Thomas Oppermann has been a member of the German Bundestag for Göttingen in Lower Saxony since 2005 and was elected Vice-President of the Bundestag in October 2017. In addition to his role as Parliamentary Vice President, Oppermann is a member of several Bundestag bodies, including the Joint Committee, the Committee for the Election of the Judges to the Federal Constitutional Court, and he serves as a substitute member of the Mediation Committee. He is vice-chairman of the German-Israeli Parliamentary Group.
Previously, Oppermann served as Chairman of the German Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) Parliamentary Group between 2013 and 2017. Prior to that, he served as the SPD’s First Parliamentary Secretary (2007-2013). Between 2007 and 2013 he also served as the chairman of the Parliamentary Control Panel, responsible for the democratic control of Germany’s intelligence services. In addition, he has served as deputy member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Committee on Legal Affairs (2009-2013). From 2006 to 2007 he served as the chairman for the SPD to the Parliamentary Committee on Secret Service Investigations.
Prior to his time in the Bundestag, Oppermann was an elected member of the State Parliament of Lower Saxony for 15 years, from 1990 to 2005, where he was appointed Minister for Science and Cultural Affairs from 1998 until 2003. A member of the Social Democratic Party since 1980, Oppermann held various positions in the party’s youth organization. He graduated from Göttingen University’s Law School in Göttingen, Germany in 1983, and worked as a judge in the Hanover and Brunswick Administrative Courts.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’re a member of the foreign affairs committee, a senior social democrat in the Bundestag, so you have a fair amount of experience in matters concerning German domestic and foreign politics. How would you characterize the current challenges of German foreign policy, especially the Transatlantic relationship?
The majority of members on the foreign affairs committee are worried about the state of the Transatlantic partnership. Since the presidency of Donald Trump, many people are irritated about his attitude towards NATO, towards multilateralism and international cooperation. But we strongly believe that the European-American partnership, especially the German-American partnership is a cornerstone of our basic values – like freedom, democracy, the social market economy. And we believe that we would not have achieved prosperity and security without the strong friendship of the United States.
Germany has agreed to a 2% defense spending goal – but how is this goal to be reached? Is there a plan? How would you characterize German contributions to this goal?
As Germans, we are aware of the fact that we have to take over more responsibility in international politics. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, everybody thought that it was the end of history and that military confrontation would end. That was an error. We now realize that, in a rapidly changing world, defense and settlement of international conflicts has an increasing relevance. During the last five years, we have raised our defense budget by 36%, which is the equivalent of 1.36% of our GDP. At the same time, we are number two in the area of humanitarian aid, just behind the United States. In 2017, we almost realized the ODA [Official Development Assistance] quote of 0.7%. Germany spends 15 billion euro on economic cooperation. It is our firm conviction that national and international security depends on successful economic cooperation. At the same time, the German army was reorganized, so that we are able to support international missions in Afghanistan, in Mali, in Iraq, in the anti-DAESH coalition, in Yugoslavia and many other places in the world. Germany has pledged to reach or fulfill the two percent agreement, but we need more time.
How do you imagine a post-Trump United States, and what do you think the German-American relationship will look like in the future?
The German-American friendship will survive the era of Donald Trump. Currently, it looks like Donald Trump and Germany simply won’t get along. But the German-American friendship is strong, and will survive the Trump era. It has been difficult to live with Donald Trump for the last three years. If he gets reelected, it will be even more difficult after eight years to return to business as usual. I believe his strict unilateralism, his nationalism, his populism will have an effect on many serious politicians who believe in dialogue, cooperation, reliability, and compromise.
Prior to your political career, you spent some time in the United States as a volunteer. How did that experience move you in the direction of law and politics?
I used to be a volunteer as a community organizer in the 1970s for the Neighborhood Uniting Project in Brentwood, Maryland. Later on, I joined the National Boycott Office of the UFW, AFL-CIO in New York. That was a fundamental experience. I worked together with young American college students who also volunteered for these organizations. It showed me that no matter whether you live in Germany, in Europe, or in the United States, social justice does not come by itself. It is always the result of political activity. That’s why I decided to go to law school and to run for public office. Now, I’ve been a member of Parliament for 30 years. But I always like to look back to the start of the journey, which started here in Washington, DC.
What does social democracy mean to you?
Social democracy means to create peace and social justice. Social democrats must focus on workers and their families. They must take care for a strong economy, decent wages, just distribution, good education, and must make sure that every person – no matter where they come from, what they believe, or what they look like – that every person has the opportunity to live their own life, to earn enough money to sustain themselves and to take up responsibility, and to be respected.