Off the football field, Laschet assures the Germans they can continue to pretend to be weak

29 Jun

This afternoon’s football match between England and Germany will be seized on by both sides as a welcome distraction from the pandemic.

When German politicians want to avoid controversy, they often talk, in a most expert manner, about football.

But the greatest of those politicians are also capable of talking about politics in such a way as to avoid controversy, or indeed to avoid saying anything at all.

From her earliest years, Angela Merkel mastered the art of giving nothing away about her personal opinions: a skill which was indispensable to her as the child of a Lutheran clergyman in Brandenburg, in what was then East Germany.

Armin Laschet, chosen by the Christian Democrats as their candidate to succeed her as Chancellor, possesses also that skill, albeit developed over a long period under quite different circumstances.

He is from Aachen, on the far western border of Germany, close to Belgium and the Netherlands. While Merkel speaks excellent Russian, he speaks excellent French.

She was Lutheran. He is a devout Roman Catholic, which is normal for a leader of the Christian Democrats. In the words of a penetrating observer from the German Left,

“He’s a nice fellow, but he is not a strategic person. He is not a second Konrad Adenauer. He is not even a Boris Johnson.

“He is part of the Catholic opposition against the Prussians – a very funny opposition of weak, small people who fight with all their humour against the people at the top of society.

“He is a very charming and weak person who is always laughing at himself. People like him but nobody thinks he is a leader.”

The press, fed up with sitting through numerous occasions when Laschet gave them nothing to report, tends to write him off as a bore.

That does not do justice to him. He has a subtle gift for making not having a stand-up row, indeed not making a decision, sound reasonable. His intonation is delightful: he speaks as one might imagine an unresentful friar would speak, at ease with the whole world.

He stands accused of being too friendly towards Russia and China, but professes friendship towards everyone.

At a recent appearance at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, he was asked what he would change in Germany and the European Union’s policy towards Russia, and what his attitude is towards Nord Stream 2, the Baltic pipeline which will bring Russian gas direct to Germany, cutting out Ukraine.

He replied in a mild tone that he would not change anything, for the joint German-French declaration in Minsk offers a good way out of warlike tensions – it has not yet achieved final success, but a big war, a big conflict has been avoided.

As for Nord Stream 2, he recognised that behind this question lay concern about the geostrategic effect on Ukraine – would Ukraine’s energy security be endangered, would it become more dependent on Russia?

No, he insisted in his sweetest tone, it would not be, for the position of the German Government is that the position of Ukraine must not be affected by the pipeline.

Whether any reliance can be placed on that assurance is doubtful, but Laschet behaved as if it settled the matter.

Germany, it was pointed out to him, has despatched a frigate, the Bayern, to the Indo-Pacific region. Will Germany be sending more frigates there?

Laschet raised his hands in a pacific gesture. This, he explained, is just a part of Germany’s relationship with China, for which the European Foreign Ministers have developed “a good formula – China is partner, competitor and rival”.

If German voters wish their next leader to be all things to all men, which it appears that they do, Laschet is their man. He is almost ten points ahead of his nearest rival, the Green candidate Annalena Baerbock, a former trampolinist who is laughably inexperienced, as one can see when she gives straight answers to straight questions.

She is against Nord Stream 2, pro-American, has an economic policy which German business thinks is disastrous, and has recently been found to have doctored her curriculum vitae.

Like most German politicians, Laschet is in favour of “a stronger Europe”, which “must end in treaty changes”, and in “a European Constitution which is close to the people”.

But when it was put to him that this must mean he favours a common European budget and the pooling of European debt, he replied at once, with a smile, that he had been “misunderstood”, and that was not what he meant at all.

With imperturbable good humour, he indicates that he will take care of everything. It is a beguiling prospectus, for a Germany which is determined to go on pretending to be weak.

Garvan Walshe: Merkeldammerung. Germany’s polls put the Greens within striking distance of government.

