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DW interview with Olaf Scholz

Manuela Kasper-Claridge | Jaafar Abdul Karim
August 12, 2021

SPD chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz has called for a new eastern policy for Europe and integration for refugees. Read the full interview by DW’s editor-in-chief Manuela Kasper Claridge and moderator Jaafar Abdul Karim.

Olaf Scholz
SPD chancellor candidate Olaf ScholzImage: ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP

Manuela Kasper-Claridge (MKC): Hello and welcome to our interview with the Social Democrats' chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz. It’s great to have you here.

Jaafar Abdul Karim (JAK): Welcome and 'Ahlan wa Sahlan' Mr. Scholz. You want to take Angela Merkel's place as German chancellor. What can you do that she can't? 

Olaf Scholz: First of all, Angela Merkel and I collaborated very well together for a very long time. I served as the minister of labor in the first Merkel administration, then I represented one of the states as mayor and was in regular contact with the federal government, and now I am minister of finance and vice-chancellor. That, of course, helps with everything I have on my upcoming agenda for the next chapter. And of course, I have a good and clear plan for the 2020s — for what we have to do, how we ensure more respect in our society and how we can create the economic foundation necessary for good jobs in 10, 20, or 30 years.  

JAK: But what can you do that Angela Merkel can't do? 

Olaf Scholz: I can lead the government, form a coalition out of three parties, and ensure that we overcome precisely the challenge I just spoke about.  

Interview with chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz

MKC: Mr. Scholz, you’re probably in a good mood: latest polling shows that a red-red-green coalition of the Social Democrats, the Left Party, and the Greens is possible. Is this a coalition that you would personally prefer?

I feel one statement has been made loud and clear, and I’m happy to say other parties feel the same way I do: We will not be forming any coalition that includes the far-right AfD. They simply have no place in forming our federal government. And I welcome the fact that ever since the brief experiment in Thuringia, all other parties are deeply convinced of this. Furthermore, I think we have to manage to put the CDU and CSU back into the opposition. They simply don't have real plans for the future. Also, the lobbyists have gained too much power over the party. And that's bad for our country. 

MKC: Would red-red-green only be possible if you’re made chancellor?

I want to lead the next administration, and so I’m striving for a clear mandate from our people. And of course...

MKC: Would you also accept vice-chancellor in such a coalition? Would that work?

My aim is to become chancellor. And it's a good thing we have several options for forming a government. The important thing is to adhere to clear principles. For one thing, I stand by Germany's commitment to the transatlantic partnership, NATO, and I feel we have to do everything we can to ensure Europe is strong and in control and to make our contribution as a major country in the middle of the EU. Of course, we need manage our federal budget wisely. But we also need to ensure good jobs and strong economic development. 

Campaign tactics

MKC: We're in the run-up to the next election, and you've been clear that you're ready to play hardball. And this has meant also leveling attacks against your competitors. The other day you were forced to announce you were pulling an election campaign ad that had caused a stir. It claimed that voting for your competitor meant voting for a an ultra-Catholic. 

JAK: There was a lot of criticism on social media. Some say you're running an unfair election campaign. Do you feel the need to apologize? 

We are operating a very fair campaign. That includes discussing political differences, for example that the CDU/CSU have resolved to cut taxes for high earners who make much more than me. For companies making huge profits, €30 billion. But besides that, these parties are being really vague, which sends a clear message. That can only happen after we've rescued jobs and the economy by borrowing nearly €400 billion next year. If you then cut back on social programs, it means you stop ensuring that infrastructure investments are made that are important for the future. That's why I say very clearly, this is a political difference that needs to be discussed. This also applies to the question of how we can manage to secure Germany's economic foundations. That will only happen when we expand our energy production tremendously. And the CDU and CSU have rejected that. If we can do it, then we will be making the appropriate decisions quickly in the administration's first year. 

MKC: But you did end up pulling the video. Critics called your "ultra-Catholic" accusation unfair. That was the question.

It was broadcast one time. Lots of people are talking about it without having seen it because they couldn't. And it's quite clear the questions that were raised and continue to be raised must be discussed in our political debate. For example, I think that as an open, fair, liberal society, we must ensure we work together well and that everyone can pursue happiness in their own way. And I definitely feel everyone must be allowed to adhere to their religious beliefs. As someone who has grown up in this country, I have always defended that. But that's not the point. Everyone knows that. And you do, too. 

JAK: But you took it back anyway. How do you respond to the criticism that people find this unfair? It's been a big topic in social media. 

