Trust issue

Merkel struggles to rescue coalition talks

Protestors wearing masks depicting EU Commissioner for Health Andriukaitis and EU Commission President Juncker demonstrate against a five-year extension of the license for weed-killer glyphosate in Brussels
They don't approve of glyphosate. Source: reuters

Facing the possible collapse of talks for a new ruling coalition even before they begin, Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday publicly reprimanded a conservative minister for voting Germany’s approval of a controversial weedkiller despite the opposition of the leftist members of her caretaker government.

Germany’s vote, in a European Union committee, proved crucial Monday to passage of a measure allowing the use of glyphosate in European countries for the next five years. The weedkiller has been identified as a potential cause of cancer by the World Health Organization and its approval had been vehemently opposed by the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD).

With Ms. Merkel trying to coax the SPD into another coalition government in talks that begin Thursday, she felt obliged to openly criticize Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt, a member of her Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, for defying a standing agreement to abstain in the event of cabinet opposition to the measure.

“I expect that this incident will not be repeated.”

Angela Merkel, German chancellor

“That did not comply with the instructions that were given by the federal government,” she told a press conference in Berlin. “I expect that this incident will not be repeated.”

If Germany had abstained on the EU vote, the measure would not have been adopted. Its passage also angered French President Emmanuel Macron, another politician with whom Ms. Merkel is trying to work closely.

While a relatively minor matter normally, the glyphosate scandal threatened to undermine trust between Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the SPD at a critical juncture: after the failure of coalition talks with two smaller parties and an overture to the SPD to attempt another “grand coalition” of Germany’s two largest parties.

Many in the SPD have opposed the idea of another coalition, because as the junior partner, their party was overshadowed by Ms. Merkel and suffered its worst election defeat in 70 years in the September 24 vote.

SPD leader Martin Schulz, who will meet with the chancellor on Thursday at the country’s presidential palace, had earlier predicted that only “brute anger” could prevent the talks from continuing after Thursday’s meeting. The agriculture minister ‘s unsanctioned action was seen by many in the SPD as provoking just the kind of “brute anger” Mr. Schulz had warned against.

SPD parliamentary leader Andrea Nahles, who earlier denounced Mr. Schmidt’s action as a “serious breach of trust in the executive,” asked publicly whether the chancellor could still control her party or are “the mice playing” while the cat’s away?

Another SPD politician, Burkhard Lischka, warned that “trust is a delicate plant that withers quickly,” and called on Ms. Merkel to remove Mr. Schmidt from consideration for a cabinet post going forward.

Mr. Schmidt defended his vote on Tuesday, saying that he took the decision independently because he was able to win concessions about the use of the weedkiller in exchange for his favorable vote. He added that glyphosate’s use in Germany was heavily regulated in any case.

“These are things you have to decide on your own,” he said. “Politicians who never decide never offend. These are also not the ones who make progress in the country.”

Mr. Schmidt also disclosed an exchange of letters with the SPD minister in charge of the environment, Barbara Hendricks, in which he accused her of breaking an agreement on designating an area of the North Sea as a protected zone despite assurances to the contrary. Politicians told Handelsblatt that Mr. Schmidt was not in danger of being fired because Ms. Merkel basically agreed with his decision.

Glyphosate is part of a herbicide called Roundup which is made by the American agrochemical firm Monsanto. The German chemical company Bayer announced earlier this that it had agreed to buy Monsanto for $68 billion. In a way, glyphosate has become a German company’s product.

Handelsblatt reporters Heike Anger, Daniel Delhaes, Martin Grieve and Silke Kersting contributed to this report. Handelsblatt Global editor Charles Wallace adapted this story into English. To contact the author: C.Wallace@extern.handelsblatt.com.

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