Making the World a Better Place…

… is the aim of Katarina Barley, the German Social Democrats recently appointed secretary general. In an exclusive interview with JVG, Barley speaks about her party’s policies for people who are struggling, mobilizing voters and the female approach to power. Barley states firmly that “Israel’s right to exist is something that our party defends everywhere and against everyone”…

With Willy Brandt in the background Credit: JVG

With Willy Brandt in the background
Credit: JVG

Jews have always played an important role in the SPD … also after 1945, with Hamburg Mayor Herbert Weichmann, for example. Today only one Jew occupies a prominent position within the SPD, Mayor Peter Feldmann of Frankfurt…
We are the only political party in Germany that has an active working group of Jewish members. Their concerns are accorded a visible place within the SPD. That’s important to us.

Jews have traditionally been SPD voters, and in the US they have traditionally supported the Democratic Party – that’s now changed. Taking a look at Sweden, for example, the first act of Prime Minister Stefan Löfven was to extend unconditional recognition to Palestine, unconditional …. Israel’s popularity in Europe is very low…
Of course, within our party there isn’t only unconditional support for Israel’s policies. And there doesn’t have to be. But that has nothing to do with the Jewish people. Within the SPD, there is a very clear differentiation on this issue, on the level of both the political leadership and at the base.

The nuclear non-proliferation treaty with Iran is a purely technical contract. Is it not a black mark that Germany, of all countries, which bears a special responsibility for the existence of Israel, did not insist that the deal include a “right to exist” clause for all states, including Israel? The “moderate” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani continues to pursue the destruction of Israel…
Israel’s right to exist is something that our party defends everywhere and against everyone. In terms of the deal with Iran, I am confident that our minister for foreign affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier has carefully considered what is defensible and what is not. We should also recall Willy Brandt, whose motto was change through rapprochement. The choice we face is between taking small steps or holding fast to our current position.

Would the SPD be prepared to defend Israel with all its might in the event of an emergency?
Yes, absolutely.

Otto Wels’ 1933 speech against the passage of the Nazi’s Enabling Act, the introduction of women’s suffrage, which had a negative impact for the SPD … is the SPD at its best when it occupies a position of martyrdom?
The SPD was always strong during times of social transformation. We’re experiencing such a situation right now. And it’s times like these when Social Democracy is needed most.

For example …
The referendum in the United Kingdom demonstrates the fragility of conditions in Europe. Eurosceptics have been gaining force in many nation states. The outcome of the UK referendum is new grist to their mill, and it is now our duty to stand firm. Our message must be that the UK cannot cast off its obligations while preserving its privileges. The UK must bear the consequences of its decision and leave the European Union. We must give a show of strength. Otherwise Europe will be transformed within short order, with a profound impact for all who live here. These are big questions that, I believe, some people still haven’t fully grasped. The SPD has an important role to play. We need to counter the diffuse fears and anxieties within our society by putting forth a positive and forward-thinking vision. We need to make it clear that the changes that currently are arousing these fears and anxieties also pose opportunities: for example, an opportunity to reconfigure our conception of men’s and women’s roles, including within the family, to make the workplace more compatible with family and personal life, and to better take advantages of the many opportunities digitization offers us.
This would also allow us to take the wind out of the sails of the simplistic slogans being bandied about by parties such as the AfD. Such parties survive and thrive by stoking people’s fear of change.
They try to fool people into believing that we can turn back the clock.
We can’t allow our society to be split and divided by ideas such as these. That’s also where the SPD has a role to play.

Rafael Seligmann and Katarin Barley  Credit: JVG

Rafael Seligmann and Katarina Barley
Credit: JVG

During the first round of elections for the presidency in Austria, the SPÖ and ÖVP candidates each received 11 percent of the vote; the rightwing candidate Norbert Hofer received 36 percent…
The situation in Austria is completely different from what we have here in Germany. Austria has been ruled for decades by grand coalitions, in various configurations of primacy between the coalition parties. For voters, that also leads to a kind of fatigue. In Germany, by contrast, there is resistance to grand coalitions, among both the political parties and the population. For this reason, grand coalitions are always a solution borne of necessity in Germany…

When it comes to people who may be voting for the AfD or not voting at all, how do you plan to win them over to the SPD?
This has to happen on two levels. The first is in terms of content, our political agenda, where we’re doing quite a bit, even though it’s a long-term process. These are people who are mistrustful and who are at least somewhat alienated from the political process. You can’t change that with a single political measure or policy. We’re examining very closely what it is that people need, and what will make their lives better.
So for example, we are working on issues such as pensions on account of reduced earnings capacity, childcare opportunities that would also help single parents remain in the workforce, and other similar issues. These are long-term measures that are urgently needed, and they will also help rebuild trust.
The second aspect is how to convey our agenda. That is becoming more and more difficult, because the way people are obtaining information nowadays has changed. We need to become more innovative and take better advantage of digital channels such as Facebook. It’s easier for parties such as the AfD, for example, to take advantage of such channels, since they trade in simplistic slogans, fearmongering and other negative emotions. It’s easier to play on such emotions, but we’re aiming for something different, which is to foster a sense of confidence and trust and to promote personal initiative. For that, we have to have endurance and staying power.

Before Sigmar Gabriel was elected head of the party in 2009, he said that the party should also be willing to wade into places where, in his words, there’s a slight whiff, or even a stench. … Is the SPD doing that?
Yes, we are doing that. We put a lot of effort into policies on behalf of people who are genuinely struggling, even if we know that they won’t necessarily vote for us in return. One example is minimum wage, which is not an issue that affects the majority of our voters and party members. But we believe this is a matter of urgent necessity. For one, because it’s an important part of the basic values of our party. But it’s also an issue of great importance for our society as a whole.
Establishing a minimum wage also helps to raise wages up the ladder.
What motivates your own political engagement?
As naïve as it might sound: I want to make the world a better place. I joined the SPD 22 years ago. At the time, I never imagined that I might one day make politics my career…

SPD General Secretary Credit: JVG

SPD General Secretary
Credit: JVG

… and power …
… that didn’t play a role for me …

… what about today?
I think I have a very female approach in that respect: not power for power’s sake, but the power to create change…

… like Maggie Thatcher … or Golda Meir…
I need power if I hope to create change. It’s very nice to be where I am now, and to have this opportunity to shape things and make a difference. It would make me very happy to know that I’ve done my part to make the world a better place.

Katarina Barley talked to JVG editors Elisabeth Neu and Rafael Seligmann at the SPD headquarters in Berlin

Photo Credit: JVG

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