When Germany's Deputy Chancellor and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle held a briefing for reporters in Berlin last month, he arrived exuding an aura of defiance and ebullience. It didn't last. Germany's Westerwelle had come to talk about the Bundestag's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. Instead, he found himself bombarded with questions about a rumored rift with his boss, Chancellor Angela Merkel. "We have an absolutely untarnished relationship," Westerwelle insisted. "We text each other like there's no tomorrow."
Perhaps they should talk, instead. Five months after Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party began forming a new center-right government with Westerwelle's probusiness Free Democratic Party (FDP), the alliance that was billed as a marriage made in heaven is on the rocks. The government has been riven by infighting, bitter personal rivalries and squabbles over policy direction. The partisan bickering has grown so bad it threatens complete inertia. "The new government [has] had a catastrophic start," Gerd Langguth, author of a biography of Chancellor Merkel, tells TIME. "There's a cacophony of ideas and egos, and Angela Merkel still hasn't come up with a vision for her new government."
Merkel's main headache is Westerwelle, whose various job titles seem to have given him carte blanche to be the government's unofficial troublemaker. Finding himself holding the balance of power following 11 years in opposition, the ambitious politician is enjoying his first taste of power. Even though his main job is Foreign Minister, Westerwelle has flexed his muscles on domestic issues from tax reform to health care to nuclear power. Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at the Free University in Berlin says Westerwelle's inexperience in government makes him a loose cannon. "Westerwelle's criticism gives the impression that Angela Merkel can't control her Cabinet," says Neugebauer. "Germans are asking who's in charge? Westerwelle looks like he's the cook and Merkel is the waiter."
One recent crunch came when Westerwelle launched a blistering attack on Germany's cherished welfare state, criticizing handouts for the long-term unemployed. Raising welfare benefits smacks of socialism, Westerwelle wrote in the daily Welt newspaper on Feb. 11. "Whoever promises the people effortless prosperity encourages late Roman decadence." The FDP leader went on to argue that those who work should always get more than the unemployed and that young jobless Germans should take up community work like shoveling snow.
Criticism of the welfare state touches a raw nerve among Germans. They have jealously guarded social benefits since they were introduced by Otto von Bismarck, the "Iron Chancellor," in the 1880s. Bismarck's system designed to win over workers and increase productivity guaranteed every citizen social insurance, including a pension, national health insurance and disability benefits. Westerwelle thinks that should change, and is also pushing for lower taxes and a new simplified tax system. The opposition Social Democrats branded him a "sociopolitical arsonist" while the Greens warned that the welfare state would be pared back to a "social ice age." Merkel was not amused, either. "I've made it clear that what Guido Westerwelle said is not my choice of words. That's not my style," she told the CDU party faithful.
Another row erupted over the future of nuclear power, long a controversial issue in Germany. One of Merkel's CDU allies, Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, opened up a can of worms when he called for an end to the use of nuclear power by 2030. Merkel's spokesman said any talk of an exit strategy was "premature." But conservative governors from the south of the country, home to some of the nuclear power stations, were seething. Westerwelle chimed in with the opinion that abandoning nuclear energy would be a "serious mistake."