Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz said he will not serve as foreign minister in Germany’s new coalition government after coming under intense pressure from his own party to give up the role.
Mr Schulz faced anger from across the SPD after taking the job, despite vowing never to serve in a cabinet led by Angela Merkel. He has already agreed to hand over his role as party leader to Andrea Nahles.
Senior Social Democrats said the volte-face left the party with a credibility problem just as it launches a nationwide poll of its 460,000 members over the coalition agreement clinched this week with Ms Merkel’s conservatives.
Mr Schulz said on Friday that the discussion of his role was “endangering a successful vote”, and that he hoped that by giving up the foreign ministry he could bring an end to the personnel discussions inside the SPD.
“We all do politics for the people in this country”, he said, “so it’s appropriate that my personal ambitions should take a back seat to the interests of the party”.
His move comes after he was subject to a blistering attack from Germany’s serving foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, who accused him of a breach of faith by taking his job.
Mr Gabriel told the Funke media group that he had been a successful and popular foreign minister, but “the new SPD leadership clearly didn’t care a hoot about this public appreciation of my work”.
Berlin has been in uproar since Ms Merkel’s conservatives and Mr Schulz’s SPD unveiled their new coalition agreement on Wednesday, amid widespread fury over the way ministerial posts were divided up between the two parties.
The 177-page agreement is designed to end the political deadlock left by the inconclusive elections in September, in which both parties lost votes to the far-right Alternative for Germany.
But the deal has been overshadowed by the row over who got which ministry. Conservatives are incandescent that the SPD, despite winning only 20.5 per cent in the election — its worst result in postwar German history — was awarded the critical finance ministry, which for the past eight years has been a fiefdom of Ms Merkel’s CDU.
In the SPD, the anger over Mr Schulz’s appointment as foreign minister was, if anything, even greater.
The former European Parliament president had already been under fire for his flip-flopping over the grand coalition. In the immediate aftermath of the election, Mr Schulz swore he would never take the SPD into a Merkel-led government, insisting the party would now “renew itself” in opposition. But when Ms Merkel’s attempt to form a three-way coalition with the Greens and liberals collapsed in November, he was forced into a humiliating climbdown.
Some senior SPD leaders jumped to Mr Schulz’s defence. Olaf Scholz, the Hamburg mayor and finance minister-designate, said it was a “very understandable decision” to appoint someone with Mr Schulz’s extensive European experience as foreign minister.
In his interview with the Funke group, published on Friday, Mr Gabriel hinted that Mr Schulz had broken a promise to allow him to remain as foreign minister in the new-look coalition. In a sign of his anger, he cancelled all upcoming engagements, including an appearance at the prestigious Munich Security Conference next week.
“What remains is actually only regret over how disrespectfully people are being treated in the SPD and how little a word that has been given counts for,” he said. He did not explain what “word” he meant.
Last year, Mr Gabriel stepped down as SPD chairman in favour of Mr Schulz, switching to the role of foreign minister. German media have reported that in exchange he won a promise from Mr Schulz that he would be allowed to remain in that post if the SPD entered another coalition with Ms Merkel’s party after the election.
Mr Gabriel now faces banishment to the political wilderness, despite the fact that polls show he is Germany’s most popular politician.
In a none-too-subtle dig at the bearded Mr Schulz, Mr Gabriel said his daughter Marie had said to him this week: “You mustn’t be sad, Papa, now you have more time with us. That’s better than with the man with hair on his face.”
Some SPD colleagues expressed sympathy with Mr Gabriel. “Sigmar Gabriel can be a bit crude sometimes,” Ulrich Kelber, a deputy justice minister, told Bayern 2 radio. “He’s not easy, because he’s always making a racket. [But] I can understand his frustration.”