Wolfgang Schäuble, 77, is the president of German parliament, the Bundestag, and is a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). He served in Merkel’s cabinet as finance minister from 2009 to 2017 and became the face of Germany’s demands that Eurozone countries impose austerity policies in exchange for EU aid. Prior to that, he served as interior minister.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Bundestag president, you are a fan of the quote from anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “We receive as much strength as we need, but only when we need it.” Is that also true in politics? Will the EU, for example, grow stronger in the corona crisis because it is absolutely necessary?
Schäuble: That could be. It’s about hope, after all. The quote is consistent with the idea that crises always present opportunities as well. I believe in that. Europe has always only developed in crises, but when the crises arrived, it really did develop. If the pressure isn’t great enough, the power of inertia against change is much stronger.
DER SPIEGEL: Early on in the crisis, things didn’t look good for Europe: Borders were closed across the continent and Italy felt as though it had been abandoned.
Schäuble: The challenges presented by corona were completely unfamiliar and new to us. In the face of such an existential threat, people and communities react by clinging to that which is closest to them. If you’re involved in politics, you have to understand that reaction. Just consider: The danger to those who try to save a drowning person is so great because the person in need clutches onto their savior so tightly that they both perish.
DER SPIEGEL: But what was the alternative? Should Germany allow the others to drown?
Schäuble: Of course not. But what should district administrators and mayors in Germany have done in the beginning other than ensuring that at least their hospitals had enough protective clothing and masks?
DER SPIEGEL: The closing of the borders was a terrible look for a united Europe.
Schäuble: The border to France was closed after France had shut its shops and people near the border began coming to Germany to go shopping. France had a higher number of infections than Germany. The mayor of Freiburg was the first to ban entries because pressure from the population had grown so strong. We didn’t even have enough toilet paper ourselves.
DER SPIEGEL: What a catastrophe!
Schäuble: And now, we have a crisis in the toilet paper economy because nobody is buying it anymore. But levity aside: People in areas near our borders realized quickly how important open borders are. Here, too, the crisis could be an opportunity to achieve better cross-border cooperation. The joint chamber of German and French parliaments is working on it.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 25/2020 (June 13, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
DER SPIEGEL: The EU is in the process of putting together an unprecedented aid package. Could corona become a catalyst for closer cooperation?
Schäuble: It was predictable that a senseless debate focusing on the symbolic question of euro bonds would initially take the forefront. I have always been opposed to joint debt without joint decision-making. But I am extremely in favor of striking a balance between economically stronger and economically weaker member states. That is why the proposal by Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron is so fantastic.
DER SPIEGEL: Could the aid package represent a step toward a tighter union?
Schäuble: I hope so. The aid package will be an impulse. I have always been in favor of a closer union because I believe that Germany has better chances for its future as part of a political union in Europe.
DER SPIEGEL: Germany will take over the EU’s rotating presidency in July. How might we be able to take advantage of the current momentum?
Schäuble: We have to solve problems better than we have been doing. To take a huge step forward, for example, in the areas of digitalization, artificial intelligence, pharmaceutical research, chemistry and medicine. That is the opportunity presented by disruption.
DER SPIEGEL: Could the corona crisis also lead to joint financial and economic policy?
Schäuble: We need to move in that direction. Even in the founding phase of the currency union, there was a debate as to whether it was even possible to have a joint currency without a political union. It was clear to more than just economists how difficult it would be to have a shared currency without joint financial, economy and social policy.
DER SPIEGEL: Why are you not an adherent of the “United States of Europe” idea? Are you concerned that it could be used by populists as a rallying cry?
Schäuble: People are more devoted to familiar communities than to new communities. That is why you have to be cautious when trying to push Europe forward. I have also become more guarded on that point. It is something I have learned over the decades.
DER SPIEGEL: Many Southern Europeans are seeing the corona crisis against the backdrop of the financial crisis and the refugee crisis. Both times they felt left in the lurch and rebuked by Europe, and especially by Germany — and by you, in particular.
Schäuble: With our history, we in Germany have to be especially careful about having good relations with our European neighbors. It is something we have been quite successful at following the catastrophe of World War II. I have, by the way, always had a significant degree of empathy for others in Europe. I have always said: I don’t want to first ask what is good for Germany, but to discuss what is the best solution for Europe from our perspective.
DER SPIEGEL: It was difficult to see this approach during the euro crisis. What was your reaction when posters of you looking like Hitler were posted in Greece during the crisis?
Schäuble: That is something you have to live with to a certain extent. It sometimes hurts, but you have to acknowledge it. You can’t isolate yourself from it, but continually ask yourself if you are doing the right thing.
DER SPIEGEL: How important is it for politicians to be liked?
Schäuble: I wasn’t disliked during my time in government. I have a responsibility to the electorate who put me in office. Of course, it would be nice if I were more popular in Brazil, but the Brazilians didn’t elect me. I received a lot of letters from Greece at the time saying: We know that our government is to blame and not you.
DER SPIEGEL: French President Macron had high hopes for the Franco-German friendship at the beginning of his term in office, but was disappointed by the cool reaction he received, primarily from your party, the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU). Was Germany too hesitant with France?
Schäuble: I would have preferred a more rapid and proactive response to Macron’s initiatives. But you also have to remember that Germany and France have vastly different traditions that limit the latitude enjoyed by politics. Those who aren’t careful enough will fail or will open up the field to populist ideas and demagogues. I’m not sure if it is fair to say that it’s Germany’s fault that Macron could not realize his goals. Did Germany’s hesitant reaction really trigger the Yellow Vests in France? If you are unable to solve a problem, you frequently try to pin the blame elsewhere.
DER SPIEGEL: You are a child of postwar peace. West Germany’s positive development following 1945 had a lot to do with its close ties to the United States. What are your thoughts about the current developments there?
