Merkel Interview

Time to Take Responsibility

G20 Vorbereitungstreffen
German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the spotlight as world leaders head to Hamburg next week. Source: Michael Kappeler/dpa

In a wide ranging interview, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, talks about how she deals with Donald Trump – and his irksome tweets – the state of the world and of Germany and why she doesn’t want to be known as “the new leader of the free world.”

The interview with the German business weekly WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt Global, comes shortly before Ms. Merkel will welcome leaders of the 20 largest world economies for a G20 summit in Hamburg. Ms. Merkel has made clear this week, and in this interview, that she will use the summit to challenge Mr. Trump on trade and climate policy.

WirtschaftsWoche: Chancellor Merkel, how does it feel to be the leader of a “very bad” Germany, as US President Donald Trump put it?

It feels very good to be chancellor of the country I love and wish to serve, a job that comes with a lot of responsibility. This sort of accusation, which related to our trade surplus, isn’t a concern to me. The surplus is neither good nor bad, but rather the result of the interplay between supply and demand in world markets.

Shouldn’t you be at least a little grateful to Donald Trump who, as the first populist president of the US, has shifted the political winds in Europe and, in reality, saved your chancellorship?

That isn’t the way I see it. Donald Trump was elected according to the rules of American democracy. Many people in the United States apparently have the impression that their country has deficits and that they have come up short. The president has aligned his message toward these voters.

That’s the domestic American point of view. But the forbidding example of Donald Trump is actually a gift in terms of a revival of the European spirit.

Let’s put it this way: Various incidents, especially last year, reminded us in Europe that the things that are important to us and correspond to our interests cannot be taken for granted. We need to pay more attention to solving the conflicts in Europe’s neighborhood, and we need to defend the values that make Europe what it is, more vigorously than before.

“I have never trembled. I take note of things, including everything that happens around me.”

Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, on Donald Trump's tweets.

But hasn’t the threat of Mr. Trump provided you with an uptick in popularity that seemed completely inconceivable a few months ago?

I don’t see it that way. I also believe in my own strengths. We live in a multipolar world, which is increasingly in disarray on the one hand, but is also growing more and more closely together as a result of digitalization. That is the background against which we in Germany and Europe must ask ourselves: How do we become more resistant to crises? How do we remain innovative, highly effective and future-oriented? How do we fight for our values and interests in this international environment? These questions will play a key role at the G20 summit in Hamburg next week.

Trump, the refugee crisis, the rise of the right-wing party Alternative for Germany – these are all developments that appeared at about the same time and have significantly changed the domestic political situation.

In my view, the main reason the domestic political situation has changed in the last six to eight months is that, after a large number of people came to Germany as refugees in 2015 and 2016, we have been managing and organizing the situation much more effectively, despite continuing challenges. The [center-right Christian Democratic Union] CDU and the [conservative Christian Social Union] CSU have worked on providing coordinated answers to the majority of questions.

When you deal with Donald Trump directly, it appears there isn’t much mutual understanding. Is that wrong?

In our meetings and conversations to date, we have certainly had productive discussions, even though they have been very difficult on some issues. On the one hand, there is always a broad range of common interests between Germany and the United States, such as the immense challenge of fighting terrorism. Only the closest cooperation – including cooperation among our intelligence services – can protect us. On the other hand, we currently hold very different views on many issues relating to globalization. I am convinced that globalization offers many opportunities, that all parts of the world can benefit, and that it can provide advantages for people in every country. But the Americans take a different view of this, seeing it more as the outcome of a struggle in which some are winners and some are losers. Of course, there is friction between these two points of view.

Mr. Trump is unpredictable. Do you tremble every time the US president tweets or have you become used to that?

I have never trembled. I take note of things, including everything that happens around me.

Do you follow his Tweets?

Sometimes. All relevant tweets are immediately reported by news agencies anyway.

Leading up to the G20 summit, you have been in touch with many nations’ leaders, and you even traveled to many of the participating countries. Why do you go to so much trouble for a summit that Mr. Trump threatens to block?

