Rebel Yell

The Governing Opposition Party

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There's growing frustration with Ms. Merkel's centerist style.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Angela Merkel has to balance the demands of keeping Greece in the euro zone with domestic political pressures, including an increasingly frustrated group of conservatives in her own party.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The German parliament voted by a 532 majority to extend the Greek bailout on February 27.
    • Of the 32 lawmakers who voted against 29 were members of Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
    • The right-wing of the party fears the euroskeptic AfD could eat into its votes.
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  • Audio

    Audio

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Angela Merkel may be the dominant politician in Europe, yet back home she is faced with increasingly rebellious forces within her own party.

Conservatives from her center-right Christian Democrats are deeply frustrated with the direction of the government, a right-left coalition with the center-left Social Democrats.

A clear sign of tensions within Ms. Merkel’s own party was the refusal of a sizeable minority to back the government’s support for the extension of the Greek bailout.

While the vast majority of the German parliament, 532 lawmakers, approved the government proposal on February 27, of the 32 who voted against, 29 were from Ms. Merkel’s own CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. There were a further 13 abstentions.

“The majority has never been so big,” one CDU parliamentarian told Handelsblatt, referring to the Bundestag vote. “But the mood has never been so bad.”

In particular the aggressive stance of the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, have riled many in Berlin.

Even many lawmakers who voted in favor of the extension of the current bailout have their doubts about continuing the support for the Greeks. In all, 118 parliamentarians made personal statements saying that they would not continue to back bailouts for Greece unless there was a significant change.

The government in Athens has until April to reach a deal with its international lenders — the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — on another bailout program once its current one runs out at the end of June.

Yet, there is little conviction in Berlin that the radical left Syriza-led government is committed to real reforms. Recent provocative statements by Mr. Varoufakis about a possible referendum or fresh elections have only served to sour the mood further.

“By extending the program, we are making advance payments,” said Ralph Brinkhaus, the CDU’s deputy parliamentary leader. Now Athens has to deliver. “The time for promises and pronouncements is over.”

It seems it was only pleas from Mr. Schäuble that prevented an even greater rebellion, with one source telling Reuters the CSU was preparing to unanimously reject the government proposal. “The vote was hanging by a thread,” another member of parliament said.

For many conservatives, agreeing to bail out Greece yet again is just the tip of the iceberg.

There is deep frustration on the right of the party about Ms. Merkel’s policies, which many see as too centrist and not in line with the party’s conservative roots.

“Saber rattling is completely inappropriate in the difficult Greece debate.”

Manuel Sarrazin, Green Party Europe Expert

Government policies such as a minimum wage, lower retirement age, female quotas for company boards and double citizenship for those with migration backgrounds, are all seen as policies of Ms. Merkel’s junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats.

And they annoy both the business-friendly sections of the party and those who see themselves as socially conservative.

While the SPD has failed to make much political capital from the implementation of its key policy planks, there is a growing threat from the other end of the political spectrum.

When it comes to Greece in particular, those on the right of the CDU and CSU point to the new threat from the right-wing populist euro-skeptic Alternative for Germany and worry that the party could make inroads into its traditional voter base if it is too soft on Greece.

The victory of Syriza at the end of January revived the dormant Greek crisis, and brought back the prospect of a Grexit. The fear is that this could help the AfD win over disgruntled conservatives.

The party has already done well in four regional elections, entering state parliaments in Eastern Germany and Hamburg, since it was founded in 2013 and only narrowly missed entering the federal parliament in September of that year.

Greece's Debt Burden-01

 

While the party has succeeded in attracting votes from all quarters, it has made particular inroads into the Christian Democrats’ base.

For now, most Germans tentatively back their government’s European policy.

Ms. Merkel’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has played it tough with the Greeks, insisting that the government make firm commitments to implement reforms.

As the biggest contributor to the €240 billion worth of loans to Greece, Berlin is deeply worried that it will not see that money again if Greece does not modernize its economy.

The German government’s tough stance with Greece has gone down well with the electorate at home, where the perception is that the Greeks have for years lived beyond their means and are now turning once again to German taxpayers to bail them out.

Nevertheless, many conservatives feel that Germany is throwing good money after bad. They argue that Greece should instead be allowed to leave the euro zone.

That position was backed by Bild, the biggest-selling European daily, which has been a harsh critic of Greece during the debt crisis. It ran a front-page ad, calling for a “NEIN!” in the Bundestag vote, and inviting readers to take selfies with themselves and the paper.

On Monday, a heavy-hitting conservative member of the CSU backed that stance. Peter Ramsauer, a former transport minister under Ms. Merkel, and now chairman of the economic affairs committee wrote a column for Bild arguing that Greece would be better off outside the euro zone.

“This would provide Greece with a great opportunity to renew itself economically and administratively, making itself fit again to return to the euro zone from a position of strength,” he wrote.

“By extending the program, we are making advance payments. The time for promises and pronouncements is over.”

Ralph Brinkhaus,, CDU deputy parliamentary leader

With grumbles continuing, it could prove difficult for the chancellor going forward to keep her party in line whilst also ensuring that Greece is kept within the euro zone.

That could leave Ms. Merkel in the uncomfortable position of relying on the backing of both her junior coalition partner, the SPD, and the opposition Greens. Both parties are more sympathetic to the Greek situation than many conservatives.

Manuel Sarrazin, a European affairs expert with the Greens, criticized the stance of many Christian Democrats. “Saber rattling is completely inappropriate in the difficult Greece debate,” he told Handelsblatt.

Many on the right of the CDU feel, however, that Greece is just another example of Ms. Merkel ignoring them and their concerns.

She can, after all, rely on her huge personal popularity ratings and massive parliamentary majority to push through most government policies.

And with a lack of significant legislation being initiated from within her own party, it leaves a situation where the CDU and CSU, with a combined 41 percent of the vote in the last election, are increasingly feeling and to some extent acting like an opposition party.

 

Siobhán Dowling covers German and European politics for Handelsblatt Global Edition. Jan Hildebrand, deputy bureau chief in the Berlin, and Dietmar Neuerer, politics reporter for Handelsblatt Online, contributed to this report. To contact the author: dowling@handelsblatt.com.

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