Richard Arnold, Mayor of Schwäbisch Gmünd, Baden-Württemberg. Germany
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Mayor of the Month for September 2013
Mayor of Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany
Interviewed by Tann vom Hove
3 September 2013: After representing Baden-Württemberg, Germany’s second most prosperous state, at the European Union (EU) in Brussels for nine years, Richard Arnold could have moved to any number of senior government positions in either Berlin or Stuttgart. Instead he decided to return to his hometown of Schwäbisch Gmünd to run for mayor. In an interview with City Mayors, Mayor Arnold explained that at local level a politician is not only closest to ordinary people but can also influence and implement cutting-edge changes. “I cannot imagine anything more rewarding than to be able to be part of and help shaping these changes in my hometown,” he said.
Richard Arnold was born in 1959 in Schwäbisch Gmünd, a city of some 60,000 people, 50km east of Stuttgart and, following his education at a local high school, studied public administration at the universities of Konstanz and Frankfurt. After a scholarship year at one of America’s elite universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology“ (MIT) in 1988, Arnold worked for two years at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels as expert on EU agricultural and environmental policies. Before returning to Brussels in 2000, he occupied several senior posts with the state government of Baden-Württemberg in Stuttgart. From 2000 until 2009, Arnold headed the representative office of Baden-Württemberg at the EU. In 2007, during the German presidency of the Council of the European Union, Arnold was voted one of the best-known and most influential Germans in Brussels. In May 2009, Arnold defeated Schwäbisch Gmünd’s incumbent Social-Democrat mayor in the first round of the election.
Mayor Arnold is a member of Germany’s centre-right Christian Democrat Union (CDU) and one who cherishes his Christian, liberal-humanistic values. He considers people and their concerns central to all major decisions. “Whatever we aim for, we have to achieve it for the people and not regard them as a means to an end.” He believes in a modern conservatism that recognises that more and more people no longer want to be dominated by a cold, soulless, purely profit-orientated technocracy.
During his years outside Germany, Arnold embraced globalisation - he now speaks German, English, French, Dutch and Spanish - but also learnt that in an increasingly mobile, outward-orientated society, the role of the local community was more important than ever. Even while working in Brussels, he never cut the ties that bound him to his hometown. As an accomplished tenor, Arnold was particularly keen to remain part Schwäbisch Gmünd’s cultural scene.
Recently the mayor has attracted national and international attention for his advocacy for greater rights for refugees. At Schwäbisch Gmünd he regards himself as mayor of all people including asylum seekers and believes they should be allowed to participate more actively in society. “Forced idleness can lead to apathy and even crime.”
City Mayors interviews Schwäbisch Gmünd Mayor Richard Arnold
City Mayors: After university, you worked for many years in Brussels. It would therefore have been an obvious next move to continue your political career working for the Baden-Württemberg state government in Stuttgart or the federal government in Berlin. Why did you decide you to run for mayor in your hometown?
Mayor Richard Arnold: Working for the regional state government would no doubt have been an attractive option, with many stimulating challenges and tasks. But for a politician, the job of a mayor brings one closest to ordinary people, their concerns and how they are affected by everyday developments. I believe at local level today one can witness and perhaps even influence some of the most innovative, exciting and cutting-edge changes. In an increasingly mobile, outward-orientated society, the role of the local community is more important than ever. In a nutshell, globilisation strengthens the way we live in our towns and cities. I cannot imagine anything more rewarding than to be able to be part of and help shaping these changes in my hometown.
City Mayors: Have you already been concerned about local government issues during your time as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and your years in Brussels?
Mayor Arnold: If one is involved, as intensively as I have been, with politics and public administration, one cannot ignore what happens locally. After all, each decision taken at European or international level will, one way or another, affect our towns and cities. During my years away from Germany, I kept in touch with friends and colleagues in Schwäbisch Gmünd and remained thoroughly informed about all the main issues concerning the city.
City Mayors: You are open about your homosexuality and have lived with your partner for many years. Have you ever thought that your sexuality could hinder your political career in a conservative party and a predominantly Catholic town?