Holding the G20 presidency for one year is both an honor and a challenge. The G20 was established as a meeting of heads of state and government during the economic and financial crisis, when the world was on the brink of disaster. In other words, the format is a good example of how everyone can benefit if they stick together and adhere to common rules. A great deal of effort goes into a meeting like this, but it also promotes understanding between countries with very different political cultures and value systems. Besides that, the G20 is much more than just the two days in Hamburg. It is a month-long process involving meetings among ministers, Sherpa negotiations and a large number of discussions with civil society. In essence, the G20 ensures that substantial portions of the world remain in permanent dialogue with one another. The importance of the G20 is also highlighted by the fact that the first meeting between Donald Trump and [Russian President] Vladimir Putin will take place in Hamburg, within the framework of the G20.

Germany Gay Marriage
German Chancellor Angela Merkel casts her vote on the same-sex marriage law in Berlin this week. Source: AP Photo/Michael Sohn

You met the Pope recently too. How was that?

It is important to me to listen to [the Pope], especially because he sometimes says uncomfortable and even harsh words to us, words we should take seriously. He described all the failures in a few refugee camps and compared them to concentration camps. It’s enough to make you prick up your ears.

You can learn from the pope’s methodology. He frames many things in such a way that they correspond to your own moral values, and yet he is prepared to accommodate the very different interests of the people he meets without bending too much himself. He describes it as a bending – bending but not breaking – and this is also a good approach for the G20 summit. At a summit like this, we must work out the things we have in common without focusing on what divides us.

The pope has also spoken out very strongly on the issue of climate change. Will the Paris climate agreement even play a role at the G20?

There is no other option. Climate protection has long been an issue for the G20. Now, of course, a special situation has arisen because the American government wants to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. The issue will play just as much a role as a different issue, one that is also not so easy: The fight for open markets, and against protectionism.

You have common interests with the United States when it comes to financing the fight against terrorism. It must be easier to reach common goals on this subject?

Of course, and not just in the fight against the terrorists themselves, but also against their funding sources. To that end, we have developed international standards within a Financial Action Task Force that now need to be speedily implemented by everyone. We also know that we need to more effectively prevent the terrorists’ communications and propaganda work. But in Hamburg we should not merely be satisfied with a consensus on this one issue. We also need to keep our sights on the other topics, such as health worldwide.

Your summit preparations often seem as if you were preparing for a confrontation, with 19 against one. Should we assume that you want to pressure the US government?

As the host, I have to keep everyone in mind and clarify what their positions are, and all that with a view to the latest decisions by the US administration. We saw at the G7 summit in May in Sicily that there can be very tough discussions around the summit table. That certainly will not be any easier at the G20, where the participants are much more different in their fundamental convictions.

A politician and a country can achieve little to nothing alone.

Particularly as Donald Trump is not the only difficult guest. Can a leader like the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, even be a part of a system like the G20 anymore?

Of course, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in violation of international law and its destabilizing behavior in Ukraine impose serious burdens on our relationship. But Russia is the EU’s neighbor and I would always advocate that we talk. We need each other to bring the war in Syria to an end, as well as on many other international issues. Naturally, we Germans have a completely different set of basic common values with the US and our partners in the EU than we do with Russia. That’s why I am not naïve in my expectations of what a two-day meeting like the G20 summit can achieve.

Do you expect conflicts in and around Syria, Qatar and North Korea to escalate?

I am doing everything in my power to prevent that from happening. It is becoming increasingly clear to us in Germany, and Europe, that in order to be able to live well, work and do business here, we need to take on more responsibility in the world around us, so that peace and prosperity, step by step, will also prevail there.

That sounds like you are what some in the US media have called you: the new leader of the free world. Yet you have said you don’t like this role. Why not?

