In six weeks Chancellor Gerhard Schröder hopes to be re-elected as Germany’s leader. In a DW-TV interview, Schröder explains his position on the economy, unemployment and foreign policy, particularly with regard to Iraq.
Next to employment, foreign policy is a key issue in Schröder's campaign
In 1998 Gerhard Schröder successfully outdistanced Helmut Kohl at the polls to become Germany’s first Social Democrat chancellor in 16 years. Schröder was regarded as the new hope for Germany, following the many years of conservative Christian Democrat rule.
But in the last year, Schröder’s popularity has declined. His coalition government with the Greens has been unable to invigorate the economy. Unemployment has surpassed the record four million mark, and the former East is just as depressed as it was before the SPD came into power. In addition, the SPD-led government voted to send the military into conflict zones from the Balkans to Afghanistan, thereby disappointing a large percentage of pacifist supporters.
Current polls show the SPD to be trailing behind the conservative party by about five percent points. According to the German polling institute Emnid, if the elections were to take place tomorrow, 41 percent of Germans would vote for the conservative bloc led by Edmund Stoiber, and 36 percent would vote for Schröder’s SPD.
There are still six weeks left before the September 22nd elections and much can still change. In an interview with DW-TV, Schröder explains his position on several issues from domestic policy to foreign affairs.
DW-TV: Mr. Schröder, if one looks at the opinion polls it appears that someone else will soon be moving into the Chancellor’s office, namely your challenger from the conservative opposition. The SPD is trailing in the polls. What has gone wrong in the campaign, what mistakes have you or the party made?
Schröder: I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that question. The polls are showing a divided picture, and as far as my party is concerned, they could be better, but the opposite is true when it comes to comparing the two candidates. Given that almost half of all voters are still undecided, there’s enormous potential for the two main parties, but I think mainly for ourselves, to mobilize these undecided voters. And that is why we’re not looking to win any opinion polls, we want to win the elections, and that’s the goal we’re working towards.
You promised to push unemployment down to 3.5 million. The latest labor market figures for July put the number of people out of work at 4 million. Is the worldwide recession alone to blame, or have home-made mistakes, for example a delay in labor market reforms, been responsible for the rising numbers?
I don’t think that much of it is home-made, the global economic situation is far worse than it was four years ago. Throughout the 90s when unemployment peaked at 4.5 million, the US still saw growth of 5 percent. But last year and the year before there was almost a recession in the United States and things don’t look good there, which naturally has negative effects on an export country like Germany. We couldn’t foresee the turmoil that would hit the global economy. Our goal was clear, and we could have achieved it amid the conditions we faced in the year 2000, but unfortunately we here in Berlin can’t determine the effects of the world economy.
This election campaign focuses quite heavily on the issue of employment, but now for the first time in quite a while, foreign policy has also become an issue on which there’s considerable debate, particularly on the topic of how Germany should react to a U.S. strike against Iraq. Your party has made it clear that Germany would not even participate if the United Nations gave a mandate for such action. Would you be able to maintain that position for long?
First of all, it’s not about a position, it’s about reacting to other people’s debates and decisions, about voicing one’s opinion. We have not yet won the battle against international terrorism and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Operation "Enduring Freedom" is still going on, and we Germans are involved in that. We are the most active in the international peace force in Afghanistan. Outside Kabul, the country hasn’t yet been pacified, and in the Balkans, too, things aren’t yet the way they should be. That is to say, we haven’t yet achieved everything we set out to do: to set clear examples in the international community to show that joining the West in the fight against international terrorism is worthwhile, and that it leads in turn to peaceful development. And that’s why I advice against considering any new action.
Furthermore, I think we also have to have some idea about what comes afterwards in case it comes to an intervention, which I’m against anyway. It is important to think about the political and the economic consequences because this region is important, not least for the global economy. That’s why I recommend caution and restraint. I hope that our voce – which we add to those of the other Europeans, but which is also self-confidently German – will be heard. We are after all a country which does not duck the issue when it comes to standing firm in the battle against terrorism and when it comes to ensuring peaceful international development – even if it means the deployment of German troops abroad.
But Saddam Hussein is a dictator who has been playing cat and mouse with the United Nations for years – what remedy do you propose?
I think the existing UN policy – namely that of containment, isolating Saddam Hussein – should not be given up. But that’s exactly what could happen if the international coalition against terror were to be put at risk. And it would probably be put at risk if we were to intervene militarily. But, at the same time, I fully agree with those who say we have to maintain the pressure on Saddam. I don’t dispute his classification as a dictator at all. We have to keep up the pressure on him to allow the international weapons inspectors back into the country. But we also need to be decisive and effective, and make sure any offers Iraq makes are serious.
On to European policy. A few days ago, Turkey passed through wide-ranging reforms, such as the abolition of the death penalty. Turkey is now pushing for negotiations on EU membership. What’s your opinion on Turkish membership?
First, I find it’s extremely important what they have done because it sends a signal. The fact that Turkey intends to adopt the standards laid down in the EU treatise of Copenhagen is very important. Now we have to look and see whether the decision taken by the Turkish parliament is actually translated into action, that’s the decisive point. We have to keep the door open for Turkey. But it’s perhaps still a bit early for actual membership negotiations. We will have to wait and see what effect their reforms have in practice. Then we can make our own decisions. But in any case there are still other unresolved questions, such as Turkey’s relationship with Greece or the question of Cyprus.
Before Turkish membership is put on the agenda, the EU has to deal with the issue of eastern enlargement, but there are deep conflicts among the established institutions in Brussels. What do think, is the EU prepared to quickly take on the East European applicants as new members?
Well, I don’t see much trouble ahead. Thank God, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Eastern Europe is now in a position to be part of an integrated Europe. That’s a great chance, and we mustn’t miss it. The EU convention will have to make sure that an enlarged, integrated Europe can still be managed politically. That’s what it’s all about. We have to be ready to take on these challenges. And that’s what we want.