Sigmar Gabriel (born 12 September 1959) is a German politician who serves as the Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy and since 2013 as the 17th Vice Chancellor of Germany. Since 2009 he has been chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), which makes him the party’s longest-serving leader since Willy Brandt. He was the Minister of the Environment from 2005 to 2009. From 1999 to 2003 Gabriel was the 9th Minister President of Lower Saxony.
Gabriel is noted for being from the liberal wing of the SPD, which shares many similarities with Tony Blair's New Labour and Scandinavian social democrat parties.
Early life and education
Gabriel was born in Goslar, West Germany, the son of divorced parents, a public worker and a nurse. According to his own account, his father Walter was a fanatic Nazi "until his dying breath."
Sigmar Gabriel attended the public schools of Goslar, and completed two years of service in the Army. He attended the University of Göttingen and was educated as a grammar school teacher specializing in German, politics and sociology.
Gabriel joined the SPD in 1977 and soon held a number of positions in local politics. In 1990, he was first elected to the State Parliament of Lower Saxony, where he led the SPD parliamentary group from 1998 until 1999.
Minister-President of Lower Saxony
Minister-President of Lower Saxony, 1999–2003
On 15 December 1999, after the resignation of Gerhard Glogowski, who had succeeded Gerhard Schröder in office, Gabriel became Minister-President of Lower Saxony. He had previously won an internal party vote against Wolfgang Jüttner and Thomas Oppermann. He served until 4 March 2003. During these years, he was widely presented as a protégé of Schröder, and even as a possible successor as chancellor.
After being voted out of office in 2003, Gabriel became the SPD's "Representative for Pop Culture and Pop Discourse" from 2003 to 2005, for which he was bestowed the nickname Siggi Pop.
Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, 2005–2009
From 2005 to 2009 Gabriel was the Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety in the first cabinet of Angela Merkel (CDU).
During his time in office, Gabriel promoted the International Renewable Energy Agency. He also led the German delegation to the 2006 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Nairobi. In 2007, when Germany held the presidency of the Council of the European Union, he led the negotiations between European Union environment ministers on an ambitious effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels. That same year, he accompanied Merkel on a two-day visit to Greenland to see the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO world heritage site, and the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier in order to get a firsthand look at the effects of global warming.
Opposition leader, 2009–2013
Following the SPD's defeat in the federal election of 2009, Franz Müntefering resigned from the position of party chairman of the Social Democratic Party. Gabriel was nominated as his successor and was elected on 13 November 2009. He was re-elected as party chairman for a further two years at the SPD party conference in Berlin on 5 December 2011, receiving 91.6 percent of the vote.
During his early years as chairman, Gabriel pushed through internal party reforms. He abolished the party steering committee in favor of an expanded executive committee and led the regular party conventions, the most important meetings for the party. He also played a critical role in founding the Progressive Alliance in 2013 by cancelling the SPD payment of its £100,000 yearly membership fee to the Socialist International in January 2012. Gabriel had been critical of the Socialist International's admittance and continuing inclusion of undemocratic "despotic" political movements into the organization.
For the 2013 federal election, Gabriel was considered a possible candidate to challenge incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel but deemed too “unpopular and undisciplined” at the time. As a consequence, he and the other members of the party’s leadership agreed to nominate Peer Steinbrück after Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the party’s parliamentary leader, withdrew from the contest.
During the election campaign, Gabriel became the first SPD leader to address a party convention of Alliance '90/The Greens; in his speech, he called for a red–green alliance to defeat Merkel in the elections.
Vice-Chancellor and Federal Minister of Economic Affairs and Energy, 2013–present
In 2013, Gabriel turned the Social Democrats’ third successive defeat to Angela Merkel in the federal election into a share of government, after successfully navigating the three-month process of coalition negotiations and a ballot of about 475,000 party members, who endorsed the accord. At the time, he was widely considered to have negotiated skillfully, particularly considering the relative weakness of his party, which had received just over 25 percent of the vote in the elections, against more than 41 percent for Merkel’s conservative bloc.
At an SPD convention shortly after the elections, however, Gabriel and the other members of the party’s leadership were punished by delegates who re-elected them to their posts with reduced majorities; he received 83.6 percent of members’ ballots after 91.6 percent at the previous vote in 2011.
Gabriel, who serves as vice-chancellor in the third Merkel cabinet, took on responsibility for Germany’s energy overhaul as part of a newly configured Economy Ministry. Since late 2016, he has been a member of the German government's cabinet committee on Brexit at which ministers discuss organizational and structural issues related to the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union.
