The Social Democrat Ralf Stegner, 64, has been a member of the Bundestag since 2021 and sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee. In the SPD, he belongs to the Parliamentary Left. In Schleswig-Holstein, he was previously Finance Minister and then Minister of the Interior.

WELT: Mr Stegner, the SPD fell to a new record low in the European elections. What conclusions must the Social Democrats draw from this historically bad result?

Ralf Stegner: We must clearly address the issues that concern millions of people – such as work, pensions, care, health, housing, and climate protection – with practical answers that are fair and communicated in clear language. To do this, we must not leave the issues of peace policy and the refugee crisis to the populists from Wagenknecht’s group and certainly not to the right-wing radical AfD. With our clear profile, which differs from that of the FDP, the Greens and the CDU, we must stand up to the others with much more confidence.

WELT: If you interpret the result nationally, the traffic light coalition was punished. A reason for new elections?

Stegner: Oh well, the substance of the crisis policy is good, but the craftsmanship and communication need to be improved. This is the noise of a fundamentalist opposition from the CDU/CSU, who themselves have nothing to offer. That is precisely why it is so annoying when people talk down their own achievements or argue like tinkers. It is our patriotic duty not to run away, but to do our work until regular elections are due, and not to question our institutions.

WELT: In the European election campaign, you promoted the SPD with the slogan “Secure peace.” What kind of peace do you mean, and how does your party secure it?

Stegner: We put this up because my generation grew up in peace and prosperity after the Second World War and it is our obligation to guarantee this to our children and grandchildren. Most members of the SPD are – like me – not pacifists, but opponents of war. We have our democracy because Nazi Germany was defeated militarily. That is why we must support other countries today. But we also know that every war means death, destruction, rape and trauma. Those who talk lightly about war are usually not its victims.

WELT: So how do you want to secure this peace?

Stegner: Securing peace means different things in different regions. In Ukraine, the aim is to bring an end to the war without Putin being able to shift borders by force. To achieve this, it is not enough to supply weapons and believe that we will force Russia to the negotiating table at some point by military means. The likelihood of this being successful is extremely low.

That is why Germany is the main supporter of Ukraine after the USA, not only militarily, but with economic, humanitarian and political aid. We help finance Kiev’s budget, we take in most of the refugees and we talk to countries like China, which have influence over Russia. Militarily, we want to protect the civilian population in particular from Russian drones and missiles through air defense. On the other hand, we are skeptical about systems such as fighter jets, cruise missiles or medium-range missiles that are intended to bring the war to Russia.

WELT: The German government has just agreed to allow Ukraine to use Western weapons on Russian territory. Was that the right decision if you don’t want to bring the war to Russia?

Stegner: This is not a change in strategy. If a large city like Kharkiv is under fire from Russian territory near the border, it must be possible to defend the people there. But this is an isolated case, not a blank check. The basic rule is: details of the personnel and territorial deployment of weapons should not be made public. No chess player reveals his next five moves because otherwise he will lose the game.

Such debates only appeal to loudmouths who want to show how brave they are in Germany. A Chancellor cannot allow himself to be so euphoric about escalation. Olaf Scholz is not intimidated by Putin’s fear-mongering propaganda, but is cautiously keeping an eye on the risks.

WELT: At first it was considered prudent not to allow the use of German weapons on Russian territory. Now it is said to be prudent to do so. Doesn’t this make the Chancellor’s peace agenda lose credibility?

Stegner: No. The Chancellor’s central promise remains to ensure that Germany and NATO do not become parties to the war. In doing so, he is closely aligned with US President Joe Biden. He cannot talk about everything publicly. That is one reason why the majority of the population is certainly happy that it is not Anton Hofreiter, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann or Friedrich Merz who are in the Chancellery, but Olaf Scholz.

WELT: What concrete diplomatic idea do you have for Ukraine?

Stegner: Any public proposal would rightly be rejected by Ukraine as a sovereign state. Diplomacy only works behind closed doors and not with public chatter.

WELT: SPD parliamentary group leader Rolf Mützenich spoke of a “freezing” of the conflict. Isn’t that a call for the ceding of territory?

Stegner: He didn’t say permafrost. Freezing means, for example, agreeing to regional ceasefires in order to even start a discussion. It is estimated that 900 Russian and 600 Ukrainian soldiers are killed or seriously injured every day. Putin doesn’t care, Ukraine doesn’t care, and we can’t be indifferent. When French President Emmanuel Macron then says that if in doubt we should also consider NATO ground troops, that is not strategic ambiguity, but the threat of World War III.

WELT: Wouldn’t it be wiser to keep Putin in the dark about how far you are prepared to go?

Stegner: In principle, yes, but not in relation to proposals that would be equivalent to suicide attacks. In a nuclear war, whoever shoots first is the second to die. Olaf Scholz is pursuing a different line: we have to convince countries like China or India, which do not share all of our values ​​but perhaps have more influence on Russia than we do. We have arguments because they want to do business with us.

