SPD federal chairman Lars Klingbeil, 44, in an interview with „Welt“ magazine.
Source: Marlene Gawrisch/WELT/MARLENE GAWRISCH© Marlene Gawrisch/WELT/MARLENE GAWRISCH
WELT: Mr. Klingbeil, you have held three days of political talks in Washington and New York. What is your conclusion?
Lars Klingbeil: I was interested in three topics. First: analysis of the midterm elections, combined with the question of how the results affect U.S. policy on Ukraine. Second: Our transatlantic relations, of course now also shaped by Russia’s war.
Third, Joe Biden’s industrial policy, based on the Inflation Reduction Act. This is where I described our concerns. The U.S. must know that its industrial policy can lead to new competition with Germany and Europe.
WELT: We’ll come to industrial policy later. German politicians like to point out that Washington praises Berlin’s „turnaround. But what is more interesting is: What critical questions have you encountered about this?
Klingbeil: Government representatives have told me how happy they are about the cooperation between the two governments. The West has moved closer together with the war in Ukraine. Joe Biden has had similar talks with the Chinese president as Olaf Scholz did before. We both want China to take a clear position on Russia’s war.
I heard more critical questions from the think tanks, such as: How sustainable is the turnaround? How sustainable is Germany’s foreign and security policy commitment? How much money is there for defense?
Klingbeil: No one knows how the U.S. presidential elections will turn out in 2024. That is one of the reasons why Europe must become more independent and mature. Germany has a decisive leadership role to play here.
WELT: For many years, the U.S. has spent more than three percent of its economic power on defense. Have you heard any calls to do the same?
Klingbeil: Of course the Americans would be happy if we invested even more than planned in defense. But they can see very well what a big step we are already taking with the special fund of 100 billion euros for the Bundeswehr and by meeting the two percent target in the future.
WELT: The two percent benchmark is only „what we would expect from allies,“ says U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. „We encourage going beyond that two percent.“
Klingbeil: „We reach the two percent, we spend 100 billion euros, we reorganize procurement. That’s how we strengthen the Bundeswehr. We are performing significantly better than before. Where there is still room for improvement: Europe must cooperate more closely. It is not acceptable that 27 EU states each pursue their own security policy and do not coordinate sufficiently.
But the turning point has more than just a military component. Olaf Scholz works day and night on international alliances. At the G-20 summit, there was an impressive alliance against Russia.
WELT: The Biden administration is sympathetic to Europe and NATO. Is Germany prepared for a U.S. president who is critical of Europe and NATO from 2025?
Klingbeil: We are grateful every day for Joe Biden’s presence in the White House. But we have to prepare ourselves for the fact that things could be different. Europe must prepare for this scenario. We still have two years to go.
WELT: What do you see as the „true values“ that unite Germany and the United States?
Klingbeil: We owe a lot to the Americans. Think of the liberation in 1945, the reconstruction, the return to the international community that was made possible for us. Our culture connects us, but above all values like democracy and freedom of expression.
WELT: What do you feel when you walk through the streets of New York or Washington?
Klingbeil: I lived in New York and experienced the attacks of September 11, 2001. That had an impact on me as a young student. I also lived in Washington once. I like this country, even if it ticks differently than Germany. The political culture is very different from ours.
WELT: What do you think of Biden’s strictly protectionist policy? Subsidies for e-cars are only available in the U.S. if they are completely manufactured in the U.S. …
Klingbeil: In the USA, the state is now making massive industrial policy. In fact, there are also protectionist tendencies. At the end of the day, it should not be the case that the U.S. is pursuing an economic policy against us Europeans, although it actually wants to hit China. We should be self-confident in voicing our concerns. Germany is cutting itself off from Russia, we want to reduce China’s influence, our energy prices are high.
All of this will pose an enormous challenge to our industry. It’s not good if our biggest ally also aligns its economic policy against us.
WELT: What do you mean by an „economic policy against us“?
Klingbeil: The buzzwords in the USA are „Buy American“ and „Made in America“. The U.S. does not distinguish between bringing jobs back to its country from China or from Europe. It doesn’t work that way. I hope the Inflation Reduction Act will still be changed in its design.
WELT: Energy prices in the U.S. are low, and subsidies beckon. Are you afraid that German industry will move to the U.S.?
Klingbeil: There are these signals from German industry. Let’s not kid ourselves: The danger of de-industrialization in Germany is real. Supply chains are broken in places, we have a shortage of skilled workers and high energy prices. That’s why some companies are making investment decisions against Germany.
When even the Federation of German Industries now calls for a strong state and investment, it shows that the market and the state must cooperate closely. This is already happening in the USA.
WELT: France is talking about a „trade war“ with the USA. Are the Europeans pulling in the same direction?
Klingbeil: I will not adopt this term. And as far as a European economic policy is concerned, there is certainly more that can be done. Just one example: We need one capital market in Europe, not 27 different ones.
WELT: Who would have thought that? The SPD leader is disappointed that the capitalist U.S. is pursuing an industrial policy, imposing state intervention.
Klingbeil: (smiles) I’m always glad when smart social democratic ideas prevail – and I wish they would do the same in Europe.
WELT: When will there be a new attempt at a transatlantic trade agreement? Your party vigorously fought the last attempt.
Klingbeil: I have said several times in the U.S. that we are ready for this. However, my impression is that there is less interest in the U.S. than in Europe. There will be no TTIP 2.0. But we should talk about new trade agreements.
WELT: China has been Germany’s most important trading partner for six years. The Biden government is acting considerably more critical of Beijing than Chancellor Scholz. Have you been criticized for this?
Klingbeil: I have heard praise for Olaf Scholz’s trip to China. Especially with regard to President Biden’s meeting with Xi. Both of them persuaded China’s leader shortly after each other to condemn the use of nuclear weapons. These talks are important. We also need to talk to states like China. Foreign policy is about more than just indignation.
For our future China policy, I have the clear premise that we keep China out of security-relevant areas. We must not allow any unilateral dependency like we have with Russia. We must be able to flip the switch at any time. If China should attack Taiwan, we must be able to do without China in the shortest possible time.
WELT: But it costs China nothing to warn against nuclear weapons now.
Klingbeil: For Russia, this is a clear announcement. Putin thought he was uniting many countries behind him.
WELT: Why is the German government largely silent about the human rights violations against the Uyghurs?
Klingbeil: Olaf Scholz raised the issue in Beijing. The chancellor is clear on that.
WELT: Why isn’t Germany supplying battle tanks to Ukraine?
Klingbeil: Because we are deliberately saying that we are not going it alone. No Western country is supplying battle tanks. We supply Soviet-designed tanks, via the ring exchange. We are the third largest arms supplier to Ukraine.
WELT: What is your favorite place in the U.S., and which place would you like to visit for the first time?
Klingbeil: Definitely New York. Everything I experienced here in the days after „9/11“ has made me deeply attached to this city. Otherwise, I’d like to spend a few days away from the big cities. I think that when you talk to people there, you learn a lot about the country.