Transatlantic Take

Germany’s Potential Next Chancellor Will Need to Send Clear Foreign Policy Signals

5 min read
Photo Credit: Vasilis Asvestas / Shutterstock
Earlier this month the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) chose as its new chairman Armin Laschet, a party veteran and minister president of Germany’s largest state, NorthRhine-Westphalia.

Earlier this month the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) chose as its new chairman Armin Laschet, a party veteran and minister president of Germany’s largest state, NorthRhine-Westphalia. With the help of the popular Chancellor Angela Merkel, he secured the votes of a majority of party representatives, who preferred a figure representing more continuity than change. Laschet bested his rivals by presenting himself as a trustworthy steward of a party and a country facing many uncertainties.

Laschet will also hope to inherit Merkel’s job in September’s federal elections, but whether he will be the CDU’s chancellor candidate remains unclear. There are many hurdles to overcome. And, while foreign policy issues may not be the decisive criteria for the choice of the next candidate for chancellor, questions about Germany’s role on the global stage will be relevant, and not only in Germany. The strategic choices confronting Berlin will be watched carefully elsewhere around the world. 

With the coronavirus crisis continuing to require lockdowns and putting more strain on the economy, the healthcare system, and the public mood, all political parties will be challenged to deliver persuasive answers and solutions in this election year. An initial challenge for Laschet will be how the CDU fares in state elections coming up before the federal one. In particular, in March the CDU will attempt to defeat incumbent governments led by the Greens in Baden Württemberg and the Social Democrats in Rhineland Pfalz. The current outlook in both states is not promising. Should the CDU fare badly in those states, Laschet would have the stigma of two defeats before the party decides on the candidate it wants to lead it into the federal elections. Such a scenario could lead the party leadership to question whether Laschet can secure a win and to seek another candidate. 

The main alternative currently discussed is the minister president of Bavaria, Markus Söder, who heads the CDU’s sister party, the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union. He is currently more popular nationwide than Laschet, but it is unclear whether he intends to offer himself as a candidate for chancellor. His current standing in polls is attributed to having the image of a confident leader who manages the pandemic crisis well, having appeared together with Merkel as a representative of the sixteen states. That has made for his apparent attraction as a viable successor to the chancellor. Söder also profits from less enthusiasm within the CDU for Laschet despite his election as chairman. As popular as Merkel remains, the idea of a different style in politics may be tempting.

The chances of Laschet or Söder to secure the chancellor candidacy will also depend on how they can come across to the public as offering not just an extension of Merkel’s reign. Either will need to signal building on her legacy while trying to carve a unique brand. As Laschet has said, the majority of supporters of the CDU identify more with Merkel than with the party itself. But that could be another reason for some to think that Söder would be more attractive by emphasizing a more defined transition from the long-serving chancellor. 

The Foreign Policy Dimension

Laschet is an experienced player at the EU level, having served in the European Parliament, where he was a member of foreign affairs committee. Fluent in French, his cross-border personal and professional relations in the Benelux region are deep and extensive. Should he become chancellor, one can expect a strong emphasis on EU coherence with an emphasis on German-French partnership. 

Laschet has a view of Europe that includes Russia, and this has led him to argue for sustaining relations with Moscow despite multiple conflicts. His argument that his support for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline does not exclude vigorous criticism of President Vladimir Putin’s policies shows a two-track approach to dealing with Russia. This extends to China also. Criticizing Beijing on human rights issues while supporting the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment is not a contradiction, as Laschet sees it. Yet there are serious disagreements over these positions in the German domestic debate as well as in the EU, and Laschet will have to defend these stances. 

This will have an impact on Laschet’s approach to transatlantic relations, where he stresses the need for more European capacity in tandem with the United States, especially now that there is a new administration in Washington. There will be clashes over how to deal with economic interests or the ongoing debate on burden sharing. They will require a more transparent picture of Germany’s strategic thinking for its European partners and for the new leadership in Washington. 

The German public may be chastened by the experience of the last four years when it comes to dealing with the United States, unsure of whether Donald Trump was a one-time phenomenon. While the signals from the Biden administration include willingness toward strengthening common positions, there remain risks in dealing with knots of transatlantic policy conflicts. Arguments over enhanced European sovereignty or strategic autonomy can help or harm transatlantic relations depending on purpose and priority. 

But the opportunity to combine forces to renew and transform transatlantic ties should not be underestimated. Whoever is to be Germany’s next chancellor will need to engage quickly with the United States to demonstrate readiness to cooperate. When Merkel was first elected in 2005, there were many who questioned her ability to handle the job. She successfully answered them in her own way and largely gained trust and confidence of two of the three U.S. presidents she was to encounter. Now comes a fourth one in Joe Biden, who has a long track record with her. He has assembled a team that aims to recalibrate relations with Germany now and under Merkel’s successor. How successful that effort is will depend on forging common approaches to shared challenges and choices. It will also depend on a more robust and clear set of signals from the potential next chancellor about dealing with a more unpredictable and dangerous world.