In Germany it has become a fixed tradition that, in a coalition government, the leader of the second-largest party becomes Foreign Minister. This has happened ever since Willy Brandt did so in 1966 as leader of the SPD (Socialist) party, as that party formed a so-called “Grand Coalition” government with the Christian Democrats (CDU), and it has never mattered whether that specific leading politician has any particular affinity for diplomacy, or whether the party he heads has any new ideas or policies on that front. No, the leader of the biggest party becomes Bundeskanzler (or Bundeskanzlerin, in the current case for Angela Merkel), and the leader of the second-biggest becomes Foreign Minister, and that’s that.
And so since late last October we have had Guido Westerwelle, leader of the Free Democrats (FDP), as German Foreign Minister. Just four months – and he already is not having an easy time of it. Indeed, I’ve already had the occasion twice to write about him in this space, once just in passing as I explored the larger question of the new and awkward relation of top German officials with the English language, but also in a more focused way here where, during the time when the current ruling coalition was being formed after the last national election, I discussed an article in Die Welt that examined Westerwelle’s past and psychological formation to question whether he really had the right temperament to serve as his country’s top diplomat.
In that light, the latest Westerwelle flap is rather interesting: In the future Westerwelle wants to travel in peace. (The report is carried all over the German on-line press in the form of one ūber-article, compiled from new agencies’ reports, that I found in five different publications. That surprised and dismayed me: this one-press-report-for-all approach I normally only see in the Dutch and Danish newspapers! The link I provide back there happens to go to Die Zeit, as a mark of respect.) Why can’t Guido travel in peace now, as Foreign Minister? Because people don’t like his choice of traveling companions, and have publicly made that known, even as he was recently overseas for a whole week trying to represent his country in South America in meetings with heads-of-state and various other high officials. In fact, they don’t like them for at least two reasons:
- They don’t like the businessmen that were in Westerwelle’s entourage. Apparently, there are too many suspicious connections between the particular businessmen he invited to travel along with him and either companies that are known to be too friendly to FDP interests in general, or else with Westerwelle’s relatives, specifically his brother. (German has an interesting word for this sort of schmoozing with your self-chosen in-crowd, Mauschelei, although I found that elsewhere than in this article.)
- They don’t like that Westerwelle’s “life companion” (Lebensgefährte, i.e. his homosexual “significant other”) was also along on the trip. But no, it’s not what you may think: no one has any problem with the Foreign Minister traveling to visit foreign lands and cultures with his homosexual partner. (Even though they’re not even married! – but of course Germany does not have – yet – same-sex marriage.) Rather, the critics also suspect that that partner, Michael Mronz, also to be using the trip to advance his own interests, not those of Germany.
Now the Foreign Minister (together with his entire traveling-party) is back, and the Foreign Minister is not amused. “When you represent Germany’s interests there, it is completely out-of-the-ordinary that one must deal during such trips with such diffaming attacks. That simply will not do,” he declared upon returning to Berlin, adding that “[i]t would be good if everyone could remember these rules,” together with the dig that he could not recall his critics (mainly out of the current Opposition) having such complaints back when it was the SPD’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier who was Foreign Minister five months ago and before.
Thinking about this dispute, it’s easy to come down in Westerwelle’s side. Why can’t the man assume that he need not worry about figurative daggers such as these being stuck in his back by domestic critics when he is overseas trying to advance Germany’s political and commercial interests. Indeed, when it comes to his life-companion, it seems that not only did he strictly observe the prohibition about taking part in any political discussion, but Michael Mronz also paid for the travel and lodgings out of his own pocket. (The latter you also won’t find in the article: I heard it this morning on a Deutschlandfunk newscast.)
Then again, you could also conclude that such criticism is part of the deal of being a high-ranking, high-profile, political figure, that Westerwelle should learn either just to take it and/or to take pre-emptive steps to head it off – indeed, that once more Guido Westerwell is being rather more huffy (“That simply will not do”) than you would hope a German Foreign Minister would be. It was after all this “huffyness” that my first blogpost about him from last September (Guido Westerwelle: Small-Minded?) was all about.
But don’t take my word for it that impartial, judicious observers can reasonably come down on either the “Pro-Guido” or “Anti-Guido” side. Among its many other excellent services, the Financial Times Deutschland occasionally likes to compile press-review articles that survey opinion from various of Germany’s small newspapers about leading issues of the day. Here is its recent piece: Voices from the press: “What do we do with Westerwelle?”
- From the Landeszeitung in Lüneburg (just south of Hamburg, and a particularly important city these days, since it’s where a high-profile FDP conference just took place): the local FDP head Phlipp Rösler is “the better Westerwelle” since he doesn’t “polarize” people.
- From the Sächsische Zeitung in Dresden: There was never anything to the critics’ charges against Westerwelle, it was shameful how they aggressively attacked him while he was traveling for his country. (But remember that in Dresden they are only 20 years removed from the DDR, they probably are more inclined to respect existing authority there.)
- From the Badische Neueste Nachrichten in Baden: Westerwelle has crossed the line between what he is allowed to do because he is Foreign Minister and what he should prudently limit himself to doing as a matter of good official behavior.