German Chancellor Angela Merkel kicked off her summer break with a visit to the Bayreuth festival on Wednesday. She heads off on holiday after a tough first half of 2012 and with 2013 elections looming around the corner.
There won't be a summer press conference this year. In recent years, Merkel had sat down with the media before taking off on holiday. This year though, she'll be skipping the event altogether, avoiding any uncomfortable questions. She's off to go hiking with her husband, finally enjoying a couple of days without cabinet meetings, EU summits or crisis talks.
The vacation will start with the Wagner opera festival in Bayreuth. This year, it'll be the Flying Dutchman – a story of a captain, roaming the seas on a ghost ship after having failed to make it around the Cape of Good Hope. Berlin, too, had its share of political storm and turmoil this year; the first six months of 2012 were anything but plain sailing.
Stabilizing the euro is a seemingly never-ending story. Apart from the long-term problems of Greece, now Spain also needs billions in aid funds. The German parliament assembled for an extra session during their summer break in order to pass Germany's agreement to the EU aid package.
Not all MPs of Merkel's governing coalition voted in favor, but the chancellor remained unfazed. "We always get the majorities we need," she dismissed her critics.
In the rest of Europe, Merkel is often perceived as the strict fighter for austerity. At the same time, she's facing more criticism from within her own country. People are worried that in the end, the EU might just be throwing good money after bad, wondering whether Merkel is really acting in the interest of the German taxpayers. Even the chancellor herself admits that "Germany's strength is not unlimited."
German President Joachim Gauck warned that "the chancellor has the responsibility to describe in great detail what this will mean, also in fiscal terms." In the view of many citizens, saving the euro will gradually remove power from Germany's elected parliament, the Bundestag, in favor of a Brussels-based "finance dictatorship."
Germany's highest court is currently looking at the question of whether the EU's permanent rescue fund ESM is too much of an infringement of the Bundestag's rights.
Tough times, weak government
Europe's financial troubles have somewhat distracted from the fact that Merkel's coalition has again put in a weak performance in the first half of the year. The junior coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), managed to stop its downward trend in regional elections but has little else to show for itself.
Lacking any real political successes, the FDP might pride itself with pushing Gauck as president against Merkel's will. But that triumph certainly didn't go down too well with the chancellor, who had already suffered a defeat when Gauck's predecessor Christian Wulff had to step down in February.
On the national level, there was hardly any political project accomplished by the government without public quarrelling. Complex challenges like the planned nuclear phase-out seem to be too big of a job for Berlin. And all the parties in the coalition can't resist the attempts to try and improve their standing by criticizing their partners in government.
Merkel, though, managed to stay in the background during those quarrels, unless she felt the need to intervene. She sacked Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, one of her closest aides, in May after he decided to run in regional elections for Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and was handed a disastrous defeat by the voters.
Röttgen had for long been perceived as one of the biggest political talents of his party, but Merkel saw her own authority in jeopardy. Except for Merkel herself, there are fewer and fewer clear leadership personalities in the top ranks of the conservative CDU, and the party has also suffered greatly in recent regional polls.
Merkel seeks re-election
Merkel has been in office since 2005 and she hopes to remain in the top seat after the federal elections in 2013. And there's no clear frontrunner in the opposition who could pull off an easy victory against her. Her experience and international standing, especially in times of crisis, keep her approval ratings high.
But what could prompt Germans to choose change could be signs of fatigue, from both voters and Merkel herself. Indeed, the chancellor has seemed tired and exhausted in recent weeks – this summer vacation will indeed be a very welcome break.
Author: Nina Werkhäuser / ai
Editor: Martin Kuebler