Mayor Arnold: Until his death last year, I have lived with my partner and husband Stephan Kirchenbauer in my parents’ house. The people of Schwäbisch Gmünd and its surrounding villages as well as friends and colleagues have long known us as a couple. I have never asked myself whether my love for Stephan could affect my political career. Anyway, I believe that anyone who has decided to go into politics and devote himself to serving the community cannot pretend to be someone he isn’t or try to present a fake picture of himself. The job requires so much energy and stamina that there is no strength left for any acting. People develop pretty soon a feeling of whether one is honnest and authentic. Incidentally, whether one loves a man or a woman is not a political issue. A modern conservatism is based on stable, reliable relationships between people as well as on trustworthy and resilient social structures irrespective whether in heterosexual or same-sex marriages, in friendships, among different generations or neighbours, in social clubs and also at work places.
City Mayors: By electing you in 2009 against the incumbent mayor, Schwäbisch Gmünd has furthered its reputation of an open minded and tolerant community. Do minorities feel at home in your city and are they part of society? And what does your town do to strengthen the integration of people with different backgrounds?
Mayor Arnold: To enable people to integrate and participate in everyday life is a task we are faced with every day in different ways. But essentially it is about one thing: Allowing people to meet, to bring them together so they start communicating. Most people who talk to each other rather than about each other, who work together, celebrate together and aim for a common goal will lose their prejudices and resentments. For me as mayor, it is therefore important to exclude no one in our city. We need to bring people together, wherever they come from or whatever their background.
City Mayors: In a recent television interview you stressed that asylum seekers and refugees were first and foremost human beings and should not be treated as administrative cases. How does your administration treat refugees?
Mayor Arnold: Here in Schwäbisch Gmünd, we don’t delight in bureaucratic procedures but focus instead on enabling people to live together in harmony, day in day out. I must tell you, I am the mayor of all the people who live in our community. And that includes the refugees. We should regard refugees, who share our space, as people who are entitled to human rights but who must also accept certain duties. As mayor, I want to promote a return to asylum laws based on humanitarian and Christian principles.
City Mayors: You said you regarded yourself as mayor for all people in Schwäbisch Gmünd including refugees and suggested that local communities should be allowed to decide how best to help asylum seekers and how best to integrate them for the benefit of all. What do you urge the state and federal governments in Stuttgart and Berlin to do?
Mayor Arnold: We need to change our perspectives. Man and his dignity must again become central to our thinking. And we have to provide refugees, many of whom arrive here with many talents and skills, with some tasks and organise a structured day for them. Forced idleness can lead to apathy and even crime. It is therefore essential that refugees be allowed to carry out some meaningful work, perhaps as early as six months after they have arrived. And there should be training and educational opportunities provided for young people.
City Mayors: While some of your political opponents have described your initiative to provide asylum seekers with work for nominal pay as disrespectful and inappropriate, refugee organisations praised your scheme. For many refugees you became a local hero. Could you briefly explain the background of the initiative and how it was received by the people of Schwäbisch Gmünd?
Mayor Arnold: Right now, the Schwäbisch Gmünd railway station is being completely modernised and rebuilt in preparation for next year’s Baden-Württemberg flower show. During the construction there exists unfortunately only a temporary footbridge over the railway tracks. Elderly people or travellers with children and luggage require help to cross from one platform to the other. The German railway operators (Deutsche Bahn) did not come up with any solution nor did they have the staff to help their passengers. I then therefore approached refugees who were housed in the city and asked whether they would help. Nine men immediately agreed to step in - and they did so not only to earn a little bit of money and perhaps a few tips but they wanted some purpose in their daily lives and were looking forward to help others and become, in a small way, part of society. The initiative was broadly welcomed by the people of Schwäbisch Gmünd and by railway travellers, who also enjoyed, often for the first time, the chance to talk to the refugees. Unfortunately the scheme was criticised by some ‘self-appointed moral guardians’ from the extreme left, who actually had never visited or talked to the refugees.
City Mayors: As you may have read, some communities in Switzerland have banned asylum seekers from public facilities such as swimming pools and libraries. What do you think of such restrictions and could you imagine the introduction of similar measures in Baden-Württemberg?
Mayor Arnold: No, I cannot image that at all! It makes no sense whatsoever. Conflicts will occur when people are condemned to inactivity over a long period or not allowed to further develop themselves.