Speculation about Gabriel's future as leader of the SPD has been brewing since he registered just 74 percent in a party delegates' vote of confidence in December 2015 – the lowest for an SPD leader in 20 years. Still, he is widely seen as running in the 2017 federal elections given the lack of clear rivals and apparent reluctance among top SPD officials to take on what is viewed as an unenviable position. In May 2016, Gabriel invited others to put themselves forward so that party members can choose their candidate.
Gabriel has been staunchly against German soldiers remaining in Afghanistan. In 2010, he called for an independent assessment that would determine whether the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy would succeed. However, he voted in favor of extending German participation in the NATO-led security mission ISAF in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.
On the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, Gabriel participated in the first joint cabinet meeting of the governments of Germany and Israel in Jerusalem in March 2008. In 2012, after having visited Hebron and the Palestinian territories, he called Israel an "Apartheid Regime".
In one of the strongest comments by Germany to push for a federal solution for Ukraine, Gabriel told German weekly Welt am Sonntag in August 2014 that a federal structure was the only option to resolve pro-Russian unrest in the country. He added that Germany’s priority was to prevent direct conflict between Russia and its southern neighbour. Commenting on the international sanctions regime against Russia, Gabriel stated in early 2015 that “we want to help resolve the conflict in Ukraine but don’t want to force Russia to its knees.” He later suggested that Europe consider easing sanctions in exchange for cooperation in Syria. Ukrainian-American historian Alexander J. Motyl has accused Gabriel of "appeasement" and "a complete betrayal of everything democratic socialists claim to stand for."
In July 2015, Gabriel became the first top level German government visitor to Iran in 13 years as well as the first senior figure from any large western country’s government to visit the country since it struck an agreement on its nuclear program, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, only days earlier. Travelling with a delegation of German industry representatives keen to move back into the Iranian market, he met with President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh. The trip irritated Israel as well as the Jewish community; the Israeli ambassador privately voiced his concerns about Gabriel's visit to the German government, and the World Jewish Congress sharply criticized the minister, accusing him of putting business interests before morals and calling his approach to Tehran "naive".
In September 2015, amid the European migrant crisis, Gabriel visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan to learn more about the plight of Syrians fleeing the violence in the ongoing Syrian civil war that erupted in 2011. Gabriel publicly urged Saudi Arabia to stop supporting religious radicals, amid growing concern among about the country’s funding of Wahhabi mosques in Germany which are accused of breeding dangerous Islamists.
In January 2016, Gabriel participated in the first joint cabinet meeting of the governments of Germany and Turkey in Berlin. Later that year, he called any accession of Turkey to the European Union in the near term an "illusion."
On the occasion of the G20 summit in 2011, Gabriel joined Ed Miliband, the leader of the UK’s Labour Party, and Håkan Juholt, the chairman of the Swedish Social Democratic Party, in suggesting a “new deal” for economic growth. They also said G20 leaders should commit to the introduction of a financial transaction tax for all major financial centers and an agreement to separate consumer and investment banking.
In a letter to the European Commissioner for Trade, Karel De Gucht, Gabriel stated in March 2014 that “special investment-protection provisions are not required in an agreement between the E.U. and the U.S” on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Instead, he later called for a public trade and investment court to replace the current system of private arbitration, and to enable appeals against arbitration rulings. Meanwhile, he has continuously warned against overblowing expectations for an economic boost from TTIP but maintained that the pact was needed to set high common standards for consumers. By August 2016, Gabriel said talks on TTIP had "de facto" failed.
In September 2014, Gabriel rejected the inclusion of an investor-state dispute settlement clause in the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union, prompting a renegotiation that delayed the entry into force of the agreement. Following the renegotiations, he championed CETA to demonstrate the center-left party's business credentials.
In a 2014 meeting with French economist Thomas Piketty, whose best-selling work Capital in the Twenty-First Century calls for a wealth tax, Gabriel rejected such a progressive levy on capital as “crazy” for business. He also argued that a wealth tax would generate no more than 8 billion euros ($9.9 billion) a year.
Together with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, Gabriel presented a joint proposal in 2015 to set up a common eurozone budget.
Following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, Gabriel harshly criticized the International Atomic Energy Agency, saying it had promoted “the construction of nuclear plants in all parts of the world, even in war and crisis regions. That needs to stop.”
