Interview Conducted by Klaus Brinkbäumer and Barbara Hans
In an interview, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discusses free trade, climate change and his country’s delicate relationship with its neighbor to the south: Donald Trump’s United States.
The photo was taken at the very end, during the last 30 seconds of our meeting in Room 215 of the Hotel Atlantic in Hamburg. And the taking of this photo also says something about Justin Trudeau.
He walks to the window, behind which Hamburg’s Alster Lake is twinkling. He looks into the camera and sinks his chin. And smiles — and holds his smile. He tenses his biceps — his sleeves were already rolled up when he walked into the room — and leans forward slightly. He’s ready.
He is a professional, through and through, and knows that stage management is part of being a politician. And he certainly knows how he looks and the effect he has on other people.
Justin Trudeau, 45, has been Canadian prime minister for 18 months, and he is the polar opposite of U.S. President Donald Trump. Inviting. Unafraid. Funny. Liberal. He is an advocate of climate protection and migration; when Trump announced his intention to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, Trudeau said that Canada welcomes the world with open arms. He is in favor of free trade and is pursuing the difficult reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous population. When he presented his cabinet that was half men and half women, he was asked why – and responded with the now-famous sentence: “Because it’s 2015.”
Trudeau is the oldest son of Pierre Trudeau, who was prime minister of Canada from 1968 to 1979 and again from 1980 to 1984. Little Justin grew up playing in the government quarter of Ottawa, and perhaps that explains why the grown-up Trudeau of today is so sure of himself, and never nervous. His presence is reminiscent of Barack Obama, but Trudeau takes more risks: He makes jokes about himself, wears colorful socks and in the campaign, he participated in a boxing match against a rival, which could have resulted in a black eye or even a knock-out.
After finishing his studies (education and literature), he taught French and social studies in addition to theater. And he taught snowboarding at Whistler, the ski resort outside of Vancouver.
He rose to prominence in part due to the eulogy he delivered for his father 17 years ago: His speech was both so controlled and so moving that his political career began soon afterwards, entering parliament in 2008 and taking over leadership of the Liberal Party in 2013.
Trudeau arrived at the G-20 summit in Hamburg at 2 p.m. on Thursday from Edinburgh. From the Fuhlsbüttel airport, he was driven through an oddly quiet, almost empty city, to the Hotel Atlantic — a place that became the center of the world for a few hours on Thursday. Donald Trump was also on his way to the hotel, as was Angela Merkel, and the two would meet here.
Trudeau enters the room. He doesn’t eat or drink anything. Just a radiant “Hello.” And the interview begins.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, half the world regards you as the “anti-Trump.” Do you and Donald Trump have anything in common?
Trudeau: Yes. I got elected on a commitment to Canadians that I was going to make growth work for everyone. I was going to focus on the middle class and those working hard to join it. I was going to make sure that the people who felt that the growth in the economy had left them behind would be included. That’s similar to the promise that got Trump elected. Now, our approaches to the same problems are somewhat different. But in my conversations with him, we’ve very much been able to agree that we want to help the citizens of our countries in tangible ways.
SPIEGEL: Following Trump’s election, one gained the impression that Canada is a somewhat more liberal version of the United States. Whereas the U.S. has sealed itself off from refugees, you have brought Syrian refugees to Canada to help them. What’s your strategy for dealing with Trump?
Trudeau: As prime minister, Canadians expect me to do two things: To stand up for Canadian interests and project Canadian values; and to have a good, constructive relationship with our largest trading partner and closest neighbor, the United States. Those two things are not incompatible. It requires a very deliberate strategy and approach, but I think we’ve done that.
SPIEGEL: How so? Your goal appears to be that of being independent and presenting Canada as an alternative, while at the same time seeking to avoid provoking Donald Trump.
Trudeau: Since 1945, Canada has had an independent foreign policy. That’s when it became independent of Great Britain’s foreign policy as a former dominion. But since even before that, we have always tried to have our own view of the world. Indeed, often because of the size and weight in the world of our neighbor, we in Canada often define ourselves in contrast to American positions on things like Cuba, the Vietnam War and nuclear disarmament. Historically, Canada has not always been aligned with the United States. It doesn’t necessarily serve anyone’s interests — Canadian or American — to be seen as an extension of the United States.
