Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s Unexpected FM

Sigmar GabrielSigmar Gabriel

When Donald Trump complained that there were more German cars in New York than US cars in Germany, Sigmar Gabriel said “the US will have to build better cars”. And now he’s looking to become foreign minister.

Germany’s outspoken vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, better known for his stormy temperament than his diplomatic finesse, is the first to admit he’s an unlikely choice for foreign minister, the German news website reported.

But that’s exactly the role the burly 57-year-old finds himself in on Friday after abandoning his long-held ambition to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel for the top job, bowing to his low approval ratings.

In a head-spinning round of political musical chairs this week, Gabriel said European Parliament head Martin Schulz would replace him as leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and take on the mighty Merkel in September’s general election.

In the same breath, he announced he would step down as economy minister to take over the foreign ministry portfolio from Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is expected to become the country’s next president in February.

For a man who once compared Israeli policy towards Palestinians to an “apartheid regime”, Gabriel’s new role as Germany’s top diplomat has raised eyebrows.

Gabriel acknowledged the criticism in his final press conference as economy minister, but added he was confident he could learn to speak “diplomacy German”.

 Baptism of fire

Faced with Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States and the start of Britain’s divorce talks from the European Union, Gabriel can expect a diplomatic baptism of fire.

His first test will come as early as next month when Germany hosts a G20 gathering of foreign ministers, also expected to see the international debut of Trump’s pick for US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.

Gabriel has urged Germans to face the coming geopolitical challenges “with confidence”, and said any US withdrawal from the world stage should be seen as an opportunity for Europe to forge closer ties with countries like China.

In 2015, he became the first top Western official to visit Iran following its historic nuclear deal.

He also ruffled feathers in Beijing when he accused the Asian giant of “unfair” trade practices ahead of a visit there last November, leading to a chilly reception from his Chinese hosts.


Add new comment

Read our comment policy before posting your viewpoints