German Chancellor Angela Merkel dislikes putting her foot down to solve government disputes. She associates that form of exercising authority with ill-tempered men who use arrogance to make up for their lack of competence. And she thinks people who keep banging their fist on the table end up getting ignored in the long run.
But she can't keep quiet about everything that bothers her, which is why the chancellor resorted to a tentative rebuke last week. She didn't address Vice Chancellor Philipp Rösler directly, and yet she made it clear that she was indeed talking about him. She didn't say that he should stop playing with fire in connection with the euro crisis, but she suggested it. Rösler objected, and Merkel's cautious strategy fizzled out.
The events of last week have cast doubt on whether Merkel still has the authority to get her own way against her coalition partners, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU). It is not just a matter of concrete policy, but also about how the euro crisis should be discussed, openly or behind closed doors, and what tone should be adopted in doing so. Everything is contentious, even within the innermost circle. In addition to Rösler, who also chairs the FDP, CSU leader Horst Seehofer and Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer, also of the CSU, have made skeptical remarks about the euro.
In the middle of a crisis, Germany is being run by a government that doesn't seem capable of taking action. The FDP, in particular, is no longer far removed from political positions that could lead to its eviction from the coalition. Public confidence in the government is shot, with 65 percent of Germans saying that they believe that Berlin's decisions on the euro are wrong, according to the most recent "Deutschland Trend" opinion poll commissioned by the ARD television network. But can those 65 percent also specify which decisions they are referring to? The coalition has been shifting back and forth between opposing positions on the euro, and the constraints on the chancellor's leadership have become more evident. It was a week that saw her power decline.
At the end of the week before last, Rösler, who is also the German minister of economics, had a member of his staff write a piece on European economic policy. The essay mentions Greece, but not a bankruptcy. Rösler's advisors told him that, as a cabinet member, he could not stir up the issue, because the markets are too sensitive for that. The original text of the essay said, "the path toward an orderly government re-solvency should not be ruled out."
The German word "resolvenz" (literally, "re-solvency") is hardly ever used in economics. It refers to a procedure for getting back on one's feet after a crisis.
Rösler wanted to see the essay published in the press, but he had to sharpen it first. On Sunday, he met with his close advisors and the editors of the German daily newspaper Die Welt. At the end of the discussion, Rösler said: "To stabilize the euro, there can no longer be any restrictions on free thought in the short term. That includes, if necessary, an orderly insolvency for Greece." This sounds sharper than "re-solvency."
The CDU leadership was alarmed when the news agencies published Rösler's remarks on Sunday afternoon. It quickly became clear that if Merkel's economics minister was openly discussing a Greek insolvency, he was torpedoing the Europeans' efforts to bail out the country and undermining confidence in the German government. On Monday afternoon, Merkel discussed Rösler's move in a teleconference with top advisors. Everyone agreed that Merkel had to take her vice chancellor to task.
A Mild Rebuke
She called Rösler and said that there were already doubts in Brussels as to whether the Germans have the will to do what it takes to save the euro, and that speculation over a Greek insolvency is not helpful in this situation. Rösler defended himself, saying that it must be made clear to the public that the aid for Greece is tied to binding conditions, and that this would boost public acceptance of the coalition's policies.
In a radio interview on Tuesday, Merkel said that everyone should "consider his words very carefully. What we don't need is turmoil in the financial markets."
She had put her foot down lightly, and it seemed to have had some effect. Rösler was alarmed, partly because the markets were tumbling. He made a few phone calls, hoping to drum up support from his party. General Secretary Christian Lindner asked former Foreign Minister and honorary FDP chairman Hans-Dietrich for some words of support, but Genscher, unwilling to back an anti-European policy, said nothing. Parliamentary floor leader Rainer Brüderle told Rösler: "It's time for you to stand up." Rösler complied, but only half-heartedly.
"A cabinet minister has a duty to his country. I must do what I feel is right," he said in Rome on Wednesday. But he was no longer speaking openly about insolvency, instead returning to the more gentle term "re-solvency."
Other critics are also refusing to be silenced. Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer said: "We can't act as if the people who are critical of the measures to save the euro are all wrong." And CSU Chairman Seehofer, in an interview with SPIEGEL, defended his position by saying: "I will not allow myself to be intimidated."
That makes three against Merkel, including two from within the top echelon of the political leadership. Merkel's wings have been clipped, and now she faces even bigger problems ahead. There are rumblings within the FDP and the CSU that could distance the two parties even more from Merkel.
FDP Going Down 'Extremely Dangerous' Path
Alex Alvaro, an FDP member of the European Parliament, said developments in his party were "extremely dangerous." According to Alvaro, "ideas and resentments are being expressed that were last voiced by (former Vice Chancellor) Jürgen Möllemann in 2002." Alvaro also reminds us of a period in the early 1990s, when the "National Liberals" led by former Attorney General Alexander von Stahl sought to gain influence within the FDP. "There is this right-wing potential. But the FDP mustn't embrace it," says Alvaro. He believes that the party leadership has an obligation. "What is missing is a long-term intellectual orientation," he says, noting that the party now faces the risk of a "lack of depth."
Alvaro is concerned about a planned referendum among party members, spearheaded by Bundestag member Frank Schäffler, that is aimed at preventing the permanent European Stability Mechanism (ESM). If Schäffler succeeds, says Alvaro, it will likely spell the end of the coalition, because Merkel wants the ESM.
Schäffler needs only 3,400 signatures for his petition to conduct the survey. He will likely have collected that number by the end of the week. Then there will be a vote, and if a third of all FDP members vote and a majority of those voting oppose the ESM, Schäffler will have established an anti-euro policy supported by the party base.
