Sigmar Gabriel

Merkel’s Weakened Challenger

Sommerreise des SPD-Bundesvorsitzenden Gabriel
SPD leader and vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel visits Nordex Energy in Rostock.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Sigmar Gabriel was once considered a serious contender for the chancellorship, but a series of controversial policy decisions have changed that.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel is under fire for his botched handling of the merger between Edeka and Kaiser Tengelmann’s supermarkets.
    • He also championed the deeply unpopular U.S.-E.U. free trade deal.
    • He plans to run against Chancellor Angela Merkel in the 2017 election but opinion polls suggest he has little hope of defeating her.
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  • Audio

    Audio

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Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the center-left Social Democrats, faces a steep uphill battle to unseat Chancellor Angela Merkel in the general election next year.

In his role as economics minister, he’s come under fire for approving a controversial supermarket merger between Edeka and Kaiser’s Tengelmann against the advice of anti-trust authorities.

A court that later overruled the approval criticized his decision and accused Mr. Gabriel of being biased. Indeed it has just been made public that Mr. Gabriel met Edeka Chief Executive Markus Mosa and the head of the Verdi services trade union, Frank Bsirske, last December, adding to the impression that he wasn’t transparent enough about how he reached his decision.

But Mr. Gabriel isn’t giving up. He has commissioned law firm Linklaters to assess the chances of contesting the court’s ruling, which he said will lead to job losses.

He has also dismissed the court’s accusation over transparency. He said that as minister, he had a duty to talk to all the parties involved, and that the negotiations were in no way been secret.

But he’s playing a risky game. If he has to back down, he could suffer a serious loss of face. “Gabriel wants to lift a legal problem onto the political stage and solve it by political means,” warned one insider. “That could backfire.”

The case could possibly drag on so long that it would hound Mr. Gabriel throughout the 2017 election campaign.

Privately, business leaders complain that they have serious doubts about his reliability.

And that’s not his only problem. His energy policy reforms aimed at reducing the cost of Germany’s expansion of renewables is unlikely to have much impact before 2019.

In fact, the surcharge on power bills that pays for the subsidies to green energy investors is expected to increase sharply at the start of 2017. And in late summer 2017, just ahead of the election campaign, it could already become apparent that the surcharge will rise, yet again, in 2018. Mr. Gabriel would end up being responsible for two energy reform packages during his term as economy minister without having delivered the promised cost reductions by the time of the election.

Meanwhile, his support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the planned trade deal between the U.S. and Europe, deeply controversial in Germany, is waning as the general election nears.

Until earlier this year, he was a solid TTIP supporter. He at the time argued that the deal was the last chance for Europe and the U.S. to determine the ground rules for world trade. But he has since given the impression he would prefer TTIP to die a quiet death.

“After three years of talks, we eventually have to start seeing results, or else we should have a honest reckoning of where negotiations actually stand,” he told Handelsblatt recently. If there was no progress on the key questions, he added, “Then the government also has to make an honest assessment.”

His change of heart on TTIP can be seen as typical of his leadership and his understanding of his role as Social Democrat leader. When he became economy minister in 2013, he initially tried to shift the party towards a more business-friendly stance. That’s no longer the case. Privately, business leaders complain that they have serious doubts about his reliability.

Mr. Gabriel himself seems torn. When speaking about the TTIP, he gives the impression that he’s convinced the deal would make sense. But he’s no longer ready to take the political risk of trying to persuade his party to back it.

On another front, however, there are rumors in Berlin that his Social Democrats could use a parliamentary maneuver to try and force Chancellor Angela Merkel from power before the 2017 general elections. But the only way this could happen is if the three parties on the left overcome their differences and form a coalition.

 

Klaus Stratmann is the deputy bureau chief of Handelsblatt in Berlin. To contact the author: stratmann@handelsblatt.com

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