Christian Lindner is set to become Germany’s next finance minister. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, he talks about his plans for his portfolio, how he intends to pay for them and the new government’s strategy for the ongoing pandemic.
Christian Lindner, 42, has been head of the market-oriented Free Democratic Party (FDP) since fall 2013 and became the FDP floor leader in parliament after the 2017 general election. In November 2017, Lindner backed out of coalition talks with the center-right CDU/CSU and the Greens. In fall 2021, he was part of the successful coalition negotiations with the SPD and Greens and will become finance minister in the new government.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Finance Minister Lindner – we’ll just start calling you that already. Is that a title you’re going to have to get used to?
Lindner: That’s the last thing I’m thinking about these days. Questions of protocol aren’t particularly important to me.
DER SPIEGEL: We’re not buying it. Isn’t the position of finance minister something you’ve been dreaming about?
Lindner: It is a challenge for which I have respect. On the whole, the FDP, as part of the government, has an opportunity to make our country freer, more dynamic, more digital and more sustainable. It’s a goal we’ve been working toward for several years, and there have been difficult phases as well. There was a time when we had to say no to a coalition, but now, on the foundation of a professional partnership, we have this opportunity. I have said before that my leadership of the FDP derives from the goal of leading the party from being out of parliament after the 2013 election back into a constitutive role. Now, we can work toward realizing our projects.
DER SPIEGEL: In the negotiations that led to the formation of this so-called “Traffic Light” coalition (so named for the colors associated with the three parties involved: the Social Democrats (red), the Free Democrats (yellow) and the Greens) difficult was it to wrest the office of finance minister away from Green Party co-leader Robert Habeck, who also had his heart set on the portfolio?
Lindner: We found a good solution. Everyone can make a contribution. Regarding my function, I’m not underestimating its dimension. The challenge is that of financing the push toward modernization from the public budget, while also, on the other hand, activating private capital in particular. At the European level, the fiscal rules of the economic and currency union will be under discussion. We need to push the banking union forward to ensure greater global competitiveness and to make the private finance sector more crisis resistant. Germany has a responsibility for Europe here, but it also has its own interests. We can position ourselves as representatives of a stability-oriented fiscal policy that allows space for future-oriented investment.
DER SPIEGEL: You will be taking over the Finance Ministry from Olaf Scholz, the designated chancellor. Are you not a bit concerned that he might try to tell you what to do since he knows the portfolio far better?
Lindner: That isn’t the spirit of cooperation that we seek to establish. Plus, I don’t shy away from getting advice from experts or from my predecessors in office. That also includes Wolfgang Schäuble (finance minister for the CDU from 2009 to 2017), by the way.
DER SPIEGEL: As finance minister, you’re going to have to travel abroad a lot …
Lindner: (in English) Yes, I will …
DER SPIEGEL: How’s your English?
Lindner: It’ll be good enough.
DER SPIEGEL: So we can’t expect any performances from you like that of Guido Westerwelle, the one-time foreign minister from the FDP who generated international headlines by refusing to answer a reporter’s question in English?
Lindner: On Wednesday, Mr. Scholz was asked a question in English but responded in German. In our official comments, we must exclude any possibility for confusion. In more informal occasions, one shouldn’t shy away from communicating in a foreign language, even if not every sentence is the epitome of elegance.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you already know where your first trip will take you?
Lindner: To Paris. The German-French friendship has a special character. Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and I have known each other for a long time. We have already spoken on the phone this week.
DER SPIEGEL: How do you plan to assuage French concerns about a economically liberal German finance minister such as yourself – one who will likely be stricter when it comes to sovereign debt than Scholz, a Social Democrat?
Lindner: German fiscal policy serves this country’s interests and is consistent with our European responsibilities. I am not becoming finance minister of the FDP, but finance minster of the Federal Republic of Germany. Still, I can’t conceal the fact that I am a liberal. It is in Europe’s paramount interest that the economic and currency unions remain stable and that together, we generate more flexibility to act on the larger challenges, such as the technological response to climate change. That means that Germany can neither be the guardian of the spending of others, nor can we follow the advice of those who seek to undermine the Stability and Growth Pact.
DER SPIEGEL: During the campaign, Olaf Scholz demanded that the billions in new debt taken on by Europe as a reaction to the coronavirus pandemic be expanded. Are you on board with that strategy?
Lindner: Despite being part of the opposition, the FDP voted in favor of the European Reconstruction Fund. In an extraordinary situation, it was an appropriate response, presented at the time as a one-off. Now, the money in the fund must be used. The coalition agreement is clear: We support EU resolutions that have been made. But they do not translate into the establishment of a permanent architecture. Various member states have also ruled this out, most recently the head of government in Finland.
