Germany’s Steinmeier: A New Direction for the Presidency

frank-walter_steinmeier_20090902-dscf0011
President-elect Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Photo by Arne List

Lauren Rogers

On the morning of 12 February of this year, 1260 members of the German Federal Assembly, which includes Bundestag members and state electors, voted to choose the 12th President of the Federal Republic of Germany. Garnering over 900 votes, the clear winner was the Grand Coalition candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who served twice as foreign minister and ran for chancellor under the SPD banner in 2008. He has held public office for over 20 years.

On paper, Steinmeier has all the makings of a tame president; he is well-liked and respected in the international community and within the German government. According to Bild, Steinmeier even has the dubious honor of using the German informal “you” with more members of the Cabinet than any other – high praise for those in the German-speaking world.

However, appearances can be deceiving, and surely the Steinmeier presidency will not be without a backbone. During the last year of his term as foreign minister, Steinmeier spoke out strongly against Russian aggression, the inaction of the international community in the Syrian crisis, and the shortsightedness of the Brexit decision. Most notably, he is a decisive critic of US President Donald Trump and of the nationalist movements taking hold around the world.

From Freedom to Courage

ac2014gauck1
President Joachim Gauck. Photo by ACBahn

Germany’s current president, Joachim Gauck, has spent most of his term promoting freedom. Gauck, who was an East German resistance leader before the fall of the Berlin Wall, has repeatedly stressed reconciliation and social justice in his speeches. His term has not been without crisis – the floundering euro, Brexit, and the refugee influx, just to name a few – but he has continued to call for openness, tolerance, and a need to cherish the freedoms that are easy to take for granted. Gauck embraced the “Refugees Welcome” movement more than any other German politician and at times was harsh in his criticism of those who were steadfastly anti-refugee.

Steinmeier promises to be a different kind of president. After nearly three decades in the spotlight, he is politically savvy and will likely be less concerned with visiting children’s shelters and more concerned with asserting Germany’s role in the world. If “Freedom” was the motto of the Gauck presidency, it is safe to say that “Courage” will be the that of Steinmeier’s. In his acceptance speech following his election, Steinmeier spoke of two kinds of courage: the courage that Germany can give to others, and the courage that Germans must display in the face of rising unrest in Europe and beyond.

Steinmeier recounted a story of a young Tunisian activist telling him that Germany gave her courage. Germany, which not so very long ago represented the opposite of freedom and justice, now has a place as one of the pillars of modern democracy in the West. Germany gives courage, said Steinmeier, because it is proof that peace comes after war, that reconciliation can follow division. In this sense, Germany must continue to be a symbol of courage for countries in crisis.

2016-05-13_frauke_petry_5414
Frauke Petry. Photo by Michael Lucan

But Steinmeier also meant courage in another sense. Three important European elections – France, Germany and the Netherlands – are coming up this year, each with its own populist candidate. In the face of Marine Le Pen, Frauke Petry, and Geert Wilders, respectively the leaders of the nationalist waves in these countries, Steinmeier preached patience, tolerance, and above all, a commitment to the core values of Europe.

 

The “Anti-Trump” President?

Following his election, the German daily Berliner Morgenpost dubbed Steinmeier the “Anti-Trump President” – a title that has since been reprinted everywhere from The Independent to Bloomberg. Whether or not he enjoys the moniker, Steinmeier has certainly been among the strongest critics of the US President, referring to him at one point as a “hate-preacher.” After Trump’s election, Steinemeier issued the following statement as foreign minister: “I think we will have to get used to the idea that US foreign policy will be less predictable for us and we will have to get used to the idea that the US will tend to make more decisions on its own.” He went on to say that working together with the US will be much harder over the next four years and that Europe must stay the course, despite the unsettling results.

In his speech on Sunday, Steinmeier issued a thinly veiled critique on Trump and his populist counterparts in Europe. He called on all Germans to fight against baseless accusations and fear-mongering. “We must have the courage to say what is and what isn’t,” he said, claiming a universal responsibility to differentiate facts from lies. This, too, will likely be a theme of the Steinmeier presidency. Shortly before his candidacy was announced in 2016, the President-elect decried the rise of right-wing parties in Europe and the US and accused Trump and others of “mak[ing] politics with fear.”