City Mayors: You were elected Mayor of Schwäbisch Gmünd in 2009, one year after the most recent global economic recession. Has the crisis, from we have not yet fully recovered, had an effect on your comparatively well-off city in one of Germany’s most prosperous states?
Mayor Arnold: Schwäbisch Gmünd is, of course, not cut off from national and international developments, however, its economy is based on tradecrafts, the service sector and care services. The health, education and creative sectors are of particular importance - industries, which we believe, will grow stronger over the coming years. The city never became rich during the peak periods of manufacturing but always had to rely on innovative ideas to secure its economic base. This will not change in future.
City Mayors: We can imagine that falling car sales in Germany and Europe worry some of your local companies. It is also possible that the growing importance of markets outside Europe for German cars may negatively impact on automotive suppliers based in Baden-Württemberg. How do you foresee your local economy to develop over the next two decades?
Mayor Arnold: No doubt, the automotive industry and its suppliers will remain the key pillars of our regional economy. The region, which sees itself as the birthplace of the automobile, will continue to develop modern and innovative concepts for future mobility. In Schwäbisch Gmünd, however, we rely on a broad based economy and support successful industries such as health, natural cosmetics, design, precious metals and our world-leading expertise in surface technologies.
City Mayors: Tourism is a vital source of revenue for Schwäbisch Gmünd. How do you promote the oldest ‘Staufer town?
Mayor Arnold: Schwäbisch Gmünd has one of the most enchanting city centres in southern Germany, with many historic buildings and a rich history. The city also offers a wide range of independently run specialty shops and hosts many exiting events. We are very happy to welcome visitors from the surrounding areas and further afield to the oldest Staufer town and promote it in co-operation with other touristic partners such as the Stuttgart region or the holiday destination Swabian Alb.
City Mayors: Schwäbisch Gmünd is only 50km away from Stuttgart. While this is economically advantageous, does it lead to a cultural impoverishment? How do you see your relationship with your big neighbour?
Mayor Arnold: We live in harmony with our big neighbour and don’t compete culturally. Schwäbisch Gmünd has developed its own distinctive cultural profile, which complements what the state capital has to offer. For example, the European Festival of Church music is being recognised across Europe for its high-quality programmes, while the festival of shadow theatre attracts visitors from all over the world. In addition, the city’s philharmonic orchestra, staged musicals and cabaret performances are very popular throughout the region.
City Mayors: For the past two years, Baden-Württemberg has been ruled by a Prime Minister from the Green Party, who replaced your own CDU party, which had governed continuously since 1953. While we believe that you and Prime Minister Winfried Kretschmann have personally a lot in common, has it now become more difficult to be heard in the state capital? On the other hand, we could imagine that some of your ideas and initiatives are more acceptable to the ‘Greens’ than to your own party.
Mayor Arnold: Local politics is primarily about people, their problems and concerns, with little attention being paid to party doctrines. I have over the years developed clear Christian, liberal-humanistic values with people at their core. Whatever we aim for, we have to achieve it for the people and not regard them as a means to an end. This may be called conservative but I’ve found that more and more people don’t want to be dominated any longer by a cold, soulless, purely profit-orientated technocracy.
Believe me, if you take an interest in, care for your neighbours, your fellow citizens, your locality or your city, you will heal your soul. And this will lead to more happiness and long-term contentment than any luxury cruise.
Trust, partnership, reliability, empathy for others, commitment to the common good, the view beyond one’s own narrow horizon into the world of others, openness, tolerance and taking responsibility for our world and society are the characteristics which to my mind are associated with modern conservatism more than with any other political thinking. Perhaps Prime Minister Kretschmann shares some or many of the qualities I listed.
City Mayors: How closely do you work together with other communities and towns and cities from outside Germany?
Mayor Arnold: We maintain close and friendly relationships with all the communities in our immediate region. Many things are easier to achieve together. Next year’s flower show in Schwäbisch Gmünd showcases not just my city but represents the whole region and everybody in our homeland. Many, many people, social and sport clubs as well as organisations will contribute to the show’s success and enjoyment. And that includes our partner cities in France, Italy, Hungary, Britain and the US, with whom we maintain close contacts and meetings of mind.
Since we established city-to-city ties, close friendships have developed not just between municipal officials but, more importantly, between ordinary citizens, schools and other community groups. These are genuine, living partnerships, which cannot be created by decree.
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