After months of uncertainty and postponed conventions, the Christian Democrats have finally elected a new leader of the party. Armin Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia since 2017, has beaten two competitors, Friedrich Merz and Norbert Röttgen.
The conservatives have chosen their third chairperson in more than 20 years. The party had been led by Angela Merkel for more than 18 years, from 2000 to 2018, and subsequently by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Laschet, son of a coalminer, was the consensus candidate for the party. He epitomises compromise. He is reluctant to embrace radical positions and will most probably continue to follow the broad concept of Chancellor Merkel. Other leading politicians from North Rhine-Westphalia have taken a similar approach. Johannes Rau, the previous premier of that most populous German state for two decades (1978 to 1998) and German federal president from 1999 to 2004, regularly claimed that politics should “reconcile instead of divide.” Armin Laschet’s style appears to be very similar to Johannes Rau’s.
However, that intriguing slogan of Rau and Laschet’s method of organising compromise is creating new turbulence. In Germany, where most political parties have opted for mainstream policies, the absence of an open debate is increasingly problematic. The Social Democrats, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, and the Christian Democrats have very similar approaches and only differ marginally. Those four parties, which represent about 80 percent of voters, have formed a consensus on core policies. In social, economic, and foreign policies, they agree on an agenda that is inspired by social democratic thought. Uniting these positions is the perception of Germany as a large welfare state that comprehensively covers all risks and possesses a commitment to European integration and a commitment to measures to combat climate change. Armin Laschet will therefore not have a problem in forming a government after the September 2021 federal elections.
While this mainstreaming of most issues has enabled all of those parties to form coalitions with each other, it has left some citizens without adequate political representation. For instance, an alternative to the ever-growing welfare state, with resulting ever-higher levels of taxation and social security contributions, cannot be found in the programs of those four parties, with the possible exception of the Liberal Democrats. However, whether these mainstream coalitions will enable Germany to maintain a leading position in Europe is an open question.
In economic policy, the country has become, according to Laschet’s main competitor, Friedrich Merz, somewhat complacent. Affluence is taken for granted, and many politicians seem to assume that Germany’s current economic might will last. Laschet has not stated that he sees a need for change in economic and social policies, and of course this unwillingness to embrace reform may strengthen the competitors of the Christian Democrats, namely the Liberal Democrats and the Alternative for Germany. Both those parties may have feared a reorientation of the Christian Democrats under Friedrich Merz.
If Laschet outmanoeuvres his Bavarian competitor, Markus Söder, and becomes the candidate of the conservatives for the September election, it is very likely that he will become Germany’s next chancellor. The simple reason is that he will have ample options for coalitions, while the other parties most probably will not be able to form a government. Ironically, the stronger the radical Alternative for Germany becomes, the better for Laschet: since no one will form a government with the far right, the Christian Democrats will once again be the indispensable party in Germany.
For Laschet, three issues require immediate attention. The first is the future of the European Union. Of course, Laschet is a very staunch supporter of the European integration process. But he has, up to now, shied away from providing a vision for European integration. Is he supporting the creation of an integrated Europe with substantially increased powers for Brussels? Or is he content with the status quo and a robust role of the member countries of the European Union?
The second is issue is the internal division in the German polity. While the mainstream parties enjoy the support of a very large majority, the more radical citizens feel increasingly sidelined. Many East Germans, in particular, have developed an aversion to the current political debate and express anger about the lack of diversity in political debates. “Reconciliation instead of division” does not constitute a recipe for the representation of diverse political positions. While Germany and most other European societies are not as radicalised and divided as the United States, the trend is similar. The freedom of speech and expression is regularly challenged, and in particular, universities are faced with requests for a suppression of unwanted political positions.
The third and perhaps most difficult task for a future Chancellor Laschet will be to alter Germany’s policies on China. Angela Merkel’s legacy is difficult. Relations with the United States are at an all-time low, while she has continued to support China and its totalitarian regime. Despite the events in Hong Kong, Merkel continues to trust Beijing’s promises. She also insisted on the conclusion of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) at the end of last year. The German government, which lambasted Donald Trump’s unilateralism time and again, wasted no time after Joe Biden’s election and insisted on the conclusion of an agreement with China. Of course, that very agreement will make it difficult to form a coalition of Western societies that intend to contain the further rise of China.
Laschet does not have much experience in international affairs beyond Europe. He has not said much about China, apart from a statement on the systemic rivalry with China. Laschet will have to answer the increasingly pressing question on Germany’s foreign policy: is it values-based or shareholder value-based? Is Germany, which exports more to China than the next eight European economies (including the UK) combined, willing to sacrifice a little affluence in favour of a more principled China policy?
In that context, an example for the current German China policy is Chancellor Merkel’s strategy on 5G equipment, which has contributed to an increasing isolation of Germany in the OECD. Fearing Chinese retaliation, Germany is the only major economy that continues to use Huawei equipment. Merkel has successfully repressed any critical positions within her own party on Huawei. Laschet will probably not be spared a more critical assessment of his China policy. Of course, rather than ignoring the turn China has taken under General Secretary Xi Jinping, Germany should be aware of the risks of dealing with totalitarian regimes.
Armin Laschet has demonstrated that he can win a political battle. Whether his capabilities are enabling him to become a strategically thinking leader of Europe’s largest economy is not clear yet. Germany, like the rest of the European Union, wants to develop a capability for strategic autonomy, yet it also wants to avoid making a choice between China and the democratic camp. Considering the choices of the Chinese leadership have made in recent years, that third way of European countries may soon become a cul-de-sac.
Prof Dr Heribert Dieter is a Senior Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.