By Arab News
By Cornelia Meyer*
What unfolded in Germany on Tuesday was realpolitik at its finest. The leadership race in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was flung wide open when Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK) resigned her position a few weeks ago.
The usual suspects were expected to throw their hats into the ring, including Health Minister Jens Spahn, North Rhine-Westphalia premier Armin Laschet, and Friedrich Merz, the former chairman of the CDU/Christian Social Union (CSU) parliamentary group, ex-chairman of BlackRock in Germany and erstwhile nemesis of Chancellor Angela Merkel when she assumed the leadership of the party.
Then the unexpected happened: Spahn, the right-wing critic of Merkel’s immigration policy, abruptly dropped out of the race and backed the much more liberal Laschet, who is seen as an ally of the chancellor and a supporter of her policies. Spahn is ideologically a lot closer to the conservative Merz, who has no time for Merkel’s immigration policy, is a fiscal hawk and generally feels that the CDU has drifted too far to the left.
While Spahn’s action might look surprising, it is a clever move on the political chessboard. He is just 39 years old and still has time. Rising alongside Laschet as his No. 2 is, therefore, a good option. He will be able to garner the support of some of the membership that is to the right of Laschet, as well as the party’s young Turks. As opposed to Merz, who is a millionaire, a divisive figure and is often seen as out of touch with the daily concerns of the less well off, Laschet is emollient and a bridge-builder. Hence, Spahn backed the horse he felt had the best chance of winning, especially once he adds his right-wing and youth credentials to the mix.
This is a blow to Merz’s candidacy and he was quick to assert that the leadership election, set for April 25, will be nothing less than a decision on the soul of the party. Merz is not known for building bridges, which might in the end provide an opening for Markus Soeder, scion of the CDU’s sister party, the Bavarian CSU, to become the candidate for chancellor at the next election. Soeder plays his cards well and knows how to jump on the bandwagon of what is in vogue at any given time — be it immigration or green credentials. He may ooze Bavarian charm but, make no mistake, he is about power at heart.
A Laschet-Spahn union might just ensure that the chancellorship remains within the purview of the CDU, should the conservatives win next year’s federal election. Soeder assured his supporters at an Ash Wednesday rally in Passau that he was able to work with anybody who took the helm of the party come April 25.
This all sounds like the intricacies of German politics, so why does it matter to the rest of the world? Germany is the world’s fourth-largest economy and Europe’s biggest. It is flirting with recession, which means it is doubly important there is a functioning government, and who holds the keys to the chancellor’s residence takes on added significance.
The coalition between the Social Democrats and the CDU/CSU is on shaky ground to put it mildly. The decision of Finance Minister Olaf Scholz to bail out heavily indebted communes with federal funds has the fiscally conservative Merz and Spahn up in arms, especially as it might pierce the limit of federal indebtedness, which has its foundations in the constitution.
If Merz headed the CDU, it would more than likely sound the death knell for the coalition. Laschet, on the other hand, might just be able to drag the cooperation out.
Merkel is reaching the end of her tenure as the head of government. She is a weakened politician and her party needs to gain a sense of direction, which the outgoing AKK could not provide. Europe needs to know which way Germany is headed. Brexit, immigration and the indebtedness of Italy are all very important issues that will keep the EU busy for the remainder of the year. EU leaders need to get a sense of Germany’s direction in order to calibrate their positions. Many would hold their breath if the coalition government in Berlin fell and there were new elections. Last time around, negotiations took a good six months and a failed attempt by the CDU at working with the Greens and the Liberal Democrats before Europe’s largest economy had a government that was fit for purpose.
A rudderless Germany is not what Europe — or the world for that matter — needs in the face of Brexit, conflicts in the Middle East, and the coronavirus outbreak, which will shave points off global growth forecasts.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources