German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble can be an extremely polite man when he wants to be. At the same, the many difficult years he has spent in politics have equipped him with an incomparable sarcasm. Schäuble often walks a fine line between derision and civility.
Schäuble has recently been using a phrase that allows himself to conceal his frustration. He uses it in interviews, in internal meetings and in personal conversations, and it marks the beginning of some of his sentences. It can be loosely translated as: "Without presuming to impinge on the chancellor's authority."
Schäuble had the opportunity to use the phrase once again recently. The steering committee of Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), to which Schäuble belongs, was meeting with the assembled leaders of German trade unions. The union bosses were listening to the chancellor talk about the European Union, and yet what she was saying didn't make much sense to them. Schäuble spoke up: "Without presuming to impinge on the chancellor's authority, I would also like to say something about Europe."
"Should I step out of the room for a moment?" Merkel asked. At least it was a spontaneous attempt to make a joke.
No Longer Taking Itself Seriously
Merkel is halfway through her second term in office, but her administration is still waiting for its first success. The chancellor resorts to irony when her most loyal and important supporter vents his frustration in a veiled jab against her. For Germany's center-right camp, the current coalition of the CDU, its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) is a dream constellation. But as the coalition nears its halfway mark, it is no longer taking itself seriously, because this is the only way it can bear its own demise.
The history of this decline goes something like this: At first the parties were unable to come to terms in their coalition negotiations, then they had a falling out, and now they must drum up the strength to overcome the euro crisis, the biggest test the European Union has ever faced. But the internal disintegration within the coalition is already so far advanced that not even its own majority is a given when the German parliament, the Bundestag, votes this Thursday on an expansion for the European bailout fund, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) -- which would increase Germany's contribution to the fund from €123 billion ($166 billion) to €211 billion.
Several Bundestag members from the governing CDU oppose giving further powers to the EFSF, over concerns that the parliament would be giving up its budget rights. Some FDP members are fundamentally opposed to expanding the EFSF, arguing that more aid for crisis-stricken countries would only encourage profligacy.
When it comes to European policy, three key figures -- Merkel, Economics Minister Philipp Rösler, who is also head of the FDP, and Horst Seehofer, the chairman of the CSU -- have fundamentally contradicted one another in public within a very short space of time. Rösler called for an end to "taboos" on thinking about how to deal with Greece's debt crisis, referring to the taboo of talking about a Greek default which Merkel had supposedly created. Then, CSU leader Seehofer rejected Merkel's remark that Europe would fail if the euro failed. "I don't see the connection," he said.
If a leadership is so frayed, how are ordinary members of parliament supposed to toe the party line? And what is that line, anyway? At least a dozen members of the coalition parties are expected not to toe the party line in this Thursday's vote. If that number rises to 20, the coalition will have lost its majority.
Schäuble believes the risk is so high that he felt obliged to point out that it doesn't matter where Merkel gets her votes in the plenary session. The main opposition parties, the center-left Social Democrats and Greens, have said they will approve the reforms. But relying on opposition support to get the changes approved would be humiliating for the chancellor.
A few weeks ago, Schäuble, who has effectively become Merkel's vice-chancellor when it comes to the euro crisis, said privately that the CDU ought to take the FDP's next attempt to contradict its partner on European policy as an opportunity to dissolve the coalition. The situation is so serious that influential CDU politicians like Bundestag President Norbert Lammert are already thinking about the possibility of a minority government. If that happens, the government would be forced to painstakingly build a majority for each individual vote.
The CDU and FDP experienced yet another debacle at the polls in the recent parliamentary election in the city-state of Berlin, where the SPD and Greens got enough seats between them to form a government. Now the chancellor can no longer blame the coalition's disastrous reputation on her junior partner, the FDP.
Who's to Blame?
The Berlin election debacle has affected the CDU just as much as it affected the FDP, which got a humiliating 1.8 percent of the vote and no longer has seats in the city-state's parliament, having fallen far short of the 5 percent hurdle for representation. If the liberals, who entered the Bundestag with close to 15 percent of the vote in national parliamentary elections two years ago, capture less than 2 percent in a state election, while the CDU fails to win extra votes, it isn't just the FDP who has a problem, but also Merkel.
The chancellor has lost substantial voter support to her potential challengers in the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Both SPD parliamentary floor leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Merkel's former finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, have higher popularity ratings than Merkel, as does Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit.
Merkel has now been chancellor for almost six years. For four of those years, she was supposedly unable to lead as she would have liked to, because she was the head of a "grand coalition" government with the SPD. In the last two years, the FDP has prevented her from shining. First it was the SPD, then the FDP who were to blame. Then it was the pesky Greeks and the egomaniacal French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.
With so many people who are supposedly to blame for her administration's failures, there might be another explanation: Could it actually all be Merkel's fault?
