Germany’s political landscape is changing, says former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, with big-tent parties being challenged by newer, more radical parties like the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany. The refugee crisis, in his view, has fundamentally changed the way voters view Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, which was once known for promoting negative views of foreigners.
Mr. Schröder, since the end of your term in office, you have declined to give interviews right after elections. What’s different this time?
Mr. Schröder: The situation is different. Our party system is in turmoil. Europe faces serious challenges in the refugee issue. And my party, the SPD, could use some encouragement. So I thought to myself: This time you have to say something.
What was your first thought as the results for the three state elections came in on the evening of March 13?
I was prepared for the fact that the results would not be phenomenal for the SPD everywhere. That’s one reason I was so pleased about the success of Malu Dreyer, who was re-elected as state premier of Rhineland-Palatinate. So my first thought was: We managed to pull it off once again.
After the election, CDU officials were saying: It wasn’t half bad for the chancellor, because more than two-thirds of Germans voted for Angela Merkel’s refugee policy. Is that true?
It’s a myth. People voted for Winfried Kretschmann, the Green Party state premier of Baden-Württemberg, not Ms. Merkel. And they voted for Ms. Dreyer because she is her own person and is doing good work in Rhineland-Palatinate. They didn’t elect her because of Ms. Merkel’s refugee policy. I can understand that the CDU is portraying things this way for tactical reasons. And I think it’s interesting to see who falls for it and who doesn’t.
Do we have to get used to the notion that the big-tent parties, the CDU and the SPD, are now too small to form a grand coalition?
We are experiencing the Europeanization of the German party system. The spectrum was already broadened on the left some time ago, when the Left Party took up a position next to the SPD. Now the CDU’s claim to be the sole representative of the political right is also disappearing. The Alternative for Germany, or AfD, seems to be establishing itself there. But that doesn’t scare me. Germany is and remains an extraordinarily stable democracy. Democrats must grapple with the messages on the political extremes, but the country can handle it.
Why are right-wing and nationalist parties gaining support, especially in Europe’s liberal countries?
I don’t want to talk about the Netherlands or Sweden, so let’s stick with Germany. The CDU and the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of the CDU, are responsible for this development. For decades, the CDU and the CSU created the impression that Germany is not a country of immigration. They also portrayed themselves as capable of guaranteeing that we will not become one. In doing so, the CDU promoted negative views of foreigners. This summer, Ms. Merkel abandoned this policy from one day to the next when she told the refugees, with a lot of heart but little foresight: You’re all welcome here. The plan had to be provided later, which is always difficult in politics. This radical change of course has made middle-class voters anxious. They had believed that the CDU was staunchly opposed to immigration. But it isn’t.
The SPD is also losing voters to the AfD.
My party is divided on the refugee issue. A portion of our voters want a strict limit on the number of refugees. The rest are welcoming the refugees with open arms. Because of its self-image as an international party that advocates solidarity, the SPD could only be in favor of an open refugee policy.
The SPD hasn’t made any mistakes?
Everyone makes mistakes, including the SPD. Perhaps it missed the opportunity to tie its approval of the asylum packages to the demand for modern immigration and integration laws.
What does that mean for the SPD?
As part of the federal government, my party must now ensure that integration of the refugees is a success. The SPD chairman has made proposals in this regard. They should not just help to improve the integration of refugees, but also strengthen social cohesion in the society as a whole. This includes investing in education, housing construction, the police and social security. The federal government must provide the necessary financial means. We need a modern immigration law and an integration law that provides state and local governments with enough money to finally enable them to pay attention to schools, education and vocational training, housing and care. Integration is a massive undertaking. In this type of a situation, a government cannot make a balanced budget the measure of all things!
If the SPD wants more debt, it is merely reinforcing the prejudice that left-wing parties can’t manage money.
All I can say to that is that we have to put up with it. The money needs to be spent. If we don’t manage integration successfully, it will tear our society apart. It would also guarantee the survival of the AfD. If we do manage, however, to make the money available, and if people see that the refugees are working, contributing to the social welfare system and, through their work, enhancing overall prosperity, social acceptance will grow. In this sense, debt that doesn’t go into consumption but into investments in our future is justifiable.
How would the refugee crisis be different if Gerhard Schröder were still chancellor and Otto Schily was still the interior minister?
We would have an integration law. An immigration law that straightens out immigration and asylum. And we would have talked about protecting the European Union’s external borders earlier. Otto Schily co-founded Frontex, the European border protection agency, way back in 2004, but little has happened since then. At the time, Mr. Schily also proposed establishing centers in North Africa where those who wanted to go to Europe could submit their asylum applications, and these applications would then be reviewed in North Africa. Perhaps the idea was premature at the time, but it isn’t today.
And now, of all things, we are strategically dependent on Turkey on the refugee issue.
In 2004, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair and I made sure that the European Union had begun accession negotiations with Turkey. The CDU and the CSU hit upon the questionable proposal to offer Turkey a privileged partnership instead. The consequence was that key segments of Turkish society said: The Europeans don’t even want us. The goal of a privileged partnership led to the current situation, in which we are forced to buy cooperation with Turkey at a high price. It’s really costing a lot of money.
So we’ve become susceptible to blackmail?
Most of all, Europe has good reason to be grateful. Turkey has accepted significantly more refugees than the entire European Union. And the care of those refugees is being managed well, at least compared with camps in Jordan and Lebanon. In this regard, the money that Turkey wants from the European Union for the refugees is being spent in a sensible way. Of course, this makes us a little more dependent on Turkey, and that will lead to more demands. In this sense, the concept of a “privileged partnership” has failed miserably. We also can’t say to the Turks, as the CSU is now doing: We do need you, but visa exemptions are out of the question. This is not a sensible policy.
So you’re saying that if we had brought Turkey closer to the European Union, the current regime would not be persecuting the Kurds or taking action against newspapers it doesn’t like?
I don’t know. But let’s assume for a moment that membership negotiations had progressed significantly. No one can seriously dispute that this would have had positive effects on openness and democracy in Turkey. Political developments in Turkey are partly the result of the European Union having given it the cold shoulder in recent years.
Looking back, what was the crucial mistake in German refugee policy?
Germany and France need to be on the same page when it comes to such a far-reaching decision, one that affects the entire political situation in the European Union. The failure to achieve this coordination is one reason why Germany is now politically isolated in the European Union. Besides, I think the German-French relationship has been troubled since the German finance minister simply swept aside French concerns over the one-sided austerity policy in Greece. You can’t apply pressure to the Eastern European countries without France on your side. Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl wasn’t all that wrong when he said that a chancellor should always salute the French flag two times. I never said that, but I always did it.
This article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org