Will Spying for US Be the End of Merkel?
Her intelligence services having been caught spying for the US Merkel could see her fortunes fade and be replaced from the ranks of Social Democrats
The blame game has long since begun in the German capital, as have efforts to determine who knew what and when and who misled which supervisory authority and when. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière has become entangled in inconsistencies. Chancellery head Peter Altmaier and several of his predecessors are under fire.
And then there is BND chief Schindler. His agency offered up its services to the Americans, often with – but also occasionally without – permission from the Chancellery.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the BND’s decision to circumvent Chancellery oversight has made Angela Merkel, who has made a career of staying out of scandals, suddenly appear very vulnerable indeed.
Trapped in Solidarity
The consequences of the BND’s self-imposed dependence on the US have now become apparent. The BND appears as America’s willing helper and Angela Merkel looks helpless, not knowing how to react. She appears trapped by her solidarity with the US.
Merkel is sparing in her use of terms like “raison d’etat. She uses it when referring to Germany’s obligation to protect Israel, and she uses it to underline her commitment to keeping the euro zone together.
But there is a third thing, something she calls her “maxim” when talking with her closest advisors: to do everything in her power, with the help of German intelligence agencies and the Americans, to prevent a terrorist attack on German soil. That is how she interprets her oath of office, she once said.
But that oath goes much further, and that has now become her problem. Protecting Germans from harm also means preventing German targets from being spied on, no matter who is doing the spying. Allowing a foreign power access to German data and secrets, silently acquiescing to the same, or declaring German companies to be a pawn in a larger game is tantamount to betraying German interests.
From this perspective, the situation in which Merkel now finds herself is remarkably similar to that of the BND itself. She willingly became dependent on the Americans, a position that is now radically limiting her options. That, in fact, goes a long way toward explaining the silence that has descended over political Berlin during the past week. Rarely have those responsible in the cabinet been so withdrawn.
The press statement released by the government in reaction to accusations that the BND had tolerated industrial espionage, by contrast, was unusually terse. Indeed, the chancellor herself read and approved the statements, which were withering in their rebuke of the BND.
A Turning Point for Merkel?
For now, the Social Democrats, Merkel’s junior coalition partners, have benefited most from the affair. The party’s reaction to the news of the BND’s transgressions was swift and sharp. “What’s happening here is scandalous,” blustered SPD head Sigmar Gabriel.
The system of checks and balances failed, added SPD General Secretary Yasmin Fahimi. The outrage was well coordinated, with party leaders agreeing over the course of several telephone conversations to not let the Chancellery off the hook this time. “The chancellor’s shiny finish could certainly stand a bit of tarnishing,” said one SPD leader.
The affair also presents party head Gabriel with an opportunity. As economics minister, he can now pose as the protector of companies that were perhaps the victims of espionage.
More than that, he can once again revert to his favored role of a take-charge party leader who isn’t afraid of going after the chancellor. Indeed, the SPD is beginning to feel something it hasn’t in a long time: the conviction that it has the upper hand on an issue relative to Merkel’s conservatives. Relative to a chancellor who has seemed so unassailable for so long.
It is, in fact, not wrong to say that the affair is the greatest challenge to Merkel that we have seen in some time. The chancellor has enjoyed Germany’s trust for so long because voters have long believed that she is adequately protecting their interests and those of the country.
But this scandal of the BND, NSA-spying, a lack of control and lying cabinet members could seriously shake the foundations of her power. It could indeed mark the turning point in her chancellorship.
This is an excerpt from an article originally appeared at The Spiegal Online International