In 2015, Gabriel opposed a European Commission proposal for regional power-capacity markets, according to which utilities are paid for providing backup electricity at times when power generated by renewable sources, such as the sun and wind, cannot supply the grid. A free market backstopped by an emergency reserve will be cheaper and work just as well as capacity markets, Gabriel told Handelsblatt. He later warned against a hasty exit from coal-fired power generation, concerned that such a move could pile more pressure on producers still wrestling with the planned shutdown of nuclear plants by 2022.
Early in his tenure as Federal Minister of Economic Affairs and Energy, Gabriel vowed a much more cautious approach to licensing arms exports, unnerving the sizeable defense industry and signaling a change in policy from the previous coalition government under which sales rose. In August 2014, he withdrew permission for Rheinmetall to build a military training center east of Moscow.
Gabriel is bound by pledges to his SPD to reduce arms sales to states that abuse human rights and the rule of law or where such sales may contribute to political instability. He has stated that controls over the final destination of small arms sold to such nations are still insufficient. However, he also indicated that the government would not universally block deals with countries outside of Germany's traditional alliances. Deals with such countries could be approved because of "special foreign-policy or security interests." He suggested that in future the Federal Foreign Office may be a more appropriate body for deciding whether to allow exports, and called for common European arms exports. In late 2015, his ministry approved a merger of German tank maker Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) with the French armoured vehicle maker Nexter.
In May 2014, Gabriel and France’s economy and digital minister Arnaud Montebourg sent the European Commissioner for Competition, Joaquín Almunia, a letter criticizing the settlement of a three-year antitrust probe into Google; Gabriel later “warmly welcomed” the launch of EU antitrust charges against Google in April 2015.
In September 2014, Gabriel called Google, Amazon.com and Apple Inc. “anti-social” for skirting appropriate taxation. In early 2015, Gabriel and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron wrote in a joint letter to Vice-President of the European Commission Andrus Ansip that the growing power of some online giants “warrants a policy consultation with the aim of establishing an appropriate general regulatory framework for ‘essential digital platforms.’”
In 2016, during a series of Chinese bids for German engineering firms, Gabriel publicly called for a European-wide safeguard clause which could stop foreign takeovers of firms whose technology is deemed strategic for the future economic success of the region.
In April 2014, human rights lawyer Mo Shaoping was blocked from meeting Gabriel during his visit to China, despite the minister saying ahead of the meeting that he wanted to meet critical voices.
During a 2015 visit to King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Gabriel launched an unusual public effort to persuade Saudi authorities to free imprisoned writer Raif Badawi and grant him clemency, amplifying Germany’s political voice in a region in which its influence had largely been limited to economic issues in years past. He had been urged by MPs and human rights organizations to take up Badawi's case before his trip. His outspoken criticism of Saudi justice was unusual for Western leaders visiting the country, a close ally for the West in fighting terrorism and Islamic State militants, particularly given Germany’s status as Saudi Arabia’s third-largest source of imports. While the U.S. State Department had previously also criticized the Badawi sentence, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not talk about the case publicly when he visited Riyadh only days before.
During a subsequent trip to Qatar, Gabriel called on the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani and other senior officials to do better in protecting foreign household workers who face abuse from their employers.
In 2010, Gabriel called the speeches of Thilo Sarrazin, his party colleague who wrote critically about immigration by accusing Muslims of refusing to integrate and of “dumbing down” German society, "verbal violence". He stated that although Sarrazin described many things that were accurate, his conclusions did not fit into the egalitarian “ideals” of Social Democracy anymore.
In 2016, a German court nullified Gabriel’s controversial decision to grant a special permission for the country's biggest supermarket chain Edeka to buy grocery store chain Kaiser's, owned by Tengelmann Group. The judges raised questions about the minister's "bias and a lack of neutrality" in the case, saying he had held secret discussion during the decision making process.
- KfW, ex-officio Chairman of the Board of Supervisory Directors
- RAG-Stiftung, ex-officio Member of the Board of Trustees
- Denkwerk Demokratie, Member of the Advisory Board
- Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Deputy Chairman (2005–2009)
- German Energy Agency (DENA), Member of the Supervisory Board (2005–2009)
- Max Planck Institute of Experimental Medicine, Member of the Board of Trustees (2005–2009)
- IG Metall, Member
- Lions Club, Member
Gabriel was married to Munise Demirel with whom he has a daughter, but the couple divorced. He has been in a relationship with dentist Anke Stadler since 2008. They married in a private ceremony in mid-August 2012, four months after their daughter Marie was born. Gabriel took parental leave during the first few months of the child's infancy.
In December 2016, Gabriel underwent bariatric surgery in Offenbach to shrink his stomach and help manage his diabetes.