Westerwelle warns of limits to German 'generosity'

 

GERMAN FOREIGN minister Guido Westerwelle has warned that the country’s financial solidarity towards its EU neighbours is conditional, not a given, and must be earned.

With his liberal Free Democrats (FDP) facing electoral wipeout in regional polls later this year, his party is proving a dangerous political liability to Chancellor Angela Merkel. But a defiant Mr Westerwelle has so far refused to acknowledge calls for him to stand down as leader of Berlin’s junior coalition partner. Instead he used his traditional “Three Kings” epiphany address in Stuttgart to warn about misplaced notions of German generosity in the euro zone crisis.

“Everyone who wants solidarity, and who has earned it, will get it, but solidarity is not a one-way street,” said Mr Westerwelle. He insisted that EU bailout recipients agree reforms along German lines: wage restraint, retirement at 67 and welfare payments cut to the equivalent of €90 a week.

“People have a right to help,” he said, “but I say to them: ‘you have to take care of your own structures at home’.”

A year ago Guido Westerwelle swept into Stuttgart in triumph, taking sole credit for the party’s record general election result. A year on, a battered FDP leader studiously ignores calls for his resignation and, with forced good humour, tells his Stuttgart audience that Germany under FDP rule is “doing better today than before the general election”.

“No country in the world . . . has come out of the financial crisis as well as Germany,” he said. “We liberals had the courage to do what was right, even if we aren’t congratulated for it every day of the week.”

Mr Westerwelle’s problem is that voters don’t think the FDP deserves any credit for Germany’s economic upswing. Making matters worse, Chancellor Merkel has blocked the large-scale tax cuts the FDP demanded as the price for their support. Failing to push through this campaign promise has seen support for the pro-business party slump by two-thirds.

Party officials have gone public with their resignation calls, describing Mr Westerwelle’s polemical style of politics and thin-skinned personality a “millstone around the party’s neck”.

Questions around Mr Westerwelle’s leadership have compounded the party’s poor poll performance, dangerously close to the five per cent hurdle required to enter parliament. Leading CDU figures are so worried about their own prospects in upcoming regional polls that they have rushed to Mr Westerwelle’s defence in recent days.

Judging by the solid, if not spectacular, applause for Mr Westerwelle’s 70-minute speech yesterday, the party seems resigned to give him one last chance.

They know that his most likely replacements – economics minister Rainer Brüderele and FDP general secretary Christian Lindner – are, at 65 and 31 respectively, considered either too old or too young for the job.

“Everything could change if the elections in March go poorly for the FDP,” said Prof Gert Langguth of the University of Bonn. “Then the leadership question will come back again with a vengeance.”