The last outburst of a political maverick or first worrying sign of a potentially serious rebellion within Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own camp over Greece's bailout?
The resignation of Peter Gauweiler, a wealthy, litigious euro-skeptic from Bavaria and resident thorn in the side of Chancellor Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrat alliance, has sent shock waves through German political circles.
But it’s unclear if Mr. Gauweiler's departure from the political stage in Berlin is the start of a broader insurrection among Ms. Merkel’s allies against the German government’s policy on Greece, or just the departing shot of a frustrated renegade.
Mr. Gauweiler was a long-serving member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.
A successful trial lawyer who has represented high-profile clients such as late Bavarian media magnate, Leo Kirch, and Airbus boss, Tom Enders, Mr. Gauweiler has repeatedly challenged Germany and the ECB's role in euro zone bailouts, and Germany's military involvment in Afghanistan.
“I believe there won’t be any major consequences,” said Kai Arzheimer, a politics professor at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. “Gauweiler was known as a troublemaker, and he had brought several constitutional complaints against his own government about the euro bailouts, so this is not a new position.”
The 65-year-old lawyer was one of 29 members of the CSU and CDU who voted against extending Greece’s bailout package in February.
After being upbraided by his own CSU party leader, Horst Seehofer, in early March for not holding the party line on Greece, Mr. Gauweiler on Tuesday said he would quit as deputy chairman of the CSU and leave the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament.
Gauweiler was known as a troublemaker. Kai Arzheimer, politics professor, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Mr. Gauweiler made it clear he would not be cowed.
In his resignation statement, he said: “I was publicly asked, because I am vice-chairman of the CSU, to vote in the Bundestag for the opposite of what I have represented in front of the Constitutional Court and to my voters for years.”
The appointment of Mr. Gauweiler as one of the party’s four deputy leaders in late 2013 had been a calculated political move by Mr. Seehofer.
Fearful of the electoral threat on the right from a new euro-skeptic party, the Alternative for Germany, Mr. Seehofer hoped Mr. Gauweiler would keep right-leaning voters from turning their back on Bavaria's CSU.
But Mr. Seehofer's gambit failed to pay off, as the Bavarian party last year suffered its worst result in European elections since 1954.
The fact that Mr. Gauweiler and a fellow deputy leader, Peter Ramsauer, a former federal minister, had defied Mr. Seehofer's support of the Greek bailout, made it all but certain they would lose their party standing later this year.
A confrontation in March, when Mr. Seehofer reportedly yelled at his recalcitrant deputy “It’s you or me” seems to have persuaded Mr. Gauweiler that he might as well go. But he went down fighting.
“Why my dissenting vote against an extension of this program should be a violation of CSU party discipline is beyond me,” Mr. Gauweiler said in his statement.
What raises this above the level of an internal party squabble in Bavaria is the fact that Mr. Gauweiler has been one of the most vociferous and well-known critics of the euro zone and Greek bailouts, to which Germany has been the largest contributor.
His constitutional objections to Chancellor Merkel’s euro policies failed to halt Germany's bailout contributions, but he did motivate Germany's Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe to rule that future bailouts must be approved by the Bundestag.
Mr. Gauweiler's resignation this week was greeted with dismay by party supporters who share his unease about the Greek bailouts.
Wolfgang Bosbach, the domestic policy spokesman for the CDU, who also voted against the government in February, said he was astounded that Mr. Gauweiler had decided to step down.
“I didn’t have the impression that he had given up the fight,” Mr. Bosbach told Handelsblatt. “Now I will have to fight for him.”
Hans-Peter Friedrich, a former interior and agriculture minister and member of the CSU, said that he regretted Mr. Gauweiler’s decision, which should be seen as a warning to the party. “Many deputies are sick of having to agree to a political course to which there is supposedly no alternative,” Mr. Friedrich said.
Klaus Peter Willsch of the CDU also criticized the pressure put on conservative lawmakers to vote for the bailout extensions to Greece. “Peter Gauweiler had broad shoulders, behind which many colleagues could hide,” Mr. Willsch said.
Matthias Kullas, an analyst with the conservative-leaning Center for European Policy in Freiburg, predicts that there will be few long-term consequences for Ms. Merkel. Mr. Kullas said he doubts a broader rebellion is brewing.
“Gauweiler was very prominent and stood out in front. I don’t think that many others are going to have the courage to do the same,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
In fact, Mr. Kullas argued, many will see what happened to the Bavarian lawmaker and think twice about voting against the government again on Greece.
