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Guido Westerwelle for Finance Minister: German Foreign Minister Post Should Not Be Bound by Tradition

By Katinka Barysch

For decades, Germany's foreign minister has come from the junior coalition partner -- a practice which has led to foreign policy incoherence. Now would be a great time to break with that tradition and give Guido Westerwelle the Finance Ministry, argues Katinka Barysch of the Centre for European Reform.

Guido Westerwelle is the undisputed winner of Sunday's election in Germany. His Liberal Democratic Party (FDP) attracted almost 15 percent of the vote, its highest share ever. Angela Merkel will remain chancellor although her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) did slightly worse than in the 2005 election. The FDP's gains allow Merkel to discard the cumbersome 'grand coalition' with the Social Democrats and start negotiating a deal with the more likeminded Liberals.

The haggling about posts and policies is likely to be swift this time, with Merkel promising to have her new cabinet in place in a couple of weeks. Traditionally, the leader of the junior coalition partner becomes foreign minister (and vice chancellor). So Westerwelle is almost certain to succeed SPD-leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the foreign ministry.

Since taking over as FDP leader eight years ago, Westerwelle has worked hard to make his party appeal more to young voters and those fed up with the two big Volksparteien, the SDP and the CDU. Sunday's result shows that he has been successful. But party political manoeuvring and a relentless quest for media attention have not left him much time to travel the world.

Vague and Contradictory

His public statements about foreign policy have often been a little vague and sometimes contradictory. He has argued for continuity in German foreign policy, promising that there would be no sharp breaks with most of Steinmeier's positions. As a strong Atlanticist he was critical of George W Bush's war on terror but has applauded Barack Obama, in particular for his moves on disarmament. He has spoken out against Germany sending more troops to Afghanistan, or letting them fight in the south, but he wants Berlin to live up to its promises to train more Afghan policemen. He is a firm believer in the benefits of European integration, especially the single market, and he thinks Germany should pay more attention to the smaller EU members. But the smalls will not like his suggestion that European integration should become more flexible, allowing sub-groups of member-states to go ahead with particular policies. He says EU accession negotiations with Turkey should continue, which will put him at loggerheads with those in the CDU (and its smaller sister party, the CSU) who want to offer Turkey a privileged partnership. He has sometimes sounded rather conciliatory on Russia. But he also advocates keeping Germany's nuclear power stations running beyond 2022, to make the country less dependent on Russian gas.

Westerwelle does not have a lot of experience with foreign policy and his public statements on international issues so far do not add up to a coherent Weltanschauung. That does not mean that he would not make a good foreign minister. Joschka Fischer had limited international credentials before he became foreign minister of the SPD / Green Party coalition in 1998. He turned out to be an effective and principled international operator. Like all foreign ministers before him, he quickly became one of Germany's most popular politicians.

Chart an Independent Course

It is not Westerwelle (or Fischer or Steinmeier) that is the problem. It is the tradition of giving the foreign ministry to the leader of the junior coalition partner. Westerwelle may or may not agree with Merkel on foreign policy. He has little choice but to use his new job to sharpen his party's profile. The SPD did so dismally in Sunday's election partly because, after four years in the grand coalition, voters struggle to tell what it stands for. The lesson for the FDP will be to chart an independent course, especially after 11 years in opposition. It should: in economics, not in foreign policy.

Since the foreign minister and the chancellor always come from different parties, all vital foreign policy dossiers (relations with the US, Russia, China and so on) land directly on the chancellor's desk. Not content with being in charge of secondary issues, Germany's foreign ministers have often developed their own stance on the big issues of the day. Contradictory public statements and competing diplomatic initiatives have sometimes been the result.

Such incoherence in foreign policy mattered little before reunification, when Germany's low-key foreign policy mainly consisted of supporting European integration and the transatlantic alliance. But today, Germany claims international leadership and is expected to adopt regional and global responsibilities. Today, German foreign policy should not be a matter of coalition squabbles. Therefore, the foreign minister should come from Merkel's own party.

Give Westerwelle the Finance Ministry

Westerwelle should move into the finance ministry instead. While the foreign policy part of the FDP's manifesto is weak, it has strong positions on economic policy: it advocates open markets, less stringent hiring and firing rules, an effective competition policy, help for small enterprises and, most importantly, lower and simpler taxes. Westerwelle insists that he will not sign a coalition agreement that does not contain tax reform. But he also knows that with €1.6 trillion in public debt and a new law mandating a zero deficit by 2016, there is not much room for fiscal manoeuvre.

The temptation to leave this balancing act to someone else and instead enjoy the international limelight will be strong. But if Westerwelle is serious about tax reform, he should install himself in the finance ministry and see it through as best he can. By helping to tackle some of Germany's economic weaknesses, Westerwelle may even add more to his country's international standing and credibility than by being its chief diplomat.

Katinka Barysch is the deputy director of the Centre for European Reform and is reprinted with her kind permission. It originally appeared as a blog entry on the Centre for European Reform Web site.

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