Merkel’s Team

Cabinet Members in the Shadows

Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel (CDU) eröffnet mit einer Glocke am Montag (24.10.2011) im Konrad-Adenauer-Haus in Berlin die Bundesvorstandssitzung der Partei. Foto: Rainer Jensen dpa/lbn +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Angela Merkel (CDU) and her lesser known ministers, (l-r) Christian Schmidt, Gerd Müller, Herman Gröhe, Barbara Hendricks, Johanna Wanka.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    At the halfway point for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government, an assessment shows that some cabinet ministers are omnipresent and dominate debates, while others are fight insignificance.

  • Facts


    • Angela Merkel leads a coalition government the government her Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).
    • The third cabinet of Chancellor Angela Merkel was sworn in on December 17, 2013.
    • There are 16 ministers, from all the parties of the coalition.
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German politicians like to go on tour in the summer, getting close to ordinary people, listening to them, joining in. If things go well, the process makes them look more human. But if things go wrong, they are left looking exposed.

Take Barbara Hendricks, Germany’s federal minister for environment, nature conservation and nuclear safety. She is a member of the junior coalition partners, the SPD, and recently took a trip through the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. She listened to the fate of the endangered harbor porpoise in the city of Stralsund and learned about trash in the ocean. She rumbled across a farm in a tractor and viewed the “model project for agriculture and animal diversity.” It produced lovely pictures of an organic farm in summer, which is what you would expect from a trip by an environmental minister.

Who has heard of Hermann Gröhe, Johanna Wanka, Gerd Müller or Christian Schmidt?

But when she got back to the Scheelhof Hotel in Stralsund with her entourage, the receptionist did not recognize her. The federal minister carried her own suitcases to her room.

Ms. Hendricks knows that few people recognize her on the street. She is not too bothered – and she’s not the only low-profile minister.

Together, the Ms. Merkel’s CDU and the SPD gained 448 seats in the Bundestag, the German parliament, in the election of September 22, 2013. That’s 448 of a total of 623 seats.

That is a comfortable majority for a right-left coalition government. In the end, Ms. Merkel appointed 16 ministerial posts. Many were guaranteed high-profile, frequent appearances on radio and television, official trips and the opportunity to make powerful legislative proposals.

The most high-profile ministers are labor minister Andrea Nahles, who pushed through the minimum wage, Defense minister Ursula von der Leyen, who has been caught up in a furore over the German military’s G36 assault rifles, interior minister Thomas de Maizière, who is at the heart of the current refugee crisis, and finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble who has led the debate over Greece.

These people have dominated the news in recent months. But who has heard of Hermann Gröhe, Johanna Wanka, Gerd Müller or Christian Schmidt?

These ministers often have difficulty getting through to the public with their concerns when competing against euro, refugee and climate crises. Some of the lower-profile ministers don’t make any conscious attempt to be the subject of a large debate. Many do not even appear in polls. Health Minister Mr. Gröhe made it only once into the political barometer of the polling institute Forsa. That was in April 2014.

Mr. Müller is doubly hidden. When he became minister for economic cooperation and development two years ago, the Turkish newspaper Hüriyet promptly confused him with Gerd Müller, the famous “Bomber” of the German soccer team in the 1974 World Cup. The 60-year-old federal minister is in fact a member of Bavaria’s CSU, the CDU’s smaller sister party.

To this day in Germany, Mr. Müller the minister is known only to a very few outside the development-aid worker community. That’s in part because development cooperation is only a marginal topic in German government. His predecessors in office – Dirk Niebel, the former general secretary of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the auburn-haired, leftist Heidemarie “Red Heidi” Wieczorek-Zeul of the SPD – were already well-known party bigwigs before their ministerial careers. Mr. Müller wasn’t.

He was a state secretary for years in the ministry of agriculture. Since being made a minister, he has worked on development issues and focused, with genuine enthusiasm, on issues such as cocoa, coffee and fruit plantations in West Africa. Some believe he is too close to the humanitarian agencies he works with. But he has made development issues part of the G7 summit, and next year his department will get a 13 percent increase in its budget. Not bad for a lesser known minister.

Johanna Wanka meanwhile, already had a high profile when she unexpectedly became federal minister for education and research before the 2013 elections. Ms. Merkel needed a replacement for Annette Schavan, who had to step down after she was stripped of her doctorate because of alleged plagiarism. Ms. Wanka stepped in.

Earlier this month, she hosted a “Future Night” in Berlin. Her dialogue with citizens focused on networked healthcare, chips in the brain and robots in hospitals. The citizens are supposed to participate in the discussion. But first, Ms. Wanka said in her greeting, “We are trying out something new here today. But I don’t know if what we are doing will also be productive.”

But she’s having a hard time. Conquering the nightly news on TV is tough when the topic is her Temporary Science Employment Law proposal dealing with short-term academic contracts. She gets applause when she says something about the school system or universities, but these areas are largely the responsibility of Germany’s individual states and as a federal minister she is limited in what she can do.

And yet she remains a key player in many important issues, including various initiatives to get unemployed or unqualified young people into some sort of training.

Germany’s federal minister for environment, nature conservation and nuclear safety is the unpretentious Barbara Hendricks, 63, from the SPD. She has persuaded the finance minister to set aside a billion euros for the construction of subsidized housing, and has not been afraid to tackle the controversial subject of nuclear power. She has been an unexpected success.

Federal health minister Hermann Gröhe, 54, is similarly modest. The CDU’s Mr. Gröhe hardly ever appears on talk shows and pwould prefer not to comment on controversial issues like pensions for the senior executives of medical groups. The health insurance industry is a lucrative one but trouble is brewing. Mr. Gröhe will not be able to remain hidden for long.

Germany’s minister of food and agriculture is a certain Christian Schmidt, a 58-year-old member of the CSU. He is known in Berlin as a people pleaser. He recently went to open the European Congress and Colloquium of Agricultural Law at the University of Potsdam. The audience included academics and legal experts, so it was a home game of sorts for the minister, who is also a legal scholar. Here he felt at ease, and what stood out at the event was he didn’t stand out. No one really noticed when he entered the lecture hall.

At the end of his speech, he said something that’s typical of him: Those present please shouldn’t be disappointed if not all of their proposals are taken up by the policymakers. After all, politics means including the other point of view.

Mr. Schmidt is more of a thinker than a politician. The joy in debate, in public confrontation, at any rate, isn’t his thing. That’s why he will withdraw a bill at the last minute when there is too much opposition – as he did recently with the reform of the Food and Feed Code. There was supposed to be a clause in it that would mean any restaurant that violated hygiene regulations would be publicly named. Restauranteers understandably objected. A day before the cabinet meeting, Mr. Schmidt took the bill off the table.

On the ZDF TV network’s “Today Show,” he said, “Je suis Greussner Salami.” The fatal terrorist attack on the editors of the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo had taken place only a few days earlier, and “Je suis Charlie” (French for “I am Charlie”)  was becoming a popular phrase condemning the attack.

About the Russian agriculture embargo, he said, “An apple a day keeps Putin away.” Since then, the minister is known to many people, especially the viewers of TV satire programs.

And then there was the infamous interview. For months, the talk in the discussion about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) had been about people’s fears of chlorinated chicken. In an interview with Der Spiegel magazine, Mr. Schmidt said, “You can’t protect every sausage and every cheese as a specialty.”

Dozens of food industry and farmers associations complained. Mr. Schmidt was surprised by the severity of the reaction. Only a few days later, he explained publicly that he didn’t really mean it that way. He has given few interviews since then.

Simon Book joined Handelsblatt’s investigative reporting team in May 2013. To contact the author:

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