Chancellor Angela Merkel hasn't had it this good in a long time. It's a warm evening in the picturesque Rose Garden at the White House in Washington. Musicians are playing classical music, bats are flitting through the night sky, and at the ensuing banquet American President Barack Obama has nothing but praise for Merkel. The scene is the picture of harmony, peace and friendship, as the guests raise their glasses in a toast.
When the chancellor lands on German soil less than 12 hours later, the contrast couldn't be greater. Heavy raindrops are falling from a dirty-gray Berlin sky as the members of the German parliament meet for yet another crisis session on the fate of the European common currency. The chancellor is greeted with devastating numbers from the pollsters at Berlin's Forsa Institute: Only 35 percent of Germans say they would vote today for the governing coalition, made up of her conservatives in combination with the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP). A coalition of the center-left Social Democrats and the Greens would attract just short of 50 percent.
Just recently, the installment of Philipp Rösler as the new FDP head seemed to usher in a new mood in the coalition. There was talk of "personal affection" between Merkel and Rösler, and the papers were full of language like "confidence" and "hope," even writing that the new coalition was off to an "atmospherically good start."
Four weeks later, the alliance has reached a new low. Merkel's decision to phase out nuclear power was the product of several difficult compromises, and now, members of her coalition are accusing one another of trickery and deception. And when it comes to the upcoming vote over a renewed bailout plan for Greece, Merkel's parliamentary majority looks unreliable indeed.
Merkel's Lack of Direction
The mood in Merkel's government is miserable. When the alliance took office back in 2009, it claimed that a new era of politics was dawning in Germany. Since then, the coalition has bickered, fought and argued its way to what has become political standstill. Two year's into office, Merkel's government lacks direction.
The conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), together with their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have become greener than the Greens since the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan. And the FDP has reinvented itself, placing its future in the hands of a group of smart young politicians who are, for now, seen as lightweights in Berlin.
Taken together, the coalition seems to be on an extended voyage of self-discovery -- and the chancellor is becoming less and less adept at bringing together the divergent forces in her government. Merkel is determined to keep the partnership alive, but there is increased talk of a political breakup among coalition politicians.
Perhaps most problematic of all, an icy silence has set in between two ministers charged with developing a joint strategy to tackle the European monetary and debt crisis. The relationship between FDP Chairman Rösler, who is also economics minister, and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is in shambles and the lines of communication between them appear to have been severed.
A recent incident is particularly symbolic of the loss of trust. Schäuble told the tabloid Bild am Sonntag that the two ministers had met behind closed doors and agreed to postpone tax cuts for the time being. "Budget consolidation takes priority," Schäuble said in the interview.
Harmless and Inexperienced
The indiscretion was annoying enough, but Rösler was even more irked by Schäuble's patronizing assessment. Schäuble told the paper that young Herr Rösler is "extremely knowledgeable and likeable" and possesses "a great sense of humor." But Rösler wasn't laughing. In his interpretation of Schäuble's appraisal, his older fellow cabinet member was in fact characterizing him as a harmless, inexperienced lightweight.
In fact, that was exactly the way it was meant. Within his own ministry, Schäuble refers to the newcomer as "that young man." And Schäuble's estimation of the FDP has sunk even further now that Rösler has been named its chairman and he no longer tries to hide his contempt. When he is particularly furious, he uses foul language to come up with a different meaning for the abbreviation FDP.
Sources close to Schäuble say that he knew perfectly well how his remarks in the Bild am Sonntag interview would sound to the liberals. They say he wouldn't mind if the FDP were to leave the government and would be happy to continue as part of a CDU/CSU minority government.
Apparently the finance minister couldn't care less if the FDP left the government, and would be perfectly happy to be part of a minority government consisting only of the CDU/CSU.
Rösler was dealt yet another humiliating blow a few days later. On the Friday before last, just after the coalition negotiations on the nuclear phase-out had ended, some of the participants publicly poked fun at Rösler's modest performance. In reports on the meeting, Rösler came across as someone who was no match for Merkel and CSU Chairman Horst Seehofer. Conservative politicians believe that the attacks were calculated. "The intent is simply to break up the coalition," says a senior CDU member.
Look Like Fools
The upshot is that the FDP has become adamantly opposed to Schäuble. The party's faction in German parliament has long been split into two groups: those who still believe negotiating with the finance minister is worthwhile; and those who no longer want to have anything to do with him. FDP floor leader Rainer Brüderle and Volker Wissing, the party's financial expert, still hope to reach an agreement with Schäuble on tax cuts. Others have lost interest, including FDP parliamentarian Frank Schäffler, who says: "Despite the agreements in the coalition treaty, Schäuble has repeatedly made us look like fools when it comes to fiscal policy."
Many in the coalition have become concerned about their public image, particularly given Merkel's most recent maneuvering. Many veteran conservative politicians see Merkel's modernization efforts as an abandonment of the party's core values. Now they no longer feel at home within their own party.
