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De Maizière's drone debacle?

Bettina Marx /gd
May 31, 2013

Germany's defence minister is facing growing criticism over the failure of the surveillance drone program "Euro Hawk." Will he survive the scandal? The debacle could also create problems for Merkel's re-election bid.

File picture shows German Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere as he stands next to a model of the Euro Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) during his visit to the Joint Support Service base in Grafschaft near the western German city of Bonn July 12, 2011. Germany will not purchase Euro Hawk reconnaissance drones because meeting the standards required to win aviation approval would cost 500 million to 600 million euros, a German government source told Reuters on May 14, 2013. German armed forces have one prototype Euro Hawk and were considering whether to purchase an additional four drones, which are made by EADS and Northrop Grumman. Picture taken July 12, 2011. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay/Files
Image: Reuters

Thomas de Maizière is not known for having a feisty temper or a colorful character. However, some other features have been attributed to the 59-year-old German defense minister. Both political observers and colleagues describe him as prudent, loyal, virtuous, disciplined, modest and, above all, reliable.

De Maizière has been Chancellor Angela Merkel's confidante and "go-to minister" for the past eight years. In 2005, Merkel made him chief of staff of the Chancellery. Four years later, during her second term in office, he was appointed interior minister, only to switch to the defense ministry in March 2011 after the resignation of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. By this time, De Maizière was already seen as a possible successor to Merkel.

The "Euro Hawk" debacle

But, at the moment, the minister is fighting for his political survival. The debacle over the surveillance drone "Euro Hawk" has brought his seemingly unstoppable rise to a sudden halt. The scandal could even end his political career, if De Maizière doesn't find a way to remove doubts surrounding his political judgment.

That's why there's keen interest about his appearance before the defense committee on June 5. De Maizière is expected to testify on the reasons for the failure of a project commissioned by his predecessor. Did he really cancel the project in time, as he claims?

Or was it simply too late? German opposition parties accuse the minister of withholding information and squandering hundreds of millions of euros of taxpayers' money four months before an election. They say the fiasco has wasted some 680 million euros ($875 million).

Or did the minister scrap the project too early, as the American manufacturer Northrop Grumman claims? The defense contractor denies accusations made by the German defense ministry that it failed to build an anti-collision system into the "Euro Hawk" to protect airliners.

The drone 'Euro Hawk' stands on the airfield of the reconnaissance squadron 51 'Immelmann' in Jagel, Germany, 8 July 2010. (Photo: dpa)
The Euro Hawk project had already swallowed half a billion euros before the defense ministry cancelled it.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Disgruntled soldiers

But the drone scandal is not only affecting De Maizière's image. There are also accusations of corruption surrounding military equipment. Investigations are being conducted by the public prosecutor's office in Koblenz on faulty assault rifles used by the German army.

The demise of "Merkel's last man" could turn out to be a big problem, not only for the chancellor herself, but also for her ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which has failed to show unity, just a few months before national elections.

The top ranks within Merkel's party have thinned out over the past few years. Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen and Education Minister Annette Schavan were forced to leave. Furthermore, the former CDU stars from federal states such as Roland Koch (Hessen), Jürgen Rüttgers (North-Rhine Westphalia), Christian Wulff (Lower Saxony) and Ole von Beust (Hamburg), who Merkel used to keep at a distance, have all disappeared from the political arena.

It seems that men, in general, have a difficult time asserting themselves alongside the overly-powerful chancellor.

However, there is so far no need to raise the question of Merkel's successor. The chancellor remains both the country and the party's undisputed leader. Opinion polls show Germans still have confidence in Merkel's ability to lead Germany and her decisions are mostly viewed positively by the media.

Merkel topped Forbes magazine's list of the world's most powerful women for the third consecutive year. She hasn't been affected by the drone scandal, as yet. However, this could change quickly if De Maizière is forced to resign, for it seems that nobody is willing to take over the difficult position at the party's helm.