On Monday evening of last week, Merkel gave a speech in Alsfeld, a town in the state of Hesse, roughly in the center of Germany. The chancellor used every rhetorical trick in her book in her opening remarks. She praised the performance principle in schools and Germany's rapid nuclear phase-out. She spoke with passion, maligned the financial markets and quoted a European visionary, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Then she said: "When times were tough, it was always up to the conservatives to fix things. Now we have the wonderful task of stabilizing the euro."
Congratulations are apparently in order on this wonderful task. Alsfeld is the site of the first of six regional CDU conferences. Regional conferences are the last resort of party politics. Former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and then-SPD Chairman Franz Müntefering also used them to preserve their power when the SPD threatened to blow up in their faces over the unpopular "Agenda 2010" reforms to the social welfare system. Nevertheless, they failed to avert the premature end of the Schröder chancellorship.
It's hard to really believe that fixing the euro is a "wonderful task." At the Alsfeld appearance, the chancellor was bombarded with questions on difficult issues, from the euro's problems to questions over the German educational system and the nuclear phase-out. The scapegoat, as usual, was the FDP. One speaker in Alsfeld derisively hissed the name of the FDP leader, calling him "Mr. Rössssssler," and criticized the fact that "a 38-year-old doctor" was putting the fate of Greece -- "the birthplace of democracy" -- up for negotiation. He was referring to Rösler's critical remarks about a possible Greek default.
The 1,300 guests, or at least those who were speaking up, had apparently had enough of the conservative-liberal coalition government. When one CDU member lamented that it was time for the politicians in Berlin "to pull together as a team for at least four weeks," he wasn't just referring to Rösler, but to other political leaders like Seehofer and Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer. On that evening, even more prominent CDU functionaries did not hesitate to voice their frustrations with the coalition partners in Berlin. "Some people are spouting nonsense about the demise of Greece in a bid to divert attention away from their own demise," said Marion Walsmann, the CDU minister for European affairs in the eastern state of Thuringia. Merkel was forced to swallow a lot of criticism on that evening.
The Beginning of the End of a Chancellorship
Merkel is having trouble making her events successful at the moment. This also applies to a recent meeting at the Chancellery with the leaders of the opposition.
In that meeting, Transportation Minister Ramsauer proved to be more rebellious than the opposition. He even took Finance Minister Schäuble to task. He asked what sort of an agreement Schäuble had negotiated at the European level over the euro rescue fund, pointing out that Germany had received no guarantees that it would ever get its money back.
This prompted a member of the opposition to pointedly ask what exactly Ramsauer's role was in the meeting. Was he there as a minister in Merkel's cabinet or as the vice-chairman of the CSU, which is consistently suspected of serving as an internal opposition? Even Merkel didn't seem quite sure how to respond. "We don't know that either," she mumbled.
The boundaries between the government and the opposition are becoming oddly blurred in these critical days and weeks in Berlin. When a chancellor is no longer able to cobble together his or her own majority, it marks the beginning of the end of a chancellorship. It was the reason Schröder twice linked a vote to a motion of confidence in his chancellorship. Once it was a question of war and peace in Afghanistan, when Schröder's SPD/Green Party coalition was about as unenthusiastic about the war as the current center-right coalition is about the euro.
Volker Kauder, the chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag and a loyal supporter of the chancellor, had his hands full last Tuesday. He knows who the troublemakers are. Klaus-Peter Willsch, a prominent member of the conservatives' parliamentary group, has been opposed to the bailout funds for months. He was more or less on his own at first, but when a test vote on the issue was held in the parliamentary group in early September, 12 CDU/CSU parliamentarians voted against it and seven abstained. With numbers like these, things could be tight for Merkel on Thursday.
Kauder is upset. Referring to the test vote on the expanded bailout fund, he says with some irritation that things cannot continue like that. He insists that everyone can have his opinion on the matter, and that "no one is being pressured here."
Nevertheless, he adds, it is detrimental to the common cause when every critic constantly airs his private convictions in public. "You can certainly have your opinion," says Kauder, "but you don't have to voice it constantly, in opposition to the majority and your own colleagues."
So far, says Kauder, every vote on the euro has been decided in the government's favor, and that will continue in the future. "We can't afford to go through this drama every time," he cautions.
And the ailing FDP? The disastrous outcome of the Berlin city-state election has destroyed all hopes within the FDP that the downward trend could be reversed. Even party leader Rösler characterizes it as perhaps the most challenging situation the liberals have ever faced.
At a meeting of their steering committee last Monday, the FDP leadership tried to portray the euro dispute as little more than a misunderstanding, blaming it on the party's state-level association in Berlin. Rösler's policy is pro-European and is supported by the party, said FDP national treasurer Patrick Döring. It was only the Berlin association's aggressive election campaign that created the impression that the entire party was skeptical of the euro, he added.
In fact, Rösler deliberately adopted an ambiguous position to counter growing criticism of the government's euro policy from within his own ranks. This only heightens doubts as to the party leader's political powers of judgment. In contrast, the position of floor leader Rainer Brüderle has been strengthened. In a meeting with close advisers, he noted that it is time for the FDP to finally demonstrate its worth within the coalition, and that the demand by some fellow party members for the FDP to clearly delineate its position is nonsense. Conflict with the CDU/CSU doesn't do the liberals any good, Brüderle added.
