Germany's economics minister and SPD party leader Sigmar Gabriel is in the midst of a bruising battle with a regional court. It centers on a corporate takeover, and may affect his political standing and future.
The Higher Regional Court in Düsseldorf dealt Gabriel a blow this week in an ongoing fight over a major supermarket takeover, battling back against criticism of a ruling it had made earlier in the month.
It’s a messy affair and, by now, a lengthy story: In March, Gabriel, in his capacity as economics minister, overruled the Bundeskartellamt competition authority and gave Germany’s biggest supermarket chain, Edeka, permission to acquire its smaller rival Kaiser’s, as long as it agreed to protect 16,000 jobs at Kaiser's for five years. The service workers’ union ver.di was pleased. Perhaps it was hoping to gain more of a foothold at Edeka.
Then, on July 12, the Düsseldorf court put the take-over on hold and accused Gabriel of conducting secret talks and failing to remain impartial. Edeka is not the only company interested in acquiring Kaiser’s.
Gabriel angrily rejected those accusations and criticized the court. He said it had got the facts wrong and claimed it did not have jurisdiction in the matter. His counterattack, however, has hardly helped his cause.
In a ruling Wednesday, the court, having reviewed more documents, repeated and expanded its criticism of Gabriel’s conduct. It said he and his staff should have kept all parties to the matter informed. The ruling has been seen by several news agencies, but a court spokesman declined to comment to DW.
Further blows to the SPD leader’s reputation
The tussle is far from over, and Gabriel’s standing continues to erode. The reason he gave for granting special permission for the takeover was to protect jobs at Kaiser’s: 8,000 were said to be at risk – that’s half the workforce. The workers’ fate is once again up in the air; the economics minister's future is also unclear.
The case has already spoiled Gabriel’s summer holiday on the North Sea, and it does not bode well for his chances of leading the Social Democrats into the general election next year.
Authorizing the takeover may have looked like a bold move. It was in the interest of working people, and would have enhanced his standing as a potential chancellor. Instead, it had the opposite effect. Rather than appearing to be a decisive leader, he came across as incompetent and unreasonable.
And there is more...
Many in the SPD and many people across Germany have serious misgivings about major free-trade deals in the making, TTIP and CETA. Gabriel’s support for the deals has been waning and his endorsement comes across as far from convincing.
He wants to reduce German exports of military hardware, but the arms industry is a powerful foe to challenge. Gabriel has not yet succeeded.
And his Social Democratic Party is continuing to lose popular support. The last party congress was not a resounding success for its leader.
His role in the tangled takeover affair is looking more and more like another political blunder.
The 2015 SPD party congress was a tough one for Gabriel - he received 10 percent fewer delegate votes than the last time around
Dark Clouds on the horizon for Gabriel
In recent weeks Gabriel has been making an effort to be a bit more statesman-like. He even persuaded his wife Anke to appear in the tabloids, and for his part he gave a relaxed and friendly impression. He talked openly about the horrors of having a Nazi father.
But in the Edeka affair he has reverted to form -- rough and boisterous. It might be more authentic, but it is unlikely to get him what he wants.
In September, Berlin and the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania are going to elect new parliaments. Both states have an SPD premier, but that could well change after the elections.
A significant setback in those elections could cost the SPD leader his job ahead of the national vote next year.