In the midst of the energy and inflation crisis, SPD politician Stephan Weil is fighting for a third term as Prime Minister of Lower Saxony. In an interview with ntv.de, he paints a drastic picture of the economic situation and people's concerns. "I've never experienced an election campaign in which I saw so many question marks on the faces of the citizens," says Weil. The state must intervene to avert even greater damage. "We have to prove that we deserve people's trust. That drives me."
ntv.de: Prime Minister, you are conducting a very personal election campaign in Lower Saxony so that the people in the state will grant you a third term in office. After 14 years, together with Ernst Albrecht, you would be the longest-serving head of government in Lower Saxony. What makes a good sovereign?
Stephan Weil: I know that many people mean that as a compliment, but this term is not my favorite term. It sounds too retro to me. I don't feel that way, nor does it correspond to my work. In recent years I have had to do a lot of crisis management. This not only happens behind the desk and in meetings, but above all means a lot of communication about why something is happening and how the situation can be improved.
So what makes a good prime minister, especially in such an important country?
People must feel the greatest possible degree of security and have the justified impression that we are doing everything we can to ensure that they have a good life here in Lower Saxony. This worked well until 2019. Until then, Lower Saxony has made good progress in all areas. Since 2020 we have experienced several hard crises. Most of us coped well with Corona in terms of health and economy, but now we are in the midst of what is probably an even greater challenge. My goal is for the people of Lower Saxony to say afterwards: "We did it well, we've even gotten stronger." Because behind the crisis beckons the perspective that Lower Saxony will be the largest German energy state with all the associated opportunities.
However, especially in politics, yesterday's good performance is of little interest if tomorrow is being discussed today...
Gratitude is not currency in politics, definitely not.
... and your re-election depends largely on whether people get the impression that the SPD in the federal government is making sure that the country gets through this potentially historic crisis well. How worried were you when you followed the traffic light struggle for a third relief package in the past few weeks?
I wasn't afraid, I campaigned massively for the concerns of the citizens - both publicly and privately. The main thing is that the energy crisis does not turn into a social and economic crisis and then into a political one. This is a particularly important issue for me personally. Our state and our democracy are facing the greatest test I can remember. We have to prove that we deserve people's trust. That drives me.
How much Stephan Weil is there in the relief package?
I didn't write it. But I have repeatedly reported to my political friends in Berlin what my experiences are from the many conversations I am currently having. I have never experienced an election campaign in which I saw so many question marks on the faces of the citizens. I really take that very seriously.
They demand that the price cap on basic electricity consumption agreed by the traffic light coalition must come as soon as possible. Should the federal government raise the question of financing - skimming off excess profits at national or European level? - don't skip it and introduce the price cap now? The federal government can always collect the money later.
We have a common electricity market and that's why I think it's right for us to develop a common, European solution. But we don't have any amount of time. I'm not only thinking of private households, but also of the many companies that present me with their electricity bills. Many companies use more electricity than gas. While we have a real shortage of gas, we see a regulatory problem with electricity. That is why politicians have a special responsibility here. If we don't come to an agreement quickly in Europe, Germany will have to go ahead alone.
But the question of regulation could be regulated after the price cap. The traffic light claims that the money comes from the random profits skimmed off by the cheaper electricity providers, one way or the other.
If we can quickly achieve a price reduction with it, gladly.
Weeks rather than months. We know what the problem is. And we know that the problem is getting bigger and bigger for people and for the economy.
Until energy prices come down, propose hardship funds for citizens and small and medium-sized businesses in your country. What exactly do you have in mind?
When I was mayor of the city of Hanover, we set up a hardship fund that the city and energy suppliers paid into. The basic idea is: we always have cases where the normal social security systems do not work for various reasons. Life is very colorful and diverse. For such cases we need an emergency system that cannot be a regular system. By December 31st, energy prices are only gradually arriving. In the next year, the burden will be felt by everyone, and the federal government is now taking precautions for this time. But some are already suffering from high energy prices, in a phase in which the planned protective mechanisms are not yet effective. That is why we need municipal hardship funds for this transitional period. The individual allocation decisions should be made on site. The state would take over a third of the sums paid out, the rest would be borne by energy suppliers and municipalities.
It is by no means certain that the state will also help with heat supply and gas for companies in the new year. The traffic light now uses a commission.
I find the proposal of an energy base pedestal developed by the economist Sebastian Dullien plausible. He suggests that there should be a minimum amount of electricity at an affordable price. That would cost the state a lot of money, but save it even more money because otherwise it would have to provide all the social and transfer payments that would then be necessary. The problem is that this cannot work one-to-one in business. The companies are too different for that. So the idea is that the state guarantees a certain percentage of 2021 consumption at a certain price. This needs to be checked carefully. That's why I like the expert commission. But you have to come to a conclusion quickly.
Immense additional sums are coming to the federal government. When in doubt, the FDP refers to the debt brake. How much does it annoy you that the smallest of the three federal coalition parties is slowing down measures that you think are reasonable?
I think that's unwise, because reality will lead to a different result in the end. I was city treasurer for ten years, at a time when the municipalities were not doing well. At that time I wrote one austerity program after the other, which provoked a lot of protest. In the end, however, the restructuring of my household was not achieved through cost-cutting measures, but through economic recovery and tax revenue. In the banking crisis, the state stepped in to save and before the pandemic, the state was healthier than before the banking crisis. Now we have a situation in which large parts of industry and small and medium-sized businesses are at risk. If the state let this go, it would be a very, very expensive cup of tea. A company that deregisters pays no more taxes, no social security contributions, no more salaries and the power to consume dwindles. That is why the state acts very economically when it intervenes.
A year ago you actively supported the election campaign of SPD chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz in Lower Saxony. The promise was that with the SPD at the wheel instead of just on board, the country would become fairer. As difficult as the past year was, does it scratch the aura of your party that people haven't felt this extra justice so far?
I don't get that criticism at all. Everyone has realized that something fundamental has changed. Up until February 24th, we believed that after the winter we had managed to get through the roughest phase of the pandemic and that we were slowly getting back to normal. The attack on Ukraine is really a turning point, as the chancellor put it. People know that these are new conditions that we now have to deal with. They also measure the SPD by this.
If it's not the image of the party as a whole, then what's the reason the polls show you're a long way from your 2017 election results?
That's not the benchmark for me because there were very special circumstances in 2017. At that time, the state parliament majority changed under special conditions. That led to new elections and people didn't find that funny at all. This created a kind of moral alliance between the SPD and the citizens. This bond has led to a very nice result, which I did not think could be repeated on election night. If we remain the strongest party on October 9th, preferably with a 3 in front, I would be very satisfied. I have to be honest, I'm currently going through the most difficult election campaign I've conducted in my life.
Also because your challenger, your economics minister and CDU top candidate Bernd Althusmann, is pursuing his last chance for the office of prime minister and sometimes approaches you quite directly?
Mr. Althusmann is not my problem. Our common problem is that our state, our politics and ultimately our democracy are now being put to the test. I take that damn seriously.
But that's precisely why the question is not unimportant, whether people can rely on you personally. Althusmann accuses you of having already retired with one leg because of your announcement that you will not compete again in 2027.
I have a 80+ hour job. And that's what I'm aiming for over the next five years. That's not my idea of retirement. (laughs) I don't take everything that is said on the campaign trail at face value. Mr. Althusmann and I worked well together and he knows full well that he has a highly motivated prime minister.
Sebastian Huld spoke to Stephan Weil