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COMMENTARY

More of the same, but different: Why Laschet should reform the CDU’s EU policy






Germany / COMMENTARY
Johannes Greubel , Sophie Pornschlegel

Date: 18/01/2021
Armin Laschet’s victory in the CDU leadership race indicates that Germany’s biggest party has chosen continuity in the post-Merkel era. But if the CDU is to maintain its European leadership role, a few changes will be necessary.

New leadership for a crucial election year

Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) elected Armin Laschet, Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, as its new party leader. The Merkel ally defeated Friedrich Merz with 522 against 466 votes, after the third candidate, Norbert Röttgen, was eliminated in the first round.

While Laschet’s victory means that the party chose continuity over change, he will take the helm at a challenging time for both the party and Germany. First, there are no less than six regional elections, starting with Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate in March. These elections will be important yardsticks on the road towards the federal election in September. The CDU, together with its Bavarian sister party, Christian Social Union (CSU), continues to be Germany’s biggest electoral force, with national polls currently seeing them win around 35-37% of votes.

However, while Laschet has been elected party leader, this does not imply that he will automatically be the candidate for the chancellery. As Laschet is not the most popular candidate among the German electorate, it could well be that another political figure will lead the Conservatives into the federal election, such as Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) or Bavarian Minister-President Markus Söder (CSU).

Secondly, following in Angela Merkel’s footsteps will be no easy task. After 16 years as chancellor and 18 as party leader (2000-2018), she led Germany and her party through several elections and numerous political crises. Domestically, Merkel still has approval ratings of over 80%. On the international stage, she has been nothing less than a trailblazer, playing a crucial role in managing more than a decade of European and global crises. Chancellor Merkel will leave behind a political vacuum that cannot be easily filled – neither by the new CDU leader nor the next chancellor, whoever that might be.

Merkel’s exit might reveal the cracks in the CDU’s European policy

How will the CDU position itself post-Merkel? Having co-forged the European project for large parts of its post-war history, the CDU sees itself as the pro-European force of Germany. All three leadership candidates advocated this view during their campaigns.

Nevertheless, despite its historically pro-European tradition, the CDU has struggled to adapt and reform its EU policy positions in the past decades. More recently, the CDU has often been a veto player in European affairs. It missed opportunities to move the EU forward by opposing an ambitious European reform agenda, including a further deepening of the eurozone. While Merkel has certainly been an extraordinary crisis manager and negotiator, she did not steer Germany towards a more ambitious European agenda. Consequently, she has often been criticised as following “a policy of ‘muddling through’, without a comprehensive German vision for European integration.” At the same time, she did cross some of her party’s red lines, including the de facto mutualisation of debt in the context of the Next Generation EU recovery package.

The election of Laschet signals a high level of continuity. But it remains to be seen how much he will prioritise EU affairs and whether he will have the political will and authority to push for a stronger and more strategic European agenda. With Merkel leaving the political stage, it will be in many ways up to him to define his party’s position on the EU, especially if he becomes her successor in the chancellery.

Laschet yet to position himself

What do we know of the new party leader’s positions so far? Armin Laschet is a staunch supporter of European integration, following the CDU’s traditional pro-European narrative of the EU as a guardian of peace, prosperity and security. While he was a Member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2005, he does not have recent foreign policy nor European experience and is yet to position himself on several current issues. He is known as an ‘integrator’ within his party and a strong politician at the regional level, especially in his role as Minister-President of the most populous German Land, North Rhine-Westphalia.

In his candidate speech at the party conference, his core message was the firm “Weiter so!” (Keep it going!). “What we need is continuity of Germany’s success,” he outlined. The close Merkel ally shares her main views on EU policy. He supports her stance concerning the COVID-19 recovery package and her migration policy, for example, calling for a European response to the conditions of the Moria refugee camp.

However, he has also deviated from some mainstream CDU positions. During the eurozone crisis, Laschet was one of the few CDU voices advocating for an open discussion on the European crisis response, including the option of common EU debt. From an institutional perspective, he has endorsed the direct election of the European Commission President. Finally, he is seen as a ‘Francophile’, supporting, for instance, President Emmanuel Macron’s stances of a stronger EU foreign policy and a rapprochement with Moscow.

Laschet has not provided specific details on how he would lead Germany towards “a strong Europe”, as he proclaimed in his candidate speech. He would have to rally those CDU factions that are more reluctant on fiscal integration and/or European foreign policy cooperation behind his EU policy. His action plan for the federal election, “Impulse 2021”, restates the party’s most important positions on Europe, including completing the Single Market, increasing the use of qualified majority voting, rebooting Franco-German cooperation and reinforcing Frontex.

Three suggestions for the CDU’s EU policy

The new CDU leader outlined on Saturday that “continuity does not necessarily mean to do everything as before”. If his party is to continue to play a prominent leadership role at the EU level, three strategic adaptations will be necessary.

1. Don’t miss out on the Green Deal

As Minister-President of the industrial hub North Rhine-Westphalia, Laschet is known for his industry-friendly views. It is no coincidence that he started and ended his candidacy speech during the party conference with references to his father’s work as a coal miner. Throughout his campaign, he argued for the need to weigh measures to reduce carbon emissions against their potential consequences for the “industrial substance in our country”. As CDU leader, however, he should endorse the European Green Deal more strongly, rather than privilege the interests of regional industries. Ambitious environmental and climate change policy, both at the domestic and European levels, will be indispensable for sustainable growth that does not come at the expense of our planet.

2. Be firmer on the rule of law

Throughout Laschet’s campaign for party leadership, a clear stance on the rule of law in the EU was missing. When pressed in a debate with the two other leadership candidates, he supported the rule of law conditionality compromise but rejected immediate sanctions against member states. Instead, he explained that the only way forward is a “cumbersome dialogue process on all levels” to bring those states back to the “right path”.

Under Laschet, the CDU should position itself more clearly in favour of the rule of law and against those who undermine it. This especially concerns the CDU’s position towards Victor Orban’s Fidesz party, a partner within the European People’s Party (EPP). Donald Tusk, leader of the EPP, directly appealed in his guest speech at the CDU party conference on Saturday that the new leadership should “not disappoint us in this effort”. The CDU would be well advised to listen to Tusk’s words and formulate a clear and firm position towards Fidesz’ future in the EPP, and the rule of law in the EU. Not doing so is likely to undermine the CDU’s position in the EU.

3. Embrace a more strategic vision of European policy

Chancellor Merkel has often been criticised for preferring a ‘muddling through’ approach towards EU policy rather than following a long-term strategic vision. Laschet was one of the few critics of this approach from within the party, arguing at last year’s Munich Security Conference that the German government is “taking too long to respond” to President Macron’s proposals for the EU.

Laschet now has the opportunity to formulate a new, more visionary EU policy for the Christian Democrats. As party leader and potentially the future chancellor, he could step up Franco-German cooperation and have a more proactive approach concerning, for example, the EU’s own resources. Given Röttgen’s expertise in foreign and European affairs, Laschet would be well advised to keep him as an ally when forming a more long-term and strategic vision for his party’s European policy.

Johannes Greubel is a Policy Analyst of the European Politics and Institutions programme.

Sophie Pornschlegel is Project Leader of Connecting Europe and Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.


Photo credits:
ODD ANDERSEN / AFP
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