Winfried Kretschmann is the premier of the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg and a member of the Green party. In an interview he discusses the arrival of thousands of refugees to Germany, arguing that they should be allowed to work and to bring their loved ones to Germany to join them. He also spoke about the threat the VW scandal poses to his state, where one in four jobs relies on the auto industry.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Kretschmann, how should lawmakers react to the attacks in Paris?
Winfried Kretschmann: One of the government’s most important tasks is to provide for the security of its citizens. At the beginning of the year, after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, we launched a package of anti-terrorism measures, which include hiring experts on Islamist terrorism as well as IT experts. The terror in Paris was an assault on freedom and the liberal constitutional state, as well as on our lifestyle. We will defend this freedom, this lifestyle and this liberalism, partly by continuing to live the way we do. We refuse to be intimidated. The goal is to find the right balance between freedom and security.
Are you afraid that the mood will now shift against refugees?
No. There are certainly vague fears prompted by the many Muslim refugees. But we must not forget that many fled precisely because of the murders of Islamic State, seeking protection from us. IS also stages terrorist attacks in Islamic countries. Incidentally, the residents of Baden-Württemberg continue to live up to the clichés of being helpful and ready to tackle challenges.
The first tent camps for refugees have been set up in Baden-Württemberg. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted to avoid?
We now have to also use heated, winterized outdoor tents. All the reception centers are overfilled, and the people there often live in extremely crowded conditions. Fortunately, there are no cases in which the accommodation could be considered unacceptable. The refugees have decent housing and are being cared for. At the Hardheim reception center in Baden, which I visited last week, all residents are systematically asked to help out, such as by performing cleaning tasks. I was particularly impressed by a Syrian kindergarten teacher who is caring for children at the facility. The refugees also conducted a local cleanup campaign, which is certainly a welcome gesture in a small city like Baden.
How do you feel about the calls from the Christian Democrats to limit family reunification for refugees?
Proposals like that sound clear but radical at first, but they tend to arouse skepticism on closer examination. First of all, this doesn’t affect the millions that people are always talking about. In 2014, about 64,000 resident permits were issued for family members coming from other countries. Most of them were not issued for refugees but for immigrants instead. Second, it’s extremely important, in terms of integration, for people to be reunited with their spouses and children – the only family members eligible to join those already in Germany today. Otherwise, they would be uprooted twice – once from their native country and once from their family. Furthermore, when demands like this end up being difficult or slow to implement, and the numbers fall well short of illusory expectations, the only people who benefit are the far-right provocateurs.
Does that mean that you don’t want to change the rules for reuniting families?
First we need to address the large numbers of unprocessed asylum applications. The question of bringing family members to Germany will not become pressing for another year or two. I am fundamentally very skeptical. Besides, imposing a limit on family members coming to Germany will trigger an additional wave of refugees, who will quickly make the journey before the legal situation changes.
The refugee issue was an important topic at the Green Party convention this weekend. Does your party need to programmatically change its way of thinking?
A majority vote in favor of the asylum compromise will be achieved in the Bundesrat (the upper house of parliament that represents the German states), with the support of the states where the Green Party is part of a coalition government. We stand for pragmatic policy, but we don’t lose sight of the humanitarian requirements. But you’re right: In the current crisis, we need to abandon positions we have come to value so that we can master the challenges of integrating the refugees. For instance, we cannot fight real estate development as fiercely as we have in the past. There is no way around the fact that we need a lot of new housing.
Who is supposed to build and pay for this housing?
The government can’t do it alone. It’ll only be possible with private capital. To stimulate private investment, we need tax incentives, such as better depreciation options. At the same time, we have to relax planning and building laws so that housing can be built more quickly.
Should the refugees be deliberately resettled in regions adversely affected by demographic change? In the Black Forest, for example, houses are empty and there is a shortage of workers…
My fellow premier from Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow, argues that it’s easier to integrate refugees in shrinking regions. I have respect for that. We shouldn’t reject the idea out of hand. And we also shouldn’t see refugees as a burden. In one hostel, a refugee said to me: ‘We are grateful to you. We want to repay you with hard work.’
To do that, you need employers willing to hire refugees. Should the legal minimum wage be lowered for asylum seekers, in order to improve their job prospects?