SPIEGEL: What was your first thought when you learned that Donald Trump had won the election?
Trudeau: It was a surprise. I don’t think a lot of people expected him to win. But there was also a recognition that the anger and concerns that many Americans had was real. That this was going to be both a challenge in the relationship, obviously — a president who comes in with an ideology that doesn’t always align with mine, but also the challenge of really needing to deal with this anger, this expression of frustration with the ruling institutions, parties and structures that, for many years, have demonstrated that they haven’t done a good enough job of listening to ordinary people.
SPIEGEL: Do you believe this anger poses a serious threat to democracy?
Trudeau: We had an election in Canada in 2015 in which the conservative incumbent used the politics of division, the politics of fear — of immigrants and Muslims, specifically — and of class envy and security to try and drive what is resonating very much in some of the right-wing populism movements. We countered it with an inclusive vision. Instead of trying to say we were going to protect people from the worst among us, let’s try and bring out the best in all of us and a positive vision of working together to solve big problems, to recognize that, yes, all is not right, things need to be fixed. We’re better off solving things by working together than by pointing fingers at other people. Emmanuel Macron and Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, took a very similar approach. They said: We’re stronger together. And it worked.
SPIEGEL: People are expecting a lot from you, from Macron and from Merkel. You have been romanticized and idealized. What do the three of you really have in common?
Trudeau: First and foremost, what we have very much in common — as happy as we are to be positively engaged on the world stage — is that our focus is on our own citizens and making sure that we are supporting them and that we are creating solutions. We’re seeing a lot frustration, fear and anger. There will always be people who say, we should just tear things down, they simply don’t work and we should just fold inward. The three of us — Angela, Emmanuel and I — are trying to show that we can work with existing systems and that we need to make sure that they work for all citizens and that they create the freedoms and the opportunities without having to be more fearful, which the right is always pushing, or angrier, which the left seems to push.
SPIEGEL: You view yourself as being at the center. Do centrists have an especially tough go of it in tumultuous times?
Trudeau: The center has had the challenge of always having to be reasonable, balanced. If you’re on the right, you can reach to the right; and on the left, you can reach left. But the center hasn’t always sold as well in politics — it doesn’t fit neatly on a bumper sticker. But what we’re seeing is that citizens in countries around the world are realizing that, no, it’s more important to be responsible and optimistic and thoughtful about the solutions and not feed knee-jerk, negative emotions.
SPIEGEL: Angela Merkel is a little more experienced than you. Is there anything you can learn from her?
Trudeau: Oh, in my first conversations with her and in the work that we’ve done on issues over the past 18 months, I have always listened very carefully to her and respected her experience and her perspective on things.
SPIEGEL: Can you be a bit more specific?
Trudeau: She has been focused on the right things. She has focused on the interests of her citizens — and not just in a narrow, short-term way, but in a very thoughtful — Let’s make the world a better place for future generations as well — kind of way. Whether it’s about climate or migration, she’s not afraid to look at the longer-term trendlines and say, OK, we need position ourselves here, even if it doesn’t seem obvious — this is the direction we need to go in. People respect that in Merkel, that a politician has a vision for the long term.
SPIEGEL: Is there such things as good and bad, or legitimate and illegitimate populism?
Trudeau: One of the most important things in any leader or in any successful approach is to focus on connecting with people and really listening to them. We shouldn’t just be saying, oh yes, the people are protesting. We need to ask them why they are protesting and try and figure out if there is something we can do to bring them in and respond to those concerns. That’s not populism — that’s being thoughtfully open to the fact that our citizens are allowed to have, and are even justified in having, very real concerns and questions for the people responsible for serving them. Excluding citizens’ voices from politics leads down a very bad path.
SPIEGEL: But Donald Trump also claims that himself — that he is someone who listens to people’s concerns and worries.
Trudeau: Ultimately, it is the people who judge, through elections, whether someone governs well or not. It’s not up to other politicians to define and determine our colleagues.
