Chancellor Angela Merkel hasn't had it this good in a long time. It's a warm evening in the picturesque Rose Garden at the White House in Washington. Musicians are playing classical music, bats are flitting through the night sky, and at the ensuing banquet American President Barack Obama has nothing but praise for Merkel. The scene is the picture of harmony, peace and friendship, as the guests raise their glasses in a toast.
When the chancellor lands on German soil less than 12 hours later, the contrast couldn't be greater. Heavy raindrops are falling from a dirty-gray Berlin sky as the members of the German parliament meet for yet another crisis session on the fate of the European common currency. The chancellor is greeted with devastating numbers from the pollsters at Berlin's Forsa Institute: Only 35 percent of Germans say they would vote today for the governing coalition, made up of her conservatives in combination with the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP). A coalition of the center-left Social Democrats and the Greens would attract just short of 50 percent.
Just recently, the installment of Philipp Rösler as the new FDP head seemed to usher in a new mood in the coalition. There was talk of "personal affection" between Merkel and Rösler, and the papers were full of language like "confidence" and "hope," even writing that the new coalition was off to an "atmospherically good start."
Four weeks later, the alliance has reached a new low. Merkel's decision to phase out nuclear power was the product of several difficult compromises, and now, members of her coalition are accusing one another of trickery and deception. And when it comes to the upcoming vote over a renewed bailout plan for Greece, Merkel's parliamentary majority looks unreliable indeed.
Merkel's Lack of Direction
The mood in Merkel's government is miserable. When the alliance took office back in 2009, it claimed that a new era of politics was dawning in Germany. Since then, the coalition has bickered, fought and argued its way to what has become political standstill. Two year's into office, Merkel's government lacks direction.
The conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), together with their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have become greener than the Greens since the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan. And the FDP has reinvented itself, placing its future in the hands of a group of smart young politicians who are, for now, seen as lightweights in Berlin.
Taken together, the coalition seems to be on an extended voyage of self-discovery -- and the chancellor is becoming less and less adept at bringing together the divergent forces in her government. Merkel is determined to keep the partnership alive, but there is increased talk of a political breakup among coalition politicians.
Perhaps most problematic of all, an icy silence has set in between two ministers charged with developing a joint strategy to tackle the European monetary and debt crisis. The relationship between FDP Chairman Rösler, who is also economics minister, and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is in shambles and the lines of communication between them appear to have been severed.
A recent incident is particularly symbolic of the loss of trust. Schäuble told the tabloid Bild am Sonntag that the two ministers had met behind closed doors and agreed to postpone tax cuts for the time being. "Budget consolidation takes priority," Schäuble said in the interview.
Harmless and Inexperienced
The indiscretion was annoying enough, but Rösler was even more irked by Schäuble's patronizing assessment. Schäuble told the paper that young Herr Rösler is "extremely knowledgeable and likeable" and possesses "a great sense of humor." But Rösler wasn't laughing. In his interpretation of Schäuble's appraisal, his older fellow cabinet member was in fact characterizing him as a harmless, inexperienced lightweight.
In fact, that was exactly the way it was meant. Within his own ministry, Schäuble refers to the newcomer as "that young man." And Schäuble's estimation of the FDP has sunk even further now that Rösler has been named its chairman and he no longer tries to hide his contempt. When he is particularly furious, he uses foul language to come up with a different meaning for the abbreviation FDP.
Sources close to Schäuble say that he knew perfectly well how his remarks in the Bild am Sonntag interview would sound to the liberals. They say he wouldn't mind if the FDP were to leave the government and would be happy to continue as part of a CDU/CSU minority government.
Apparently the finance minister couldn't care less if the FDP left the government, and would be perfectly happy to be part of a minority government consisting only of the CDU/CSU.
Rösler was dealt yet another humiliating blow a few days later. On the Friday before last, just after the coalition negotiations on the nuclear phase-out had ended, some of the participants publicly poked fun at Rösler's modest performance. In reports on the meeting, Rösler came across as someone who was no match for Merkel and CSU Chairman Horst Seehofer. Conservative politicians believe that the attacks were calculated. "The intent is simply to break up the coalition," says a senior CDU member.
Look Like Fools
The upshot is that the FDP has become adamantly opposed to Schäuble. The party's faction in German parliament has long been split into two groups: those who still believe negotiating with the finance minister is worthwhile; and those who no longer want to have anything to do with him. FDP floor leader Rainer Brüderle and Volker Wissing, the party's financial expert, still hope to reach an agreement with Schäuble on tax cuts. Others have lost interest, including FDP parliamentarian Frank Schäffler, who says: "Despite the agreements in the coalition treaty, Schäuble has repeatedly made us look like fools when it comes to fiscal policy."
Many in the coalition have become concerned about their public image, particularly given Merkel's most recent maneuvering. Many veteran conservative politicians see Merkel's modernization efforts as an abandonment of the party's core values. Now they no longer feel at home within their own party.
Last week, the chancellor met with CDU and CSU floor leaders from the state parliaments. Merkel, who knows that the mood among the grassroots is not good, began the meeting by sweet-talking her audience. The coalition committee happened to be meeting in the Chancellery at that very moment, the chancellor said in dulcet tones, but that wasn't as important to her as meeting with the provincial politicians. "Seehofer and Rösler will just have to wait," she said.