No. The whole purpose of the minimum wage is to prevent large groups from depressing wages. But I also don’t think it’s advisable to increase the minimum wage in the foreseeable future.
Could shorter professional training programs help?
We should talk about that. The food service industry, which has tremendous personnel problems, is practically counting on refugees to be its salvation. Pubs that are doing well are forced to close because they are unable to find workers. We have 85 occupations with staffing shortages in Germany, and not all by far are reserved for highly qualified workers.
But there are also academics among the asylum seekers. They may not want to work as waiters in a bar.
That’s correct. For Syrian doctors, for example, we could suspend medical licensing rules and employ them as interns. They would only become fully licensed once they can speak German. Who could be more qualified to treat Syrian refugees?
Our values and rules are foreign to many refugees. How should we handle this problem?
We are a liberal society and we won’t change that. Integration only works on the basis of our constitutional order. There are no exceptions when it comes to integration, not on religious freedom, not on our relationship with violence and not on equality between men and women. The state of Baden-Württemberg is about to draw up a set of rules to this effect, which it will distribute to the refugees. We expect a willingness to work, to be responsible and become integrated – things that I often witness during my visits to refugee centers. We need to sanction misconduct, if necessary. After all, the law applies with equal force to everyone.
A question on state policy: After four years in office, do you still feel resentment from the business community against a Green governor?
Only here and there. The relationship has become more relaxed on the whole. I think company visits are among the more pleasant aspects of political life. I admire the many innovative small and medium-sized companies, which do their utmost every day to survive in global competition.
The Federation of Employers has given your current coalition of the Green Party and junior partners the center-left Social Democrats a grade of C plus, which isn’t bad. However, it is critical of the state government for neglecting road construction and not using federal funds.
That accusation makes me furious! Rarely has a Baden-Württemberg state government invested as much in roads as we have – significantly more than the previous, CDU-led administration. A business owner recently told me how hard it was for him to accept that this government is the one that finally built a new road to his business, a road he had been waiting for for 20 years. It’s regrettable that a few business representatives are ignoring the facts – especially at the association level, and driven by the myths being told by the opposition. Perhaps some are motivated by political considerations.
And what about the Energiewende (Germany’s shift away from nuclear power and toward renewable energy sources)? It’s ironic that Baden-Württemberg, with its Green Party government, is lagging behind when it comes to wind power.
Only seven new wind turbines were erected in 2014. The opposition calls your environment minister, Franz Untersteller, “No-Wind Franz.”
I admit that the numbers were meager in the first years of our government. But we’ve now got the ball rolling. There are now 130 turbines under construction, while another 270 are in the approval process. I just dedicated the state’s largest wind farm in Harthäuser Wald. A huge weight was lifted from my shoulders at that moment. It would have been difficult to enter the election campaign with the admission that the Green Party, of all parties, failed in the Energiewende.
Why did it take so long?
Grass doesn’t grow any faster if you pull on it. We had to practically start at zero, because there was no reasonable legal basis for the expansion of wind power in Baden-Württemberg. The previous administration fought against every single wind turbine.
According to the latest opinion polls, the Green Party and the SPD no longer have a majority in Baden-Württemberg. Could you imagine a coalition with the CDU after the next state election in March?
Most people know that I’m opposed to ruling options out on the coalition issue. But two things are clear. First, we want to continue governing with the SPD, with which we have a successful coalition. And I will only remain in politics as premier. In other words, I will not be available after the election as an opposition leader or junior partner.
Would you agree to being elected premier with the help of the far-left Left Party, if it isn’t enough with the SPD?
Absolutely not. The Left Party in Baden-Württemberg is still living in the world of a national economy that hasn’t existed in a long time. You can’t run an industrialized state with the Left Party.
One in four jobs in the Baden-Württemberg depends on the auto industry. That said, how much of a threat to your state is the VW emissions scandal?
I take it very seriously. We need to do everything possible to ensure that the VW crisis doesn’t turn into an automobile crisis or even an economic crisis. There is a risk that the Made in Germany label, which stands for solidity and German engineering skills, has lost trust in the world. This would be economically devastating – for Baden-Württemberg, as well.
This interview first appeared in WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org.