Berlin Cable

January 18, 2021

Laschet’s World

Already attacked as someone too soft on the likes of Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping, new CDU leader Armin Laschet’s world view and foreign policy outlook is much in line with the German mainstream.

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CDU leader Armin Laschet
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There is always a Tweet.

In the case of Armin Laschet, newly elected leader of Germany’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and presumptive next chancellor, it is a 2014 Tweet, directed at then US Secretary of State, John Kerry, accusing him of “supporting ISIS” in Syria and indicating his own preference for Bashar al-Assad, who had started a bloody civil war against his people three years earlier.

At that point in his career, Laschet was opposition leader in the state parliament of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (he won the state elections in 2017 and has been prime minister there since), and the comment may seem a little strange, to say the least, certainly in retrospect.

Tobias Schneider, a policy analyst at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin, rightly put down those comments and analogous views on events in Egypt to Laschet’s strong (German) Catholic beliefs yesterday: Before becoming a full-time politician Laschet edited the church’s paper in Aachen, his hometown, in the early 1990s and subsequently ran a Catholic publishing house. In such a milieu and its networks, Assad, a member of a minority sect and a protector of sorts of a multi-faith Syria, was seen as the lesser evil when compared to the Islamist terror groups, who came to dominate the anti-Assad forces.

Finding the Obama administration’s Syria policy wanting is itself not terribly controversial (even among those who helped formulating it). Seven years on, this certainly does not make Laschet a “friend of dictators” from Damascus to Moscow and Beijing, even if his lines of thinking on relations with Russia and China have certainly been more on the soft side.

Merkel’s Heir

“China is a very important economic partner for Germany,” Laschet told a group of international journalists in December. One simply had to deal with states which had a “different societal model,” too, Laschet argued, while defending the “European model.” Often on the side of business and industry (especially the automobile industry), he has argued for better German-Russian relations in particular. “We need Russia for many questions facing this word,” he told the Handelsblatt financial newspaper in 2019. He has also been supportive of completing the hugely controversial Baltic Sea gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, a big irritant in German-American relations.

Those stances, in fact, are not that far off Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach. So, when Laschet has been described as the “continuity candidate”—compared to his opponents, Friedrich Merz and Norbert Röttgen—this certainly rings true also in terms of his foreign policy thinking.

An Enthusiastic European

Where he diverges from the chancellor is on the European policy. Born in Aachen, a city close to the border with Belgium and the Netherlands and the center of the Carolingian (and in a way, Cold War) Europe, Laschet was a member of the European Parliament (1999-2005) and is not only a pro-European, but an enthusiastic one (“begeisterter Europäer”).

In a rare criticism of Merkel, Laschet expressed his disappointment at the 2020 Munich Security Conference that Germany had not engaged sooner and more fully with French President Emmanuel Macron’s EU reform agenda. In his speech to the CDU conference which elected him on Saturday, he described a “European Germany” he wants to see emerging in the coming decade. Laschet met with Macron three times in recent months, telling journalists in December that he was hoping “for a strong Franco-German impulse” to advance the EU further, and describing himself inspired by Konrad Adenauer or Helmut Kohl (both Rhineland Catholics).

His strongly pro-European stance sits well with the Greens–his likeliest coalition partner should he first become “chancellor candidate” of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, and then win the national elections on September 26. He was part of the so-called “pizza connection,” a group of young politicians from the CDU and the Greens who started meeting informally at an Italian restaurant in the 1990s, first in Bonn and then in Berlin. He also has a strong record on integrating minorities, especially Turkish immigrants. In another sign of his “unifier” skills and of his instinct for what’s forward-looking, he established a first “ministry for digitalization” with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), his present coalition partner in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Mugged by Reality—and Geopolitics

Laschet is also a staunch transatlanticist. In contrast to others, he refrained from resorting to anti-Americanism during the Trump years, describing the United States as Germany’s “most important partner outside the EU.”

Given the state of world affairs, and the obvious need for close US-EU cooperation in the face of anti-liberal, autocratic encroachment by Russia and particular China, the incoming Biden administration will likely temper Laschet’s softer, conciliant stancesas will the “Berlin bubble” where stronger geopolitical thinking is on the rise.

More power also brings more responsibilities. As newly-elected CDU leader he has already come under pressure to state whether he supports the continued membership of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in the European People’s Party (EPP) caucus in the European Parliament, in which the German Christian Democrats are the dominating force. EPP membership has given Orbán—whose self-styled “illiberal democracy” Hungary is the EU’s most rotten apple—a fig leaf of respectability, and power, as a full-strength EPP is needed to support European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Keeping in with Orbán, however, would run counter his vision for the EU, and the European model. So far, Laschet has played for time.

Then again, in the big scheme of things, Laschet’s various previous stands on foreign policy issues may actually not be that important. He may end up passing much of CDU foreign policy-making on to Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee and a leading critic when it comes Germany’s present wish-washy lines on Russia and China. Röttgen fought an impressive, mostly digital campaign for the CDU leadership, came a respectable third, and has signaled his willingness to work closely with his erstwhile rival.

On Twitter, before being elected CDU leader, Laschet sent a typically quirky welcome message to the incoming US administration, reminiscing about meeting The Reverend Leo J. O’Donovan, a former president of Georgetown University who will speak at Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday. “As young members of parliament, Helmut Kohl brought us together with Father Leo O’Donovan,” Laschet wrote. “I met him many times. He stands for a different America.”

In other words: If this “different America” reasserts itself under US President Biden, it’s unlikely that Armin Laschet will be the one spoiling the transatlantic renewal party. And if Emmanuel Macron finally gets a like-minded spirit in Berlin’s chancellery, all sorts of things may suddenly become possible for the EU.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of Internationale Politik Quarterly.

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