Tuesday, 2 November 2010

'The Crisis Has Deeply Shaken Us'

In a SPIEGEL interview, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, 56, discusses the recent controversial deal she struck with French President Nicolas Sarkozy on the euro, disputes within her coalition government in Berlin and her country's contentious immigration and integration debate.

SPIEGEL: Madame Chancellor, after forming a coalition with you, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) slipped to 23 percent of the vote. Now the black-yellow coalition between your party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) has been governing for one year. The FDP is down to 5 percent in the polls. How do you always manage to cut your coalition partners down to size?

Merkel: This is a non-issue for me. For the past year now, we have been working in a coalition of the CDU and the FDP, and we are now in a phase in which important decisions are being made, which are, of course, also contentious. Now is not the time to focus on surveys, but rather on decisions.

SPIEGEL: Polls don't interest you at all?

Merkel: I acknowledge them, but they do not determine my actions.

SPIEGEL: Your party, the CDU, is at 30 percent in the polls. What has gone wrong?

Merkel: In the beginning, we were unable to adequately convey the meaning and purpose of certain decisions. But those days are over: We are now focusing on setting an agenda that will, at first, not please some segments of the population. But once people see the impact and the successes, we will win them over. Politics is not about constantly putting your finger to the wind, but rather following through with your convictions.

SPIEGEL: Politics in times of your black-yellow coalition is primarily about in-fighting. The summer of blissful political harmony was extremely short-lived; after a short break, the coalition is squabbling again. Why can't you manage to create a long-term congenial coalition climate?

Merkel: We have a congenial climate in the coalition that is, as a rule, characterized by very, very good personal relationships. Nonetheless, situations are bound to arise from time to time in which differing viewpoints emerge.

SPIEGEL: That is a nice euphemism for conflict.

Merkel: It is a shame that in the language of journalists there are no longer any nuances between conflict and harmony. The German language is actually more expressive than that.

SPIEGEL: This past summer, Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party to the CDU, vowed that he would treat you in a congenial manner in the future. Now he is casting doubt upon raising the minimum retirement age to 67, which is a key tenet of your platform. Do you feel that he has let you down?

Merkel: Legislation raising the retirement age to 67 has been passed into law and will be implemented. It will not be fully effective until the year 2029, however. Horst Seehofer has pointed out that we have to combine the gradual introduction of this legislation with better opportunities for older employees to remain gainfully employed. That is how I see it as well. Furthermore, the past few years have very clearly shown that there is a significant increase in the number of older individuals in the workforce. So things are moving in the right direction.

SPIEGEL: Now your coalition partner the FDP is also rebelling and accusing you of betraying the stability of the euro. It was, in fact, not particularly congenial of you not to consult with German Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on your strategy for the negotiations with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Why did you bypass Westerwelle on this issue?

Merkel: In Deauville, President Sarkozy and I spoke primarily about what will happen when the euro bailout package expires in 2013. For quite some time now, we have been in agreement within the coalition that we need amendments to European Union treaties in order to create a new and markedly improved crisis management mechanism -- one that also includes private creditors, like banks, for instance. We don't want to see the member states, in other words, the taxpayers, have to foot the bill again. So it was a major success to persuade the French to open up to such a treaty reform. And this agreement is fully in line with the coalition's objectives.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, it was a solo effort. You did not bring your foreign minister on board.

Merkel: He was also on board.

SPIEGEL: He sees that differently.

Merkel: We are all in the same boat.

SPIEGEL: How did you bring him on board?

Merkel: We discuss our approach together on a regular basis.

SPIEGEL: Did you discuss with him that you would offer Sarkozy the option of waiving an automatic mechanism for sanctions against countries that exceed the allowed limit for budget deficits?

Merkel: The process that we are now considering calls for considerably more stringent sanctions than what we currently have, and this would involve an automatic mechanism. The French president and I were totally in agreement on this point. The details were mutually agreed upon by the finance ministers.

SPIEGEL: Is one of the lessons from the Greek financial crisis that Europe needs an economic government?

Merkel: We need instruments that prevent such a situation from occurring. We need to learn to observe countries at an early stage so that, based on a range of indicators, we can assess their actual level of competitiveness. We have to find ways to harmonize the competitiveness among European countries -- and this should not be done by simply targeting the average or gearing ourselves to the slowest. Instead, we should always learn from the best. In this sense, we are working as an economic government.

Part 2: 'It Is Our Duty to First Reduce Our Massive Debt'

SPIEGEL: Has the financial crisis had a lasting impact on Germany?

Merkel: I see the crisis as something that has deeply shaken us. Many Germans are understandably very wary of certain sectors of the economy. We politicians will have our work cut out for us for some time to come, convincing people once again that we shape our policies and do not merely follow the industry's lead.

SPIEGEL: The economy is in good shape, tax revenues are flowing in. This has prompted the FDP to consider tax cuts. What is your position on this?

Merkel: We have always endorsed a simple and fair system with low taxes. It is also true that a large proportion of the burden is shouldered by the middle class, and that is a problem. Currently, however, I still do not see any leeway for tax cuts. It is our duty, both legally and morally, to first reduce our massive debt. It is also a question of fairness to the next generation.

SPIEGEL: If there were any leeway, which taxes would you reduce?

Merkel: Many communities face a very difficult financial situation. If we had to choose an area where we could still do something and we had some leeway, the most urgent issue for me would be how we can help the cities and communities where money is so tight.