WELT: India also wants German military equipment. Are you in favor of this?

Stegner: I am not a fan of arms exports to crisis and war zones because more weapons all over the world bring more insecurity and I do not see the turning point as an economic stimulus package for the arms industry. But I also say: Our morals are sometimes a little questionable when we supply Saudi Arabia but not countries like India.

WELT: Putin could also be trying to ensure the survival of his regime by constantly creating new foreign policy crises and conflicts. It is possible that he has no interest in peace. How do you plan to take that into account?

Stegner: That is an important aspect, but of course Russia has other interests in the long term. Having only rogue friends like North Korea and Iran is not beneficial. Putin may have brutally driven out all opposition from his population, but he still has to offer them something. In short: peace agreements are made between enemies. But I don’t see a sensible alternative to this.

WELT: Do you share the assessment of the 32 NATO states and the SPD defense minister that Russia could be militarily able and willing to attack NATO territory in a few years?

Stegner: We are also capable of doing the opposite, but that doesn’t mean we would do it. Hybrid warfare – for example deep fakes – and the infiltration of Western democracies by Russia and China worry me more at the moment. Democracy cannot defend itself with the same systems. The arms race has a high self-punishing effect. We use up resources that cause damage instead of using them to solve problems such as poverty, environmental destruction and migration.

WELT: If the state does not invest in armaments, it is vulnerable.

Stegner: I agreed to the special fund because I believe that we must restore Germany’s alliance and defense capabilities. But it is wrong to terminate disarmament agreements.

WELT: Let’s look at another war. You also attribute the escalation in the Middle East to a diplomatic failure. On October 7, Hamas terrorists attacked Israel. What could diplomacy have done to stop that?

Stegner: Germany has a special responsibility to ensure that the State of Israel can live safely. That is absolutely clear. The State of Israel only exists because of the Holocaust, for which Germany is to blame. Any solution that does not guarantee Israel’s security against terrorism and anti-Semitism is therefore never permissible. But humanity always applies to all people. It is therefore not legitimate to allow children and the civilian population to suffer to the extent that is happening in Gaza. The complete absence of European diplomacy has contributed to the situation we are in today. Fortunately, this has changed with Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

WELT: On October 7, the Hamas terrorists carried out brutal massacres against the Israeli population. They slaughtered, raped and murdered people. There are still far more than 100 hostages in the hands of Hamas. Israel must defend itself. How can you then say that all it needs is more diplomacy?

Stegner: Of course Israel must be able to defend itself, but it must not completely ignore humanitarian aspects. It might need a United Nations peacekeeping force to agree on the goals I just mentioned: Israel’s security against terrorists while at the same time preserving humanity. Diplomacy means that the international community is much more involved. There is a simple, completely false idea of ​​diplomacy, as if it is about sitting down directly with Putin or Hamas leaders and reaching an agreement. Of course, that is not diplomacy, it is nonsense.

WELT: But the timing of public statements also plays a role. You recently spoke out in favor of recognizing Palestine as an independent state. This could also be interpreted as meaning that you do not feel obliged to show solidarity with Israel. Was it wise to say that now?

Stegner: It’s not about immediate recognition, but how long do we want to wait before we address the issue? It’s not enough to just say that we like a two-state solution. We must also help to establish it. That doesn’t mean ending solidarity with Israel. Israel’s security must always be guaranteed. Terrorism and anti-Semitism must always be fought. Humanity and self-determination also apply to the Palestinian people, otherwise new generations will grow up hating each other. That will not only lead to misfortune, but has the potential to set the whole world on fire.

WELT: The situation in the Middle East is also having an impact on domestic political debates in Germany. There are increasing numbers of anti-Semitic protests by pro-Palestinian groups. In your view, are the protests covered by freedom of expression?

Stegner: No. Anything that goes against the unchangeable basic principles of the Basic Law is not covered by freedom of expression. We cannot tolerate slogans on posters that are clearly anti-Semitic or racist. At the same time, we have a strange debate about freedom of expression in Germany. Many people believe that if we regulate the platforms, this is an infringement on freedom of expression.

WELT: You mean social media.

Stegner: Yes. When films like the one about the brutal Islamist knife attack in Mannheim are distributed, potential perpetrators think they could do the same. This encourages so-called lone perpetrators to become radicalized. Everything that is forbidden in the real world must also remain forbidden in the virtual world. That is my firm belief. Violence can never be accepted, no matter who it comes from and who it is directed against! Calls for violence are not compatible with the Basic Law, and so-called “remigration”, which I would rather call deportations, is even less so.

I am very much in favor of the right to demonstrate. You can also talk nonsense. This conservative narrative that there is no freedom of speech in Germany is nonsense. But it ends where Article 1 of the Basic Law is violated: Human dignity is inviolable. Democracy depends on us taking seriously what is written in our wonderful constitution.