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Vulcan Insight | CDU leadership battle set to shape Germany and Europe’s future direction

After almost two decades at the helm of Germany’s centre-right CDU, and more than 15 years as Chancellor, Angela Merkel is set to step back from politics. This weekend, the CDU’s party congress is set to decide who will lead the party and, thus, most likely take Germany into the 26 September General Election campaign.

After months-long delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and debates around whether the congress should be held in-person, the three candidates will now be elected in an entirely virtual conference. With current leader of the party and hand-picked Merkel successor, Minister of Defence Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, having chosen to resign from the party leadership in 2020, the three men vying for her role are set to define the future direction of not just Germany, but the EU as a whole.

At a high level, one of the key decisions for party members this weekend will be whether to continue on the centrist path taken by Merkel, or whether to return the party to its conservative “Christian-democrat roots.” Standing for a continuation of the path, which in recent years led to Germany legalising gay marriage, its open border policy during the refugee crisis and agree to the mutualisation of COVID-19-induced debt at EU level, are Armin Laschet, Minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia, and Foreign Affairs expert and MP Norbert Röttgen.

In contrast, Friedrich Merz, a former MP turned investment banker after he lost the party leadership race to Merkel in 2005, promises a stark break with the direction of the party and a return to traditional values. While this would initially mark a considerable focus on returning to economic conservatism, critics and, indeed, a large part of Germany’s population, see his possible election as bringing about a sizeable shift in Germany’s attitude towards its modern, open and diverse society. Even if elected party leader, there is no doubt that in the General Election campaign Mr. Merz would have to fight against the continuing accusations that he is, ideologically, too close to the far-right AFD.

Meanwhile, both Röttgen and Laschet can largely be seen as following in the ideological footsteps of Merkel, while differentiating themselves on matters of policy. While neither of the three would change the country’s position within the European Union, Mr. Röttgen in his role as Chair of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee would have the most experience in the foreign policy sphere, he lacks specific governing experience having only held a short 2-year stint as Minister for the Environment.

As the Minister-president of Germany’s largest State by population and former Member of the European Parliament (1999 – 2005), Armin Laschet is the only contender with an extensive portfolio of governing at the national and European level.

With the decision this weekend, according to a 7 January poll, CDU party members are still equally divided on the three candidates, with Merz (29%) leading the others by only 4 points (25% respectively). Interestingly, 12% want neither of them, bringing the wildcard option to the forefront.

This wildcard is Bavarian Minister-president Markus Söder whose Bavarian sister party of the CDU, the CSU, traditionally runs on a joint ticket for the Berlin Chancellery. So far, however, he is officially not running saying he would prefer to stay in Munich. In any case, it seems the CDU’s base rather has him leading Germany over any of the three official contenders.

Compliment of Vulcan Consulting – a member of the EACCNY.