Angela Merkel may be patronisingly pigeon-holed as Mutti, the consensus-seeking matriarch of Europe, but she is also capable of wielding the assassin’s blade. A crucial step in her rise to power in Germany was the way she used a strategically placed comment article to turn over her mentor Helmut Kohl. After being pushed aside, the great trencherman got some petty revenge by telling a would-be biographer that Merkel had barely known how to hold her cutlery at the dinner table when he first took on the callow East German.
Well, Merkel certainly improved her knife skills. Two of the men now positioning themselves for the imminent arrival of the post-Merkel era were sacked by her in the past because she feared their ambition. One of those former victims, Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Bundestag foreign affairs committee, is particularly interesting. If he emerges ahead in the scrappy power contest of the coming months, it will tell us a great deal about the future of the centre-right in Europe and ultimately Germany’s new geopolitical role.
With Röttgen as chancellor, or as a party leader with a muscular cabinet position, Germany would fill some of the vacuum left by the departure of Britain from the EU. It would be tougher on Russia and China, more active within Nato and would slam the brakes on the claims of Emmanuel Macron to be the saviour of Europe.
Succession struggles are high drama. Merkel, though, wanted an orderly, understated handing over of the baton to her favourite, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was duly anointed as the chairwoman of the Christian Democrat Party. But AKK, as she was dubbed, unravelled within 14 months and announced that she would resign as leader and no longer seek the chancellorship.
Having lost control over the succession, Merkel has barely a year left in office before the autumn 2021 election and her authority is ebbing away by the day. By December the party has to choose its leader out of three male Rhinelanders. Armin Laschet is the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia and has failed to impress in handling the coronavirus. He was too quick to blame Romanians and Bulgarians for an outbreak in an abattoir. The abiding impression: he’s not half as competent as he cracks himself up to be.
Also in the running is Friedrich Merz, a passionate tax-cutter when he started out in the Kohl era. He was stitched up by Merkel, went into business and has now returned, blaming her for unrolling “a carpet of fog over the country”. Delegates may see him as the zombie candidate. Asked whether he would be at ease with a gay German chancellor, he said he was fine with that providing he obeyed the law and kept away from children. At a stroke Merz appeared to undo years of Merkelian social liberalism: the Christian Democrats suddenly looked like the nasty party.
There is scope then for Röttgen to rise, even if the bookies give him slim odds. He hasn’t got a great sense of humour but this was never a serious obstacle in German politics. He does, however, have a heart. After fire engulfed the refugee camp on Lesbos a fortnight ago he called on the government to take in 5,000 for humanitarian reasons. There wasn’t a squeak from his rivals, Merz and Laschet, but he did find an ally in Markus Söder, the Bavarian prime minister. This is feeding speculation that Söder, who leads the CDU’s sister party, could become the centre-right’s choice for chancellor, with Röttgen at his side, shaping a more dynamic German conservatism.
That feels as if it could work. Röttgen says the party should stop being afraid of the big bad wolves of the far right. Merkel’s open door policy towards migrants in 2015-16 may have been rash and destabilising but the situation has settled. Some 10,000 refugees from that time are entering German universities this autumn. The party can thus recover its confessional roots and offer shelter to limited numbers of refugees rather than obsess about deportations.
This kind of gesture has an additional merit: it endears Röttgen to the Greens and will make it easier for him to forge a coalition with them should he lead the CDU to victory next year. Polls show the Christian Democrats on 36 per cent, the Social Democrats way behind on 14 per cent, the Greens surging with 22 per cent, the far-right Alternative for Germany on eight per cent.
Röttgen senses the time is coming for a conservative-green pivot. Climate change targets will start to press; Covid-19 worries will start to fade. There is a deal to be done. Röttgen used to be environment minister until dumped by Merkel and was ahead of her in arguing for an end to nuclear power. The CDU is still doing poorly with young voters in cities; a new coalition could change that.
Not that Röttgen is a crypto-leftist. He wants a tougher line on Russia than Merkel is offering. He wants to scrap the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline agreement with Russia because of the absurdity of deepening German dependence on energy from Moscow at a time when it’s poisoning dissidents. Merkel is not sure. He wants to get rid of any Huawei involvement in the 5G modernisation of Germany. Merkel is not sure.
These are the battle lines. Röttgen will first have to convince his party that modernisation does not pose an existential threat. But he might carry it off — he is a man with a plan and that’s something that Germans can buy into.
Roger Boyes is a British journalist and autor.