The German chancellor has parted ways with her erstwhile favorite, Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, and his successor is already in the wings. Opposition parties say the cabinet's authority is weakened.
For the first time, the order to sack a cabinet minister came from the chancellery. Angela Merkel said Wednesday that she had asked President Joachim Gauck to release Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, a fellow Christian Democrat, from his duties.
The German constitution says that only the president can appoint and fire ministers, but Merkel's previous reshuffles have always involved the agreement of those concerned, as happened, for instance, when Health Minister Philipp Rösler replaced Rainer Brüderle in the Economy Ministry in 2011. But the circumstances of Röttgen's dismissal suggest he would have preferred to stay.
Indeed, he said so on Monday, after voluntarily giving up the post of Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, in the wake of the party's historic defeat in Sunday's state election. Röttgen had led Merkel's party to a paltry 26.3 percent of the vote, its worst ever result in Germany's most populous state, home to 18 million people.
The scale of the defeat could not fail to tarnish Röttgen, especially with his party's own critics, but he himself painted the election as a referendum on Merkel's European policy, which looked to many as if he was ducking responsibility for the defeat. Merkel could not have been overjoyed that he had taken this line, and the relationship between the chancellor and the 46-year-old apparently deteriorated rapidly afterwards.
In farewell, the chancellor thanked Röttgen for his work, particularly his commitment to climate change, "especially on the international stage." And she reiterated that Germany's "energy transition" – which followed last year's decision to shut down all of the country's nuclear power stations - remained a central project in this legislative period. Its foundations, she said, had already been laid, "but we still have a lot of work to do."
As Röttgen's successor, Merkel has nominated Peter Altmaier, the chief whip of the CDU's parliamentary faction. The chancellor said she had valued the 54-year-old's work for a long time, and was sure that he would throw himself into his new position "with all his energy."
Altmaier himself took to the social network Twitter in response: "Thank you for the congratulations for being called up as Environment Minister," he wrote to his followers. "I need your support now more than ever!"
Opposition harbors doubts
But the response to the new appointment was decidedly mixed. Merkel's Vice-Chancellor and Economy Minister Philipp Rösler, of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) said it signalled "a continuation of the stable cooperation in the government coalition." He thanked Röttgen, said he was looking forward to the cooperation with Altmaier, and warned that the transition to renewable energy remained a great challenge. The FDP leader underlined that the cost of energy to consumers and the economy at large should be a central concern.
Like Röttgen, Rösler wanted to push through solar energy cuts, a plan that was scuppered by a veto from the upper house of the German parliament, the Bundesrat. The proposal will now be re-negotiated in the parliamentary mediation committee.
Opposition parties, meanwhile, were quick to call Röttgen's sacking a personal defeat for the chancellor. Green Party chairman Cem Özdemir described Merkel's decision as a "pawn sacrifice" in the political chess game – an attempt to deflect attention from the government's failure in North Rhine-Westphalia and its energy policy. He warned that a change of personnel wouldn't solve the deeper problems, and said that unions and companies alike were already concerned about the progress of Germany's energy plan.
Final throw of the dice
Andrea Nahles, general secretary of Germany's largest opposition party, the center-left Social Democrats, was even more scathing, calling Röttgen's dismissal further evidence of "the worn-out state of Merkel's government." She said that Röttgen had not only failed as an election campaigner, but in implementing Germany's energy policy. She also dismissed Altmaier as Merkel's "last resort."
The socialist Left party, meanwhile, said they were unsurprised that Röttgen was let go. The party's environment spokeswoman Eva Bulling-Schröter said he had always had "little cover from the chancellor" on the government's energy transition policy.
But Altmaier did win the backing of the German industry association BDI, whose President Hans-Peter Keitel said the coming months would mark a crucial phase in the success of Germany's energy transition, before adding that good cooperation between government and industry would be "essential."
Author: Marcel Fürstenau / bk
Editor: Andreas Illmer