The important thing is that this is not based on a factual assertion. Let me stress: The clip was played just once. And that's a decision the campaign manager made a long time ago. 

Social equality

MKC: Let's talk about social equality. It's an important topic for the Social Democrats. The COVID-19 pandemic, which we are still in the middle of, has caused great hardship for many people. Those who had little now have less, and it is very difficult for them to escape their plight. Women have been impacted disproportionately. The German government has recently published its current poverty report. What would you do as chancellor to change things for women?

To begin with: It's true what you say. The pandemic has been very difficult, especially on people who don't earn much. That's why we've made sure to protect as many jobs as possible. The short-term-work scheme that I introduced in 2008 and 2009 as labor minister has also proven effective now during the pandemic crisis. It helped us secure over 2 million jobs.  

MKC: But that likely won't suffice.

We took action to support single parents by raising allowances. We paid bonusses for families and children so that additional resources were available where cash was tight. But it's true that we still need to achieve true equality between men and women in Germany. This also ties in with the issue that wages need to improve, especially in sectors that employ mostly women. That is one of the causes of this gender pay-gap that everyone is talking about.

Right now, typical jobs for women are typically being paid less. That is why I am very glad that after two failed attempts, we finally managed to pass legislation that improves wages for those who care for the elderly and that stipulates that nursing homes can only bill insurance companies when they pay their employees according to tariffs. That's one way to go about it. Another way, which is very important to me, is to make sure we introduce a minimum wage in Germany that will improve the income of 10 million citizens. 

MKC: But Mr. Scholz, is that enough? The risk of slipping into poverty is real, and it's greater for women. What's the first thing you would do to better shield women from poverty, and to help them to escape it?

There are two approaches that I already mentioned: Improved wages. That's something we'll have to fight for. It won't be enough to simply pontificate on the matter, we'll have to really get to work on the issue. I've mentioned the legislation we passed. We've gotten minimum wage passed before. Now, we want to raise it to 12 euros, and it will benefit mostly women.

In addition, it is crucial that we make progress in expanding child care and day care at schools. We have already set aside funds for that. And I intend to keep working towards making sure that what is now only possible in a few states in Germany becomes possible in all states: full-day children's care, free of charge.

COVID vaccine distribution for the global south

JAK: So far, we've talked about Germany, but the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened social inequality worldwide. We've received a lot of questions from our viewers. Let's hear a question from the United States. 

Question from a viewer from the US: If I could ask the next chancellor one question, I would ask: How do you plan to deal with the economic damage of the pandemic, and how do you plan to help countries that are not doing as well as Germany?

JAK: So, what will you do? 

First of all, we will have deployed $400 billion — or rather €400 billion — by the end of next year to combat the economic damage caused by the pandemic in Germany. We can see that has led to a positive upswing. In the areas that have been especially hard-hit — events, culture, food services — it will take longer for us to turn things around and make sure that no one gets left behind. And then, and that was a good point, there is the question of responsibility towards the rest of the world. I am very committed to pushing through debt relief and debt moratoriums with decision-makers in the G7 and G20 countries in all sectors possible. And in many cases Germany has also helped by providing billions to procure vaccines for the world. 

MKC: That's the topic at hand: the distribution of vaccine doses. Because over 50% of us in Germany have now received two doses. But in Africa, things are very different. Just as an example, only 2% of the population there has had their second dose. And nurses, in particular, have generally not received any at all. What would you do as chancellor to change that? Would you be prepared, for instance, to eliminate patent protection or to have vaccine doses delivered to Africa on a large scale?

First of all, as I said, we've provided billions for international institutions to help the poorest countries obtain vaccines. Secondly, I am very glad that Europe never put an export ban on vaccines. They made the right decision, unlike some other places in the world. We need to continue ensuring that vaccinations are exported around the globe — and we must expand production capacities in a way that the rest of world can receive enough doses. This is what we are doing, and in the future, we want to keep making sure that the world receives enough doses. 

MKC: But how?

JAK: Just 2% is not enough. It's a very low number. I'm sure you agree. 

Olaf Scholz in DW's TV studio
Behind the scenes of DW's interview with Olaf ScholzImage: DW/R. Oberhammer

MKC: What about patent protection? Chancellor Merkel has ruled out dropping patent protection so that vaccines can be produced where they are needed. What's your stance?

