How an off-colour Carnival joke exposed Germany's deepening leadership rift

AFP - [email protected] • 16 Feb, 2023 Updated Thu 16 Feb 2023 10:58 CEST
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German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Chancellor Olaf Scholz pictured on Wednesday in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

At an event ahead of the Carnival season, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock cracked a political joke. Here's why not everyone was laughing.


At a prominent carnival season event this year, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock admitted she thought about turning up disguised "as a leopard".

"But then I was afraid the chancellery would not grant me permission to travel for weeks," she said. It was a clear jibe at Chancellor Olaf Scholz over his delay in approving the sending of German Leopard tanks to Ukraine.

Carnival season is a time of fun in Germany, with people donning silly outfits and joining parades. But politicians feature prominently, and their speeches are often a sign of the times.


No surprise then that commentators seized on the ostensibly light-hearted comment as an example of a deepening rift between the foreign minister and the chancellor, warning that it is hurting Germany on the world stage.

The pair's difficult relationship is "paralysing the coalition -- and Germany's foreign policy", said influential news magazine Der Spiegel earlier this month.

"While crises and conflicts are coming to a head everywhere, the chancellor and the foreign minister have so far been unable to agree on the guidelines for their foreign policy."

The tensions should not come as a surprise -- it is hard to imagine two more different characters.

While Scholz, 64, is a taciturn figure who prefers to take decisions behind closed doors in the chancellery, 42-year-old Baerbock is in her element speaking in public, projecting a confident, well-crafted image.
Scholz is from the left-leaning SPD and Baerbock the Greens.

The two parties were election rivals before coming together to form a coalition, along with the liberal FDP.

READ ALSO: Green ministers outshine Scholz as stars of the German government

Ukraine aid tensions

Baerbock is the first woman to head Germany's foreign ministry.

She "respects the traditional control of the chancellery, without however giving up her own ideas", political scientist Gero Neugebauer told AFP.


But Scholz does not want to be dictated to when it comes to diplomacy, which means their relationship is increasingly marked by tensions, he added.

The clearest evidence of this is over military aid to Ukraine in its war against Russia: Baerbock has been pushing for Berlin to increase support, but Scholz has been accused of foot-dragging.

As the debate raged over whether to send Leopard tanks to Kyiv, and with Scholz still apparently reluctant, Baerbock told a French TV channel Germany would accept if Poland asked permission to deliver them.

Scholz finally yielded to pressure and agreed the German-made Leopards could be sent to Ukraine -- but was reportedly not pleased that his minister had appeared to force his hand.

READ ALSO: Germany aims to get first Leopard tanks to Ukraine by April

Under the headline "fissure", weekly Die Zeit described how Baerbock had in recent months told Britain and the United States that Germany would ultimately agree to send the armaments.

This, it said, had encouraged Washington and London to ramp up pressure on Berlin.

Pictured is a leopard tank.

A Leopard 2 tank is seen at the training ground in Augustdorf, western Germany on February 1, 2023, during a visit of the German Defence Minister of the Bundeswehr Tank Battalion 203, to learn about the performance of the Leopard 2 main battle tank. (Photo by INA FASSBENDER / AFP)

Greater global role?

Another example of tensions is a reported row over the government's "national security strategy". It was supposed to be ready this month, according to an agreement signed by the coalition last year.

But it has not appeared due to disagreement over where a planned "security council" should be located -- in the chancellery or the foreign ministry, Spiegel reported.

Asked about the security strategy Wednesday, a government spokesman insisted it was "in the very final stages".

While he does not openly criticise Baerbock, Scholz is keenly aware when she drops the ball -- and was reportedly angered in January when Baerbock declared in English that "we are fighting a war against Russia".

He had to play down her comments while on a Latin American tour, even as Moscow seized on the statement.

With the Kremlin brandishing it as evidence that the West were aggressors in its conflict with Ukraine, Germany's opposition accused Baerbock of being irresponsible.

Ties with Beijing are another flashpoint. The foreign minister backs a harder line against China and criticised Scholz's trip there in November.

As world leaders head to the key Munich Security Conference this week, some worry that if the government in Berlin is consumed by bickering, it will hamper its ability to take on a greater global role.

Policy makers at the event "are likely to ask themselves when Berlin will finally make good on its promise to assume more leadership responsibility in the world", said Spiegel.



AFP 2023/02/16 10:58

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