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POLITICS

German minister quits over family vacation after floods

Germany's Family Minister resigned on Monday after coming under pressure for taking a summer vacation last year, shortly after the region where she was environment minister at the time suffered deadly flooding.

Family Minister Anne Spiegel (Greens) announces her resignation in Berlin.
Family Minister Anne Spiegel (Greens) announces her resignation in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

Anne Spiegel said she had decided to step down “because of political pressure”.

“I am doing this to avert damage to the office, which is facing great political challenges,” she said in a statement.

The 41-year-old took on the family portfolio in December when her ecologist Green party joined a new coalition government led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats.

Spiegel’s departure comes after an emotional statement on Sunday in which she apologised for taking a four-week vacation to France with her family, 10 days after the western regions of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia were hit by catastrophic floods that killed over 180 people.

READ ALSO: Volunteer army rebuilds Germany’s flood-stricken towns

Spiegel was the environment minister in Rhineland-Palatinate at the time. 

The vacation only recently came to light in media reports.

A tearful Spiegel had sought to defend the trip by saying her husband had suffered a stroke in 2019 and needed to avoid stress, while the pandemic and her own workload juggling numerous regional roles had weighed heavily on their four young children.

“I decided I had to be there for my family,” she said on Sunday.

Spiegel added that she had worked tirelessly in the days before the vacation to help the affected areas, and that she remained reachable during her holiday.

Spiegel acknowledged however that she did not take part in cabinet meetings during the vacation, despite what she had said previously.

Warnings

Opposition politicians had led calls for Spiegel to go, with the leader of the centre-right CDU party, Friedrich Merz, accusing Spiegel of caring more about her “vacation and her own image than the fate of people in the Ahr region”.

Chancellor Scholz said he had “great respect” for Spiegel’s decision to resign and that he had been “moved” by her personal statement.

North Rhine-Westphalia environment minister Ursula Heinen-Esser resigned last week following revelations she celebrated her husband’s birthday in Mallorca just days after the floods.

The two departures come against a backdrop of public discontent with Germany’s handling of the floods.

As well as being the deadliest in the country’s modern history, the deluges destroyed roads, bridges and thousands of homes and businesses. The mammoth reconstruction task is still ongoing.

The scale of the devastation has in part been blamed on a lack of warnings to residents ahead of time, despite weather services forecasting heavy rainfall.

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POLITICS

Green ministers outshine Scholz as stars of German government

Eclipsed by two Green party ministers over his response to the war in Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz is battling to wrest back public approval - starting with a speech to parliament on Thursday.

Green ministers outshine Scholz as stars of German government

Scholz, whose Social Democrats (SPD) are in power with the Greens and the liberal FDP, has faced a barrage of criticism over his perceived weak response to the war, including his hesitancy over sending heavy weapons to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Green party Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Economy Minister Robert Habeck have impressed with their more vocal approach, topping a recent survey of the country’s most popular politicians.

Scholz’s party suffered a crushing defeat in a key regional election at the weekend, losing to the conservative CDU with its worst-ever result in Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

The Greens, meanwhile, almost tripled their score compared with five years ago to finish in third place and look almost certain to be part of the next regional government.

READ ALSO: Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

Der Spiegel magazine called the result a “personal defeat” for Scholz after he was heavily involved in the election campaign, appearing on posters and at rallies.

Already famous for his lack of charisma before he became chancellor, Scholz now appears to be paying the price for dragging his feet in dealing with Moscow over fears of escalating the crisis.

In a bid to win back the public, Scholz has in recent days given lengthy television interviews.

On Thursday, he will be explaining his policy to lawmakers ahead of the EU summit at the end of May.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (m) with ministers (l-r) Svenja Schulze, Annalena Baerbock, Robert Habeck, Cem Özdemir and Christine Lambrecht at a meeting in May 2022.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (m) with ministers (l-r) Svenja Schulze, Annalena Baerbock, Robert Habeck, Cem Özdemir and Christine Lambrecht at a meeting in May 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Sitting tight

In a devastating reading of Scholz’s outings so far, the weekly Focus assessed that “his language is poor, his facial expressions monotone and his body language too understated.”

According to Der Spiegel, the chancellor’s communications strategy seems to revolve around one mantra: “Repeat, repeat, repeat.”

Other media have accused him of stubbornly sticking to the same plan and ignoring what is going on around him.

“His party is plummeting, but the chancellor feels that he has done everything right… Doubts and questions rain down on him, but Olaf simply sits tight,” said Der Spiegel.

Scholz’s spokesman Steffen Hebestreit has defended the chancellor, suggesting that the public value his calm demeanour and would find it “inauthentic” if he tried to turn himself into Barack Obama.

READ ALSO: How war in Ukraine has sparked a historic shift in Germany

But for political scientist Ursula Münch, Scholz does not come across as calm and measured but rather “imprecise” compared with his colleagues from the Green party.

Scholz has also not been helped by the fact that Defence Minister and fellow SPD politician Christine Lambrecht is currently caught up in a storm of criticism for allowing her son to accompany her on a government helicopter on their way to a family vacation.

‘Strong moral underpinning’

Baerbock, meanwhile, has turned around her public image after a series of blunders during the 2021 election campaign, coming across as clearer and more decisive than Scholz in her response to the Ukraine crisis.=

The 41-year-old former trampolinist has become the face of Germany at international summits, from the G7 to NATO, and in early May became the first German minister to visit Kyiv.

Habeck, meanwhile, has impressed with his dedication to weaning Germany off Russian energy.

And their meteoric rise is all the more surprising given the Green party’s traditional positioning as a pacifist party opposed to sending weapons to conflict zones.

For the first time in their 42-year history, according to Der Spiegel, the Greens are being judged not on “expectations and promises” but on their performance in government.

“The strong moral underpinning of the Greens’ policies and the fact they openly struggle with their own principles comes across as approachable and therefore very credible,” according to Münch.

“Of course, this increases their clout compared with the chancellor.”

She therefore predicts an “increase in tensions” between the Greens, the SPD and the FDP, with life not expected to get easier for Scholz any time soon.

By Mathieu FOULKES

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