Letter from Berlin Germany's Lonely Chancellor

Angela Merkel's partners in Europe are angry, her opposition at home is more aggressive than ever, and she even faces increasingly vocal criticism from within her own ranks. This is the toughest period of her chancellorship so far, and there is no prospect that things will get any easier for her.

These are hard times for Angela Merkel.
AP

These are hard times for Angela Merkel.

By and


German Chancellor Angela Merkel was visibly relieved. She broke into a smile when the result of Friday's vote on the euro rescue package was read out in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament. She clapped her hands a few times and then, together with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, walked from the government benches over to where her party's parliamentary leader, Volker Kauder, was seated. They exchanged a few words -- perhaps she was thanking him -- and then Merkel took her bag and left the floor alone.

Merkel had achieved her goal. The Bundestag had just approved the euro bailout plan and paved the way for German loan guarantees for up to €148 billion ($185 billion).

Achieving this victory was not something she had taken for granted. She seemed tense during the hours of debate leading up to the vote. A number of members of parliament from her party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) and its coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), had expressed doubts about the bailout plan, and several politicians had been absent from the vote due to illness. Could the coalition still garner a majority of votes? In the end, it did, with the relatively tolerable blemish of only 10 "no" votes or abstentions among coalition members of parliament.

But even if Merkel was spared embarrassment last Friday, the nail-biter in parliament was symptomatic. These are tough times for Angela Merkel, the toughest, in fact, she has experienced in her four-and-a-half years as German chancellor. She has never seemed this lonely and beleaguered. Merkel is losing the confidence of voters, the approval ratings of her center-right CDU/FDP coalition have slumped to around 40 percent and more than 50 percent of Germans are dissatisfied with their chancellor.

EU Partners Fuming

She has few friends left in Europe at the moment. The days are over when Merkel was feted at EU summits for her diplomatic skills. In the negotiations over aid for Greece she stubbornly resisted a rapid agreement, often resorting to a shrill tone that made her unpopular with the governments of many EU member states.

Merkel is no longer the celebrated euro star. After blocking a rescue deal for Greece for months, she is now forging head with calls for a new "culture of stability" that some EU partners regard as unwarranted lecturing. In addition, France, Germany's most important partner in Europe, was annoyed at Germany's unilateral ban on naked short selling last week. One should "at least consult other member states first," said French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde.

Merkel's new-found enthusiasm for a financial transactions tax, something she long resisted, has been met with a mixture of surprise and suspicion in Europe. The move, many observers believe, is primarily aimed at helping to restore her flagging popularity at home.

Merkel has "botched" her responsibility to deal with the euro crisis in recent months, former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said in an interview with SPIEGEL this week. "Germany is more isolated in the EU than ever before but we Germans are still bearing the brunt of the financial burden while the French president is being celebrated for it," said Fischer. "That's really first-class statesmanship! I can't remember anything as embarrassing as this happening since 1949."

Her loss of confidence abroad is coinciding with declining support in Germany. Her domestic power base has started to crumble. She isn't just facing sharp resistance from the opposition -- her own coalition is increasingly divided as well. The FDP feels neglected, there is growing unrest in the CDU/CSU parliamentary group and state governors from her own party have started sniping at her.

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