Thomas Oppermann, the SPD parliamentary group’s chairman, spoke with EURACTIV’s partner Der Tagesspiegel about the rise of right-wing populism, Germany’s relationship with Turkey and his own party’s performance.
Thomas Oppermann is chairman of the SPD parliamentary group.
Oppermann spoke with Der Tagesspiegel’s Stephan Haselberger and Hans Monath.
After almost three years of coalition, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) is only polling at 20%. What’s going wrong?
The SPD is doing nothing wrong in government. We are doing good work, and some of the best political achievements of the last decade have been made, including the minimum wage, pension reform and shortly the integration law. It’s all contributed to improving the lives of many people and to strengthening the social market economy.
How do you explain your poor showing then?
Unfortunately, these successes are not automatically attributed to the SPD. Nevertheless, there’s no substitute for good governmental work. However, we are not elected on the back of what we have done, rather, for what we offer for the future. That is why we are working hard on our election programme for 2017. It is going to set us apart from the other parties.
Bill Clinton once said that he was in the politics game for “people who work hard and play by the rules”. That’s our guiding principle too. We are out to protect all people who work hard and play by the rules. We have to ensure that there is justice in Germany and that society pulls together. That is where are education policy comes in and opens up chances for everyone.
The SPD has always wanted to be the champion of social security and justice. Could it be then that people no longer believe in this original promise?
Confidence in the state’s ability to enforce the rules and ensure security has indeed been lost. It’s the job of the SPD to restore this confidence.
Let’s be more specific: Can the SPD, the party of social justice, forgo tax increases?
The coalition has so far steered away from tax policy because of our diverging goals. In 2017, we will release a readjusted tax plan. It’s not right that labour is taxed much higher than capital gains. We are going to bring tax avoiders to heel and take to task those involved in the Panama affair. We must not be afraid to put these countries under pressure, so that they are more transparent and combat tax fraud themselves.
Your party’s leader, Sigmar Gabriel, wants to ensure pensions are not reduced. What exactly are you promising?
It’s not just about money; it’s about how work is valued. Someone working hard their entire life should expect a reasonable pension when they retire. This is a crucial part of social justice and it’s good that we are having this discussion.
What kind of coalition do you want to be in after the next election?
Time will tell. We have a lot in common with the Greens politically.
What’s your take on the rise of the AfD (Alternative for Germany) and how are you going to deal with it?
Above all we need composure and stamina. Being indignant about things isn’t going to help anyone. We can’t shy away from having hard discussions with right-wing populists about real political issues.
Are you not outraged about the AfD’s stance towards Islam and its place in our society?
Of course it is outrageous. It’s unacceptable that the AfD wants to exclude Muslims from our society and declare them undesirables. Campaigning against a religious minority is only going to divide our society. Any decent German has to condemn that. At the same time, yes, it has to be made clear that radical political Islam is not compatible in any form with our values and constitution and will be met with the full extent of the law.
Your coalition counterpart, Volker Kauder (CDU), has proposed bringing mosques under state control to prevent hate speech. Is the SPD in favour of this?
We have to treat this issue very carefully, as the majority of Muslims in our society have nothing to do with religious hate speech. I do advocate that those taking extremist positions are monitored, but that religious freedoms are still preserved.
The AfD has argued that the government has become dependent on Turkey when it comes to the refugee issue.
The Turkey agreement is reasonable and benefits, in particular, the refugees. They no longer have to put their lives in the hands of criminal traffickers. But the suggestion that Berlin has been blackmailed should not be promoted.
Speaking of Turkey: Will the Bundestag acknowledge the Armenian genocide by that name?
On 2 June, the Bundestag will adopt a resolution that calls the mass murder and expulsion of Armenians during the First World War as genocide.
Are you not worried that Turkey will react badly to this?
The chancellor already made a mistake when she announced criminal proceedings against Jan Böhmermann. For that reason, Germany shouldn’t make a wrong move when dealing with this issue.
You’re considered one of Sigmar Gabriel’s last remaining powerful allies. Why are so many of your party colleagues disappointed in him?
Sigmar Gabriel has done so much for the SPD. He brought us back from a heavy election defeat into government. In the last two years of government we have achieved a lot thanks to him. That’s why I also think that Sigmar Gabriel will be well prepared for the election next year.
Can he still be a candidate for chancellor?
Of course. As SPD chairman, he has first dibs.