With his remarks, Brüderle was also trying to confront the general mood of defeatism within the party. Many members of parliament are asking themselves what they can expect to achieve with a coalition partner that completely ignores the wishes of the FDP.
'The Attacks Must Stop'
The conservatives' fierce reaction to Rösler's remarks on Greece contributed to this sentiment. Merkel, Finance Minister Schäuble and senior CDU politician Peter Altmaier all attacked the FDP chairman with unusually sharp rhetoric, portraying him as a political novice. "Taboos on thinking are deeply detrimental to freedom," Schäuble said. "But the opposite of a taboo is not necessarily an open invitation to speak one's mind."
The attacks led to heightened resentment of the CDU/CSU within the FDP. "The conservatives' attacks on our people must stop," said FDP Bundestag member Sylvia Canel. "The CDU should ask itself whom this is supposed to benefit and whether they truly intend to continue in this vein for another two years."
Brüderle is familiar with the risk that such a mood entails. At a meeting of the party's parliamentary group last week, he issued a dramatic appeal to all the FDP's Bundestag members. It is time for the FDP to stick together, he said, adding that no one should be providing ammunition to political adversaries. "Those who are with us should be willing to cooperate," Brüderle said. "And those who aren't should go."
In the next Bundestag election, no one expects the liberals to come even close to reaching the record 14.6 percent of the vote they captured in 2009. Many members of parliament accept that they will not make it into the next Bundestag. That fact may tempt some to voice their opinions on whether the coalition makes sense any more.
Too Many Meetings
Those members who will have to fight for a good spot on the party's candidate list are also a potential risk. The process of compiling the lists will begin next year, and anyone who hopes to capture a promising slot must make a name for themselves. Strictly adhering to the party line isn't the way to achieve this.
At the moment, it is the FDP floor leader, and not the party leader, who is determining what the party line is supposed to be. The FDP must devote itself to its "bread-and-butter" issues, says Brüderle, by which he means economic and fiscal policy. This puts an end, at least for the time being, to Rösler's hope of increasing the party's appeal to a broader base by embracing new issues like environmental protection.
To stifle the debate over Rösler's leadership qualities and encourage unity, the leaders of the party and its parliamentary group plan to attend a retreat together in late October. But some are already questioning whether this makes any sense. "We spend a bit too much time holding meetings," says one member of the party leadership. "Instead, we should govern better."
Governing more effectively could indeed help the FDP. Polls show that Germans felt that they were being governed much more effectively under the grand coalition of 2005-2009. A mood of wistfulness and yearning is beginning to take shape within the ranks of the CDU/CSU. Both the chancellor and CDU/CSU floor leader Kauder recently pointed out that things weren't nearly as bad with the Social Democrats.
It was a message aimed at two audiences. The liberals perceived it as a threat, while the Social Democrats noted with interest that the chancellor is apparently trying to apply pressure -- so that if push comes to shove, the SPD will feel compelled, in the interest of the nation, to join a new grand coalition.
But that alliance has been despised within the SPD since the September 2009 election, when the party, after four years at Merkel's side, saw its share of the vote plunge to 23 percent -- its worst result since the war. At every possible opportunity, the party leaders surrounding SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel insist that they will absolutely not come to Merkel's aid if she severs ties with the FDP -- even though they know that they will hardly be able to keep their word if there is yet another dramatic deterioration in the European debt crisis.
Nevertheless, the Social Democrats are currently adamant about their rejection of a possible alliance with the conservatives. "There will not be another grand coalition on the national government for the foreseeable future," opposition leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier told SPIEGEL, in a reference to 2013.
But Merkel is also losing her last potential coalition partner, the Greens. Renate Künast, the Green Party's co-floor leader, has rejected an alliance with the CDU. "We will have to forget about the CDU/Green Party option at the next election," says Künast. "The Berlin election has shown that our voters need 150 percent clarity in this regard." Künast's words are particularly meaningful because, as the party's top candidate in Berlin, she had long toyed with the option of a CDU/Green Party coalition in the city-state -- only to see her party come third, dashing her hopes of becoming Berlin mayor.
Perhaps Merkel will be able to scrape together her own majority this Thursday, or cobble together a majority with votes from the opposition. But if it's merely a slim majority or if notable members of parliament from the coalition parties are among the no-votes and abstentions, Merkel will no longer be able to take the easy way out and nonchalantly declare the dissidents to be a problem -- or have other people declare them to be a problem.
If that happens, it will become apparent that she is in fact the problem, and that she is incapable of explaining, convincing or leading. Then she will have forfeited her chancellorship, no matter how much longer it lasts.
REPORTED BY RALF BESTE, CHRISTOPH HICKMANN, PETER MÜLLER, RALF NEUKIRCH AND CHRISTOPH SCHWENNICKE