SPIEGEL: The U.S. has announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Is there a way forward for climate protection?
Trudeau: My predecessor Stephen Harper did not care much for the fight against climate change. For 10 years under that government, what we saw was tremendous leadership from our provinces, from our cities, from our big companies — despite the federal government at the time. What I’ve seen in the U.S. is that big city mayors step up, small municipalities want to be part of it, states step up and, of course, the significant players in the American economy are saying they are still going to live up to our Paris commitments, even if the federal government won’t.
SPIEGEL: Can you bypass the U.S. federal government and talk directly to the states?
Trudeau: Yes, and we do, but we will also stay very much engaged with President Trump and find issues where we can work together — on energy policy, for example. He has indicated, for example, an interest in working with us on pollution regulations. Of course, it’s disappointing, and I have said this consistently, that he does not want to be part of the Paris accord.
SPIEGEL: Could one make the argument that the U.S. policy pulling out of the Paris Agreement is more honest than the policies of Canada or Germany? Germany and Canada like to talk the talk about climate protection, but the chancellor doesn’t do anything that hurts the car industry and Canada is still building pipelines.
Trudeau: I can’t speak for Germany, but I can certainly speak from a Canadian perspective. Fighting against climate change was always going to be a bit of a challenge in a country that is so cold and vast. We are working as quickly as we can on greener energy, but, at the same time, we know we are going to be reliant on fossil fuels for a number of years. Right now, we are also dependent on the American market. Canadians may feel differently about Mr. Trump depending on where they are in the country, but we are committed to moving forward and succeeding in our Paris climate change obligations.
SPIEGEL: Should the United States be isolated, meaning a G-19 rather than a G-20?
Trudeau: The 20 major global economies come together in the G-20 to talk about economic issues. Climate change is one of the biggest economic issues we all face. The world is moving forward on our Paris commitment. But we must recognize that, for now, the U.S. holds a different position.
SPIEGEL: Leaders like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Trump are promoting isolationism, but you champion free trade. Do you still truly believe in CETA, the free trade agreement between Canada and the EU?
Trudeau: Trade is good for the economy. Trade creates growth. The problem is that it creates growth but it does not think about distribution of the benefits of that growth. And over the last years, particularly, we’ve seen a very small minority of people benefit from the increased growth and a lot of people wonder what’s going on and why it’s not working for them. But if the European Union can’t sign a free trade deal with a country as like-minded as Canada, then which country will it sign a trade deal with?
SPIEGEL: Perhaps with China?
Trudeau: Those are questions that Europe obviously has to ask.
SPIEGEL: But it appears as though CETA has already collapsed. How do you intend to deliver a success on the deal?
Trudeau: We have been seeing the “CETA is about to collapse” headlines for years now. We in Canada have done just about everything we possibly can. The European Union must decide whether you believe in trade with Canada or not.
SPIEGEL: What can Europe learn from Canada about migration?
Trudeau: First, we’re very different. Canada is lucky enough to be protected both by oceans and by a southern neighbor that is, you know, very careful about its migration and its borders. So, we don’t have the irregular flow that Europe has been having to deal with. But because of that, people here have seen that welcoming people, helping them to integrate, is actually a tremendous benefit to local economies. It creates jobs, innovation and opportunity. One of the things that comes with that, though, is stemming the flow of irregular migration. But you can’t just create barriers — you also have to work with the countries of origin.
SPIEGEL: Your father was Canada’s prime minister for 15 years. What did you learn from him?
Trudeau: My father taught me many things. Two of them come to mind right now: Stay true to your values. You can compromise on policies, but not your fundamental values or else you will get lost in the world of politics. The second thing is to listen to whoever you are talking to. People in your street, other politicians, company heads and workers. Learn from them.
SPIEGEL: Is there something you would do differently from your father?
Trudeau: The world today is a very different one. Social media, which I use as a way of connecting with people, is something that my father never got to use. I’m not worried about defending my father’s legacy. I’m very much worried about what the future holds.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Klaus Brinkbäumer and Barbara Hans