SPD – Back to the Future with Helmut Schmidt

Elmar Sulk is a Senior Strategist at Lincoln Park – Public Relations in Washington, DC.

Fall time is party convention time in Germany, and as political parties play a much bigger role in Western Europe than they do in the U.S., the meetings are widely covered by all the mainstream media. German parties not only shape ideas about issues in domestic and foreign policy but also have a say, among other things, in appointing the top public service broadcasters positions. On this side of the Atlantic, a RNC or DNC board meeting does not seem to generate wide public interest, as nationally, the U.S. parties are weak. As organizations they only play a prominent role in raising money, recruiting volunteers and organizing campaigns. As a result, the media only really care about RNC and DNC every four years when it’s National Convention time. In Germany, it’s different. Everyone interested in politics knows the names of the party leaders, the (monthly) board meetings are widely covered, and following the (annual) national conventions is a must for political junkies. (Re-)election of party leaders is usually breaking news.

There are a number of reasons for this. Most important, much more than in the U.S., the German parties control who is nominated for positions in the parliament, and they influence the behavior of these decision makers once elected. That’s why conventions are important.  Here is where you can get a glimpse into the policy makers’ thinking of how to tackle the challenges of the future. What are the ingredients for the recipe to counter the Euro Crisis? Are there any new approaches to tax reforms? What about statutory minimum wages? These questions and more are all answered by the party conventions. It has become the usual habit in over 60 years that the parties make their decisions at the big conventions with over 1,000 delegates, and the parliamentary groups simply following through.

At the beginning of last week, the Social Democrats (SPD) met in Berlin. It is halftime in the four year cycle of federal elections, and it is time for soul-searching and self-assurance. The party of former chancellors Willy Brandt and Gerhard Schroeder has been one of the opposition parties since the September elections in 2009. However, recent polls demonstrate that they have a decent chance of again becoming a member of the governing coalition in 2013, when the next elections are scheduled, partly due to the fact that the Free Democrats (FDP),  who govern now together with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, have slipped in the polls.

 Euro-Crisis and SPD’s answer
Every political party in Germany has to discuss today’s uber-crisis: the future of the Euro. And the SPD did this in a way that guaranteed the most possible media coverage: On Sunday, former chancellor Helmut Schmidt, 92 years old, alive and well and living in Hamburg, entered the stage for an impressive 60 minutes speech about the past and the future of Europe. He delivered his version of Angela Merkel’s tune “If the Euro fails, Europe fails.” As the time witness he is, Helmut Schmidt – German officer in World War Two, then minister of finance and defense respectively before he became chancellor in 1974 –emphasized the difficult strategic role Germany plays in Europe. ““If we Germans let ourselves be seduced, based on our economic strength, to demand a leadership role in Europe, […] an increasing number of our neighbors would act effectively against this,” he said. “To protect us from ourselves, Germany needs to be embedded in European integration.”[i] Schmidt continued to speak about budgetary cuts – as discussed in several Euro zone countries – and necessary tax increases, but pointed out that this might not be enough: “Without growth and new jobs no state can reorganize its budget.”

Sure, nothing was really new in his speech. On the contrary, he and other elder statesmen have taken the same line over the last couple of months, among them Helmut Kohl and Hans Dietrich Genscher. It was a little like listening to an old Bob Dylan song – great lyrics, but you somehow have the feeling that you have heard the chords too often. What made the German public sit up and take notice was the fact that, vanity of former public figures who are not in the limelight any more aside, a performance such as Helmut Schmidt’s demonstrates that Europe needs more wake-up calls of the former party heroes who left office decades ago. At least for them, it is obvious that Germany cannot and should not act alone in Europe. It needs partners in this game where all or nothing is the stake. For example, Schmidt’s ceterum censeo has always been that Germany should never adopt a policy against France’s interests. In short, at least in the Euro crisis, the central role is assigned to Germany, but it needs friends and not foes on the European stage. Helmut Schmidt reflects the issues which the renowned scholar Michael Stuermer raised in an article in the daily newspaper Die Welt two weeks ago – how to deal effectively with Germany in the fragile European state system.[ii]

While Mr. Schmidt’s speech was important for the party’s intellectual guidance and orientation, re-elected party leader Sigmar Gabriel emphasized the emotional side of being a Social Democrat. This is important now as he has at least two competitors in the race of who will be the next chancellor candidate: Frank Walter Steinmeier and Peer Steinbrueck. But calmness instead of conflict was the dictate of the moment in Berlin. And Mr. Gabriel has already delivered what the SPD needed most. After several difficult years, the Social Democratic Party is demonstrating more confidence. And this year’s track record of Sigmar Gabriel does not look bad at all, at least at first glance. Since last spring time, his party has been in a governing coalition with the Green Party in Baden-Wuerttemberg, the economic powerhouse and home of Daimler, Porsche and Bosch, in Germany’s South-West. Plus, it won big in state elections in Hamburg. Furthermore, the SPD defended its role as governing party in state elections in Rhineland-Palatia, Berlin, and Mecklenburg Western Pomerania. Voter confidence may be a harbinger for the coming years. With difficult decisions ahead, especially finding a sound strategy to contain the Euro crisis and to tame the financial markets, Angela Merkel’s victory in the next elections scheduled for fall 2013 is not a foregone conclusion. At the same time the state elections of 2011 demonstrated that the rise of the Green Party has leveled off or may even have come to a standstill. In addition, the Free Democrats, Merkel’s current partner in the governing coalition, have nearly collapsed, and even with fresh faces in key leadership positions it has been difficult for this party that got 14 percent of the vote two years ago to gain traction. If you add the polling numbers, the FDP is simply not needed any more for maintaining majorities in parliaments on state and national levels, at least for now. If you walk the streets of Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, Hamburg and other cities in Germany nowadays and talk to people, you can come away with the impression that the voters are really disappointed with the FDP’s performance. The German electorate doesn’t trust the FDP anymore, and they don’t want to waste their vote on them. The former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove famously said after the midterm elections in 2010 that the Republican Party is “on probation.” Well, at least for now it would seem that the FDP is already beyond being on probation, because in the voter’s opinion they haven’t delivered after the big gains in the 2009 federal elections.

For the SPD, it’s different. Once again, their convention slogan was “fairness,” as in “social equity.” And who knows, in uncertain times like now it might resonate with voters, at least enough to build Grand Coalition 2.0 after the 2013 elections.

[i] In German: “Wenn wir Deutschen uns verführen ließen, gestützt auf unsere ökonomische Stärke, eine politische Führungsrolle in Europa zu beanspruchen oder doch wenigstens den Primus inter pares zu spielen, so würde eine zunehmende Mehrheit unserer Nachbarn sich wirksam dagegen wehren.”  Helmut Schmidt’s speech can be found at  www.spd.de/aktuelles/Pressemitteilungen/21498/20111204_rede_helmut_schmidt.html

[ii] Michael Stuermer, Euro-Krise holt ungeloeste deutsche Frage zurueck, in: Die Welt, November 22, 2011. The op-ed can be found www.welt.de/debatte/kommentare/article13729984/Euro-Krise-holt-ungeloeste-deutsche-Frage-zurueck.html

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.