It seems as if the FDP's membership is being adjusted to achieve Schäffler's goal. According to internal estimates, 500 people joined the party last week just to support the membership referendum. A look at Schäffler's website, where euroskeptics can vent their drastic rhetoric, reveals who these people are. A man named Markus Zehme, who just joined the FDP, thanks Schäffler for his "superb idea and measure," and continues: "It is almost high noon, and the clock is ticking for those hoping to prevent, at the last minutes, these brazen plans to institute a rip-off of Germany."
By responding to the pressure to take a stand, Rösler has led his party down a precarious path. His remarks are intended to send a message to euroskeptics within his own ranks that he takes their concerns seriously. But he also runs the risk that, in doing so, he will only encourage them even further. What Rösler lacks is a strategy. The direction in which he is leading the FDP changes from week to week. Before he was chosen as party leader, he stood for compassionate liberalism, and later for tax cuts. The latest twist is called euroskepticism.
CSU Supporting Euroskeptic Stance
Rösler's approach offers Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle an unexpected opportunity to boost his own profile. In a policy statement, Westerwelle plans to declare his support for Europe and the European policy traditions of his office. His diplomats have urged him to move in this direction, and even Genscher was making phone calls last week to recruit allies for this policy.
Meanwhile, Rösler is getting some unexpected support from the CSU. "The attacks on Rösler were exaggerated and unnecessarily damaged the mood within the coalition," says Stefan Müller, the leader of the CSU national committee in the Bundestag. "At any rate, it's clear that an insolvency procedure for distressed countries will be necessary if the aid coming from other countries is no longer effective. That's the position of the CSU."
Bundestag member Peter Gauweiler represents an even more skeptical position within the CSU. He intends to run for the position of deputy CSU chairman at the party's national convention in early October. Gauweiler has opposed the euro, which he once called "Esperanto money," for years.
This isn't good news for Merkel. Even before Gauweiler's candidacy, the CSU was competing with the FDP for the position of Greece's sharpest critic. At its convention, the CSU plans to adopt a resolution calling for new rules that would make it possible to exclude debtor nations from the euro zone. The FDP hasn't reached that point yet. But neither Rösler's nor Ramsauer's words have made any impression on Gauweiler, who says: "It would have been better if they had not approved the euro bailout fund, of which they are now so critical, in the cabinet."
A group of politicians who seek to oppose the FDP and the CSU is now taking shape within the CDU. "I am concerned about how the FDP leadership is not adequately putting the brakes on anti-European populism," says Thomas Strobl, the CDU general secretary in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg. "We had a better image in the Grand Coalition (of the CDU/CSU and the Social Democratic Party) than we do today, even though we're governing with our preferred partner."
Norbert Röttgen, the CDU leader in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, is introducing a pro-European motion into his party's regional executive committee on Monday. The motion includes the following statement: "The goal of the aid for Greece is to preserve the unity of the monetary union and make it clear that the member states of the euro zone are defending the common currency." Röttgen wants to gradually create a "collective Europe" with more closely interconnected institutions.
'More Europe, Not Less'
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and influential politicians within the CDU/CSU parliamentary leadership have been developing the next major integration step for some time. "The lesson to be learned from the crisis is that we need more of Europe, not less," says CDU politician Peter Altmaier, a close ally of Merkel.
Schäuble wants to amend the European Treaties to promote greater integration among all 27 countries in the EU, and not just the 17 member states of the euro zone. Otherwise, says Schäuble, an organization competing with the European Commission will develop without sufficient democratic control.
Schäuble is eyeing two possible solutions. The first would involve the establishment of a special parliamentary committee to oversee the economic government, which would consist of representatives of the national parliaments. But the minister would prefer a second approach, in which the future economic government would be established under the umbrella of the EU. Then the European Parliament or a parliamentary committee could assume the role of overseer. His ideas are still evolving, but if Schäuble has his way, a convention could be convened this year to prepare the changes.
But there are also euro critics within the CDU. Although Merkel will address the rank and file of the party in so-called regional conferences starting Monday, many fear that a real debate over the euro will not materialize. "The purpose of these conferences is to announce policy. They cannot replace grassroots work," says CDU Bundestag member Wolfgang Bosbach.
Others are openly calling for a referendum of party members like the one likely to take place in the FDP. "I am very much in favor of that," says Manfred Kolbe, a member of the Bundestag from the eastern state of Saxony. In Kolbe's opinion, the chancellor's statement that "if the euro fails, Europe will fail" is "grossly negligent. The euro will probably fail, but it is imperative that Europe not be allowed to fail."
And the government? Can it fail? Its euro policy is not very coherent, and Merkel currently lacks the authority to bring together opposing positions. But it's unlikely that she will be brought down soon.
The FDP is stuck with the CDU/CSU for the time being, because of the possibility that it would not even garner enough votes in new elections to secure seats in the Bundestag. Rösler's flirtation with populism is so dangerous because it could provoke an end to the coalition, which would only constitute a loss for the FDP at the moment.
Speaking to close allies, Genscher recently voiced his concern that he CDU/CSU and the SPD could soon join forces. According to Genscher, the necessary decisions would seek their own majorities.
The SPD is trying to quash talk of a new grand coalition. Party leader Sigmar Gabriel says: "The SPD is prepared to raise its hand to stabilize Europe, but not to preserve Angela Merkel's power. Therefore, if the government falls apart, a grand coalition is not an alternative for us, but new elections are." Not everyone in the party leadership is as convinced. If the euro crisis continues to deteriorate, the SPD could come under growing pressure to enter into a coalition with the conservatives.
Markus Feldenkirchen, Christoph Hickmann, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch and Merlind Theile