Perhaps it will be second time lucky. At the end of April, Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) will elect a new party leader to follow in the footsteps of Angela Merkel. An emergency party congress has been summoned to do that after the surprise resignation of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s chosen successor.
The plan is to leave the decision on who will be the CDU candidate for chancellor at the next election until after Germany’s EU presidency concludes in December. So Merkel will keep her job until 2021, and the new leader will have to learn to live with her.
The three leading candidates are Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz and Norbert Röttgen, all from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Two of the three – Merz and Röttgen – were sacked by Merkel from their former jobs. They have not forgotten. Only Armin Laschet, currently CDU leader in North Rhine-Westphalia and state premier, can be described as a Merkel loyalist, true to her centrist mantra.
He is the man to beat, having teamed up with Jens Spahn, the 39-year-old health minister, who is popular with party conservatives. Spahn will run as his deputy, so the team straddles the left-right divide in the party. But the contest still seems set to be a bitter battle between pro- and anti-Merkel factions that could leave the party badly split.
After nearly 15 years as chancellor, and 18 years as CDU leader, Merkel remains the most popular politician in Germany. In spite of criticism that she lacks vision, her caution and predictability appear to be just what most German voters like.
But her term in office has also seen the steady shrinking of the centre ground in German politics, with the rise of the environmentalist Green party and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) at the expense of the centre-right CDU and the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).
The battle for the soul of the CDU is between those who think Merkel has been too left-wing, and want a more conservative leader to win back AfD voters, and those who believe that the CDU must stay in the centre, and prepare for a future coalition with the Greens. Merz is seen as the former, Laschet and Röttgen the latter.
Unless Laschet emerges as the clear winner in April, the leadership contest is likely to leave Germany sorely distracted by domestic politics just as it takes over the EU presidency in the second half of the year. Instead of Merkel having a triumphant international swansong on the EU stage, she could be battling to protect her inheritance at home.
The one area on which all three leadership candidates seem to agree is foreign policy: they all want Germany to take more leadership and responsibility, and for the European Union to play a bigger role in security, defence and international affairs. They are all Atlanticists, but critical of Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ stance. All are on the record criticizing the chancellor – at least tacitly – for not having a more vigorous foreign policy.
There the similarity ends.
On the right, the 64-year-old Merz is both the most conservative and the most popular with the party grassroots. He fell out with the chancellor when she took over his job as CDU leader in parliament in 2002. He quit politics to become a corporate lawyer (and a millionaire), but never lost his political ambition. He is an economic liberal but socially conservative, a strong critic of Merkel’s migration policy and her lack of clear leadership. Critics say he is a man of the past, and not a team player.
On the EU, he believes Germany is ‘leaving too much to the French’. If France and Germany cannot agree on financial matters, he said at the London School of Economics in February, they should instead forge a stronger EU industrial policy focused on creating more ‘European champions’.
Laschet, the Merkel loyalist, is four years younger, and from the left of the party. Like Merz, he is a former member of the European parliament. In 2015, he defended Merkel’s open border policy to accept refugees stranded in the Balkans. On Russia, however, he is more critical, calling for a new effort to re-engage with Vladimir Putin. Most recently, at the Munich Security Conference, he called for stronger Franco-German relations, and more support for the eurozone reforms proposed by Emmanuel Macron.
As CDU leader in North Rhine-Westphalia, Laschet has the strongest power base. He earned his political spurs there by winning the last state election in 2017, in contrast to Röttgen, who lost to the SPD and Greens five years earlier.
Röttgen, chairman of the Bundestag foreign affairs committee, is the surprise candidate. Once a Merkel favourite, they fell out when she sacked him as environment minister after he lost the North Rhine-Westphalia election. By throwing his hat in the ring, he has forced it to become an open contest. He is independent-minded and outspoken, but not as bitterly hostile to the chancellor as Merz, so he could be a compromise candidate.
Laschet is clearly the man Merkel would find it easiest to live with. The decision will be taken by a party congress, not a grassroots ballot, which gives him a better chance. But Merz is the most eloquent orator and seen as the best campaigner. The challenge for party members is whether they believe it is better to swing right and squeeze the AfD, or stick to the centre to hold onto voters tempted by the Greens, who have replaced the SPD as the second-most popular party in Germany.
The race is wide open. So is the future of the CDU. The only prediction one can make with much certainty is that as long as Merkel remains chancellor, any successor will struggle to get out of her shadow.
Quentin Peel, Associate Fellow, Europe Programme.