Having squeezed top posts out of Merkel, her government partners are now at each other’s throats
Bojan Pancevski, EU Correspondent
February 11 2018, 12:01am, The Sunday Times
Britain’s political class has been pushed into second place by Germany’s on the European scale of ridicule as the ruling parties in Berlin tear themselves apart over the spoils of power.
Angela Merkel, the caretaker chancellor, extended her political life by giving away the store to the Social Democrats last week but, instead of celebrating, the top Social Democrats promptly went for each other’s throats.
Merkel herself did not come out of it well. After 12 years in power, she is facing open calls to quit from top figures in her Christian Democrat Union (CDU) after capitulating to the demands of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) for powerful ministerial posts in the agreement to form a new coalition government.
The antics of SPD leaders, however, have provided a figleaf for her failure and ensured that Germany’s vaunted reputation for political stability has, like Britain’s, become a joke.
The central figure in this burlesque is Martin Schulz, the verbose former president of the European parliament, who was seen as the unlikely saviour of the SPD when he returned with great fanfare from a 23-year stint in Brussels to take over the party leadership last year.
A self-confessed former alcoholic, school dropout and failed professional footballer, Schulz at first seemed a refreshing alternative to the cerebral but dull Merkel.
He predicted that the SPD, which had been in a cross-party grand coalition with the CDU since 2013, would reverse its fortunes and sweep to power. The party last occupied the huge white chancellery in Berlin in 2002, only a year after it was built.
Schulz’s polling soared for a short while — fans depicted him online as Che Guevara and even Jesus — only to plummet to the depths after the German public saw him more intimately in a series of bumbling interviews and public appearances.
The SDP slumped to a historic low of 20% in the September general election, when voters alienated by Merkel’s former open-arms policy to migrants — which was fully supported by Schulz and his SPD — turned to the far-right Alternative for Germany party.
After that fiasco, Schulz pledged “never” to accept a role in any government led by Merkel, who was trying to build a new coalition and save her own skin after the CDU’s own poor showing at the polls.
So it was with incredulity that Germany heard Schulz announce on Wednesday that not only had he formed a grand coalition with Merkel but also that he would serve in it as her foreign minister, a coveted and prestigious job. “How could we have been so mistaken about this man?” mused the Tagesspiegel newspaper.
That was not all. Germany’s current foreign minister is Sigmar Gabriel, who gave up the leadership of the SPD last year so that Schulz — whom he thought of as a friend — could give the party a fresh start. It had been rumoured that Schulz had privately assured him he would keep his job.
On hearing that he was being stabbed in the back, Gabriel predictably unsheathed his own stiletto.
He publicly accused Schulz of a breach of faith, saying that while the German public had approved of his performance as foreign minister the SPD leadership “clearly didn’t give a hoot”.
“The only thing left, really, is remorse over how disrespectful we’ve become with one another in our dealings and how little someone’s word still counts,” he added. “I am too much from a world in which you do not just look sideways but straight in the eyes and tell the truth. That evidently has fallen out of fashion.”
Gabriel, 58, then attempted a coup de grace by invoking his five-year-old daughter. She was relieved that he would spend more time with her, he said, than with “the man with the hairy face” — a reference to the bearded Schulz.
That, however, was too much for Bild, Germany’s biggest-selling newspaper, which complained: “Men who use their daughters for their personal power struggles — this is the state of our political elite in Germany. Pitiful.”
Die Zeit, the SPD-leaning newspaper, ran a front-page headline, “A republic on the verge of a nervous breakdown”, and a cartoon of the heraldic German eagle crash landing on its head.
The goings-on at the top of the SPD did not soften the criticism of Merkel for clinging to power by handing over key ministries including the Treasury to the SPD, the junior partner in the new government. Under the title “The Price of Power”, a cartoon in Der Spiegel magazine showed Merkel naked while SPD politicians run away with her clothes.
“Angela Merkel must read the writing on the wall and effectuate a handover of power in this legislative period,” said Peter Hauk, the CDU agriculture minister for the state of Baden-Württemberg.
Polls show that 63% of Germans see the chancellor as weakened by the arrangement, but the SPD is faring even worse: a new poll found their popularity had dropped to an incredible 17%.
This is why the whole coalition agreement could be scuppered by a 28-year-old parliamentary assistant, Kevin Kühnert, who is campaigning for SPD members to reject it in a party ballot on March 4.
Kühnert, head of the Young Socialists, the youth wing of the SPD, wants the party to rejuvenate itself in opposition and return to its ideological roots. His campaign includes a social media onslaught on the “political carnival in Berlin” and a speaking tour of SPD strongholds.
The SPD’s new parliamentary leader, Andrea Nahles, 47, is also on the left and led the Young Socialists in the 1990s. As social affairs minister in the last coalition, she forced through a minimum wage and an early retirement law.
Her influence will be balanced by another key SPD figure in Merkel’s government, Olaf Scholz, 59, the popular mayor of Hamburg and finance minister designate. Scholz, who is business-friendly, has moved quickly to reassure CDU partners in government that he would pursue a policy of fiscal rigour and preserve the balanced budget that has a near-religious connotation in Germany.
“In all extra demands we must look closely to see what we can and what we cannot afford,” Scholz told Der Spiegel, in what sounded like a warning to his more profligate-minded party colleagues.
However, to the rest of Europe and France, where President Emmanuel Macron longs to hear news of a change of heart in Germany over its willingness to invest more in a common budget, Scholz sent a more emollient message.
He appeared to do away with the orthodoxy of his predecessor Wolfgang Schäuble, who was seen as a grim enforcer of austerity in the EU’s southern rim. “We don’t want to prescribe to European countries how they should develop. In the past, mistakes were definitely made in that regard,” Scholz said.
He also promised to increase Germany’s participation in the budget to fill the gap that will be created by Brexit, which is estimated at being in the region of €15bn (£13bn) a year.