Political Scandal Joschka Fischer with His Back Against the Wall

For years, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was unassailable. Now, though, he finds himself at the center of a major political scandal. He has only himself to blame. But if he doesn't extract himself from the muck soon, it could have major negative consequences for Chancellor Schroeder's government.

By in Berlin


Joschka Fischer finds himself on the defensive this winter -- after an entire career on the offensive.
AP

Joschka Fischer finds himself on the defensive this winter -- after an entire career on the offensive.

For years, he has just been Joschka, Germany's cuddly, gray-haired, sometimes hollow-cheeked, sometimes chunky foreign minister, loved by an entire nation. Almost since he took over as Germany's foreign minister in September 1998, Joschka Fischer's popularity has been virtually unassailable: The icon of the environmentally minded Green Party could, it seemed, do no wrong. Indeed, Fischer was so popular in 2002 that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder largely based his early election campaign on the fact that Fischer would remain at his side at the helm of Germany's political leadership. The strategy paid off and the two developed into an anti-Iraq War tag team culminating in Fischer's wildly popular snubbing of United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at the February 2003 international security conference in Munich. "Excuse me," said Fischer following Rumsfeld's carefully constructed presentation of the case for an invasion of Iraq, "I'm not convinced."

With the campaign for the 2006 general elections just around the corner, however, the superstar is quickly plummeting back down to earth. Fischer's Teflon coating has been scratched as everyday politics -- something he, as foreign minister, was long able to avoid -- have caught up to him. It seems Germany's visa-granting policies for Eastern Europeans -- despite the intended good neighbor policy of further opening its doors to the former Eastern Bloc -- were too permissive, especially in Ukraine. The result, say Fischer's critics, was a gigantic loophole through which organized crime, human traffickers and prostitution rings could gain access to Germany and the European Union. Fischer, as the minister in charge of Germany's embassies and consulates, is in hot water. Indeed, the conservative opposition -- for years loathe to take on Fischer -- has felt so emboldened by the scandal that a prominent member of Bavaria's Christian Social Union recently got away with calling Fischer a "pimp."

Media pressure has been intense. Here, Fischer giving his first statement to the press on the visa affair.
DDP

Media pressure has been intense. Here, Fischer giving his first statement to the press on the visa affair.

At first, the visa issue seemed like minor tittle-tattle -- the kind of thing that Germany's predatory press zeros in on as a matter of course. German politicians have been felled for such relatively minor infractions as using frequent flyer miles amassed during business trips for personal use. This scandal seemed no different. A directive from the foreign office ordered its consulates to, when in doubt, decide in favor of issuing temporary visas to Eastern European applicants. That was it.

But the policy change unleashed a flood of visa applications and has made it virtually impossible for consulate workers to perform adequate checks on the thousands of cases they are required to process each month. Young women being forced into prostitution became "tourists," their pimps and human traffickers became "business travelers," and German consulates were swarmed by those hoping to take advantage of the loophole. Hundreds of thousands, mostly coming through consulates in Kiev, Moscow and Minsk, were able to stream into Germany and the European Union -- and many of them, it is suspected, were not coming just to take pictures of the Cologne Cathedral.

With press interest in the story now peaking, it is also providing an opening to the opposition -- a door it is now attempting to pry wide open in its efforts to exploit the issue. And in its effort to bring down the minister, the opposition has a powerful partner: Fischer himself.

Fischer's popularity is not just a function of his being the foreign minister -- a position free from the often unpopular domestic decisions of everyday politics. He is also seen, even after having been in the government for years, as somewhat anti-establishment. Part of the almost mythic "1968 Generation," his resume includes throwing rocks at police officers during street demonstrations, helping found the Green Party and wearing sneakers and jeans to his swearing in for his first government position as minister of the environment in the German state of Hesse.

But it is his dismissive attitude toward many of Germany's leading politicians that wins Fischer the most points with the public. As a new member of Germany's parliament in the 1980s, for example, Fischer, in addressing the parliamentary president said: "If I may. You are an asshole." He often referred to not-so-svelte former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl as "a three-hundred kilogram incarnation of history" and frequently calls current opposition leader Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union, "little Merkel." In other words, he has become something of a mouthpiece for a society that views its political representatives with increasing disdain.

The sneakers Fischer wore when he was sworn in to his first state ministerial position. His irreverence is a major part of his popularity.
REUTERS

The sneakers Fischer wore when he was sworn in to his first state ministerial position. His irreverence is a major part of his popularity.

Fischer, though, has come to believe in his untouchability, and among many of Germany's politicians -- including within his own Green Party but especially among the opposition -- he is unloved. Very few opposition leaders have been spared Fischer's frequent demands that they resign. He is also seen by many as being unbearably arrogant. An example is provided by the leader of Germany's Free Democratic Party Guido Westerwelle (a man Fischer refers to with a long-drawn-out "Guuuiiiido"). Westerwelle once ran into Fischer on a Lufthansa flight. "Good morning Mr. Fischer," he said. Fischer only briefly raised his eyes, wrinkled his brow and went directly back to his newspaper, completely ignoring Westerwelle's outstretched hand.

It is this arrogance -- and the fact that Fischer's popularity has long been an insurmountable hurdle in opposition attempts to discredit the Schroeder government and Fischer's foreign policy -- that makes him such an attractive target now.

It is also Fischer's bumbling attempts to stay above the fray that is making him something of an easy quarry. He has long been much more attracted to playing statesman than to immersing himself in the details of running Germany's embassies. Indeed, he is accused of having ignored repeated warnings that hundreds of thousands of criminally minded "tourists" were flooding into Germany through the visa loophole. But as the newspapers began sinking their teeth into the story in January and early February, publishing numerous exposes on Germany's liberal visa policies, Fischer remained silent. Even when fellow Green Party member Ludger Volmer came under attack for being the author of the directive liberalizing visa disbursement in former Soviet states (and who was forced to resign from his position in the Foreign Ministry earlier this month, partially as a result of the scandal), Fischer said nothing.

Fischer has long been more interested in playing statesman than in reading files full of detailed documents. Here, with Iranian president Mohammad Khatami.
DPA

Fischer has long been more interested in playing statesman than in reading files full of detailed documents. Here, with Iranian president Mohammad Khatami.

It was only on Monday of last week that Fischer finally deigned to comment on the scandal. What he said didn't help. "I will take responsibility for the potential mistakes of my colleagues." He has also tried to blame the problem on the Kohl government, voted out of office almost seven years ago. Though he soon corrected himself and admitted that he, too, may have made mistakes, it is this apparent attempt to avoid all responsibility that has given the scandal a dangerous boost. The opposition has even organized a special commission to investigate just how much Fischer knew about the influx of questionable visa holders and when he knew it. The European Union is likewise looking into whether Germany broke EU law -- the so-called "Schengen Agreement," which allows holders of visas for one Schengen country to travel freely to other member states -- with its liberal visa handouts.

The scandal has major political implications for Chancellor Schroeder. Fischer's popularity is his campaign wild card and without that, his chances for re-election in 2006 are significantly diminished. Vital elections in Germany's most populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia, in May are also a concern. Schroeder is pressuring Fischer to free himself from the cloud of suspicion as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, the opposition is hoping to drag out the scandal as long as possible with the help of the commission.

And Fischer finds himself now in a roll that he has successfully avoided throughout his political career: that of a politician on the defensive. Many of Germany's politicians sense it too and, smelling blood, the sharks are beginning to circle. It's payback time.

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