Building up production capacity for the latest vaccines will take a very long time, as we've seen here in this country. We now have a cooperation agreement to build production capacity in southern Africa. I think that's very, very good. And that is the right way to go. But again, I'm very concerned at the moment. We've made billions available — and I hope that more countries will follow suit in enabling the procurement of more vaccines We've scaled up production to distribute and employ billions of vaccines all over the world. But I worry that efforts to ensure these vaccines arrive on the ground may not be so well organized and might not succeed. 

MKC: Who should organize that?

The international community is responsible for supporting these countries. Their governments must also do their part to really use the opportunities presented. In any case, we share responsibility for the entire world, and we can't focus only on ourselves. We must see to it that everyone in the world can get vaccinated. 

MKC: But would you be able to give a timeline for changing that, such as in the next three months, or six months if you were chancellor?

As finance minister, in collaboration with the entire federal government, I've already ensured we did just that. There is no lack in willingness to spend money. We have already done that, and we need to continue to do so. There is plenty of willingness to coordinate production capacities to ensure enough vaccine doses are available. This needs to be organized by all those responsible on an international level as well as by those countries affected, to make sure the vaccinations reach the citizens of the global south. 

What action is necessary in the climate crisis?

JAK: Experts say the biggest challenge humanity currently faces is climate change and not the COVID-19 crisis. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, policymakers have taken action very fast. Why not in the climate crisis? 

Very far-reaching decisions have been made in the past years regarding the climate crisis. After all, it is precisely because we as Social Democrats have pushed for this that Germany has a law on expanding renewable energies that is seen as exemplary worldwide…

JAK: You know that's not enough!

… and developed many of the necessary technologies for this. Secondly, we have passed a climate protection law with what may be the most ambitious program, namely, to achieve carbon neutrality in just under 25 years, by 2045. And thirdly, we are currently engaged in a tough debate about how we can achieve what we need for a CO2-neutral industry. Here I stand by my position that we need to massively expand our capacities for generating renewable energies, something that was rejected by the CDU/CSU in the last days of the Bundestag session before the summer break. We have to change the laws in such a way that we can also quickly expand the power grids and increase generation capacity with offshore wind turbines and with solar energy on land.

To make this happen, here are some very clear figures: By 2050, the chemical industry will need as much electricity as all of Germany does today in order to produce chemicals in a CO2-neutral way. And in 2030, we'll need much more than we do today — even if our conservative coalition partner thought that was wrong just a few days ago. That's one problem. The other problem is the fact that many of those carrying responsibility lack courage. If you want new power lines and wind turbines, you have to be prepared to fight for it. The fact that Baden-Württemberg, governed by a Green state premier, managed to build just 12 wind turbines last year shows that you have to be willing to just bring on the bulldozers and get to work installing power lines and wind turbines. 

MKC: But Mr. Scholz, as chancellor, you have to play by the rules, you can't just impose whatever agenda you feel like. How do you intend to implement more radical action against climate change? And how can you speed up the process? Experts have analyzed your plan and say it's not enough.

The experts with whom I developed my program, including many who are committed to climate protection, say that this is the most ambitious, realistic program that exists in this regard. I would like to emphasize that. In the first year of the new legislative period we will have to set electricity generation capacities at such a high level by law that the expansion can take place. And we will have to change the laws so that approval for a wind turbine doesn't take six years, but six months.

Deporting refugees to Afghanistan

JAK: Another topic that interests our viewers is Afghanistan. Instability there is mounting by the day. The Taliban have taken over Kunduz and are gaining ground. People are living in fear. And yet Germany declares Afghanistan to be a safe country and wants to deport asylum-seekers there. Do you think that's morally acceptable? 

A pragmatist – Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats

Germany is a country that took in many refugees seeking protection here, and part of this willingness to accept them is that somebody who has committed serious crimes in Germany cannot count on being able to stay here.

JAK: So you would send a deportee to Afghanistan, today, despite the situation on the ground?

If we're talking about last week specifically, when there was an attempt to deport criminals, then that was the right decision. At the time —

JAK: But is that in accordance with human rights, to deport people to a country where their very lives are at risk. Can you defend that? 

MKC: The EU ambassadors opposed that, didn’t they?

Despite all their friendly words they have said, we mustn't miss the point here. I will repeat the sentence that you didn’t include in your questions, which is that I maintain that it is correct that someone who commits serious crimes cannot count on staying here. And this is also a part of protecting refugees.

MKC: So you'd keep deporting them?

My second point is that there are regular procedures for all countries we deport to, to check if it is possible. This is a very structured process that is prepared by the federal foreign office in advance. And this takes place quite often. So when the next decision arises, a review process will take place. This is an orderly procedure that…

JAK: But that's your assessment.

