German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble can be an extremely polite man when he wants to be. At the same, the many difficult years he has spent in politics have equipped him with an incomparable sarcasm. Schäuble often walks a fine line between derision and civility.
Schäuble has recently been using a phrase that allows himself to conceal his frustration. He uses it in interviews, in internal meetings and in personal conversations, and it marks the beginning of some of his sentences. It can be loosely translated as: "Without presuming to impinge on the chancellor's authority."
Schäuble had the opportunity to use the phrase once again recently. The steering committee of Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), to which Schäuble belongs, was meeting with the assembled leaders of German trade unions. The union bosses were listening to the chancellor talk about the European Union, and yet what she was saying didn't make much sense to them. Schäuble spoke up: "Without presuming to impinge on the chancellor's authority, I would also like to say something about Europe."
"Should I step out of the room for a moment?" Merkel asked. At least it was a spontaneous attempt to make a joke.
No Longer Taking Itself Seriously
Merkel is halfway through her second term in office, but her administration is still waiting for its first success. The chancellor resorts to irony when her most loyal and important supporter vents his frustration in a veiled jab against her. For Germany's center-right camp, the current coalition of the CDU, its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) is a dream constellation. But as the coalition nears its halfway mark, it is no longer taking itself seriously, because this is the only way it can bear its own demise.
The history of this decline goes something like this: At first the parties were unable to come to terms in their coalition negotiations, then they had a falling out, and now they must drum up the strength to overcome the euro crisis, the biggest test the European Union has ever faced. But the internal disintegration within the coalition is already so far advanced that not even its own majority is a given when the German parliament, the Bundestag, votes this Thursday on an expansion for the European bailout fund, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) -- which would increase Germany's contribution to the fund from 123 billion ($166 billion) to 211 billion.
Several Bundestag members from the governing CDU oppose giving further powers to the EFSF, over concerns that the parliament would be giving up its budget rights. Some FDP members are fundamentally opposed to expanding the EFSF, arguing that more aid for crisis-stricken countries would only encourage profligacy.
When it comes to European policy, three key figures -- Merkel, Economics Minister Philipp Rösler, who is also head of the FDP, and Horst Seehofer, the chairman of the CSU -- have fundamentally contradicted one another in public within a very short space of time. Rösler called for an end to "taboos" on thinking about how to deal with Greece's debt crisis, referring to the taboo of talking about a Greek default which Merkel had supposedly created. Then, CSU leader Seehofer rejected Merkel's remark that Europe would fail if the euro failed. "I don't see the connection," he said.
If a leadership is so frayed, how are ordinary members of parliament supposed to toe the party line? And what is that line, anyway? At least a dozen members of the coalition parties are expected not to toe the party line in this Thursday's vote. If that number rises to 20, the coalition will have lost its majority.
Schäuble believes the risk is so high that he felt obliged to point out that it doesn't matter where Merkel gets her votes in the plenary session. The main opposition parties, the center-left Social Democrats and Greens, have said they will approve the reforms. But relying on opposition support to get the changes approved would be humiliating for the chancellor.
A few weeks ago, Schäuble, who has effectively become Merkel's vice-chancellor when it comes to the euro crisis, said privately that the CDU ought to take the FDP's next attempt to contradict its partner on European policy as an opportunity to dissolve the coalition. The situation is so serious that influential CDU politicians like Bundestag President Norbert Lammert are already thinking about the possibility of a minority government. If that happens, the government would be forced to painstakingly build a majority for each individual vote.
The CDU and FDP experienced yet another debacle at the polls in the recent parliamentary election in the city-state of Berlin, where the SPD and Greens got enough seats between them to form a government. Now the chancellor can no longer blame the coalition's disastrous reputation on her junior partner, the FDP.
Who's to Blame?
The Berlin election debacle has affected the CDU just as much as it affected the FDP, which got a humiliating 1.8 percent of the vote and no longer has seats in the city-state's parliament, having fallen far short of the 5 percent hurdle for representation. If the liberals, who entered the Bundestag with close to 15 percent of the vote in national parliamentary elections two years ago, capture less than 2 percent in a state election, while the CDU fails to win extra votes, it isn't just the FDP who has a problem, but also Merkel.
The chancellor has lost substantial voter support to her potential challengers in the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Both SPD parliamentary floor leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Merkel's former finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, have higher popularity ratings than Merkel, as does Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit.
Merkel has now been chancellor for almost six years. For four of those years, she was supposedly unable to lead as she would have liked to, because she was the head of a "grand coalition" government with the SPD. In the last two years, the FDP has prevented her from shining. First it was the SPD, then the FDP who were to blame. Then it was the pesky Greeks and the egomaniacal French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.
With so many people who are supposedly to blame for her administration's failures, there might be another explanation: Could it actually all be Merkel's fault?
On Monday evening of last week, Merkel gave a speech in Alsfeld, a town in the state of Hesse, roughly in the center of Germany. The chancellor used every rhetorical trick in her book in her opening remarks. She praised the performance principle in schools and Germany's rapid nuclear phase-out. She spoke with passion, maligned the financial markets and quoted a European visionary, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Then she said: "When times were tough, it was always up to the conservatives to fix things. Now we have the wonderful task of stabilizing the euro."
Congratulations are apparently in order on this wonderful task. Alsfeld is the site of the first of six regional CDU conferences. Regional conferences are the last resort of party politics. Former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and then-SPD Chairman Franz Müntefering also used them to preserve their power when the SPD threatened to blow up in their faces over the unpopular "Agenda 2010" reforms to the social welfare system. Nevertheless, they failed to avert the premature end of the Schröder chancellorship.
It's hard to really believe that fixing the euro is a "wonderful task." At the Alsfeld appearance, the chancellor was bombarded with questions on difficult issues, from the euro's problems to questions over the German educational system and the nuclear phase-out. The scapegoat, as usual, was the FDP. One speaker in Alsfeld derisively hissed the name of the FDP leader, calling him "Mr. Rössssssler," and criticized the fact that "a 38-year-old doctor" was putting the fate of Greece -- "the birthplace of democracy" -- up for negotiation. He was referring to Rösler's critical remarks about a possible Greek default.
The 1,300 guests, or at least those who were speaking up, had apparently had enough of the conservative-liberal coalition government. When one CDU member lamented that it was time for the politicians in Berlin "to pull together as a team for at least four weeks," he wasn't just referring to Rösler, but to other political leaders like Seehofer and Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer. On that evening, even more prominent CDU functionaries did not hesitate to voice their frustrations with the coalition partners in Berlin. "Some people are spouting nonsense about the demise of Greece in a bid to divert attention away from their own demise," said Marion Walsmann, the CDU minister for European affairs in the eastern state of Thuringia. Merkel was forced to swallow a lot of criticism on that evening.
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