All eyes on Berlin

, by Guillermo Íñiguez

All eyes on Berlin
Source: haikus / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Despite the widespread interest in the most remote of American electoral districts, it is remarkable how little attention has been devoted to the most momentous political process the European Union faces in 2021: the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)’s leadership election, which will take place in January.

After the short-lived tenure of Merkel’s protégé and successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), 1001 party delegates will meet to choose their party’s new leader – and, given the CDU’s unassailable lead in the polls, Germany’s likely future Chancellor.

Following months of speculation, three candidates have thrown their hat in the ring – Norbert Röttgen, Friedrich Merz and Armin Laschet. All three are political veterans, and all three have dramatically different views of the CDU’s role in German politics – and of Germany’s role within the EU itself. The election will pitch the party’s factions against one another, in what promises to be a ruthless fight for the chance to shape German politics for the next five years.

A fractured (Christian) Union

After 15 years of Merkelism, an inimitable brand of politics with as many supporters as detractors, the Chancellor’s announcement that she would not run for office in 2021 was seen as a golden opportunity by the party’s right wing – the euphemistically called Wertkonservativen (‘value conservatives’). Characterized by their social and fiscal conservatism, the Wertkonservativen were particularly critical of the party’s recent ‘socialdemocratization’ – not least, of the Chancellor’s humanitarian response to the migratory crisis in 2015.

AKK’s 2018 extremely narrow over Merkel’s arch-rival Friedrich Merz had marked the triumph of the party’s Christian democratic wing – supportive of a social market economy, friendlier towards the EU and likelier to strike a post-election deal with the Green Party, which has overtaken the social democrats (SPD) throughout the past few years. Yet just when it seemed like the Wertkonservativen had missed their chance, AKK’s resignation has given them a second attempt.

Their faction will be represented by Friedrich Merz, dubbed ‘the German Donald Trump by Politico’ and a long-time arch-rival of Merkel’s. A prominent ordoliberal and an outspoken critic of the Chancellor’s immigration policies, Merz had appeared to abandon politics in the early 2000s, when he was denied, by Merkel herself, the leadership of the CDU’s parliamentary group, and became chairman of BlackRock Germany.

Early last year, Foreign Policy denounced his demagoguery, characterized by his desire to ‘end [Merkel’s] way of doing politics’ and push ‘the CDU towards the AfD in an attempt to recapture’ the party’s former voters. Yet the past few months seem to have confirmed this perception: he strongly criticized the CDU’s decision to delay the leadership election, calling it a plot by the party establishment, and has repeatedly denounced the risk of the upcoming election being hacked by ‘all the hacker groups of the world’.

The contrast with Norbert Röttgen, who chairs the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, is striking. In a Twitter thread earlier this week, Röttgen called for the CDU to focus on the ‘modern [political] centre’, drawing on its two pillars (‘Christian social doctrine and a social market economy’) and winning younger voters over through green politics and a large-scale investment in digitalization. Earlier this year, following a set of local elections, he emphasized the importance, both ethically and electorally, of embracing green politics, and has called for an electoral platform which can compete for the youth, progressive electorate.

North Rhine-Westphalia prime minister Armin Laschet is largely viewed as Merkel’s continuity candidate. Broadly on the party’s left (in a rare move for a CDU politician, he openly criticised the country’s austerity policy in Greece), Laschet leads a CDU-FDP administration, played a leading role in the energy transition negotiations, and was a strong supporter of a CDU-Green-FDP federal coalition which failed to materialise in 2017. He has also been an outspoken critic of the AfD, has called for the CDU to become ‘Europe’s most modern party’ and to work towards a ‘strong Europe’, and wants the party to appeal to more women, young people and immigrants. Laschet’s chances, however, seem slim.

Two outsiders

Although the polls have so far favoured Merz, the latest Spiegel survey has shown the campaign’s changing dynamic: for the first time, Röttgen has overtaken Merz (32% to 29%, respectively), with Laschet trailing behind at 12%. The same poll is indicative about the candidates’ perception among the wider German electorate: Merz is preferred by the traditionally right-wing parties (CDU, FDP and AfD), whereas the left (SPD, Greens and Left) unequivocally back Röttgen.

