Splitting the German Government Expellee Leader Steinbach Puts Merkel in a Tight Spot

Erika Steinbach, the controversial head of an association of Germans expelled from Eastern Europe after World War II, is proving to be a thorn in Merkel's side. What to do about Steinbach has driven a wedge through the new government, and Merkel's attempt to buy Steinbach off with a lucrative government post has failed.

AP

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One of the many privileges that German Chancellor Angela Merkel enjoys is the right to allocate posts in her government after winning an election. She can reward loyal followers and foster young talent -- or she can use her power to sideline rivals and troublemakers.

The latter was German Chancellor Angela Merkel's intention when she reached for the telephone after the conclusion of the recent post-election coalition negotiations and called Erika Steinbach, the controversial president of the German Federation of Expellees (BdV), which represents Germans expelled from Eastern Europe after World War II.

The chancellor told Steinbach that she could offer her the job of parliamentary state secretary in the Education and Research Ministry. It was a generous offer, given that the high-level position comes with a monthly salary of €9,000 ($13,400), plus expenses, as well as an official limousine with driver.

Merkel also asked Steinbach how she felt about her claim to be named to the board of directors of the Flight, Expulsion and Reconciliation Foundation, which is committed to creating a center in Berlin documenting the post-war expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe. Steinbach's possible nomination to the foundation's board has been a bone of contention within the German government in recent weeks.

What Merkel didn't mention -- but clearly implied -- was that she was giving Steinbach a choice: Either join the foundation board or accept the government post she was offering. Steinbach asked for more time to consider the offer, and at the end of the conversation Merkel said cheerfully: "Now you can be happy that you will be a member of the government."

But Merkel had misjudged Steinbach, once again. When she returned the chancellor's call, Steinbach explained that she could not accept the post because the members of her group, the Federation of Expellees, would interpret this as a betrayal of the interests of expellees. Steinbach remained polite, as usual, but her message was clear: Merkel could not sideline her that easily.

She made that message explicit in an interview with the newspaper Bild am Sonntag on Sunday. "We will not allow ourselves to be bought," she said. "The important thing is the issue, not the money."

Standing Firm

A controversy has been raging for the past year over appointments to the board of directors of the Flight, Expulsion and Reconciliation Foundation. The foundation's planned documentation center in Berlin is intended to memorialize the ordeals of people who have suffered expulsion and to further advance reconciliation with Poland, but the government in Warsaw is opposed to Steinbach's inclusion in the board of directors.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has announced his veto of Steinbach's candidacy. This is crucial because anyone hoping to be appointed to the foundation board must have the support of the entire administration.

Merkel has been trying for some time to convince Steinbach to abandon her claim to board membership, but Steinbach has stood firm. In doing so, she has not only provoked a crisis in the new coalition government of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), but has also highlighted the deficits of Merkel's governing style, which is often based on adopting a "wait and see" approach when faced with difficult decisions.

It is an uneven contest. Although the chancellor has the tools of power at her disposal, Steinbach has the backing of the CDU's traditional base and the sympathies of all those conservatives who feel that Merkel's CDU is too soft and too ready to compromise. This makes Steinbach a tough adversary.

Pragmatic Approach

Merkel always takes a pragmatic approach to things and is concerned primarily with what is doable. For her, politics consists of working to reduce others' resistance. Steinbach, on the other hand, has gained her current stature through confrontation and derives her authority from her stubbornness. This is another reason why it was such an error of judgment on Merkel's part to believe that she could tempt Steinbach with the prospect of a career in the government.

By offering Steinbach the job, the chancellor hoped to prevent the question of Steinbach's involvement in the foundation from becoming a serious bone of contention in her new administration. Merkel has always had reservations about Steinbach's becoming a member of the foundation board, knowing that this would adversely affect Berlin's relations with Poland. And, indeed, her concerns are justified.

Steinbach has undoubtedly made some valuable contributions, including having steered the BdV onto a more moderate course. Nevertheless, she has been deeply unpopular in Poland since 1991, when, as a member of the German Bundestag, she voted against the recognition of the Oder-Neisse line as Poland's western border. She also later voiced reservations about the country's accession to the European Union.

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