Blink and you probably missed it.
A quiet upheaval in European politics is taking place – so quiet, that most people have probably missed it. Angela Merkel, for the second time now, has passed on leadership of the CDU (Christian Democrat Party) to her chosen successor, Armin Laschet.
Laschet was elected CDU leader, beating out his closest opponent Friedrich Merz on a close 53-47% split amongst the parties’ delegates.
In doing so, he has reaffirmed Merkelism as the future of the CDU party: Laschet was Merkel’s preferred successor, while Friedrich Merz sought to move the CDU rightwards, in a bid to win back disillusioned Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) voters.
As CDU leader, this now places Laschet as the likeliest candidate to be the CDU/CSU joint candidate for Chancellor in the federal elections later this year. And, with the CDU riding high in the polls, bolstered by their handling of the coronavirus, this means that Laschet is, most probably, the next Chancellor of Germany.
After four terms, and 16 years, of Merkel running the show, both within Germany, and increasingly in Europe, change is afoot.
What does this mean for the CDU?
Under Merkel, the CDU moved decisively to the centre, stealing many of the policies of the Green Party and the SDP – as a result, there is a sense that the CDU does not know what it stands for. The last core CDU policy, the commitment to balanced budgets, was finally jettisoned this year as a result of the coronavirus.
Laschet, as leader, will have to navigate the divides within the CDU party as to what it stands for, and how it presents itself in the next election.
More crucially – the CDU’s future at the next election will depend on a successful vaccine rollout and the general management of the coronavirus as Merkel finishes her final months.
In particular, there will be considerable focus on Laschet’s performance as Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia – a performance that many have seen as unassured and inconsistent. Italy’s government, for instance, is facing severe pressure after prolonged delays in their vaccination schedules.
As European populations compare their performance to that of the UK and Israel, the fate of European leaders will be increasingly influenced by vaccine rollouts.
What does this mean for Germany?
Laschet will have a number of problems to face up to as Chancellor of Germany: creaking and underfunded infrastructure as a result of Merkel’s commitment to balanced budgets, weak digital infrastructure, and very modest climate change ambitions.
Although a support for the transition to a hydrogen-based economy, Laschet’s historic support for the coal industry is of particular relevance here: his regional government has been heavy-handed in response to protests against a proposed lignite mine, while he has often taken the coal industry’s position when it comes to sectoral-wide bargaining.
As Biden attempts to inject some more energy into the Paris Climate Agreement, and governments across Europe place climate change higher in their priorities, it will be interesting to see how this will impact EU-wide green energy markets and subsidies.
What does this mean for Europe?
On top of being soft on coal, Laschet has a further reputation for being soft on China and Russia internationally. This means he will probably seek further economic ties with both countries, either with energy links with Russia, or building on the most recent EU-China Investment deal.
And likewise, the chance of EU-wide sanctions and collective action on Russia, for instance when it comes to responding to the incidents like the 30-day detention of Alexei Navalny are swiftly diminishing.
Within Europe, Laschet is a clear Francophile, and as such, would seek to continue Merkel’s cautious, but clear, pro-Europeanism. While his opponent, Merz, was a fiscal hawk, rejecting any idea of common debt, Laschet has proved more open to the idea of joint debt as a mechanism to allow poorer EU countries to borrow as a way to respond to economic weakness.
And for the transatlantic relationship?
Here, whoever won the election was of far less importance: all candidates were trans-atlanticists and multilateralists, who surely will be welcoming the election of Joe Biden as President.
Katja Leikert (deputy chair of the CDU parliamentary group): “They are all pro-European, multilateralists and trans-atlanticists”
However, this is not to say that we will see a return to the pre-2016 relationship. The signing of the EU-China Investment Deal, days before Biden was to take office, against the will of the US, is symbolic of Germany’s recognition that it should not be dependent on a potentially volatile American partner.
It’s important to remember…
It is not yet a done deal that Laschet is chosen as the CDU/CSU candidate for Chancellor. The CDU has a sister party, the Christian Social Union, which operates in Bavaria only.
Before every election they agree on who their joint candidate will be – while the CDU leader is the most likely option, it is not necessarily the only option. Indeed, there have been two CSU candidates for Chancellor before. Admittedly, they both lost their respective elections.
Nonetheless, Markus Soeder, the CSU leader, has been reportedly on manoeuvres seeking out support, and as premier of Bavaria, has arguably done better than Laschet, being perceived as more consistent and clear.
And there is still an election.
The CDU is riding high in the polls, it is true. And the CDU is probably boosted by Laschet’s victory rather than the alternatives available – there are more votes to be won occupying the middle ground, rather than chasing the AfD rightwards.
Indeed, one pre-eminent pollster Manfred Güllner, says: “Laschet’s election increases the chances that it will emerge as the strongest party in this year’s elections and won’t be overtaken by the Greens”.
Nonetheless, a lot depends on who his potential coalition partners are. The most likely option, of a coalition with the Green Party could mean that Laschet’s softness on coal could be an issue – or that those views get moderated.
The FDP (Free Democratic Party), by contrast, could push for greater fiscal discipline as a coalition partner. Finally, a Grand Coalition with the SPD (Social Democratic Party), while unlikely, is still yet possible.
Regardless of the election outcome, one thing is clear. Merkel is on the way out, and Europe may have found itself its new leader.