BERLIN Germany's justice minister on Saturday warned her Free Democrat party (FDP), the troubled junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition, to support its European policy or risk becoming unfit to govern.
Support for the FDP has shrivelled since the last general election, with the latest poll showing them lagging even the upstart Pirate party at just 3 percent, and this has provoked internal soul-searching and infighting over strategy.
Some members of the FDP, as well as the Christian Social Union, sister party of Merkel's Christian Democrats, have sought to distance themselves from her European policy and toughen talk on aid for debt-ridden euro zone members.
Their attempts to rally support among bailout-weary Germans have, however, weakened Merkel's authority and crimped her government's room for manoeuvre in the euro zone crisis.
"At the grassroots there are doubts about the euro rescue policy, especially among young people," Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger was cited as saying in an interview with the daily Die Welt. "We have to convince them.. And I warn the FDP about making itself unable to act and govern."
Merkel's coalition is already under fire for its hesitant stance on how to solve the crisis. World Bank President Robert Zoellick told Wirtschaftswoche magazine there was a "total lack" of vision in Europe and Germany needed to show more leadership.
"When the East bloc collapsed some 20 years ago, Chancellor Helmut Kohl had a vision how things could develop," he said, referring to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Communist regimes in East European countries. "There is a total lack of this now, and the longer that continues, the more money it will cost and the fewer options will remain."
Merkel urged the CSU Friday to show solidarity with European peers after the Bavaria-based party adopted a tougher policy on euro zone debt offenders, which could further aggravate tensions within Germany's coalition.
However, some 29 percent of Germans could imagine voting for a party whose central policy was reintroducing the deutschmark mark currency at the next general election, a YouGov poll published by mass-selling daily Bild showed Saturday.
Within the FDP, fierce critics of aid to debt-saddled Greece have organised an internal vote to take place later this year on opposition to European bailouts. The motion opposes unlimited bailout measures through which Germany becomes liable for debts of other euro zone states, in particular Europe's permanent European Stability Mechanism, which the German parliament is set to vote on in January.
Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said she disagreed with the motion as it expressed scepticism against the idea of a common currency" and the FDP was a "party of convinced Europeans."
"In any case, I will campaign energetically against the motion and for the government's policy of stabilising the euro," she said. "Simply rejecting the difficult work on new, better European Union structures and not proposing any better alternatives is not worthy of the FDP."
FDP chief Philippp Roesler has already said he is confident a counter-motion he is sponsoring should defeat FDP member Frank Schaeffler's rebel movement, although he himself sought last month to distance himself from Merkel's European strategy.
Such motions among party members could become more frequent in Germany and complicate policy-making as there is a growing sense that party leaders need to listen more to voters. Merkel herself is increasingly seen as implementing a European policy that voters at the base disagree with.
The World Bank's Zoellick said Germans "miss the political leadership telling them how they want Europe to develop."
The Pirate Party, which promotes "liquid democracy" whereby many policies are decided by direct referendum, snared 9 percent of the vote in the Berlin election last month, partly by plundering support for the FDP.
The Pirates, who started out campaigning for more freedom on the Internet and has since broadened their agenda, have struck a chord in Germany and drawn away many voters from the more established parties.
Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said she took the Pirate party, which is now polling at 8 percent nationwide, seriously and did believe there was a need to adapt the organizational hierarchy of the FDP better to modern society.
"It is necessary to create new forms of participation that increase transparency and understanding," she said.
The FDP will hold a summit on October 23-24 during which it will map out a master plan for the next federal elections in 2013 and prepare for the party's November congress.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)