Letter from Berlin Germany's Minister of Disasters

Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel had a great 2007 as the poster child of Germany's far-reaching efforts to control climate change. This year though, his ministry has been plagued by disaster -- and many of them have been of his own making.

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It was just two weeks ago that German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel published a long essay in SPIEGEL. After weeks of bickering within the center-left Social Democrats, to which he belongs, Gabriel took to the media stage to call for a return to SPD values. There are plenty of problems in Germany and the world, was his message: It is time for the SPD to shut up about internal difficulties, pull up its sleeves and get to work.

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel has a nose for publicity, but he also has a knack for blunders.
DPA

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel has a nose for publicity, but he also has a knack for blunders.

It was, in short, the kind of essay that one expects from an ambitious politician like Gabriel. But there was only one shortcoming: In the entire 2,200 word piece, Gabriel's primary responsibility -- the environment -- was hardly mentioned at all.

Indeed, for all its far-sighted precision and statesmanlike portrayal of what really concerns Germans, the essay provided a glimpse into the problems facing Gabriel himself. Even as he, by all accounts, quickly mastered the ins and outs of global environmental policy, his first love is his own career. And that distraction can sometimes get him into trouble.

Like this month. The portly environment minister has once again become the target of choice for politicians and journalists alike. "Mr. Gabriel should spend less time on talk shows and more time in his ministry," Ronald Pofalla, general secretary of the center-right Christian Democrats, told the Neuen Rhein/Ruhr Zeitung. His was just the sharpest of numerous daggers flung in Gabriel's direction.

Façade Came Crashing Down

The trigger for the wave of criticism is not difficult to find. Even as Gabriel was penning his missive for SPIEGEL, a significant policy disaster was developing unnoticed right under his nose. For months, Gabriel has been beating the biofuels drum and insisting that in 2009, gasoline in Germany would include 10 percent bio-ethanol.

But last week, the plan's façade came crashing down. The Environment Ministry, as it turns out, had miscalculated the number of German automobiles that would not be able to run on the new mixture. Instead of 300,000 cars that would have been forced to refuel with expensive supreme unleaded -- which would have been exempt from the policy -- the number, it became clear, was closer to 3 million. Gabriel's team had been relying on old and hopelessly inaccurate numbers. Gabriel killed the plan last week.

Had it been anyone else, one is tempted to assume that the negative attention would not have been entirely focused on the minister responsible. But Siggi Pop, as he came to be called earlier this decade after the SPD handed him the party's pop music portfolio, has long had a reputation for both ambition and failure, political brilliance and astounding lapses.

He got his start in Lower Saxony, where he entered state parliament in 1990. Before long, however, he was noticed and promoted by another prominent politician from the state: Gerhard Schröder. Even today, many argue that the "political career of Sigmar Gabriel is unimaginable without Gerhard Schröder," as the influential weekly Die Zeit wrote last year. By 1999, the year after Schröder vacated his position as Lower Saxony governor to move into the chancellery, the 40-year-old Gabriel had moved up the party ranks enough to become the youngest state governor Germany had ever seen.

It didn't last long. By the time 2003 rolled around, Gabriel had been voted out of office, his wife had left him and he was in the hospital for a herniated disc. Gabriel has since been unable to escape the aftershocks of that burst bubble -- a reputation for having more style than substance.

A Quick Study

But in 2005, he was back, appointed to Merkel's cabinet as environment minister. And he quickly earned praise for the speed with which he was able to master the esoteric details of carbon trading schemes and global warming arcana. By last year, Gabriel was in a prime position to reap the benefits of being the poster child for Germany's efforts to save the world from climate change.

And his instincts for publicity didn't desert him. Almost before Berlin's baby polar bear Knut had become a world star in the spring of 2007, Gabriel stepped in for a photo op and became the little furball's godfather. Not long later, he travelled with Merkel -- and a large press retinue -- to Greenland to get a firsthand look at the effects of global warming. All the while, Germany proclaimed its leadership role in the battle against climate change. Both Germany and the European Union adopted far-reaching emissions reduction goals complete with pledges to increase reliance on biofuels. Siggi Pop had become a political shooting star.

It wasn't long, however, before it became clear that Gabriel's new armor of popularity was not impenetrable. EU Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas was the first to take a shot, pointing out that Germany's reliance on coal-fired power plants was hardly consistent with its emissions goals. In December, he blasted Berlin for fighting stringent emissions rules for automobiles -- regulations that would have disadvantaged German automakers.

But much of Gabriel's eventual unravelling was his own doing. Even as criticism of biofuels continued to mount, his ministry did little to revisit its commitment. Then, last autumn, it became clear that tens of thousands of filters installed in diesel vehicles to cut down on soot emissions were faulty. Despite being informed early of the impending debacle, Gabriel's ministry responded late -- and swallowed the bill for 40,000 filter replacements.

Siggi Flop

Soon afterwards, he was lampooned in the press for interrupting his vacation on the island of Mallorca for a quick trip back to Berlin -- alone in a government jet. Gabriel defended himself by saying he had little choice in the matter; Merkel herself had requested his presence in Berlin. But German media made sure to report that the flights released 44 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And then came the custom-made coup de grâce from Green Party floor leader Bärbel Höhn: "There has always been a large gap between what Mr. Gabriel says and what he does when it comes to climate protection." The old criticism had caught up with him -- Siggi Pop, as tabloid Bild pointed out, had become Siggi Flop.

In contrast to his implosion five years ago, Gabriel is this time in a position to fight back. After the filter scandal, he accused the manufacturers of the defective filters of harboring "criminal energy." After Mallorca, he said petulantly that he would never again interrupt his vacation. This month, he has blasted his critics from the CDU for being hypocritical. The conservatives were, he pointed out, heavily involved in formulating Germany's biofuel goals.

All the while, Gabriel has continued his efforts to establish himself as an SPD visionary. On Tuesday, he held a major speech entitled "Germany: The Green Economic Power." It seems that, despite the environmental policy hiccups, he remains firmly focused on his career.

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