Berlin Cable

December 15, 2020

Who Will be Germany’s Next Chancellor?

At first glance, it seems simple: whoever wins the CDU leadership in January will then become the next German chancellor. However, there are still a few obstacles on the actual path to succeed Merkel.

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Norbert Röttgen, Armin Laschet, and Friedrich Merz
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On the face of it, the process is simple. Three contenders vie for the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, and thus eventually for the chancellery after the next election, and one of them will win it.

Armin Laschet, the state premier of Germany’s most populous federal state, North Rhine-Westphalia, is battling it out with Friedrich Merz, erstwhile Merkel rival from the 2000s who has spent much of the past decade in business, and Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee who has the sole distinction (of sorts) of being the only cabinet minister Merkel ever dismissed in her 15 years as chancellor. As the CDU confirmed on Monday, there will be a virtual party congress on January 16 to put the question to the 1,001 delegates. Laschet, Merz, or Röttgen: that is the choice.

A Fool’s Errand

Here the straightforwardness ends, however. What kind of television pictures and media coverage an election via video-conferencing tools and digital voting will create is anybody’s guess. The quest to find a Merkel successor has already been a fool’s errand for much of the past two years. Germany’s long-serving chancellor didn’t make it any easier as she failed to actively promote a successor—the flipside to her being the first chancellor ever in Germany’s postwar history to decide herself when to the end her own political career, after announcing she will step down after the next election, scheduled for the fall of 2021. She already gave up the party leadership in 2018.

In December of that year, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer won the party leadership against Merz with a slim majority. After a difficult year, during which she also became defense minister, succeeding Ursula von der Leyen who went off to Brussels, “AKK” threw in the towel, triggering the present process that has been stretched out by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the choice is a little limited—Laschet, Merz, and Röttgen are all male, lawyers by training (Bonn University is their collective alma mater), and hail from North Rhine-Westphalia—the game of guessing the “real” next German chancellor sometimes resembles Cluedo, with additional names and circumstances entering the calculations.

Enter the Bavarians

It is by no means certain that the CDU will put forward the new leader as its “chancellor candidate” for the general election in September. To do so the CDU needs to come to an understanding with its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, headed by Bavaria’s state premier Markus Söder. When the German public is asked who would make the best chancellor, Söder is usually far ahead of the CDU hopefuls. But which CDU leader would step aside for the Bavarian who is said to prefer the quieter life in Munich to the bustle of Berlin? The eventuality of Söder becoming “chancellor candidate” seems most likely in the case of a Röttgen win, who has been arguing most convincingly for a reformed CDU that is “more female, younger, and more digital.”

Then there is Health Minister Jens Spahn, who came in a sorry third two years ago behind AKK and Merz, and has now teamed up with Laschet (a move he seems to rue sometimes). Might the latter be prepared to take over the CDU, but then send the younger man to conquer the chancellery? Or would Laschet even move sideways to take over the (mostly ceremonial) presidency, with Spahn looking after the CDU, and Söder, again, leading the CDU/CSU into the election as the chancellor candidate? It is a sign of the extent of the disappointment with what is on offer that some even mention the name of Ralph Brinkhaus, the CDU/CSU parliamentary leader. He won his post against Merkel’s wishes in a sort of grassroots putsch, but has since been very loyal. (Allegedly very shy) “Eastern Westphalians like me only put themselves forward once in their lives,” he joked recently.

Change? No, Thanks

So, while predicting who will actually become Germany’s next chancellor is a tricky game—German voters will have a say, too; polls show a CDU/CSU-Green combination as the most likely next coalition government—venturing guesses as to how far Germany’s European and foreign policy will change under new leadership is a little easier: not very much.

The good news for the rest of Europe and the American allies is that all of the lead contenders are strong pro-Europeans (überzeugte Europäer) as well as committed transatlanticists. Laschet, who has warned against a break with the Merkel era and sees himself in the tradition of German-European statesmen Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, is already busy extending his network. He has met French President Emmanuel Macron three times in recent months and also has a good relationship with Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister. “Keeping Europe united” is his main aim, he told international journalists on Monday. He is also “hoping” for a strong “Franco-German impulse” in the Kohl tradition, “which would be open to other European countries, too, of course.”

Merz, who in the past used to insist that any communalizing of European debt (as has now—historically—happened with the €750 billion European coronavirus recovery fund) would require a change of the EU treaties (an unlikely eventuality) and wasn’t what the CDU had always promised its voters, has supported the recent moves toward closer financial integration in the EU. Merz, whose past as head of the supervisory board at BlackRock Germany may work against him in an election campaign, sees strengthening the EU as an economic project and has been calling for “European solutions” and stances to virtually all external German and European challenges, including the relationship with China. While Laschet argues that Germany and the EU need to be able to work with states “that have a different societal model,” Merz at least has admitted that Germany has “massively underestimated” the determination and long-term thinking of the Chinese leaders and the consequences of Germany’s economy being too dependent on China.

Getting Tougher with China?

Röttgen, the well-connected foreign policy expert among them, has gone furthest in his open critique of China, leading a parliamentarians’ push to make sure Huawei is excluded from the 5G rollout (Merkel’s government continues to wobble on this). Even Röttgen, however, has drawn the line at a more principled, human-rights based foreign policy, arguing that sanctions against Beijing over, say, the internment and “reeducation” of millions of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang province would have no consequences since China is “too big, too economically powerful, and too technologically advanced for sanctions to work.” However, Röttgen deems them to be working against President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, whereas Merz and especially Laschet sound far more conciliatory.

What does this all mean come the CDU leadership vote and then the next election? Under Merkel, soundness and predictability have been seen as key. While others, especially Silicon Valley, have “moved fast and broken things,” Merkel has moved slowly without breaking anything, always keeping her options open. The problem for whoever wins the CDU crown—and since in Merkel’s Germany the most likely tends to happen, Laschet may well turn out to be the lucky one—is that European and international circumstances have changed to such an extent that a Merkelian, or even CDU foreign and European policy along the Adenauer-Kohl axis, no longer fits the bill. The next CDU leader, and possibly chancellor, will need to start thinking anew.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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