1 Apr

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party

No leader gives up the job entirely on their own terms, but Angela Merkel, who will step down as Chancellor after what will be at least fifteen years in power, came closer than most.

She had the skill to keep the coalition of voters behind her Christian Democratic Union (which governs with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union) sufficiently broad to dominate German politics for a decade and a half. She’ll leave office as one of the great centre-right Chancellors of modern Germany, along with Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.

Known for waiting for what seems to everyone too long before making darting radical jumps, Merkel overcame the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, and even dealt effectively with the first wave of the Covid pandemic.

She saw off rivals internal (Wolfgang Schäuble) external (the AfD) and a man best described as standing just inside the tent, peeing in (Friedrich Merz).

Yet she was unable to find a successor. Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg imploded in a plagiarism scandal, Ursula von der Leyen’s mediocre efforts at the defence ministry would be repeated at the European Commission, Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer proved the dampest of squibs, while Armin Laschet was left holding the Coronavirus pandemic as the vaccination programme foundered.

Like every other centre-right party in proportional electoral systems, the CDU/CSU is struggling in a fragmenting political landscape. Party activists worry that she’s losing votes to her right, to the AfD (or, in a more liberal direction, the FDP), while larger numbers of voters defect to the Greens, who have governed impressively in Baden Württemburg (in coalition with the CDU), and who also increased their seats at the CDU’s expense in Rhineland-Palatinate.

The “Union” has a backup plan in the form of Markus Soder, the leader of the Bavarian CSU, who could replace Laschet as the centre-right’s Chancellor candidate in September’s elections, but he is now also suffering from the terrible vaccination campaign and PPE procurement corruption scandals. The Union is now polling in the mid twenties, ten points down on the beginning of the year. This doesn’t look like an election where “more of the same” is a winning formula.

The latest opinion polls have narrowed the gap between the CDU/CSU and the Greens to less than five points, and if the trend continues the Greens could even top the poll in September.

This opens up two new possibilites for post-election Germany. Until this month, it had seemed likely that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Greens, headed by a Union Chancellor, would have been the only way to avoid letting either the AfD or the post-communist Linke into national government.

But the green surge increases the options. A “traffic light” coalition, between the Greens, SPD (the social democrats, whose colour is red) and the liberal FDP (yellow), or a Jamaica coalition (after the Jamaican flag, because the CDU’s colour is black) involving Greens, Union and FDP would also add up to a majority. In these scenarios it is the Greens, not either of Germany’s two traditional parties, who could choose who to form a government with.

Germany’s Greens started as a conventional green party emphasising environmental politics, but have evolved into a centre-left formation without the industrial baggage of the SPD, which allows them to take clearer stances against polluting industry or in favour of immigration and accommodating refugees.

If their representation in the Berlin city government is radical (favouring rent control, for example) their adminsitration in prosperous Baden Würtemberg, home to much of Germany’s car industry, has been decidedly more pragmatic. Their independence from German industrial politics has also led them to take stronger stances against Putin’s Russia (remember that Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s former Chancellor, serves as chairman of Rosneft), and Orban’s Hungary.

A green-led government would, perhaps astonishingly, tilt German geopolitics closer to that of the United States. Transatlantic friction over Russia’s Nordstream pipeline to Germany, which both the Greens and Washington are against, would disappear. Leading the govenrment would, however, pose problems for the party in relation to nuclear weapons, with which much of its membership is deeply uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, the German Greens, which hse co-leaders, Robert Habek and Annalena Baerbock, would pursue international policy in step with the UK’s focus on addressing climate change, and upholding international human rights norms against Moscow and Beijing.  Nonetheless, they are strongly pro-European, and a Green-led German government would put renewed energy behind deeper European integration.

In September, the test for the Greens will be whether they can provide the right combination of reasssurance and change for an electorate that prized the stability and integrity Merkel provided them, but is now ready to give the system a bit of a jolt.