Or the “Pro-Russia” President?

Rather than the “Anti-Trump” President, some may dub Frank-Walter Steinmeier the “Pro-Russia” President.  As foreign minister, Steinmeier was regularly lampooned by his CDU colleagues for his mild stance toward Russia. He began his second term as foreign minister in late 2013, only a few months before Russia annexed Crimea. Following the annexation, Steinmeier joined his international colleagues in denouncing Russia and supported upping economic sanctions until the conflict was resolved.

putin_and_merkel_in_china
Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel. Photo by Kremlin.ru

However, Steinmeier has relaxed his stance since then and has insisted on a need to keep channels of communication open. Russia is an important actor in two of the most significant global crisis areas: Syria and the Ukraine. Continuing with heavy sanctions and isolation will do nothing to solve these issues, according to Steinmeier. Over the summer, he was also quick to criticize NATO for carrying out exercises in Eastern Europe. He accused the organization of “warmongering” and said, “Whoever believes that a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is mistaken.”

Thus far, only Russian news outlets seem to believe that Steinmeier will be a friend to the east, but the differences between he and Gauck are undeniable. As a former citizen of East Germany, Gauck was understandably apprehensive about former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. Steinmeier, who has worked with the Russia on international issues since his time in the Schroeder administration, will be a welcome change for the Kremlin.

Emphasizing German Leadership

In an interview with television station ZDF following the election, Steinmeier indicated his intention to work closely with both Moscow and Washington. He was very clear that Germany is currently in the midst of a “reorganization of international relations” and that possible unpredictability in the East and the West will mean a greater need for a stable country.

Nevertheless, the role of the German president is not to negotiate with foreign leaders or herald in big changes. The German president is primarily a domestic role; he or she acts as a moral authority, but has very little political power. As the head of government, Steinmeier will be confined to ceremonial tasks like welcoming state visits and approving the Cabinet. The political might in Germany is held by the chancellor, Angela Merkel, and by the parliament, the Bundestag. Despite his limited power, Steinmeier is expected to set a tone for the coming years and it appears as though he will be just as active as his predecessor.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier will take office on 18 March 18 this year. On September 24, the country will vote for new Bundestag representation and a new government will take office.

Click here for more National Politics on The Euroculturer.

Click here for more World Politics on The Euroculturer.

The Euroculturer Recommends:

And Then There Was One: Angela Merkel and the 2017 German Elections

Fearing the Other: Islamophobia in the United States

Hoping to be proud

It is easy just to be proud when you realise how many people are willing to know about your home country. ‘Because it is France. It is ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’. An ideal that cannot ring true to everybody if one does not have the same rights.

paul-gilbert colletazpaul.colletaz@gmail.com

On the 6th of May 2012, from a little city in Italy where I was studying at the time, my English partner and I witnessed the election of a new President for my home country: France. The Socialist candidate François Hollande won over his opponent – the outgoing Nicolas Sarkozy. Amongst the voters hoping for change was a majority of the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual French community.

Indeed, Mr Hollande, unlike Mr Sarkozy had promised to legalise same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. Since then, the process proved to be complicated and the past few months were rich in demonstrations, lobbying and public events supporting the President or trying to make him renounce.

Being away, it took me some time to realise the importance of the debate in France and how the question of giving homosexuals those rights was present almost everywhere: in the streets, on television, on the radio…This, however, only seemed to be a start and I imagined that, until the law was passed, the debate and involvement of people on both sides would keep on increasing. Or so I thought…

Glaring at the slow but steady process of allowing same-sex people to marry and adopt, some right-wing mayors declared that they would not marry same-sex couples and requested the right to refrain from performing ceremonial weddings between said couples, were the law to come into force. The debate would continue even after the implementation of the law: longer than I thought…

On the 10th of October, some 1248 mayors had already signed the petition.

Some of the political leaders of France, that democratic republic, were to reject the law and regulations that define a democracy. They would go against the –according to them, very French- rules of democracy because the decision to give equal rights to homosexuals did not include the French electorate directly and therefore lacked a democratic foundation. A brain teaser.

