Sigmar Gabriel, Federal Foreign Minister (retired)

In his Auto Summit talk with Handelsblatt department chief Andrea Rexer, Sigmar Gabriel again demonstrated his penchant for straight talking. After Volkswagen’s strategy chief Michael Jost advocated meeting the two-degree target and reducing global CO2 emissions in his lecture, the former Federal Foreign Minister asked: „What‘s new?”

Twenty years ago, Gabriel said, lectures like that would have been revolutionary. But the auto industry had spent the last twenty years preventing exactly what Jost had just been talking about. In retrospect, Gabriel was critical of his own role and that of politics too: „We were the idiots who kept listening.“ Now, he said, was the time for corporations to change their business model of applying the brakes. The days of preventing regulation by sending companies to the CDU, and works councils to the SPD, were over.

But environmental protection was not the only issue presenting the automotive industry with completely new challenges, Gabriel said. Changes in the geopolitical situation also required companies to fundamentally reshape their strategies. In trade conflicts like the US import tariffs on cars, nation states and international organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) played an increasingly minor role. The best example of this was when high-ranking managers from Daimler, Volkswagen and BMW visited US President Donald Trump in early December. „Representatives of Germany’s most important industry can no longer rely on Germany or the European Union to create favourable conditions on their behalf.” said Gabriel. ”They have to go to the White House themselves and negotiate trade relations for the automobile industry there. That’s the worst possible description of the state of international trade organizations.“

Under President Trump, he said, rule-based communities no longer played a role for the US; now it was the law of the jungle. „Somebody with more leverage can switch off all the rules. And then the people this affects hope for a good deal, to use the words of Mr Trump.“ Gabriel said this posed particular challenges for Europe.

„The strong nations are calling the shots. Europe has no boss and no hotline, so it doesn’t really play a role in all these conflicts.“ Germany, too, would only be taken seriously as long as its economy remained strong. Against this backdrop, Europe needed to be far be more assertive in its foreign policy in future. This was also crucial in the ongoing trial of strength between the USA and China – the “two antipodes of the 21st century”. Gabriel said the chances of a multilateral world order were waning. “It’s looking more like G2. Not G7 or G20.” He warned Europeans not to get caught between the fronts, but to take a European road in fields ranging from research and security policies to education and infrastructure. As a counterweight to China and the USA, he said, Europe should also invest massively in future technologies such as AI.

Automotive Summit 2018 – Executive Summary

In early December 2018, over 600 automotive experts from all over the world – including manufacturers and suppliers, tech and energy companies, politicians and associations – attended the auto industry summit in Wolfsburg, Germany. From 3 – 5 December, the industry’s big hitters discussed strategies, concepts and technologies for tomorrow’s automobiles and the future course of their industry.

We’ve compiled the highlights from the Handelsblatt Auto Summit 2018 in an interactive follow-up report.