A year before the next German federal election, Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance is gearing up for a leadership contest that may shape German politics for years to come.
Following the election of a new CDU leader in December, the two sister parties will have to decide on a joint lead candidate. With Armin Laschet, Norbert Röttgen, and Friedrich Merz hoping to become the leader of the CDU, the CSU’s chair and Minister-President of Bavaria Markus Söder will have an equally strong case to lead the alliance into the next election.
With the CDU/CSU polling at more than an arm’s length ahead of the SPD and the Greens, their candidate will be the election’s clear frontrunner. This transition is taking place at a point when increasing disagreements have emerged between Germany’s traditional allies, making the contest increasingly appear like one that involves a choice between two strategic options for the country’s foreign policy.
Germany finds itself in a challenging setting.
In the East, Russia will continue to pose a vague but tangible security risk to the EU. In the South-East, Turkey’s assertiveness has created similar dilemmas. What makes this situation difficult to navigate is that different EU member states disagree on which of these two challenges to focus on. The fact that Russian and Turkish interests and allegiances run counter in many theatres of conflict (Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, Libya, and even Crimea, where Turkey traditionally acts as a protector of the Crimean Tatar minority) will tempt many in the EU to side with one over the other to advance their own national interest. Yet, with Erdogan’s political regime looking increasingly akin to Putin’s Russia in its handling of opposition, taking a stand only against one of the two will become increasingly difficult to explain.
The strategic divergence between Germany’s allies compounds this constellation. Emmanuel Macron has spent the last eighteen months forging a strategy that combines closer ties with Russia (note Macron’s silence following the poisoning of Alexander Navalny) with an active Mediterranean policy. In Libya, French actions cohere more with Russian interests than with those of most of its EU allies. Macron has built close ties with Greece and Cyprus, two countries that historically have looked to Russia for protection against Turkey and the Ottoman Empire (and who support France and Russia on Libya).
In the Middle East, Macron has been vocal about his opposition to American “maximum pressure” on Iran. In places like Lebanon, Macron may become more willing to work with those the United States seeks to confront in an effort to contain Iranian regional influence. In the Caucasus, Macron has voiced his support for Armenia, again pitting France against Turkey while aligning with Russia.
In this context, the CDU/CSU politicians hoping to become Merkel’s successor in October 2021 stand for different strategic outlooks, even though the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic this year has obscured the role of foreign policy.
The pandemic has arguably helped Laschet, whose role as Minister-President of Northrhine-Westphalia involved ample time in the limelight during the peak of the crisis. Over recent months, however, Laschet has sought to remind voters of his foreign policy credentials. By visiting refugee camps on Lesbos in August 2020, he underscored his continued commitment to the broad contours of Merkel’s refugee policy. In 2015, Laschet was one of the most fervent supporters of Merkel’s decision to open German borders.
In other areas, he has taken a different line than the Chancellor. Like Merkel, he does not favour culling the Nordstream 2 project that will soon connect Russian gas fields with Germany’s Baltic shore but has gone further in signalling his willingness to engage more closely with the Kremlin. In 2013, Laschet raised eyebrows when he criticised Germany’s support for rebels confronting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. When the British government lobbied other countries to condemn the poisoning of Sergej Skripal, he questioned Russia’s responsibility.1 At the same time, he has been a dissenting voice on policy towards China, warning against the economic consequences of disengagement.
Above all, Laschet has sought out Macron’s presence this year. Laschet has met the French President three times this year, including a high profile visit to the Élysée Palace in early September. If he wins the CDU leadership race and possibly the election, too, the French President and the new Chancellor may get along well.
The pandemic also upended Söder’s profile building plans for this year. In late January, the Bavarian politician flew to Moscow for a meeting with Vladimir Putin. Setting the tone for a sustained effort that included meeting Macron in mid-February, Söder’s visit sent an audible signal about his views on foreign policy priorities.
In the aftermath of Alexander Navalny’s poisoning, Söder spoke against ending Nordstream 2. Söder’s trip to Moscow was arranged by his predecessor Edmund Stoiber (CSU), who is said to have excellent connections with the Kremlin.2 The visit points towards different tendencies on foreign policy within the CDU/CSU alliance. During the Cold War, the CSU’s heavyweight leader Franz Josef Strauss championed the Francophile faction of German conservatism against transatlanticists who prioritised relations with the United States.
