Isolated at Home and Abroad Merkel Loses Her Triple-A Popularity Rating
The situation has seldom been this serious for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The leader is increasingly isolated in Europe because of her rigid austerity policies, while at home, criticism is growing of her decision to fire her environment minister last week. Her new toughness could backfire by making her look unsympathetic to voters, say analysts.
Usually, Angela Merkel enjoys her presence on the international stage. It has always provided her with an opportunity to shine, and it is where she developed a reputation as "Miss World" and "Miss Europe."
Right now, though, things aren't going so well for the chancellor, as she travels this week from one international summit to the next. At the NATO summit in Chicago, a dispute developed over the Afghanistan withdrawal, while at the G-8 summit at Camp David, France's new President François Hollande flexed his muscles. He said he would do the same at a planned dinner in Brussels this Wednesday with the leaders of the European Union member states. The Socialist leader is searching for allies to break Merkel's austerity-led approach in the euro crisis and to back euro bonds, which are deeply unpopular in Berlin. His efforts haven't been fruitless either -- and Germany could soon face further isolation.
That might all be more palatable for Merkel if things were going better for her on the domestic political front -- and if she could rely on the stability of her coalition government. But the domestic front for Merkel is anything but quiet. Merkel's decision to fire her environment minister, Norbert Röttgen, last week has created turbulence within the coalition government of her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party. The CDU is unsettled following the dismissal in ways seldom seen before. But this time it isn't over differences in policy. This time it is about the chancellor herself -- about her leadership style and her character.
So far, Angela Merkel's world had seemed like a fairly simple one. Regardless what happened around her, she constantly remained the sovereign crisis manager. That won her major sympathy points among the people and within her own party. She came across as being solid as a rock and appeared to have the cool composure needed to make the right decisions at the right time.
The veneer on this image of the chancellor has now cracked. You could say that Merkel has lost her top triple-A rating -- at least when it comes to popularity. She is coming under enormous pressure both at home and abroad. In the long run, she will not be able to maintain her firm position against her European partners when it comes to austerity policies. The pressure being mounted by Hollande and others will simply be too great for that. At the same time, it increasingly looks like the repercussions of her decision to fire Röttgen, who had been a political protégé of Merkel's and had had aspirations to one day become chancellor, are entirely incalculable.
'The Party Looks Unappealing'
Klaus-Peter Schöppner of German pollster Emnid said he believed Röttgen's ouster would have implications for the chancellor's approval ratings. "One can no longer rule out -- in fact, it is very probable -- that treating ministers or members of parliament poorly will have a major effect on the image of a party and its leadership," Schöppner said. "It makes the whole party look unappealing."
The drama surrounding her ousted environment minister could become a curse for Merkel, especially given the fact that CDU strategists have made no secret of the fact that the party's 2013 election campaign will be entirely focused on Merkel as a person. But now she is suddenly coming across as tough and cold -- all characteristics previously unknown in a chancellor who is nicknamed "Mutti" ("Mummy") within her party. The fact that Röttgen isn't making a fuss about his firing at the moment will not change that. Over the weekend, media reports emerged suggesting that Röttgen might seek to retaliate against the chancellor with a "counter strike." But on Monday his spokeswoman stated: "There is no statement about the events and no announcement."
In other words, Röttgen has no plans at the moment to make a public statement, TV appearance or to give a newspaper interview. There is nevertheless considerable worry in the CDU that a humiliated Röttgen might want a major reckoning with the chancellor. Political confidants of Volker Kauder, the conservatives' floor leader in parliament, have already issued clear warnings against this. "Anyone in this party has the right to express his opinion," Kauder told the tabloid Bild newspaper. "But people should put the country and the people first, then the party -- and themselves last."
The Christian Democrats fear a public debate that could lead to a lasting negative atmosphere and bickering within the conservative camp. A negative sentiment would be poisonous for motivation, and it would be bad for Merkel's negotiating position in the euro crisis. Under pressure at home and abroad, the chancellor would have less weight to push things through. The negative mood could also be toxic for Merkel's popularity ratings with voters.
Emnid pollster Schöppner draws a parallel to corporate image surveys. In those polls, the way in which companies treat their employees is particularly important to those surveyed -- at least when it comes to their level of trust in the companies. "The same applies to political parties," Schöppner said.
It's clear that the party's debacle during this month's state election in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) has deeply shaken the Christian Democrats. Suddenly it is no longer the stricken FDP that is the government's problem child, but rather the Christian Democrats, who like to call themselves the anchor of stability in the Berlin coalition. And by throwing Röttgen out, Merkel has violated her own oft-repeated rule that state elections should have no impact on politics at the national level. But after the disastrous NRW election, Merkel's environment minister was suddenly seen as no longer having the authority needed to push through the country's "energy revolution," a massive project involving the transition from nuclear power and fossil fuels to sustainable energy.
Röttgen's friends disagree with that interpretation and think the reason given is spurious or an excuse. Sources close to Röttgen confirm that, at the start of the state election campaign in NRW, the chancellor pushed the environment minister to declare that he would stay in the state to lead the opposition even if the CDU lost the election. But sources close to Röttgen have also stated that the chancellor promised that in the end she would declare her former protégé to be indispensable in Berlin. The deal was never closed and the outcome is well known; Röttgen's perceived lack of commitment to North Rhine-Westphalia was seen as a major factor in his defeat.
But the consequence is that incomprehension at the chancellor's move is growing louder, particularly among disappointed members of the CDU's state chapter in North Rhine-Westphalia. On Monday, former German Labor Minister Norbert Blum spoke out. "It does not correspond to how I believe people should treat one another," Blüm told the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper. "That's not good for a Christian Democratic party."
Within the party's ranks in parliament, Wolfgang Bosbach, also from NRW, thanked Röttgen last week because he had stepped into the breach for him. "Everyone has a certain opinion about his firing, and many have already made public statements about it," Bosbach said. He said it was thus understandable that Röttgen might eventually want to make a statement himself. But he added that he was certain Röttgen would not say or do anything that could damage the CDU or the chancellor. "By doing so, he would also damage himself in the end," he said.
Whether or not Röttgen -- who was officially dismissed as German environment minister by President Joachim Gauck on Tuesday -- ultimately takes that risk is dependent on his plans for the future and also the question of what he might still have to lose. At the moment it doesn't appear that he will turn his back to politics entirely. Röttgen's spokeswoman confirmed on Monday that the 46-year-old plans to run for re-election to the national parliament in 2013. For now, at least, he also wants to keep his post as the deputy chairman of the CDU party.
Silence may be the best way to prevent himself being perceived as an bad loser. "The only thing Röttgen has going for him at the moment is the way in which Merkel chased him out like some kind of petty thief," said one well-connected CDU veteran from NRW. "If he's smart, he will just keep quiet and let his dismissal speak for itself."
With additional reporting by Severin Weiland