Why Guido Westerwelle shouldn’t become Germany’s foreign minister

Guido Westerwelle is on track to become Germany’s next foreign minister, but Katinka Barysch from the Centre for European Reform argues he should take the helm of the Finance Ministry instead.

Why Guido Westerwelle shouldn’t become Germany’s foreign minister
Photo: DPA

Guido Westerwelle is the undisputed winner of the September 27 election.

His pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) attracted its highest share of the vote ever, putting the liberals in good bargaining position during this week’s coalition negotiations with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian allies.

The haggling about posts and policies is likely to be swift, with Merkel promising to have her new cabinet in place in a couple of weeks. Traditionally, the leader of the junior coalition partner becomes foreign minister and vice chancellor, so Westerwelle is almost certain to become Berlin’s top diplomat.

Since taking over as leader of the FDP eight years ago, Westerwelle has worked hard to get the liberals back in power, but political manoeuvring and a relentless quest for media attention have not left him much time to travel the world.

His public statements about foreign policy have often been a little vague and sometimes even contradictory. Certainly, his public statements on international issues so far do not add up to a coherent Weltanschauung.

Of course, this does not mean that he would make a bad foreign minister. Joschka Fischer from the Greens had limited international credentials before he took up that portfolio for former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s centre-left coalition in 1998. Fischer turned out to be an effective and principled international operator. And like all foreign ministers before him, he quickly became one of Germany’s most popular politicians.

Westerwelle is not the problem – it’s the tradition of giving the Foreign Ministry to the leader of junior partner of Germany’s ruling coalition. Westerwelle may or may not agree with Merkel on foreign policy. But he has little choice but to use his new job to sharpen his party’s profile. The head of the FDP will likely chart an independent course, especially after 11 years in opposition. However, he could do this much more effectively guiding Germany’s economy rather than its foreign policy.

Though the FDP held the Foreign Ministry from 1969 to 1998 and sees it as its “natural” domain, the foreign policy component of the party’s campaign manifesto was weak. However, it does have strong positions on economic policy: it advocates open markets, less stringent hiring and firing rules, an effective competition policy, help for small enterprises and, most importantly, lower and simpler taxes.

Westerwelle insists that he will not sign a coalition agreement that does not contain major tax reform. However, he also knows that with €1.6 trillion in public debt and a new law mandating a zero deficit by 2016, there is not much fiscal room to manoeuvre.

The temptation to leave this budgetary balancing act to someone else and instead enjoy the international limelight will be strong. But if Westerwelle is serious about tax reform, he should install himself in the Finance Ministry and see it through as best he can.

By helping to tackle some of Germany’s economic weaknesses, Westerwelle might even add more to his country’s international standing and credibility than by being its chief diplomat.

Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform, a think tank based in London.

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
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‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.