The World From Berlin: "In Politics, Friendships Count for Little"

Annette Schavan stepped down on Saturday to avoid embarrassment for her close confidante, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is campaigning to win a third term in office this year. Zoom
REUTERS

Annette Schavan stepped down on Saturday to avoid embarrassment for her close confidante, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is campaigning to win a third term in office this year.

German Education Minister Annette Schavan quit the government at the weekend, days after her doctoral thesis was revoked by the University of Düsseldorf. On Monday, German media commentators applauded her dignified response.

German Education Minister Annette Schavan resigned on Saturday, sparing Chancellor Angela Merkel inevitable embarrassment in an election year. Schavan was stripped of her doctorate last week, after allegations she copied parts of her thesis 33 years ago.

In her resignation statement, the former minister said she would take legal action against the University of Düsseldorf, which revoked her title, but would not remain in office as she did not want to damage her ministry.

Unusually, Merkel joined her long-time ally to face the press and paid warm tribute to her.

Merkel said she had accepted the resignation "only with a very heavy heart." Schavan has been her education and research minister since 2005, and was considered close to the chancellor.

Even opposition politicians praised Schavan's political achievements.

"Schavan is a highly decent and competent colleague, whose fate I am exceptionally sorry about," SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel was quoted as saying.

Although split on the necessity of the resignation, German editorialists were in broad agreement that Schavan's decision to step down was both inevitable and exemplary.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"(Merkel) did not want to sacrifice her ally, but she knew she had to. Schavan tried to make it easy for her. The minister didn't stubbornly cling to her job; she was realistic. She is saving her fight for legal action over her revoked doctoral title. That gave Schavan the strength she needed for the resignation, while Merkel appeared weak. The resignation revealed what Merkel rarely lets show: the burden of her office and how much the desire to retain power is taking its toll."

"The eight-minute resignation statement at the lectern in the Chancellery was poignant; it demonstrated the cruelty of politics but also how it can be confronted with dignity. In a way, these minutes were historic -- not only because it was the first time that the Chancellor didn't leave a cabinet minister alone to announce a resignation. They marked a brief but significant lesson, especially for the many members of the public who have nothing good to say about politics and see politicians as nothing but a bunch of reprehensible characters and charlatans, power-hungry, inept and on the make. The reasoning behind this resignation and the way it was done was an example of integrity and decency."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"Even a resignation requires skill, as Annette Schavan demonstrated. The Chancellor, who -- after seven years in office -- tends to be somewhat mechanical about parting ways with ministers and presidents, went beyond the call of duty with a tribute steeped in personal warmth. It must have been hard for Merkel to cave in to public outrage and sacrifice a high-ranking ally -- she has so few of them. As if agreed, they both wisely avoided any mention of the controversial thesis……The point made was a political one, and was determined neither by the plagiarized quotes of a young student more than three decades ago nor an Administrative Court decision, but by the situation eight months ahead of an election."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"It is not necessarily sentimental to read a certain tragedy into the resignation of the education minister. The under-stated style, resolve and sensitivity she demonstrated as the case unfolded earned her wide-ranging respect. With her resignation, she maintained a dignity that other politicians have been unable to muster recently. Beyond the various reasons for the departures from office of President Christian Wulff, Defense Minister zu Guttenberg, Environment Minister Röttgen and now Annette Schavan, it is apparent that there is increasingly little room for maneuver in political office."

"But in a worrying development, there now appears to be a public figure penalty. Schavan's 1980 thesis was not dug up because it was academically relevant but simply because its author occupies an important position. So the pressure is on for leading figures, who will have to get used to their résumés being closely examined for inconsistencies and omissions more often in future. Inevitably, those who hold office will have to armor themselves against this sort of ambush, which does not bode well for the passion and transparency that is so vital to the political process. Decisions, not avoidance strategies, are the lifeblood of politics."

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"It has been a while since the resignation of a politician met with the cross-party respect afforded Annette Schavan….. The tributes have been so effusive that it begs the question as to why exactly Schavan had to resign, when her commitment, discipline and personal integrity were never in doubt."

"(The Chancellor)…… did nothing to disguise the concerns she shared with many other politicians and even more 'normal' citizens regarding this and other cases……But as head of government considering political facts, she had to act…..An education and research minister whose doctoral title has been revoked on the grounds that she deliberately plagiarized, is not politically tenable."

"The second pressing issue is that Schavan is taking legal action against the University of Düsseldorf and gave this as the actual reason for her resignation. The die was therefore cast. The minister could no longer have remained in office…..With the lawsuit, Schavan is defending herself against a charge that she sees as wrong, unfair and offensive. She is fighting for her honor, which matters more to her than her office. This calls for respect, not least because the outcome of this legal battle is open. In contrast, the development and outcome of the political process would have been predictable. Had Annette Schavan not resigned, the opposition's sympathy would have soon turned into ferocious criticism of a woman hanging on to her office. Elections are taking place in eight months time. A minister under fire, moreover the closest ally of a Chancellor who as yet appears invulnerable, would be too easy a target even for politicians who usually complain about how inhuman politics, not to mention the media, has become.

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Schavan's resignation left a bitter aftertaste. Of course a university has a right to make a stringent decision and of course this decision must be accepted. But Schavan's thesis was a borderline case, and as many academic experts have pointed out, another decision could have been reached. It happened more than three decades ago. Had Schavan beaten up her professor and put him in hospital, the crime would have been statute-barred by now."

"Chancellor Angela Merkel's short statement showed how much the ex-minister meant to her. The two women were political friends……But Schavan would have been a thorn in her side in an election year…..The Chancellor is to be believed when she says that it was hard for her to accept a friend's resignation. But according to Merkel's logic, it was unavoidable…..Merkel and Schavan both know that in politics, friendships count for little."

-- Jane Paulick

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