“There is definitely unhappiness in the party about Greece, but I don’t believe that anyone wants to take on the political responsibility for forcing Greece out of the euro zone,” Mr. Kullas said.
“I don’t think it is a sign of a big rebellion in the Christian Democrats,” Mr. Arzheimer, the Mainz politics professor, said. “There is a small group of lawmakers who think we shouldn’t reach a compromise with Greece, but we don’t have an open rebellion on this question.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Arzheimer said opposition to Greek bailouts has grown in recent weeks, particularly after the pugnacious stance of the Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, and delays by Athens in implementing reforms sought by Germany.
The departure is also a sign of general unease in Ms. Merkel’s ranks over the party’s direction.
Mr. Gauweiler was an exceptionally rebellious, cantankerous lawmaker, opposing sanctions on Russia and legally challenging Germany’s involvement in Afghanistan. He also belonged to a vocal group of Ms. Merkel’s conservatives who not only opposed the Greek bailouts, but regarded the government’s euro policy as part of a general leftward shift by Christian Democrats under the chancellor.
There are definitely considerable tensions within the CDU/CSU. Konrad Adam, AfD co-chairman
Merkel-endorsed reforms such as parental leave, the passage of Germany's first legal minimum wage, efforts to boost immigration and legal recognition for the civil partners of gay people, have alienated many in the party's right wing.
Ms. Merkel used to be able to move to the center without having to worry about losing conservative support. But that changed with the arrival of a small euro-skeptic party, the AfD. The new party may become an off-ramp for CDU and CSU voters unhappy with Ms. Merkel's policies, offering a new political home.
“The AfD was originally formed by conservative Christian Democrats who said that their themes were being neglected,” said Mr. Arzheimer, the politics professor, and the euro was only the most prominent of their issues.
“There are definitely considerable tensions within the CDU/CSU,” AfD co-chairman, Konrad Adam, told Handelsblatt Global Edition, “and you will understand if I view that with a certain amount of satisfaction.”
Mr. Adam said that there was effectively no opposition in the Bundestag under Ms. Merkel's right-left ruling coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats, with parties agreed on most questions, and on Greece in particular.
“That is an unacceptable situation in a democracy, and risks people losing their trust in democracy,” Mr. Adam said.
The AfD deputy leader argued that Ms. Merkel’s tough stance on Greece, insisting on reforms before more aid is unlocked, came about in part because of pressure from his party.
Mr. Kullas of the conservative CEP think tank in Freiburg said the chancellor and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, consistently held that position on Greece before the AfD came on the scene.
“The chancellor has said that there will only be money when reforms are implemented, and that was her position before the AfD,” Mr. Kullas said.
The AfD has sought to broaden its appeal, campaigning on issues such as a halt to immigration and family values. But internal leadership battles have hindered tghe party in its ability to capitalize on the re-emergence of the Greek crisis.
Mr. Kullas argues that with no significant negative consequences of the euro crisis being felt in Germany, there is little appetite among Germans to vote for a party just because it opposes bailouts, even for those who might also disagree with them.
“One really has to wait and see if the AfD can establish itself as serious party to the right of the CDU,” he said.
The AfD sought to profit from Mr. Gauweiler’s resignation.
The party leader, Bernd Lucke, publically offered him a new political home.
“We cordially invited Mr. Gauweiler to join the AfD, and greet the fact that he has been consistent enough to make clear the failure of the Christian Democrats when it comes to the euro rescue policy by giving up all his posts,” Mr. Lucke said.
However, Mr. Gauweiler, who has been a member of the CSU since 1968, has rejected the offer. “He is staying in the CSU,” his spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
On a personal level, there is obvious unhappiness within the CSU with how Mr. Gauweiler was treated.
“We do not accept the behavior of the party leader, and we demand that Horst Seehofer also allows conservative and economic liberals forces in the party to have the opportunity to express themselves,” Thomas Jahn, a conservative CSU member, told Handelsblatt.
"When one looks at a long-serving member, who was a minister and in a leadership position and how Seehofer sought to neutralize him,” said Mr. Arzheimer, the politics professor. “That has created a lot of dissatisfaction.”
Siobhán Dowling has covered German politics from Berlin for the past decade. Thomas Sigmund and Jan Hildebrand contributed to this article. To contact the author: [email protected].