DER SPIEGEL: You’re not seriously trying to hide behind Finland are you?
Lindner: Germany has a responsibility for bringing positions together. The collective position of the Traffic Light coalition is that the Stability and Growth Pact, including its flexibility, has proven itself.
DER SPIEGEL: The coalition agreement says that the incoming government wants to “further develop” the Stability and Growth Pact. What does that mean?
Lindner: Currently, many fiscal rules, for example, are bureaucratic and opaque. With everything, one must consider the danger that the fiscal dominance could grow – that the European Central Bank (ECB) could find itself being guided by state finances. Given the development of inflation and possible interest-rate steps from the U.S. Federal Reserve, a certain pressure could result. As such, Europe has an interest in ensuring the sustainability of state finances in the long term. Currency depreciation would be incredibly unfair to pensioners and small savers.
DER SPIEGEL: What are your concrete plans for Germany?
Lindner: The development of the German budget requires significant attention due to many projects that were not sustainably financed. Just consider the pension for mothers passed by the CDU and CSU (the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union – collectively known as the Union). During the campaign, parties to the left thus called for tax hikes, while some from the Union openly considered a weakening of the constitutionally anchored debt brake (Eds: balanced budget). Now, we want to make enormous sums available for investments, but we also intend to maintain the debt brake and do without tax increases. We will need economic growth and discipline. I also advise placing a focus on the enforcement of tax law.
DER SPIEGEL: Excuse us, but hasn’t the FDP always fought hard against state-imposed taxes as some kind of all-powerful monster?
Lindner: That sounds rather like a caricature. Yes, we are in favor of a fair balance between the state and its citizens. It’s not a good thing that we have high taxes in this country. And I am also not a fan of constructs that can be used advantageously due to the extreme complexity of tax law. It is legal, though lawmakers need to set the boundaries. What is definitely not acceptable is tax avoidance and unreported earnings. Such things harm honest taxpayers. I want to put a stop to it.
DER SPIEGEL: What does that mean in concrete terms?
Lindner: I would like to make a contribution to ensuring that the battle against all unreported earnings continues to be fought. To that end, I have, for example, proposed that those from abroad who want to buy real estate in Germany must in the future prove that the capital they invest has been taxed. It will also no longer be possible in the future to buy property with cash. Cash is an element of freedom, and capital from abroad is welcome, but it is not an improper restriction of freedom if we want to know whether the money involved has been properly taxed or not.
DER SPIEGEL: The Christian Democrats, with whom you had hoped to form a coalition government, have already begun casting aspersions on the Traffic Light coalition, accusing your party of having joined forces with the left.
Lindner: I can understand the Union’s position from my own experience. They are searching for their role in the opposition. But the results of our coalition negotiations speak for themselves. The Traffic Light coalition is a centrist government that will push the country forward. We, the FDP, wouldn’t have necessarily put all of the projects on the agenda on our own. But on the whole, it is a coalition that can move things forward and spur innovation. People don’t want to be dragged down any longer by quarreling. The country wants policymakers to start work on the projects that have been left idle for too long.
DER SPIEGEL: As recently as mid-August, you warned FDP leaders that a Traffic Light coalition could endanger the existence of the FDP. What changed your mind?
Lindner: I can’t comment on leaks from internal meetings.
DER SPIEGEL: The remark was heard by several people.
Lindner: My position is that the FDP, as an independent party, is not defined by our partners or adversaries, but by our own positions and projects. With our coalition agreement, we are focusing on ambitious projects that we have promised to our voters.
DER SPIEGEL: FDP supporters weren’t particularly excited about a Traffic Light coalition. How do you intend to convince them?
Lindner: In 2017, we proved that we won’t join a government at any price. We are interested in results, that is what we said back then as well. That now gives us credibility when we say that this coalition includes liberal emphases and projects. Plus, the reactions from our supporters and members have been encouraging. There is openness for a different style and a new way of thinking. Furthermore, because of the situation within the Union, there was no other option for forming a government. This reality must be acknowledged.
DER SPIEGEL: The FDP has blocked a number of projects pursued by the Greens and the SPD: Tax increases, a speed limit for the autobahn, the naming of a specific date for the phase out of coal and the elimination of the private health insurance regime, to name a few. Might it be that your role in the incoming coalition is more that of blocking things than of actively shaping policy?
Lindner: No. We will be eliminating the renewable energy contribution, which translates into billions in relief for families and mid-sized companies and also helps climate protection. We are jumping energetically into the hydrogen game. We will be introducing welfare reforms, which offer greater societal participation and a better chance of advancement through work. We will stabilize the public pension system through the introduction of capital funding. I could go on.