SPIEGEL: Up until now, you have always refused to make concessions to the conservative wing of your party. What made you change your mind now?

Merkel: Could you please give me an example?

SPIEGEL: You recently said that multiculturalism has failed.

Merkel: Should I show you excerpts from my speeches to the Bundestag over the past few years? I have often stated my position on this issue, and each time it was met with general approval in parliament, but not always given as much attention as this time.

SPIEGEL: But, Madame Chancellor, you choose your words with care, and you know precisely when you intend to say something -- and what effect it will have. Highlighting such an issue in this situation is tantamount to making a concession to the fans of Thilo Sarrazin.

Merkel: No, it is one of a number of political statements that I know hit very close to home for the people. For example: "Protecting victims takes precedence over protecting perpetrators." "Those who work must have more money than if they did not work." "Multiculturalism has failed" is yet another example. Now I have said it again, naturally within the context of today's specific integration debate, which does not make this statement wrong. I have remained entirely true to my principles.

SPIEGEL: You wanted to stoke the debate a bit?

Merkel: No. It is a sentence that I have said in the past, and I will say it again in the future. The debate is not all that heated anyway.

SPIEGEL: One of the grand delusions of the CDU is that Germany is not an immigration country. Isn't it time to re-think this?

Merkel: We reflected on this issue a great deal while working on our coalition platform: What kind of a country are we? We came to the conclusion that we are an integration country.

SPIEGEL: That is another one of those terms that is impossible to pin down.

Merkel: I can define it. In an integration country, all people of foreign origin are welcome who are prepared to live according to the laws and values of society, or even become German citizens.

SPIEGEL: You know very well that Germany needs immigration. Without integration, we will soon have no one left to pay for people's pensions.

Merkel: We addressed this issue a long time ago. First, we have made it easier for foreigners who have studied here to remain in Germany. Second, we have freedom of movement within the European Union and improved access opportunities for qualified individuals from the new member states. Third, any foreigners who can document an annual income of at least €66,000 ($92,000) can stay here as long as they want, and multi-year residency permits are even possible below this limit. Indeed, we have long ago paved the way for controlled immigration.

SPIEGEL: What do you think of a point system to control immigration?

Merkel: A point system would not solve all our problems. In the coalition agreement, it says that we intend to control immigration to Germany. It also says in this agreement that access for highly qualified and skilled foreign workers must be systematically tailored to the needs of the German labor market and organized according to clear, transparent and weighted criteria, for example, with regard to requirements, qualifications and integration abilities. That is our objective.

Part 3: 'I Am Increasingly at Peace with Myself'

SPIEGEL: We were surprised that you came out in favor of a ban on pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Is this also a concession to the conservative wing of your party?

Merkel: No, it is a matter of conscience. We are talking about whether, after in-vitro insemination, a selection is to be made among the embryos, whether those embryos that display characteristics of a serious hereditary disease are to be destroyed. My concern is that the line between serious and not so serious diseases is virtually impossible to define. People will begin with a very restrictive approach, but this could very quickly lead to debates over whether this is too restrictive. And one day, people with hereditary diseases will have to justify themselves because some people will believe that all of this could have been prevented. This is the reason why I personally feel that we should not allow it right from the beginning.

SPIEGEL: But it is possible to make a fairly clear distinction for abortions. Why shouldn't this work for PGD?

Merkel: For abortions, the goal is to determine whether it is feasible for the mother to have the child. That is an entirely different issue. But back to PGD: This is not a decision that I make at the drop of a hat, but rather after a long process of carefully weighing up the situation. Every member of parliament should decide according to his or her own conscience.

SPIEGEL: You have never really passionately gotten involved in an issue before and now, of all things, you have made a railway station into your cause célèbre. Why is Stuttgart 21 so important?

Merkel: I went into politics out of a passion for freedom, so I am not lacking anything in that department. Currently, there are many areas and many individual topics where it all boils down to one issue: Germany's ability to meet the challenges of the future. Take the urgently needed and widely controversial power lines that are essential if we are ever to make the transition to environmentally friendly renewable energy. Or take this big railway project. The issue extends far beyond the confines of the city of Stuttgart and people have a right to hear what the German chancellor thinks, whether she is for or against it. Since it was an important debate in the Bundestag, I came out strongly in favor of the project.

SPIEGEL: What will you do if things go poorly in the state elections in Baden-Württemberg in March 2011?

Merkel: I am working to make this election a success for our party.

SPIEGEL: Many people are already pointing to German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg as your successor. Do you also think that he is the right man for the job?

Merkel: I am delighted that the defense minister does top-notch work and, at the same time, comes across well and is very popular. Furthermore, it is very gratifying that we have apparently seen the end of the era when you wrote about a gaping void among the ranks of leading conservative politicians.

SPIEGEL: Do you sometimes look at him and think, wow, I could learn a thing or two from him?

Merkel: I have now reached an age in which I am increasingly at peace with myself. As a young girl, I was often dissatisfied because I wanted to be able to do things well that I could not do, for example, gymnastics on the balance beam or ice skating. These days I can do the things that I want to do. So I simply take delight in Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and wish him all the best of luck -- and all the best to my other gifted and outstanding ministers.

SPIEGEL: Madame Chancellor, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Dirk Kurbjuweit and Mathias Müller von Blumencron; translated from the German by Paul Cohen


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