Because a politician and a country can achieve little to nothing alone. The task is much more about securing a broad alliance for our values: For free speech, freedom of religion, respect for human dignity, open societies and free trade. Fortunately, there are many others who also espouse these values. We have to make sure that we do not become fixated just on the US position at the summit.

Have all of these dissonances made the world less stable?

From a European perspective, we must realize that life around us has become much more disruptive and that we have to deal with new threats. This also applies to economics. We Europeans can no longer take it for granted that we will produce the innovations of the future. Look at the development of social media or digitalization as a whole, where the US, China and other Asian countries are far ahead of us.

So Europe is lagging behind?

Europe is no longer the world’s engine of innovation. We must make every effort to regain that position, in certain sectors. In doing so, we will have great opportunities, especially now, with the merger of the real economy and the digital world. This is why we are paying so much attention to designing what we call “Industry 4.0” in Germany.

From Beijing's perspective, Europe is more of an Asian peninsula. Of course, we see this differently.

You just warned against everyone focusing too heavily on Donald Trump. Shouldn’t we pay much more attention to China, which is now presenting itself as an ally on issues such as the climate and free trade, but is in fact brutally pursuing its own, egoistic interests?

I monitoring the developments in China closely and how it has become a giant economic power. China has a great tradition of thinking in long historical arcs. From Beijing’s perspective, Europe is more of an Asian peninsula. Of course, we see this differently. Nevertheless, it is a fact that parts of the German economy are dependent on China. That is one reason we have to deal with China’s claims and demands in a way that results in a harmony that benefits everyone. This is something I have repeatedly discussed with the Chinese leadership.

China doesn’t seem to be putting much time into creating that harmony though. German companies doing business there are severely restricted. The Chinese are investing heavily in Europe, and they have recently begun applying political pressure to economically weak countries like Greece.

I am also concerned about what you’ve described. Mutual dependencies are increasing and the balance of power is continually shifting. Europe must work hard to protect its own influence and, above all, it should speak to China with one voice.

Does Europe need to be able to prevent too much Chinese investment then?

That’s an important discussion. On the one hand, we have an interest in an open China, and we need to open ourselves up in return. On the other hand, this requires reciprocity. This is the subject of difficult negotiations.

At the last EU summit, French President Emmanuel Macron advocated taking a hard line on this issue. But his argument was unsuccessful. Why?

The German government is also thinking about defining certain industrial sectors as being of strategic importance for Europe. For example, we have now decided to invest heavily in the microchip field again. If countries like China simply want to buy up everything that was created with a lot of subsidies, we have to react. The issue of public tenders is also disputed. We are willing to let the Chinese participate in Europe, but then, conversely, we must also have access to their tenders. Emmanuel Macron has addressed this issue again, and that’s a positive. The European Commission has published a discussion paper on how globalization can be structured, which we will discuss in this autumn. This includes the question of whether sales of strategically important companies – for example in the field of artificial intelligence – should be subject to European screening in the future.

G20 Vorbereitungstreffen
Germany's leader hopes to build consensus at the G20: Angela Merkel with French president, Emmanuel Macron in Berlin this week. Source: Markus Schreiber/AP

The election of Mr. Macron has been seen by many as the beginning of new golden age in Franco-German relations. This also includes support for the common currency. But, in light of this revival of relations, how would the financial burdens that the euro zone necessarily imposes be distributed in the future?

Of course, Emmanuel Macron and I have not had the time to discuss all the policy fields in detail. Our cooperation is just starting even if it is looking extremely promising. Many years ago, I called for a common budget for the euro zone, albeit a small one. So if some countries are not in a position to make certain investments, or to undertake needed reforms, we could promise support for concrete reforms, for a certain time and under certain conditions. As far as I’m concerned, it was, and is, self-evident.

And in the end, Germany would be responsible for the entire euro zone?

