Steinbrück's Holiday Woes German Finance Minister Under Fire For G7 Absence

German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück is being criticized for going on holiday in Namibia instead of attending an upcoming meeting of G7 finance ministers in Washington -- and for refusing the offer of a key role at the International Monetary Fund.


The Family Steinbrück. Germany's finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, is taking a well-deserved break. But his timing is ill-judged. He is missing a G7 meeting of finance ministers in Washington this weekend.
DPA

The Family Steinbrück. Germany's finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, is taking a well-deserved break. But his timing is ill-judged. He is missing a G7 meeting of finance ministers in Washington this weekend.

Most Americans are lucky if they get a couple of days vacation a year and are amazed at the generous holidays Europeans allow themselves. Now one prominent European is not turning up in Washington for an important meeting because he is too busy relaxing with his family in southern Africa.

Peer Steinbrück, Germany's finance minister, has chosen a safari holiday in the former German colony of Namibia over attending a key meeting of finance ministers this weekend. Ever since SPIEGEL reported earlier this week that the minister was crying off the important meeting his political judgement has been coming in for question.

When the finance ministers of the G7 leading industrial nations gather at the spring meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington, Germany will be represented by Thomas Mirow, Steinbrück's number two at the Finance Ministry. In any ordinary year the absence of the German finance minister would raise a few eyebrows, but Germany is currently president of both the European Union and the G8. It would seem that if there was ever a time that Berlin should be basking in the world's spotlight, then it's now.

Steinbrück has already landed in hot water over his holiday plans. In an interview in 2006 the minister gave the impression that he wanted Germans to forgo their precious vacations, when he asked them to tighten their belts. He told the magazine Hörzu, "We may have to forget our holiday trips, in order to provide for the future." The only crunch was that Steinbrück had just returned from a trip to the Baltic Sea.

Now that he has gone somewhat further afield his spokesperson has tried to dampen down the controversy. "There are more important things than G7 conferences, including family," he said. He added that Steinbrück had arranged the trip with his wife and children some time ago.

The minister's commitment to his family is commendable, but his political judgement seems questionable and is coming in for harsh criticism at home. "Such timetabling problems should not arise at a time when Germany holds both the G8 and the EU presidencies," Michael Meister of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) told the German newspaper Die Welt.

"The government claims to attach a great deal of importance to the two presidencies," Green Party finance expert Christine Scheel told the paper. "One should therefore expect that a minister turn up to the meetings." Bavaria's economics minister, Erwin Huber, of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), has warned that his absence could damage Germany's reputation and called on Steinbrück to cut short his holiday and attend the meeting.

Steinbrück's attitude has also brought him criticism from within his own party, the Social Democrats (SPD). Klaus-Peter Schmidt-Deguelle, the former state secretary under Hans Eichel -- Steinbrück's predecessor at the finance ministry -- told the financial daily Handelsblatt that his behavior was "unacceptable" and said that Eichel would never have missed an IMF meeting.

Steinbrück is already unpopular with the left-wing inside his party for his strict fiscal policy and his concentration on reigning in the country's public deficit instead of increasing spending. And they are also opposed to his controversial plans to reform the country's corporate tax to make Germany more attractive for businesses.

Hedge funds on the agenda

Steinbrück's decision to forgo the meeting looks even stranger as he may be shooting himself in the foot when it comes to pushing through one of the main issues Germany is promoting at the meeting. Berlin is hoping to secure a common line among the G7 on the issue of increasing the transparency of hedge funds but is having a hard time persuading Britain and the US. The topic is expected to be at the top of the agenda at the G8 summit meeting that Germany is hosting at Heiligendamm in June and is likely to be discussed at this weekend's meeting.

And the German minister is also coming under fire for his refusal to take on an important role at the IMF. The other G7 finance ministers had urged him to agree to take over the chair of the International Monetary and Finance Committee (IMFC) should the current chairman Gordon Brown become the British prime minister once Tony Blair leaves office this year. Steinbrück refused on the grounds that he had too much to on his plate at home, despite the fact that his officials are reported to have pleaded with him to take on the job.

While Steinbrück insists that he is more interested in his domestic commitments, his reluctance to play a role on the world stage is irking many in Germany. The CDU has criticized the minister for the decision, arguing that the occupation of such an important and influential international job would have been important for Germany. It would presumably also have helped Steinbrück push through his ideas on the increased surveillance of hedge funds.

smd/spiegel

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