“We need a decade of modernization!”
This statement is one of chancellor candidate Armin Laschet’s stock phrases. In an interview, he reveals how he would make this a reality as chancellor.
The die has been cast, Mr. Laschet, and you are the CDU/CSU candidate for chancellor. Congratulations!
Armin Laschet: I’m now looking forward to a passionate election campaign!
As someone with an interest in history, were you not startled, when your co-candidate in the CSU, Markus Söder, accepted the decision with this statement, of all things: the die has been cast?
That’s actually plural in the original Latin: alea iacta sunt.
It is a quote from Julius Caesar. However, he said just before crossing the proverbial Rubicon with his army — and starting the civil war.
It was very clear that deciding between two party leaders and two minister presidents would not be easy. But it’s also clear to us both that the CDU/CSU partnership is only successful when we are united and have a common responsibility. With this in mind, we are both campaigning for the strength of the partnership.
That’s reassuring for us. What is it that sets you apart as a candidate for chancellor?
That’s for other people to say. It is an advantage to have already won one election. When someone has shown that he can govern a large state like North Rhine-Westphalia, that is also definitely a good qualification. What is decisive however, is having a fundamental direction to one’s policy. I have a clear idea of where our country should go from here: We need a decade of modernization!
The coronavirus crisis mercilessly exposed some weaknesses on that front.
The issue of German health authorities still having to work with fax machines and paper at the beginning of the crisis was remedied in a very short space of time. But all governmental institutions are still facing the task of actually working digitally. Science is doing it, industry is doing it. The government must not finish last here. The pandemic has also taught us that we must be more independent from other nations when it comes to providing medical protective equipment. The cheapest surgical masks weren’t available for respiratory protection because their production had completely relocated to China. This showed us that we in Europe must meet certain minimum levels of supply in the future ourselves.
Did you notice any strengths that became apparent during the crisis?
Genuine willingness to help! We saw young people being there for the elderly, and people getting involved in volunteering. The strength of our society showed itself there. I am convinced, that when we take stock, we will find that we came through the crisis well in comparison to others in Europe and elsewhere in the world. There was a lot of solidarity.
But that wasn’t always apparent in politics.
Well, at the start it was. The disagreement on the question of reopening only came later. My central position on that was always that basic rights had to apply even in a pandemic. It may well be more pragmatic sometimes to close everything and prohibit a lot of things. But an attack on basic rights is something that has to be subjected to close scrutiny on a daily basis! Caution alone cannot be a justification for the government to put regulations in place to achieve its objectives in every area of life. It should only do that when there is an acute danger to health and life.
Do you see an acute danger to health and life in global warming?
Climate policy will be a key challenge for the next 30 years. I don’t believe that we will overcome this social problem by enforcing particular ways of life, for example, through systematic reduction of private home ownership. I believe in the power of persuasion; it’s the only way that people will go along with things in the long run. What is certain is that climate protection measures will demand a lot from all of us. We need a structural transformation. But we must shape that in such a way as to maintain prosperity right across society — and thus also social cohesion. My goal is for us to become a climate neutral industrial nation: in the steel industry, the chemical industry and the automotive industry. Germany was once the pharmacy of the world. All important medicines were developed and produced here. We can start there, because the need will also be significant during future pandemics. The ambition of manufacturing green steel is a century-long task. But it is still an ambition of mine. It is also my wish that in 2045, cars — or whatever we will be calling them then —will still be driven and produced in Germany.
You’re speaking as someone who also represents the interests of North Rhine-Westphalia there. What lessons from your time as minister president would you bring to the role of chancellor?
My federal state has been undergoing structural transformation for 60 years. In 1965, we still had 500,000 miners and no students in the Ruhr district. Today, we have 280,000 students there and no miners. The structural transformation from an industrial society to a knowledge society brought a lot of conflicts with it. The government was called on to mitigate the effects through social welfare. That said: It worked.
You experienced this upheaval in your own family.
My father was a miner in the Aachen area. The mines there were closed as early as in the seventies. That’s when he realized that he had no prospects for the future. So he took advantage of an opportunity that made it easier for people with work experience to change careers and go into teaching. He worked at night and studied during the day — and made it possible for himself and his four sons to reach a higher level of education. However, the transformation that is coming now will be still more serious. We need advances in research for many aspects of climate change. We need research on storage technology to advance. We need research on hydrogen technology to advance. Making decisions on climate neutrality are the simple part. Putting climate neutrality into practice — that will only work if research is given every possible opportunity. We must make this transformation possible through research.
What can research expect from you as chancellor?
Firstly, a high appreciation of value. It is not enough to just maintain the funding allocated in the federal budget. It is vital that we provide money for creating the necessary overall conditions. Modernization can only be achieved through research — not with rules and regulations, not with prescriptions and prohibitions.
And how can knowledge transfer to industry and practical application be accelerated?
The government can and must create the framing conditions for that. The government must make researchers’ lives as easy as possible by preventing excessive bureaucracy and assisting them in terms of the financial conditions. But transfer still requires scientists who are not only willing to publicize their knowledge, but also have the drive to find partners and put their ideas into practice.
Are you calling for a new founder culture?
You see, today in Germany, we are living off the capital of family businesses that were founded some 100 or 150 years ago. Incidentally, this is often the case in the Sauerland and Münster regions, the smallest places in North Rhine-Westphalia, where these days we have more industrial job positions than the Ruhr district. Medium-sized businesses that developed their own products and so conquered the global market, are the backbone of the German economy.
What has been lost since this period of intense founding activity you just mentioned?
I believe we have too many regulations in too many areas and that we aren’t courageous enough. We had it too good. We had settled down too comfortably.
Had Germany become too complacent?
Yes, certainly. Too many systems absorbed the risks that were there. I do believe however, that for some years we have been at a point where the situation has been changing. You can’t reproduce Silicon Valley in Germany. But particularly in the field of research, I can sense a certain readiness to take on challenges. BioNtech is a good example here. We need a thousand more like them.
That sounds like a vision. What about the reality?
That often lags behind. You see, I share the Green party’s view that we should not be operating intra-German flights. We need alternatives for that. On trains in Germany, you may travel at 300 kilometers per hour sometimes, but at others, you’ll find yourself on railway lines that were built right after the First World War. We need faster planning and approval processes to modernize that. However, it is a matter of course that every citizen’s initiative against new railway lines will be led by the Green party. The same is true for wind energy. It’s not enough just to make demands.
As we are on the topic of the Green party, when was the last time you were in Sassella?
Not so long ago. A very nice restaurant in Bonn. Members of parliament from the CDU and the Greens have been meeting there since 1994, although we were younger then. It was called the “Pizza Connection.”
Anyone who was familiar with the menu knew they didn’t serve pizza.
We dined well there and had many pleasant evenings. Back then, the young Greens’ attitude to life was closer to ours than that of many of the older people in our own benches. Many wonderful connections were formed in those meetings. And they helped to break down those nasty stereotypes that existed back then. We may have expressed differences openly, but we appreciated each other. We have much more in common today than back then.
You were brought up as a Christian, and even worked as the chief editor of a church newspaper. How important are Christian values to you in real-life politics?
“C” is the first letter of our party name.
But you don’t mean “C” as in chaos or crash?
Expressing Christian values is a serious challenge. As a politician, you must have a moral compass. Mine is always European, and will always remain Christian.
Are you an eye-for-an-eye kind of Christian? Or do you turn the other cheek when in doubt?
You have to fight for your positions in politics. And there have been many battles that I have won.