Sigmar Gabriel His Own Worst Enemy

The economics minister and leader of the center-left Social Democrats has only himself to blame for inconsistency on free trade and ministerial missteps.
Sigmar Gabriel faces a tough few months.

There have been times during his seven years as leader of the center-left Social Democrats that Sigmar Gabriel had his hands full with shaking off his opponents within the party.

Today he has another enemy: himself. The SPD leader and federal economics minister is fighting on two fronts against his own inconsistency and impatience.

The fact that Mr. Gabriel is currently driving the planned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, into a ditch is bad enough.

But then he invoked ministerial authority to allow Edeka’s attempted takeover of Kaiser’s Tengelmann supermarkets, defying an earlier ruling by the Federal Cartel Office. Here as well, Mr. Gabriel is headed for a dead end, after a court said he overstepped his authority and issued an injunction to halt the merger.

His latest setback will weaken him for months, ignite debate among Social Democrats and limit his room for maneuver as minister. This combination of factors represents a serious danger for the SPD head, a possible challenger to Chancellor Angela Merkel in next year’s federal elections.

When it came to TTIP, Mr. Gabriel started out with the best of intentions. He had freed his mind of the customary reservations held by his SPD comrades regarding free trade.

Persuaded that for the foreseeable future, the United States and Europe might have no further opportunity to define the standards and rules of the game with regard to world trade, he spent months bringing around his fellow party members. To some extent, he succeeded.

What is more, he was able to exert some personal influence on the issue of investor protection.

A weakened minister isn’t a good campaigner, and a bad campaigner isn’t a good candidate for chancellor.

If he had allowed himself to be led by tactical party calculations only, he could have positioned himself as the man blocking TTIP when the ruling right-left coalition was first formed. He deserves respect for not succumbing to this temptation.

But now after three years of negotiations and shortly before the last act, Mr. Gabriel has executed a turnaround. For a few weeks now, he seems no longer sure whether it makes sense to expend energy on concluding the negotiations. But someone who has doubts can no longer exercise a persuasive influence.

TTIP skeptics within the Social Democratic Party recognized their leader's change of mood right away, and are again eagerly making the issue the subject of heated discussion within the party. In this crucial phase, one of the most important TTIP advocates is heading for the hills. There is scarcely a more perfidious way of burying an issue.

The situation is full of implications. Because what is at stake is not only the free trade agreement. The larger issue is whether Mr. Gabriel is still pursuing the goal of opening his party, and making it attractive for the “performance-capable center,” in one of the formulations commonly used by allies within his party. With his change of heart regarding the TTIP, doubt is growing in this regard.

Things are different when it comes to the Edeka-Tengelmann affair. Here Mr. Gabriel is both culprit and victim. Culprit because he allowed himself to be pushed into including labor union demands in his ministerial authorization for the merger. Victim because the highly formalized procedure of ministerial authority was apparently too much for him and his associates.

It is contrary to Mr. Gabriel’s nature to submit to the dictates of strict procedural rules. The SPD leader, an impulsive politician through and through, chafes at such restrictions. This has now exacted a high price. He will have to seek legal redress against the ruling and injunction by the Higher Regional Court in Düsseldorf – and can be certain that each twist and turn will be reported in detail by the media.

There is little chance he will emerge as victor. This wouldn’t be the first ministerial authorization that was overturned by the judges in Düsseldorf in principal proceedings as well.

There isn’t much time until parliamentary elections in September 2017. And it won’t be long before Social Democrats must name Mr. Gabriel as its candidate for the chancellorship, so that enough time is left to lead the party into the electoral campaign.

For Mr. Gabriel, that campaign will now be overshadowed by the annoying debate about his role as minister.

Already now, spiteful party comrades are weighing in with criticism that he is no longer tenable as minister and leader, if he is proven to have committed factual errors in the Edeka-Tengelmann affair.

During his time as SPD leader, Mr. Gabriel has been unable to unite the SPD behind him regarding specific policies. But at least he managed to keep his comrades from their customary rituals of self-immolation. If things go really wrong for Mr. Gabriel, he himself will serve as an inducement for the party to revive that disastrous tradition.

So the summer recess is beginning for Mr. Gabriel under a baleful star. During his vacation on the North Sea coast, he will have to think hard on how he can wrench the rudder around once again.

Because he knows very well: A weakened minister isn’t a good campaigner, and a bad campaigner isn’t a good candidate for chancellor. The coming months will be tough for Mr. Gabriel.


Klaus Stratmann is Handelsblatt’s deputy bureau chief in Berlin. To contact him: [email protected].