DER SPIEGEL: The Traffic Light coalition also intends to legalize cannabis. Were you not always rather skeptical of doing so?
Lindner: The FDP has been in favor of this position for quite some time. I’ve just had a slightly different justification than some other supporters of legalization – namely from the perspective of crime prevention and health. Those who buy cannabis from a licensed seller, including health consultation, don’t have to buy it from some clandestine source.
DER SPIEGEL: It is going to be a challenge for families to figure out how to approach this drug.
Lindner: Of course, we need to emphasize that the consumption of cannabis is not risk free. Just as is true of the consumption of tobacco and alcohol. We have to learn as a society to deal with cannabis responsibly. The rules up until now have not contributed to that learning process.
DER SPIEGEL: The Traffic Light coalition is taking office right in the middle of the fourth wave of coronavirus. Now, the FDP is suddenly in favor of a vaccine requirement for those working and living in retirement and care homes. Why the change of position?
Lindner: At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone – including the chancellor, the justice minister, the health minister and the FDP – rejected the idea of mandatory vaccination against the coronavirus. Constitutional lawyers told us that it wouldn’t be legally possible, while representatives from the care industry warned that some employees might quit their jobs. On both points, the experts have changed their minds. On the basis of that shift, policymakers must also be given the opportunity to change their positions.
DER SPIEGEL: The liberal politician Christian Lindner is placing a limit on individual freedoms?
Lindner: It is self-evident that a vaccine requirement for all persons who work and live in a facility is a sensitive interference in their self-determination. But freedom is not a concept characterized by a complete lack of limitations. Freedom in the spirit of our constitution defines individual freedom as one that can be interceded upon in the interest of the broader body politic if that intercession is proportionate.
DER SPIEGEL: Bavarian Governor Markus Söder and Baden-Württemberg Governor Winfried Kretschmann are demanding a general vaccination mandate in order to bring back freedom for everybody.
Lindner: With such discursive acrobatics, the right to self-determination anchored in the constitution can be annulled across the board by referring to the alleged freedom of a collective in order to justify any intercession as proportionate. We need a more solid basis. Constitutional experts have different views regarding a universal vaccination requirement. Before politicians begin debating the issue, it must be determined beyond doubt whether such a step would be consistent with our constitution. And it wouldn’t help us with the current fourth wave anyway.
“We must do everything in our power to avoid another paralysis of this country.”
Lindner on the coronavirus pandemic
DER SPIEGEL: Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel has clearly said that she believes the measures discussed by the Traffic Light coalition are insufficient. Will the next government order a nationwide lockdown?
Lindner: The possibilities inherent in the Infection Protection Act have not been exhausted. Given the development of the pandemic, I believe that contact limitations, social distancing and the limitation of free-time activities to be necessary. Now is not the time for boisterous celebrations. That could give us the time we need to accelerate the not-yet-convincing vaccine and booster campaigns.
DER SPIEGEL: To summarize: As things currently stand, you are not in favor of a state-ordered lockdown at the federal level and are at most in favor of regional measures?
Lindner: I hadn’t yet heard the demand for a universal, nationwide lockdown. We all still remember the social and economic damage caused by such a lockdown. In any case, I would recommend not thinking only in terms of the worst-case scenario. We must do everything in our power to avoid another paralysis of this country. If further measures have to be taken, we must act as a national community.
DER SPIEGEL: The Traffic Light coalition wants to set up a standing federal-state crisis committee in the Chancellery. But a crisis committee already existed as did regular meetings between state and federal governments. Why is a new body necessary?
Lindner: We need to finally have assessments on a daily basis. The new panel is not about retroactive criticism. Ex post facto appraisals do nothing to help the people in the intensive care units, nor does it help the people trying to save their lives.
DER SPIEGEL: All of the parties in the coalition have been open about the fact that the negotiations were difficult. What steps do you intend to take to develop trust within the coalition?
Lindner: I thought the talks were respectful and professional. It was important to us that we regularly come together as a coalition, without the show-down situations seen in the Grand Coalition between the Union and the SPD. Olaf Scholz told us about his previous practice in Hamburg (Scholz was mayor of the city-state of Hamburg from 2011 to 2018) of regularly leading informal talks ahead of cabinet meetings with no pre-established agenda. That seems appropriate to me for the development of trustful cooperation, which is why we are adopting the practice in the new coalition.
DER SPIEGEL: The former government would occasionally hold retreats at Meseberg Palace, the government’s guest house, to exchange views. Have you come up with a similar format for team building within the coalition?
Lindner: We have just spent so many hours together in the coalition negotiations that I am more looking forward to again spending time with family and friends.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Lindner, we thank you for this interview.