Last week, the chancellor met with CDU and CSU floor leaders from the state parliaments. Merkel, who knows that the mood among the grassroots is not good, began the meeting by sweet-talking her audience. The coalition committee happened to be meeting in the Chancellery at that very moment, the chancellor said in dulcet tones, but that wasn't as important to her as meeting with the provincial politicians. "Seehofer and Rösler will just have to wait," she said.
Grassroots Frustration on the Rise
But the state parliamentary leaders were not impressed. They have to put their necks on the line every day for the Berlin coalition's decisions, and what unfolded in the next hour resembled a settling of accounts with the chancellor's policies. The state leaders were especially incensed over the energy about-face. "For the energy resolution to become credible, we will have to do a better job of explaining it," said Mike Mohring, the floor leader from the state of Thuringia.
"Each additional month of nuclear power discussion benefits the Greens and harms us," said Christian von Boetticher, the CDU parliamentary leader in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, who is actually a proponent of the energy turnaround. But governing, he said, consists of more than just breathlessly overcoming crises. "It is critical that the conservatives come up with their own issues once again," he said.
For Merkel, meetings with party allies have become painful affairs. When she met with the conservative parliamentary group last Monday to discuss the new energy concept, Axel Fischer, a parliamentarian from the southwestern city of Karlsruhe, asked a simple question: "What exactly distinguishes us from the Greens these days?" The chancellor was unable to provide him with a clear answer.
A deep divide has become apparent within the party. At the grassroots level, many supporters and officials who no longer know what exactly unites the CDU. At the top, Merkel and her allies are unified by the desire to wield power. And that means that the CDU leadership wants to open up the party for Green Party voters.
Running After the Greens
Many conservatives, however, doubt that simply copying Green policies is the way to go. Michael Brand (CDU), a member of the Bundestag from the western state of Hesse, warns: "Those who run after the Greens too quickly are likely to stumble and fall the way the SPD did." Even CDU politicians in the midst of an election campaign view Merkel's serpentine policies with skepticism. "The nuclear issue will not harm anymore, but I don't know if it'll do us any good, either," says Frank Henkel, the CDU's top candidate in the city-state of Berlin, where elections are to be held this autumn. Several in the party are also upset that Merkel elected not to hold a party convention to discuss her new energy policies.
The situation within the FDP is no better. It has a new leadership team, but it lacks a unified approach -- and its top politicians don't know how to react to the provocations coming from Merkel's conservatives.
Cooperation is particularly lacking between FDP parliamentary floor leader Rainer Brüderle and General Secretary Christian Lindner. Aside from the personal animosity between the two men, they also have completely different ideas about how the FDP can succeed in the coalition.
At the beginning of the week, Lindner distanced himself from the agreements reached by his own government. In an interview, he said that the FDP had been forced to accept several instruments incompatible with the market economy, "to preserve the peace within the coalition."
Lindner had only discussed his foray with Rösler. Although it was an attempt to portray the FDP as an independent force, Lindner achieved exactly the opposite. In the end, it looked as though the FDP was incapable of achieving anything, aside from grumbling.
"Many didn't understand what Lindner is doing," says a member of the FDP parliamentary leadership. Brüderle also believes that Lindner's approach is wrong. He is convinced that the party must actively call attention to its influence on joint coalition resolutions. "The nuclear phase-out has clearly FDP characteristics," he told SPIEGEL.
An increasing number of FDP parliamentarians are puzzled over what Brüderle could mean by that. Most already feel like their role has become that of merely rubber-stamping Merkel's policies. "We are just recipients of what the chancellor works out in small groups," says one parliamentarian. FDP politicians who attended the parliamentary group's meeting on Monday say that there was laughter as several documents on the weekend energy policy decisions were distributed. In the end, each member was facing a stack of paper 15 centimeters (six inches) tall. As always, there wasn't enough time to actually read the documents. It wasn't out of conviction but out of resignation that the majority eventually supported the agenda.
Parliamentary group members say that the mood in Merkel's coalition is even worse than in the days of former FDP Chairman Guido Westerwelle, who was replaced by Rösler last month. At the time, party members could at least cling to the hope that everything would improve when he stepped down. But FDP hopes of gaining new influence in the government under Rösler have been dashed a mere four weeks into his tenure.
This doesn't bode well for the coalition. To patch it up, it would seem that Merkel will have to begrudge the liberals a few successes. The chancellor has scheduled a meeting with the coalition leadership to improve the dismal mood, but whether she will find success remains to be seen.
On Wednesday afternoon, Schäuble appeared in the FDP parliamentary group's conference room to deliver an update on the efforts to rescue the euro. "The situation is extremely serious," he said. "Which situation?" Rösler replied. "That of the coalition or that of the euro?" Schäuble apparently wasn't quite sure. "Well," he said, shrugging his shoulders inconclusively.
By DIRK KURBJUWEIT, PETER MÜLLER, RALF NEUKIRCH, RENÉ PFISTER, CHRISTIAN REIERMANN, MICHAEL SAUGA and MERLIND THEILE