Angela Merkel is under fire as inner circle seek rich pickings elsewhere

Chancellor’s chief-of-staff poised to accept €1 million position with state-owned train company

German chancellor Angela Merkel  is congratulated by her outgoing chief of staff Ronald Pofalla after being re-elected in a vote session at the Bundestag. Photograph: David Gannon/AFP/Getty Images

German chancellor Angela Merkel is congratulated by her outgoing chief of staff Ronald Pofalla after being re-elected in a vote session at the Bundestag. Photograph: David Gannon/AFP/Getty Images

 

Ronald Pofalla was chancellor Angela Merkel’s right-hand man, a low-profile but well-networked operator who served as her chancellery chief of staff in the last electoral term.

When the 54-year-old announced his retirement last month, he pleaded exhaustion at the relentless pace of front-line politics. An MP since 1990, he indicated he wanted to return to the back benches, to have more time to spend as a house husband and perhaps to start a family.

Thus the surprise in recent days at reports that Pofalla has lined up a new job as chief lobbyist for German train company Deutsche Bahn. News that the company will create a position for the Merkel confidante that will pay more than €1 million has caused ructions in Berlin, weeks after another Merkel aide, Eckart von Klaeden, left to become chief lobbyist for the Daimler car concern.

The affair has generated uncomfortable blowback for the German leader, who enjoys a squeaky clean reputation in her third electoral term. She is now coming under pressure to challenge critics who say members of her closely-guarded inner circle are, one by one, walking out to sell their experience and knowledge to the highest bidders.

Last Friday a government spokesman insisted there was nothing for him to say on the matter as Pofalla was no longer a member of the government.

Yesterday, however, spokesman Steffen Seibert was forced to return to the affair by confirming that Merkel had known about the planned move for several weeks. Government sources indicated the German leader had recommended Pofalla take a longer break before any move into business.


Cooling-off law
As it stands there is no cooling-off law on the German statute books preventing politicians taking their contacts books with them when they switch from public life to private business.

But the Pofalla revelations have prompted opposition politicians to demand just that – and a public statement from the German leader on the departure of her political aide.

“It is no bagatelle when big business becomes a self-service outlet for politicians,” said Katja Kipping, leader of the Left Party. “We need a five-year cooling-off period forbidding government members switching to top jobs in business. Such a move should rule itself out already under the laws of political integrity.”

Rather than dying away, the Pofalla case is getting more complicated by the day. Government documents reveal that Pofalla held nine separate meetings with officials from Deutsche Bahn in recent years. Last year, Der Spiegel magazine reported, he had broached the idea of moving to the company with its chief executive, Rüdiger Grube.

German lobby watchdogs say the phenomenon of switching sides from politics to business has risen in popularity since the federal government moved from Bonn to Berlin.

“The political landscape has changed in the last years but the rules haven’t kept up,” said Christine Deckwirth of watchdog organisation LobbyControl. “New rules will only come with public pressure, the kind you see with environment and consumer issues. But lobbying is not a topic where Angela Merkel can score points, so she simply avoids it.”

A decade after approving the United Nations convention against corruption, Berlin has yet to ratify it. And the revolving door between Germany’s corridors of power and boardrooms rivals the Bundesliga football transfer market.

LobbyContol has compiled a list of more than 80 instances of politicians and officials at all levels of German government switching sides in the last decade.

The most high-profile case came in 2005 when Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, two weeks after leaving office, landed a lucrative position with the Nordstream gas pipeline being built by Russian gas giant Gazprom.

In office Schröder was a champion of German-Russian relations, dubbed president Vladimir Putin a “flawless democrat” and helped lay much of the groundwork for the pipeline project.


Long queue
In 2005 there was a long queue of politicians lining up to condemn Schröder’s post-political career – including Ronald Pofalla. “It’s an extraordinary move for a German chancellor to use the reputation of his office, weeks after departing, for a commercial activity,” said Pofalla at the time.

So far the Merkel confidante has not made any public comment about his future plans with Deutsche Bahn. Company executives are set to discuss the appointment at a January 30th board meeting.

All eyes will be on how the government representatives on the board vote.