Most interestingly, however, a majority of those surveyed consider that the next CDU leader should not necessarily become the next electoral candidate. When asked who would perform best in a general election, 44% of the electorate, including 61% of CDU/CSU voters, back a candidate who is not in the running - Christian Social Union (CSU) leader Markus Söder.

As the Financial Times notes, this is the striking paradox underlying the CDU’s leadership election: all three candidates trail behind both Söder and the the increasingly popular minister Health Minister, Jens Spahn.

Before the pandemic, Spahn, who came third in the past leadership election, announced he would run as Laschet’s deputy. And although he has repeatedly ruled out throwing his hat in the ring, adding that he is committed to running alongside Laschet, many within the party hope for a last-minute announcement – possibly swapping places with Laschet himself – to challenge Merz and Röttgen.

Another candidate which has been touted is Markus Söder, leader of the CSU, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party. Although the Union’s Chancellorship candidate is traditionally drawn from the CDU, a CSU candidate, Saskia Richter writes in Die Kanzlerkandidaten der CSU, is not unheard of. Söder’s candidacy, in fact, has been gaining grounds over the past few weeks. Like Spahn, he has consistently proved to be more popular than Merz, Röttgen or Laschet – but unlike Spahn, he has not explicitly ruled himself out. His recent call for the party to delay its election, and his warning that the process should not be rushed, has triggered speculation about a possible candidacy.


Writing for Project Syndicate, Josef Joffe has struggled to find ‘what each of the candidates stands for’. Such a question, he adds, ‘is not easy to answer in such a boringly – and perhaps fortunately – centrist political system. The German far left and far right together can claim only around 20% in the polls. Most voters opt for the major parties (above all, the CDU), which operate like supermarkets, offering a little of something for everyone, with no surprises or disruptions.’ The country’s political mantra, he concludes, is ‘continuity über alles’.

Joffe, of course, has a point – one of Merkel’s strengths was precisely her ability to turn the CDU into a ‘supermarket party’, make it Germany’s hegemonic party, and absorb any competing party (most notably, the SPD and the Greens) into her orbit. Yet an exception must be drawn when it comes to European policy, an area where the two leading candidates, Merz and Röttgen, hold radically different Weltanschauungen.

Despite the Next Generation EU program, a Merz Chancellorship which combined strong fiscal conservatism with a pledge to return money to the pockets of the ‘ordinary German’ (and thus away from those of fellow Europeans) would be a significant blow to European cohesion. A Röttgen victory, on the other hand, could pave the way for more ambitious cooperation in the fields of environmental policy, digitalization and the rolling out of social Europe. Importantly, he has strongly defended a strong stance towards the rule of law backsliding in Central and Eastern Europe - a promise the CDU, including Ursula von der Leyen and Angela Merkel, has all too often failed to honour. .

It will also have profound consequences for the EU’s foreign policy. Although the topic has been largely absent from Merz’s campaign, Laschet and Röttgen have strongly emphasized the field’s relevance. Both have strongly advocated the use of QMV in foreign policy votes, whereas Röttgen, the party’s foremost expert in the field, has littered his campaign with proposals for a more far-reaching and ambitious EU foreign policy.

Perhaps most interestingly, he called for a ’decisive’ response to the Navalny poisoning, and has argued for a ‘transatlantic China policy’: one which, alongside the incoming Biden administration, establishes a ‘common position’ - albeit of ‘realism, not enmity’ - towards China.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that the Franco-German alliance remains the driving force behind European integration. A lot, therefore, is at stake in the CDU’s primary in early 2021. With Merz, the party risks moving to the right, making Germany’s governance more uncertain and throwing a spanner in the works of European integration. Röttgen, on the other hand, is an unequivocal Europhile, strongly committed to a more ambitious and assertive Union. The call for QMV in the Foreign Affairs Council, one of the EU’s Achilles heels, is particularly welcomed.

All remains to be played for. Yet for the next few months, Europe’s eyes should be on Berlin.

This article represents the author’s views, not those of The New Federalist.

Your comments

Warning, your message will only be displayed after it has been checked and approved.

Who are you?

To show your avatar with your message, register it first on (free et painless) and don’t forget to indicate your Email addresse here.

Enter your comment here

This form accepts SPIP shortcuts {{bold}} {italic} -*list [text->url] <quote> <code> and HTML code <q> <del> <ins>. To create paragraphs, just leave empty lines.

Follow the comments: RSS 2.0 | Atom