The World According to Armin Laschet
As Germany’s Christian Democrats close in on their decision who will lead them into parliamentary elections in September, only two candidates are left. One is Armin Laschet, the governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Therefore, the question of his foreign policy posture is becoming much more relevant, especially for Germany’s international partners.
“I may not be the man of perfect staging, but I am Armin Laschet, and you can count on that.” This was his key message in January in his candidacy speech to chair the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). For many, it was reminiscent of the unpretentious style that Germans have been accustomed to during Angela Merkel’s low-key chancellorship. And, indeed, Laschet presented himself as the continuity candidate. Yet shortly after he won the party’s leadership, past tweets and statements resurfaced that suggest the world is in for a significantly changed German foreign policy if he were to become chancellor.
It raised eyebrows outside as well as inside of Germany when a comment from 2018 reemerged according to which Laschet had doubted British intelligence reports that the Kremlin was responsible for the attack with a nerve agent on Sergei Skripal. Laschet had also criticized alleged “anti-Putin populism” in Germany following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Which conclusions to draw from such remarks? Is Laschet a card-carrying member of the Russophile club? What does his ostensibly pragmatic approach toward Russia policy say about his potential approach toward other authoritarian states?
A brief look at Laschet’s biography and the formative influences during his career as well as his remarks since becoming chairman suggest that change will be much less dramatic than initially portrayed. In fact, there could well be much more continuity than change in Germany’s international posture if he were to ascend to the chancellorship.
A Staunch European
Born and raised in the city of Aachen, in the “border triangle” between Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, Laschet is often described as a “European at heart.” Shaped by location, character and history of his hometown, he is a staunch advocate of open borders within the EU. As governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, he did his utmost to keep the borders to Belgium and the Netherlands open when the number of coronavirus infections spiked. However, that does not make him a European federalist. Far from it. In keeping with his party’s principles, he rejects the idea of eurobonds.
A proponent of close relations with France, Laschet is described by many as a Francophile. As Germany’s plenipotentiary for cultural relations with the country, he has engaged with President Emmanuel Macron in various high-level meetings. At last year’s Munich Security Conference, Laschet distanced himself from Merkel by criticizing Germany’s lack of response to Macron’s 2017 Sorbonne speech, which outlined the French leader’s vision for Europe’s future, and by calling for a stronger German commitment to the EU. Laschet has welcomed the 2019 Treaty on Franco-German Cooperation and Integration—which was signed in his hometown of Aachen—as the overdue joint implementation of some of Macron’s proposals.
If elected chancellor, Laschet might well be more forceful and forward-leaning on European integration. His role model on European policy is not Merkel, but Helmut Kohl who managed to combine an unflinching Atlanticism with a staunch Europeanism.
A Devout Catholic
Laschet is a much more pronounced and outgoing Christian than Chancellor Merkel ever was. Some of his foreign policy views are undoubtedly influenced by his Catholic faith. There is no leading political figure within the CDU that attaches as much importance to religion as he does. As such, Laschet has a special relationship to Israel that goes beyond the German raison d’état of guaranteeing Israel’s right to existence given the historic guilt of the Holocaust.
When he was working as a journalist, Laschet frequently published op-eds expressing concerns over the fate of Christians in the Middle East. His views about persecution, political asylum, religious freedom, and human rights are informed by the fate of Christians in other countries. When, in 2014, he remarked that one should “leave Assad be Assad,” he emphasized that religious freedom was threatened more by the Islamic State than by the Syrian regime. Further, he criticized then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for supporting the religious radicals of the Islamic State and Al-Nusra, which were supported by religious autocracies, namely Qatar and Saudi Arabia. He saw Kerry’s position as contradictory.
As his biographers Tobias Blasius and Moritz Küpper have argued, Laschet is a man of moral convictions and impulses, which might well influence his foreign policy in future. That stands in stark contrast to the portrait of a realist that he has been painting of himself. Rather, Laschet’s moralism places him in proximity to the Greens, who also sport a foreign policy grounded in moralism though the sources of their convictions are rarely to be found in Catholicism.
Since Laschet became the CDU leader, his team has gone to great lengths to qualify or even gloss over such earlier comments by emphasizing his more recent and more traditional viewpoints.
A Business-friendly Establishment Figure
As governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Laschet governs Germany’s most populous state. It is home to a third of DAX-listed companies and has traditionally been shaped by heavy industry, such as coal and iron mining. The interests of these energy-intensive industries matter a great deal to Laschet. Germany’s Energiewende—the energy transition first away from nuclear power, then away from coal—has caused major disruption in his state. It is therefore unsurprising that Laschet defends the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, which has been heavily criticized by the United States and many EU countries as well as domestically. He views the project as necessary to secure the country’s energy supply.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Laschet warned against overly harsh reactions, pointing to the close economic ties between Germany and Russia. Along these lines, he has also welcomed China’s Belt and Road Initiative as an important opportunity for Germany’s foreign trade. In this he seems to follow in the tradition of Merkel, who has long faced harsh criticism by foreign policy elites on both sides of the Atlantic for prioritizing Germany’s economic interests over a more assertive stance towards the authoritarian great powers of Russia and China.
Laschet’s pro-business attitude is quite mainstream in the CDU and thus close to Merkel’s views too. But, as his foreign policy advisors point out, he has so far looked at issues such as Nord Stream 2 from the perspective of a state governor. Regional economic interests were key to every argument. As chancellor, they specify, Laschet would have to take a fresh look and take the geopolitical dimension into account as well. He would have to take a more circumspect approach than that of a regional politician.
A Politician Open to Advice
Such hints are part of an effort by a sizeable cadre of foreign policy advisors to prepare and, where necessary, reposition Laschet as he steps onto the larger stage. He himself frequently emphasizes that he does not seek to polarize debates. Even his critics concede that he is a talented bridgebuilder and a politician who is open to advice.
Any abrupt change of course based on personal preference, in foreign policy or any other issue area, would not be like the Laschet they have gotten to know. They see a politician who combines and mediates between German foreign policy traditions: an ardent Atlanticism, a Europeanism informed by his heritage, and a business-friendly, sometimes mercantilist touch.
Laschet is likely to want to assume a mediating role. According to his biographers, he is particularly comfortable in situations where he can act as a broker; this would likely be reflected in his foreign policy. If the prospect of Germany’s chancellor taking what would appear to be a modest and unassuming foreign policy role sounds familiar, it is not surprising—Merkel and Kohl were also frequently underestimated as such.
The question is whether Laschet’s traditionalism will be a sufficient base on which to guide Germany through the uncharted waters of renewed great-power competition, a global democratic recession, and surging authoritarian revisionism. If he becomes chancellor, he will need plenty of his trademark calm.