The journalists who had gathered at the Chancellery in Berlin on Wednesday could hardly believe the news. Had she really kicked him out?
Yes, she had.
On Wednesday morning, German Chancellor Angela Merkel sacked Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen from his post in her cabinet. The chancellor took precisely one minute and 39 seconds on Wednesday afternoon to make the news public, saying she had relieved Röttgen of his duties "in order to make it possible to bring a fresh start to this office." She spoke two sentences of thanks and then nominated her confidant Peter Altmaier, who is the current secretary of her conservatives' parliamentary group, as Röttgen's successor. "I thank you for your attention," she told the assembled journalists, before making a swift departure.
It was Merkel at her most ice cold -- a side of the chancellor not previously seen in Berlin. Indeed, it is the first time Merkel has forced a minister to leave his post. Merkel has never been fond of reshuffling her cabinets because such moves often cause unrest in her government. When she has, it has always been her preference to see a minister resign on his own accord so that all sides could save face.
But it appears that wasn't possible in Röttgen's case. Sources said the former minister wanted to remain in office at all costs, despite the CDU's historic debacle in state party elections in North Rhine-Westphalia over the weekend. Merkel, however, wanted to get rid of him. Over the course of the week, she spoke several times with Röttgen, who had failed as the CDU's top candidate in the state, and attempted to convince him to leave office. He didn't budge, and on Wednesday morning, after the weekly meeting of her cabinet, Merkel met personally with Röttgen to tell him her decision.
The fact that Röttgen has been kicked out and the circumstances of his dismissal say a lot about the climate that is currently prevailing in Merkel's coalition government. It is just as ice cold as Merkel's appearance before the press on Wednesday. It has now become clear that the election drama in North Rhine-Westphalia has shaken the coalition government -- comprised of Merkel's CDU, its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party -- far deeper than Merkel would like to publicly admit. It's impossible to rule out further leadership changes.
Röttgen Sought to Share Blame with Merkel for Defeat
The mood already seemed cool when Merkel and Röttgen appeared before the press together on Monday at the CDU's headquarters in Berlin. CDU party boss Merkel gave no guarantee that Röttgen would keep his job, saying only that it was necessary to have "continuity" in terms of pushing forward with Germany's energy revolution. One of the government's core projects, the so-called energy revolution refers to Merkel's plan to decommission all nuclear power plants by 2022 and to obtain at least 80 percent of all energy from renewable sources by 2050.
For some time already, Merkel hadn't been pleased with Röttgen's handling of the energy revolution. Now, it looks like she wanted to prevent the beleaguered minister from becoming a lame duck. The chancellor had also been extremely irritated by the fact that during the final days of the campaign in North Rhine-Westphalia, when it appeared he might be facing an embarrassing defeat, he also tried to force the chancellor to share the blame by trying to turn the election into a referendum on Merkel's euro-crisis policies.
It wasn't his only slip in the election campaign that resulted in Röttgen shooting himself in the foot. On Monday, members of the CDU's leadership circles subjected him to considerable criticism. But the harshest critique of Röttgen came from Horst Seehofer of the CSU. The party boss lashed out at Röttgen and the CDU in an outspoken interview with German public broadcaster ZDF. Many Christian Democrats found that Seehofer's comments that the North Rhine-Westphalia election had been a "disaster" went too far, even if they largely shared his core criticism.
"The text message comments from a few colleagues were not so friendly," Seehofer wrote on his Facebook page on Wednesday. "But I would say to them: You should pay more attention to the reality than to the messenger." It's a threat that suggests that Merkel and her colleagues can expect even more confrontation from Seehofer in the coming months as campaigning begins for the state election in Bavaria and national parliamentary elections, both of which are expected to take place in the autumn of 2013.
'A Bit More Humanity'
Little wonder, then, that the opposition parties are now ridiculing this week's developments, saying that Röttgen had been "bullied" out of his office. "Merciless," wrote Social Democratic Party leader Sigmar Gabriel on Twitter.
But there is also unease within the ranks of Röttgen's CDU, particularly within the party's state chapter in North Rhine-Westphalia. "Today's firing of Norbert Röttgen frightens me," said Karl-Josef Laumann, the head of the CDU's party group in the NRW state parliament. He said he could not understand how Röttgen, who had been considered an excellent environment minister until 6 p.m. on Sunday, when the polls closed, could now be fired.
Meanwhile, Wolfgang Bosbach, the CDU's domestic affairs pointman in parliament, said he had been surprised by the "breathtaking speed" with which the decision had been taken. "A bit more humanity would have been appropriate," he said. And Norbert Lammert, the CDU president of the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament, said it was "regrettable" for Röttgen himself as well as for his Environment Ministry and for the CDU.
The Chancellor's 'Last Stand'
Others showed less sympathy for Röttgen. Vice chancellor and FDP leader Philipp Rösler didn't have much in the way of words of thanks for an ousted colleague with whom he, as economics minister, had often failed to find common ground on energy policy. Rösler said the cabinet reshuffle represented the "continuation of the stabile cooperation in the government coalition."
Merkel has now installed Peter Altmaier in Röttgen's position. He is a loyal aide who is perfectly capable of the job. But the price paid for his promotion is a high one. As the secretary of the conservatives' parliamentary group, Altmaier had always been reliable in organizing majority votes for even the most controversial decisions on the debt crisis. Altmaier will be missed in this role and it is still uncertain who will fill his shoes. This also underscores just how few people are remaining at the top levels of the CDU party to fill such roles. With Röttgen's ouster, yet another potential leader is gone -- and the ranks are thinning. This has already led the general secretary of the Social Democrats, Andrea Nahles, to disparage the situation as Merkel's "last stand."
During a short appearance on Wednesday, Altmaier offered a few words of praise for his old party colleague. Their relationship goes all the way back to the days when the German government was still in Bonn and the two CDU politicians helped forge the first ties between the conservatives and the Greens to discuss possibly governing together in the future -- something that was still taboo within the CDU at the time.
Altmaier said he wished Röttgen the best for his "future career," wherever that might be. On Wednesday, Röttgen made no statements of his own. The fact that the chancellor announced the decision on her own suggests there was a deep quarrel between Merkel and her one-time political protégé.
Carrying Out the Reshuffle
Röttgen is now expected to be formally relieved of his duties, and Altmaier appointed as his successor, on Tuesday of next week, when German President Joachim Gauck gets back from his vacation in Italy. (According to the German constitution, only the president can appoint and dismiss ministers.)
Merkel could have carried out the reshuffle earlier, but that would have meant that Horst Seehofer, who as current president of the Bundesrat acts as Gauck's deputy while he is on vacation, would have been responsible for dismissing Röttgen -- in other words, the very politician who contributed to the environment minister's downfall with his televised outburt. Not even Merkel would be that cold.
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