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SPD’s Steinbrück Makes His Startup Mark Ahead of Election Battle

By David Knight |

It’s not going terribly well at the moment for Peer Steinbrück in his challenge for the Chancellorship of Germany – his party is flagging in the polls, his recent proposed tax hikes haven’t been received well everywhere and even his choice of football team is causing controversy. So what better way to get his campaign back on track ahead of September’s national election by sitting down with the ‘cool kids’ of Germany’s economy, startups?

In truth, that’s a bit too cynical and not really fair. Steinbrück, the centre-left SPD party’s candidate to take on incumbent Angela Merkel for the top job, is no fool when it comes to economics. And he appeared relaxed, sharp and genuinely interested when he sat down with a selection of Berlin’s top tech figures at the Factory on Wednesday.

Having studied economics in Kiel, Steinbrück became minister of economics and infrastructure in the German states of Schleswig-Holstein and then North Rhine-Westphalia, where he later became finance minister. In 2005, with the Grand Coalition of SPD and Merkel’s CDU/CSU taking power, he became the federal finance minister.

His experience, along with a piercing look, does give him a certain gravitas – while his genuine hilarity at spotting an enormous painting of the “Yes, this is dog” Internet meme on the wall of the SoundCloud office also suggested a softer side.

Peer Steinbrück (right) cracks up at the “Yes, this is dog” painting on the wall – sending Simon Schaefer, founder of the Factory, off as well

But personal impressions aside, was this just another senior politician ticking his digital boxes before an election? Chancellor Merkel has been keen to become closer with startups, having met with a group of senior tech figures last year who then invited her to an event last month. Her deputy, FDP leader Philipp Rösler, was also there, and shortly afterwards he spoke elegantly at the Startup Camp Berlin.

Much like German President Joachim Gauck during his visit to the Factory, however, Steinbrück addressed the crowd of journalists only briefly before sitting down for a private chat with the assembled entrepreneurs.

In his short public comments, though, he did promise that, if elected Chancellor, he would strengthen support for the ‘creative economy’. He said: “The main problem for founders is still the financing.” Although startups in Berlin have so far relied almost exclusively on private investors, in the future there could be more help in the way if initial funding coming from development banks like the KfW.

Steinbrück also mentioned the differences in culture in the US, where it is considered perfectly normal for entrepreneurs to fail several times and start again, to Germany, where “one is very quickly labelled as a loser.” In fact, he argued, those who have failed will hopefully have learned from that failure and deserve another chance.

All very positive, if now reasonably standard, stuff. But he was also impressive during the private round table afterwards. As it was a closed discussion, I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice to say he was keen to hear from founders and representatives of companies including SoundCloud (Eric Wahlross), ResearchGate (Ijad Madisch), Etsy (Caroline Drucker), Toast (Benedikt Bingler) and General Assembly (Jake Schwartz) about what problems they face in doing business in Germany.

Peer Steinbrück (centre) talking with Berlin entrepreneurs

And the SPD man wasn’t there simply to nod and smile politely. He questioned Monoqi‘s Simon Fabich closely about his views on labour laws, and promised to follow up. In addition, he had brought along party colleagues Eva Högl, the representative for Berlin-Mitte in the Bundestag (the German parliament), fellow Bundestag member Lars Klingbeil and Jan Stöß, chairman of the SPD in Berlin, to show he meant business.

Steinbrück’s recognition of the role small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) have to play in the German economy was reassuring – they are a big part of the reason, he said, why the country is doing well economically compared to other nations in Europe – and he seems willing, hopefully, to accept that governmental interference in the startup industry should be limited.

With his party slipping in the polls – Emnid recently had the CDU/CSU on 39 percent and the SPD on 26 percent – Steinbrück faces a fight over the next five months if he is to replace Angela Merkel in the hot seat. And while at first glance many people in the business world may be happy about that, he could yet prove to be a boon for Germany’s digital economy.