Steinmeier sheds dull image with rousing speech

October 19, 2008

Steinmeier address SPD conventionAs Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier has delivered many speeches,  but none that anyone can particularly remember. Germany’s top diplomat has impeccable credentials yet has rarely come close to stirring anyone with his balanced, cautious, usually dry and sometimes rather dull addresses. No one would ever think of ticking the box “rousing speaker” next to his name.

That all changed on Saturday — when Steinmeier gave the speech of his life to a congress of his centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). The 500 delegates interrupted the white-haired lawyer’s riveting 88-minute address with applause 114 times. They then elected Steinmeier, who had never won election for any public office, as their candidate for the 2009 election with 95 percent of the vote.

By brilliantly latching on to the dominant issue of the moment — the global financial crisis – Steinmeier told the SPD delegates who have suffered post-war record lows in opinion polls this year and are worrying about their own job security in next year’s elections that it is the SPD more than any other party that is ideally positioned to benefit from the banking crisis. The SPD has long pushed for more state controls, he reminded them, and always stood up to protect the proverbial “little guy”.

“Let’s close our flanks, let’s not settle for second place but rather let’s fight for the victory next year,” Steinmeier told the delegates, who gave him a five-minute standing ovation for the fiery address.

It was also more than the usual vague piddle-paddle that German leaders often offer up. Steinmeier, until now seen more aligned to the conservative wing of the SPD, gave the party’s left plenty to cheer about. He spoke out clearly against extending nuclear power, unambiguously endorsed Gesine Schwan as the party’s candidate for the office of president even though SPD conservatives would prefer her withdrawal, and promised new government spending to boost the economy.

“People are looking to us to lead them through the crisis and we can do it. We’ve buried our differences. We believe in ourselves again and that’s making us strong. At critical moments we’ve been the ones that provided the answers.” Before Saturday the SPD had been a party in disarray. They had struggled to make their mark with voters. Trailing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats by about 10 points in opinion polls, the party has been deeply frustrated, fed up with Merkel getting much of the credit for the achievements of their grand coalition.

“I was extremely impressed with his speech,” said former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who sat cheering Steinemeier in the front row with another ex SPD chancellor, Helmut Schmidt. An accolyte of Schroeder’s, Steinmeier served as his chief of staff. Before Saturday, he was seen as a steady pair of hands, holding an office (foreign minister) that almost automatically makes him one of the country’s most popular leaders. Before Saturday he was respected, admired perhaps.

He has now added a new attribute to his résumé: “rousing speaker”.

3 comments

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It is interesting to wonder whether Frank-Walter Steinmeier will now live up to the expectations raised in this speech. As the article notes, his career up to now has been that of the administrator behind the scenes, and it isn’t entirely surprising that he benefits from the warm support of his mentor Schröder. As for the invocation of the financial crisis which the SPD ought to harness in order to make the case for stronger regulation, that is also a quite natural political strategy in pre-electoral conditions, which mirrors that of the Democratic candidate in the US (and which for the moment has indeed paid off).

Yet it remains to be seen if Steinmeier can really move on, after all he is also a sitting minister in the government and his stewardship of German diplomacy has been especially prudent, rather more than creative and able to seiz on initiatives. Precisely, the German government’s response, to begin with that of Steinmeier’s colleague at Economics, Peer Steinbrück, has been at first almost complacent. Since then there have been signs of an improvised and somewhat jumpy response to events, and we’ve not seen the German government lead to way towards a concerted European and then international response. Perhaps Steinmeier was too busy planning for this important speech before the SPD to be a vocal presence at the recent EU Council?

Posted by Paul Vallet | Report as abusive

Angela Merkel did say that she told the Britts and
and Yanks a year ago about the economic problem. But,
did not do anything for Germany at that time. I think
all leaders of countries that are in trouble economically
should be replaced. I admire Greece. The Italian leader
is best now for Italy.

Posted by Fred Wacker | Report as abusive

Replacing the leaders is particularly difficult in Germany given that right now the government is a grand coalition, so the opposition is reduced to Greens, Free Democrats and Die Linke, none of which parties would be in a possibility to form a government coalition. The next German elections could produce:

either another grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats

a CDU-FDP and prehaps Green coalition

An SPD-Die Linke coalition? Which is precisely where wxe return to Steinmeier, he doesn’t seem like the sort of leader that Die Linke would accept to govern with, but one must never underestimate political opportunism.

I don’t know how the situation compares in Greece and in Italy. Berlusconi is pretty harshly judged outside the country (it’s fair to say also there are a lot of Italians who don’t like him either, though not enough to defeat him in elections). Like Germany though Berlusconi appears to have a pretty go it alone approach when it comes to tackling the crisis. He also holds the same foreign policy line as the Germans when it comes to accomodating Russia.

Posted by Paul Vallet | Report as abusive