… that you can't just do because you have an opinion; you have to engage properly with the matter.

MKC: The EU ambassadors said please don't deport refugees for now. The situation in Afghanistan is too dangerous. That was their view. So it’s definitely something worth discussing.

You can conduct politics in an organized way by saying that there is a proper procedure that is not based on opinion, but instead by saying: We are looking at the situation and are including new information we are receiving from the location. And that's how the procedure regularly takes place. Also with regard to Afghanistan.

'All of Europe has a responsibility for the refugees'

JAK: Refugees are one topic that our viewers are particularly interested in. And it's possible that refugees will continue to come to Germany. Would you let in Afghan refugees, for instance?

On this matter the are clear legal measures in place as to who can seek protection here, namely when there are sufficient reasons for fleeing. That's what we have always done. In the past, Germany accepted a lot of refugees. Two things are part of this approach of pragmatic humanism, the first being the willingness to do it, and the second is the statement that only those who can invoke protection and reasons for fleeing their countries have a perspective to stay in this country. This procedure has to remain in place so that we have the power to take responsibility. It is really important to me to use this opportunity to say once again: the responsibility for refugees goes above and beyond what is often discussed in this country. It isn't just Germany, but all of Europe has a responsibility, and we have to remember that almost all refugees, and there are millions in the world, have often found refuge in a neighboring country…

MKC: In Turkey, the situation is dire. We are receiving reports from our correspondents about refugees from Afghanistan, who come over the Iranian border and are absolutely desperate. The question is: Would you allow more Afghan refugees into Germany?

Again, this is my very clear answer, so we don't get lost. In my view, we also bear responsibility for refugees who have sought shelter in other parts of the world. In German and European politics, I don't believe we are concerned enough about what happens to refugees when neighboring countries take them in. Many countries aren't governed the same way we would expect in Germany. But they offer protection. That's why there need to be prospects for integration in those countries in Africa, Asia and South America. And we need to share responsibility in that. That is without a doubt the task we have before us which we mustn't lose sight of, and it has to play a larger role than it has done until now. We can't just focus on saying that problems only become acute when someone comes knocking on the door here.

Scholz: EU needs new approach in Eastern Europe

A new policy for Russia

MKC: Mr. Scholz, another topic that really concerns our viewers is Russia. What is your stance on Russia? Civil society there has been severely decimated. Opposition members are being persecuted and we received a question from a viewer on this. We won't play it now, but the viewer asks: Are you prepared to meet with Vladimir Putin and what issues do you want to address with him?

The German government has repeatedly met with the Russian administration and held numerous talks over the past years. So perhaps I can explain what I imagine happening in the future. We have a good tradition, established in Germany by Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, of joint security in Europe. We have the decisions made by the OSCE — formerly CSCE — which lay down our mutual principles. These include that European borders may no longer be shifted by force. Russia has violated that principle — the annexation of Crimea is a huge problem. And we are still seeing a tense situation in eastern Ukraine. That's why it's imperative that we return to the rule of law. Might does not make right. 

MKC: Will you stand up to Putin and say that things cannot continue this way?

We need to return to the principles of the OSCE and CSCE because they are the foundation for developing our future. That is also why it's important for Germany to always act in cooperation with others. And let me add to that: We need a new policy towards the east that revitalizes the principle of the OSCE and CSCE, but as a principle of the European Union.

I also say that Russia and other countries need to accept that European integration will continue. We don't want to return to the political world of the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries, when powers like Russia, Germany, France and England shaped policy among themselves. If we want to ensure joint security in Europe, then it's about the European Union and Russia.

JAK: It would be great to get a quick answer to one last thing: Germany is currently home to 800,000 Syrians who have fled the country. Many fear they might be deported while Assad is still in power. If you become chancellor, what would you say? 

Many of them have already obtained asylum here and are well integrated now. That's the case for many. And I feel the situation currently doesn't permit people to be deported back there. But I want to emphasize: Our most important task is to make sure everyone here is included in society, obtains a good education and a decent job — along with all the opportunities this entails. 

JAK: We're reaching the end now, unfortunately. 

MKC: At the beginning, we asked you: What are you capable of doing that Angela Merkel isn't. Now we're asking, can Angela Merkel do something you can't? What can you learn from her? In a nutshell?

I think she's always had a talent for sitting things out for a very long time.

MKC: So, sitting things out is key! Thank you, Mr. Scholz. 

JAK: Thank you. We have many more questions, but time's up, unfortunately. 

Thank you very much.