German President Steinmeier, the Anti-Trump

Frank-Walter Steinmeier was elected German president on Sunday. The Social Democrat will likely be very political, focusing on defending Europe and fighting against populism.
Quelle: dpa
Frank-Walter Steinmeier flew 400,000 kilometers a year as foreign minister, crisscrossing the globe.
(Source: dpa)

On the sidelines of a Dutch-German forum in Berlin, students are lining up to take pictures of Mr. Steinmeier. Even the former Bundestag president, Rita Süssmuth, is full of praise, thanking Mr. Steinmeier for his candidacy. The white-haired Mr. Steinmeier embodies like no other the “spirit of keeping doors open,” according to the Christian Democrat politician.

Mr. Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, was elected as Germany’s 12th post-war president on Sunday, despite the fact that Chancellor Angela Merkel did not want him in the country’s highest, albeit mostly ceremonial office.

Mr. Steinmeier has already achieved what many before him have needed years serving as president to do: become Germany's most popular politician. He wants to use his popularity to achieve two main goals: "To fight and to argue for this Europe,” Mr. Steinmeier said in a surprisingly emotional and unscripted speech to the German and Dutch young people. “We need this Europe more urgently than ever,” but it is stuck in its “deepest crisis ever, which might threaten its existence,” Mr. Steinmeier said.

I want to encourage people. Democracy does not tolerate resignation. Frank-Walter Steinmeier

Mr. Steinmeier, who was once seen as somewhat of a blank slate, later turned into a peripatetic foreign minister, racking up 400,000 flight kilometers annually. His second major concern as the nation’s president will be to strengthen confidence in democracy.

He sees a world increasingly inundated by fake news, communicating in echo chambers and constantly working in a mode of escalation. "If I'm not yet in a bad mood in the evening, I look at the comments on my Facebook page," the 61-year-old told the students.

In recent weeks, Mr. Steinmeier has been on the road campaigning. During his meetings with electors in state parliaments in Potsdam and Stuttgart, representatives of Germany's right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany party were present. Behind closed doors, the Social Democrat made very clear that the president must be non-partisan, "but partisan for our democracy." He did not join in the "whining about the party system" and is determined to make the truth discernible from lies. "I want to encourage people. Democracy does not tolerate resignation,” Mr. Steinmeier added. He wants to contribute to solidarity in a democratic society, the politician said.

Mr. Steinmeier’s father was a carpenter, his mother was a factory worker and had been displaced from Wroclaw, formerly Breslau, when it became part of Poland after World War II. Raised in Brakelsiek, a town in North Rhine-Westphalia, Mr. Steinmeier was the first member of his family to attend university, studying law in Giessen. During this time, his hair went gray overnight after he underwent a cornea transplant to save his eyesight. Later he donated a kidney to his wife Elke Büdenbender, an administrative judge in Berlin, who is said to be reluctant about her new role as Germany’s first lady.

10 p8 Who Elects the German President-01

The next head of state will have to fight for Europe and against populists with mighty words. Mr. Steinmeier, who was the SPD’s candidate for chancellor in the 2009 general election, will install a new team in Bellevue Palace, the president’s official residence. Stephan Steinlein, a former deputy foreign minister, who studied theology in the former East Germany, has worked for Mr. Steinmeier since 1999, and will head the president’s office.

From his former foreign ministry staff he’ll also bring his speechwriter Wolfgang Silbermann, the current head of the cultural department, Andreas Goergen, who will serve as head of domestic policy, as well as Thomas Bagger, slated as head of foreign policy. Oliver Schmolke, Mr. Steinmeier’s confidant during his stint as opposition leader in parliament, will be at the helm of the policy planning staff.

Foreign policy has long been his passion, and Europe is close to his heart, Mr. Steinmeier stressed during his last meeting with E.U. foreign ministers in Brussels in mid-January. There were even some tears shed, it was later reported. Mr. Steinmeier, who took his job very seriously, was extremely popular among his colleagues, as well as in the foreign ministry itself. So it is not surprising that his biographers refer to the man who rose from law student in Giessen, to head of Gerhard Schröder's media office in Hanover’s state parliament, then to the head of the chancellery and finally foreign minister, as a "paragon of respectability and integrity."

But there could be conflicts on the horizon: his new role requires political restraint, say some in Berlin. Especially since Ms. Merkel these days prefers foreign policy battles over lowly domestic policy. The outgoing SPD leader and Mr. Steinmeier’s successor as foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, has yet to find his foreign policy stride.

Mr. Steinmeier should however not change tack. He has managed to be extremely popular with heads of industry as well as artists. During his endless trips around the globe, Mr. Steinmeier actively pursued foreign cultural and economic policies, with chief executives, painters and filmmakers in tow. This is unlikely to change.

Mr. Steinmeier, who kept a frantic pace, and whose idea of foreign policy in the closing days of his tenure in the foreign ministry was a kind of speed-dating with meetings scheduled every half hour, visibly wore down his staff. Some in the government hope he'll slow down in his new role. Others, however, are already calling him the "anti-Trump" in Bellevue Palace - resorting to speeches instead of tweets, long explanations instead of tongue lashings and reminders instead of threats.

After all, in his last few years as foreign minister, Mr. Steinmeier had already been acting quite presidential.


Matthias Brüggmann heads Handelsblatt's foreign desk. To contact him: [email protected]