Schäuble: It’s just sad how deeply divided this wonderful country and this society is. Maybe things will improve after the elections in November. I sure hope so.
DER SPIEGEL: What does U.S. President Donald Trump mean for the image of the West and of democracy in the world?
Schäuble: Even if the West has made plenty of mistakes, I do not want to see the Chinese model as being seen in the world as the more attractive approach, because it can only work with a totalitarian power structure and total control of individuals.
DER SPIEGEL: In the corona crisis, China seems to be demonstrating the advantages of its system.
Schäuble: If that is the price for efficiency and action, then it is one I do not want to pay. The fundamental values, human dignity and freedom, that became the foundation of the West through the French Revolution and the U.S. Constitution still guarantee the better form of cooperation for humanity.
DER SPIEGEL: What can Germany do in the face of lasting changes in America?
Schäuble: Europe has to grow stronger, more relevant, more proactive. Even John F. Kennedy demanded a fairer burden-sharing arrangement in the trans-Atlantic alliance. And even then, he was right: Europe has to play a stronger role.
DER SPIEGEL: You mean Europeans and, in particular, the Germans should spend significantly more money on defense?
Schäuble: Yes, Germany should. Simply relying on American security policy and then complaining about everything they’re doing wrong is not acceptable behavior. We Germans have reached agreements with NATO and we must adhere to them. We have lived rather cheaply for quite some time, were strong economically and allowed others take care of our security.
DER SPIEGEL: Trump is planning to withdraw some U.S. troops from Germany. What is your response?
Schäuble: The U.S. has an interest in having its troops stationed around the world. If they are considering relocating troops to Poland, that could violate NATO agreements with Russia. I would recommend adhering to those agreements. We have an interest in good relations with Russia.
DER SPIEGEL: At the moment, people around the world are demonstrating their disgust with police violence against black people in the U.S. and with racism in the country. Germany is a country with a criminally racist past and racism continues to be an issue here. How can, how should Germany approach the U.S. on this issue?
Schäuble: We certainly shouldn’t be arrogant. We have seen that, despite our history, prejudice against people from elsewhere can be quickly awakened. It is clear that America has such a problem. But in contrast to China, it is possible to protests against it there. And the discipline shown by most of those demonstrating in the U.S. is cause for hope. It is also important to me that we don’t always point to others. You can’t, after all, be unreflectively proud of a country like Germany, in which the abuse of children apparently takes place far more frequently then we could imagine.
DER SPIEGEL: In the past, you were the face of Germany’s fiscal tightfistedness and of the federal balanced budget. Now, the government is taking on massive quantities of new debt. Does that bother you?
Schäuble: I didn’t invent the debt brake. That was introduced under Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück (who was in office from 2005 to 2009).
DER SPIEGEL: Still, you were involved.
Schäuble: You might be surprised, but I am a great adherent of the teachings of John Maynard Keynes, who supported a strong state role in the economy in times of crisis. In such a huge collapse of demand, the state has to intervene. But then it must pay down the debt load in better times. If the economy hadn’t been as strong as it was in the last legislative periods, we wouldn’t have the necessary flexibility that we have now.
DER SPIEGEL: Shouldn’t Merkel have held a “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech to better explain the deep cuts to the economy and the rising debt?
Schäuble: No. When Churchill held his “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech, Britain was under threat by Nazi Germany, which looked almost unbeatable at the time. We shouldn’t make that comparison. I recall similar demands back when Germany reunified. Chancellor Helmut Kohl was criticized because he instead promised a blooming landscape for eastern Germany. But Kohl did the right thing and gave people hope. If Germany had said from day one of the pandemic that we might not survive, panic would have been the result. To quote the “Song of the Bell” by Friedrich Schiller: The most frightful of terrors is man in his self-delusion.
DER SPIEGEL: It would also be wrong to tell people that everything will go back to normal after the pandemic.
Schäuble: Of course. It won’t be possible to save every job and there will be structural changes. But it would also be terrible if everything went back to the way it was. Do cruise ships really have to crisscross the seas as they were doing before? We can only hope that we’ll become a bit more restrained. We can see the stress to the environment from the ships and all their passengers that disembark all at once. There is said to be a connection between climate change, species extinction and pandemics.
DER SPIEGEL: Health Minister Jens Spahn has said that we’ll have to forgive each other for a lot. It’s rather unusual for a politician to apologize for mistakes ahead of time.
Schäuble: I think it was an excellent thing to say and Spahn is doing a good job. But we don’t really want to talk about candidates for the position of CDU party chair, do we?
DER SPIEGEL: We would like to know, though, what your position is on the candidacy of Friedrich Merz for that position. In the last vote for a new CDU chair, you were squarely on his side.
Schäuble: We arrive at our CDU chair via open debate. Ahead of the last vote, I was one of many other party members to express my opinion. At the moment, though, we have a completely different set of problems that need addressing.
DER SPIEGEL: You have always emphasized that you have adhered strictly to the coronavirus rules. Now that those rules are being loosened, how is your life changing?
Schäuble: I have always tried to remain a normal person, but I am naturally aware of the responsibility I bear because of my position. My wife and I recently went out to an Italian restaurant and we also went to the wonderful Monet exhibit in Potsdam, which is once again allowed. We are planning to go on vacation with our children and grandchildren. We’ve even booked it already. But we are doing everything within the rules.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you planning on visiting other countries in Europe?
Schäuble: We always go on vacation in Germany, normally to the North Sea, but this time to the Baltic. But I will certainly be meeting up again with my political friends in France.
DER SPIEGEL: Have you missed traveling in recent months?
Schäuble: Not a bit. In my life, I’ve had to travel far more than I wanted to.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Bundestag president, thank you very much for this interview.