By contrast, Strauss sought a larger degree of European autonomy from America with, in effect, France as a major protector that might even share a nuclear weapons programme with the Federal Republic.3 In line with this tradition, Stoiber’s support for the United States during the Iraq War crisis was more lukewarm than that of Merkel. After Strauss’ and Stoiber’s unsuccessful campaigns for the Chancellorship in 1980 and 2002, respectively, Söder will now have his shot at achieving what no Bavarian politician has managed to date.
With Röttgen and Merz, the CDU leadership contest also includes two prominent advocates of western strategic integration. In the age of Trump and Brexit, this has not always been an easy sell to the German public. In a rare political overture to Britain early this year, Röttgen called for the establishment of a British-German friendship treaty in an op-ed co-authored with Tom Tugendhat, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British House of Commons.4 Such a treaty would complement the Franco-German Élysée Treaty that Konrad Adenauer brokered in 1963 to tie the hands of his transatlanticist and anglophile successor Ludwig Erhard to close relations with Paris.
In line with his western orientation, Röttgen has been vocal in his opposition to Nordstream 2 and has repeatedly criticised the German government for being too soft on China. At the same time, he has viewed Turkey more sympathetically. When Erdogan shocked German conservatives this March by announcing that Turkey would allow refugees to travel onwards to Europe, Röttgen called it a cry for help while others spoke of blackmail. In contrast to Macron, he has warned against taking sides in the ongoing Turkish-Greek conflict.
Merz, like Röttgen and Laschet a veteran of the European Parliament, has been unable to attain headline-yielding meetings with foreign leaders due to his lack of a representative office. However, there is reason to believe that Paris would be less happy than Washington and London if his CDU leadership bid was successful. Going not quite as far as Röttgen, he has called for a two-year moratorium on the Russian-German Nordstream 2 project. He has also called for more support for Turkey in its handling of Syrian refugees, and has blamed Russia for the ongoing crisis in Syria and continuing streams of refugees leaving the country. Merz’s conviction in the importance of the transatlantic alliance should therefore not surprise. Long-time Chairman of the Atlantik-Brücke, an organisation that promotes German-American relations, he has insisted that Donald Trump is “not wrong about everything”, citing the need to increase European defence spending as a case in point.5 Merz has also argued that the Democratic effort to impeach the American President lacked credibility in the light of Bill Clinton’s record of lying to a grand jury.
Whoever will succeed Angela Merkel next year will find themselves in a challenging position. Any new government will have to work to stay on good terms with Paris as well as with other EU member states like Italy or Poland whose economic and security interests clash with those of France. If the CDU/CSU does indeed manage to lead the next administration, the fact that the alliance of the two parties will continue to be a coalition of groups with different priorities will moderate the politics of any new Chancellor, whatever their private views on foreign policy. The need to find coalition partners will provide an additional degree of complexity. Nonetheless, this CDU leadership election and the following decision of who will be lead candidate may be a process that observers abroad want to follow.
A Response to After Merkel by Professor Brendan Simms, Director, Centre for Geopolitics, POLIS
I learned a lot from reading Marius Strubenhoff's After Merkel: Who will lead Germany, and in what direction. It makes clear that the choice facing the Christian Democratic Union as it chooses a successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel is not clear cut. The three protagonists—Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz, Norbert Roettgen, and the informal candidate from the sister CSU party, Markus Soeder—are very different personalities and politicians, and yet their foreign policy positions cannot easily be aligned to one or the other of the 'global' camps.
Laschet, for example, may please liberals with his support for Merkel's refugee policy, but his indulgence of Russia's 'Northstream' project and even more his reluctance to blame Putin for the Skripal attack in Britain, will surely worry those who see the Kremlin as a major threat to liberal-democratic values in Europe.
Merz has said that Trump is' not wrong about everything', but has been much softer than him on refugees, looking to reach out to Turkey on this subject.
Roettgen is very pro-European but has not followed Macron—who many see as the liberal avatar in taking Greece's side against Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Markus Soeder, for his part, may have supported the US over Iraq, but like Laschet, he annoys the White House, and many European liberals, with his Kremlin dalliances.
So whoever comes to power, we can deduce, will not decisively shift Germany into this camp or that one.
If I were to disagree a little with the author's argument, it would be with regard to his argument that the pandemic has helped Laschet, because his handling of Covid in North-Rhine Westphalia has been judged weak by many members of the public and party colleagues.
Also, I think that he exaggerates Franz-Josef's Strauss's anti-Americanism (FJS actually supported the US 'grand design' for Europe in the 1960s). That said, Strubenhoff has certainly given us all further food for thought at a time when so much is uncertain already.
Image by Christian Lue