This argument falls short when one is reminded that in early November, 58% of the French population was in favour of same-sex marriage and 50%, in favour of/supported the right for same-sex couples to adopt. However, these figures have decreased since 2011 when they were 63% and 56% respectively. So what is to blame? Certainly, the overwhelming place of the debate and the constant arguments, for or against, repeated again and again. Faced with such a large spectrum of opinions, one thing is certain. Homosexuals and the rights of the homosexuals have never been of much interest for the right-wing politicians.

Another popular argument against the introduction of same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples is that it would create chaos. The Senator Serge Dassault explained this on the radio on the 7th of November: (…) “Look at history, in Greece, it is one of the reasons for its decadence. Utter decadence. It would compromise children’s development, it would mean the end of education, it would be an enormous danger for the nation as a whole. It would pose an unprecedented threat for the nation as a whole!” Total decadence, well of course. Apparently, being heterosexual helps keep the nation together.

Flag of France

Being French is always something that has helped me spark an interesting conversation with the different people I met as a student studying abroad. Whilst in Italy or in the United-Kingdom, people would speak about the food, the beautiful language, and the philosophers along with the clichés of the beautiful, arrogant, chauvinistic thin French man or woman who smokes too much, can be a bit dirty and who will not, under any circumstances, accept to learn a foreign language. Perhaps because I was speaking another language than French then, the discussions were always cheerful, enjoyable and showed a real interest. Further away, in India – where I am presently studying – the interest in my country is still there, and though some of the ideas about food or of what is ‘typically French’ are more vague; it is the same attraction – if not an enhanced one – that I encounter when I see people perking up at the mention of the French Revolution, Rousseau, Voltaire…

However, I knew that in the land where the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was written, the person who wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen was beheaded and that Voltaire was describing homosexuality as ‘a despicable attack against nature’ whilst Rousseau saw it as ‘the odious example of a brutal depravation and of a charmless vice’.

This is what being French means. It means missing home and being proud of its ideals, its culture and of some parts of its history. It is also at times facing stubbornness, underlying racism and a somewhat quaint idea that our past and present would make the French people somewhat different. ‘Different’ often meaning ‘better’. Switching from pride to shame is a feeling most people feel when they think about their country, but because of its image and reputation, those two ends feel so far from another if you are French.

I might have chosen to study in different countries to avoid those ups and downs. It is easy, not being informed of what is happening ‘there’, to just be proud when you realise how many people know about your home country, your mother tongue and be even more proud when so many more people tell you about their will to know. ‘Because it is France.’ It is ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’, not a French motto, but a goal and an ideal shared by everybody everywhere in the world. An ideal that cannot ring true to the homosexual community as long as they do not have the same rights.

The project of allowing same-sex couples to marry and adopt in France has been approved by the Council of Ministers on the 7th of November and should be discussed in Parliament in January 2013.

* The Euroculturer : F. Hollande said he would be granting what is called “liberté de conscience”, which in fact allows mayors to refuse to perform the ceremony, so they would not be breaking the law. (http://www.atlantico.fr/pepites/mariage-homosexuel-aura-liberte-conscience-pour-maires-dit-hollande-551293.html)

* However, immediately after having used the expression ‘liberté de conscience’, F. Hollande said that he regretted having said that and that mayors will not have the choice whether to marry or not. (http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/mariage-gay-lesbienne/20121122.OBS0239/liberte-de-conscience-hollande-regrette-ses-propos.html)

 

paulPaul-Gilbert Colletaz, Contributing writer

Paul is from France and graduated in British and American Literatures, Civilisations and Linguistics from the Sorbonne, Paris, spending the last year of his undergraduate diploma in Edinburgh, Scotland. He started the MA Euroculture programme in September 2011 at the University of Strasbourg before going to the University of Udine (Italy). He is presently studying at the University of Pune (India). His research interests go from gender studies to queer studies with a particular interest in body expression, masculinities, second-wave feminism and the legal status of homosexuality and its political consequences.