did you understand why Ms. Merkel is running again?
She is a very disciplined woman. And her party expected her to run again because the Christian Democratic Union would have otherwise been in big trouble.
Is it all that easy to let go of power?
I’m not in a position to judge whether Ms. Merkel can do that. It certainly isn’t easy. But you can get used to life without power. I’m certainly not unhappy today.
But after being voted out, you did appear to be very shocked.
You need something to do. At the time, I was barely older than 60. When it’s all over from one day to the next, you fall into a hole. I was criticized for taking over the chairmanship of Nord Stream’s supervisory board, but it helped me. I had something to do. And it’s interesting because the massive amount of criticism helped me. I had to become a fighter again.
2017 is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s reformation. Will there be a new reformer in Europe?
I am looking with confidence to France. It looks like both the democratic left and the democratic right will be putting up pro-reform candidates who, I am sure, will win against Marine Le Pen in the runoff election. No matter who wins – be it François Fillon, Emmanuel Macron or a Socialist – and then seriously tackles reforms: He could find himself in the same situation as Germany back in 2003 and 2004. We were forced to temporarily violate the stability criteria. But whoever seriously undertakes reforms and invests in the future must be allowed such a limited period of infringement. And when France implements reforms, then it will be good for all of Europe. I hope that will bring about a revival of Franco-German relations.
But politicians are never thanked for reforms.
There is this gap between political reforms and the time years later when they take effect. My successor politically harvested the fruits of Agenda 2010. But what is of more importance to me is that the country is doing better because of it.
Has Ms. Merkel actually ever thanked you for the Agenda?
No, she also doesn’t need to.
Can your SPD topple Ms. Merkel in 2017?
To do that, all power options must be kept open, meaning also the power option of a red-red-green coalition [a coalition with The Greens and left-wing The Left party], if it is sensibly viable. For that to happen, The Left will still have to distance itself from some unrealistic demands on a couple of points, particularly in economic and foreign policy.
Can the SPD survive another grand coalition government under Chancellor Merkel?
That is certainly no one’s coalition of choice. To be sure, an estimated 25 percent for the SPD isn’t exactly all that much. But the Union is a long way away from its former ratings in the polls and has to worry about competition from the AfD [the far-right, anti-immigrant party] much more than the SPD. The SPD must enter the federal parliamentary elections with the ambition of wanting to lead the country. Of course, you can lose in the end. But you have to keep on fighting.