If we are talking about shared liability, it is only if there are uniform concepts about economic policy – and if this was supported by a willingness to reform and to adhere to regulations. Under no circumstances do I believe common unemployment insurance is feasible, as long as we are dealing with 27 different labor codes. If there is a common [fiscal] policy, we could think about certain aspects being the responsibility of the European Union. Otherwise this isn’t feasible. And the matter can always be discussed on a case-by-case basis. In any case, it is fundamentally in Germany’s interest to cooperate with and support a pro-European, reform-minded French president.

You spoke earlier about Europe’s inability to innovate. How does the German government intend to fix this?

First of all, it’s important that we honestly admit that other stakeholders have emerged and that innovation does take place outside of Europe. A practical way to counteract this is a large investment program, to give momentum to digitalization, through a swifter expansion of the broadband network, for example.

To be clear, there is no justification for the fraudulent methods with which some manufacturers have circumvented limits in the diesel sector.

If we have so much catching up to do when it comes to digitalization, why do you still support another long-outdated technology: the diesel engine?

Internal combustion engines have improved considerably in recent years, partly as a result of our environmental protection regulations. It is also important that we use the latest and best technology.

Some would say that the way those regulations have been managed indicate that the German authorities are allied with the auto industry, in a disastrous way for everyone.  

To be clear, there is no justification for the fraudulent methods with which some manufacturers have circumvented limits in the diesel sector. This has harmed the diesel sector as a whole. In Germany, we valued diesel for many years because it helped save fuel and reduced CO2 emissions. Even though we may have to reevaluate some issues, our climate policy objectives remain unchanged.

We are in a transformation phase as we move away from the internal combustion engine. We have also provided government incentives for the purchase of electric engines, and have done so in the face of considerable resistance. But just how quickly this transformation should proceed is something that has to be negotiated, again and again. This is why I believe that the very economical internal combustion engine, perhaps combined with hybrid technology, remains a reasonable choice for the future.

German automakers have been slow when it comes to electric cars. Does that irritate you?

There is still great demand for German cars worldwide, so I wouldn’t put it quite as dramatically as you. Moreover, the automotive industry remains one of the most innovative industries in the German economy, investing massively in research and development every year. Anyway German companies have already invested a lot in electric cars, as evidenced by their growing range.

The future of the auto industry could complicate things for your party, when it comes to negotiating a new coalition after the federal elections in September. There’s another issue that could has complicated things and that is same-sex marriage.

For many years, I have been convinced that the same values apply in same-sex partnerships as they do heterosexual marriage: Love, care and responsibility for each other and for one’s children. That is why we have gradually abolished existing discriminations, district by district. Now it’s time to reexamine the fundamental question of whether marriage should be made available to same-sex partners.

But the issue was a question of conscience for lawmakers this week, when the law was passed.

We are not talking about a legal footnote here but about Article 6 of our German Constitution, and a decision that affects the deepest convictions about humanity and marriage, one of the cornerstones of our society. Every member of parliament should be able to follow his or her conscience, and I hope that we will be able to do this with great respect for one another and for various points of view, especially in the future. I, at any rate, will do everything possible to make that happen.

There is no question that we too are affected by cyberattacks and other dark aspects to digitalization.

Do you have the feeling that September’s elections here in Germany will be free and fair, or that we might have to contend with some sort of Russian interference?

We will have fair and free elections, partly because it is my impression that German society is very robust and alert. I’m not worried about this issue.

But the US system also seemed robust and strong before their presidential elections. But, according to many accounts, there was apparently an attempt to influence the outcome there.

There is no question that we too are affected by cyberattacks and other dark aspects to digitalization. But I do believe that Germany is very much strengthened by our culture of political discussion. We can cope with those challenges. In addition, the federal government recently adopted a new cyber strategy.

Right now you lead your main opponent, Martin Schulz of the Social Democrats, by more than 10 points in the polls. You could probably avoid campaigning at all, no matter how he attacks you.

Well now! We spend every day fighting, working and devoting all of our energy to promote our own convictions.


This interview first appeared in German weekly WirtschaftsWoche. Miriam Meckel is the publisher and Beat Balzli is the editor in chief of WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!