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12 February 2020

The future of German politics rests on a defining question: after Angela Merkel, what next?

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has resigned as CDU leader, destroying the chancellor’s carefully laid succession plan.

By Jeremy Cliffe

On 10 February two events occurred in Berlin that said a lot about today’s Germany and today’s Europe. In the office of the Bavarian state representation in the capital, a neoclassical villa close to the Brandenburg Gate, a major report was launched. Published by the Munich Security Conference, ahead of its annual gathering of securocrats and foreign-policy wonks, it proposed that the current era in world affairs is defined by “Westlessness”. The West, argued the report, is declining both as an alliance and as an idea. The transatlantic relationship is fraying, Europe is torn between different visions of its global role, and non-Western powers such as China and India are on the rise.

It was serious stuff, with which members of Germany’s political class need to engage. Yet their attentions were instead directed at the nearby Konrad-Adenauer-Haus, the glass-and-steel headquarters of Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrat Union (CDU), where Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was formally announcing her resignation as party leader. She had secured the job in December 2018 after Merkel, looking ahead to her retirement in 2021, had given it up. The chancellor’s preferred candidate and a fellow CDU moderate, “AKK” had become the frontrunner to take over from Merkel. Yet there she stood, 14 months and many gaffes and missteps later, giving up her position and destroying Merkel’s carefully laid succession plan.

Her announcement has obsessed German politics, turned it inwards and sidelined the sorts of issues raised in the “Westlessness” report. This is partly down to circumstances which, though seemingly parochial, crystallised various national neuroses.

It all began with the October 2019 state election in Thuringia, a hilly central German state (home to Goethe’s Weimar) that was once part of East Germany. More than half of the votes there went to Germany’s two hard-line parties, the far-right AfD and the socialist Left party (a descendant of the old East German communist party). The pre-existing state government – a coalition of the Left with the moderate Social Democrat and Green parties – ended up four seats short of a majority. The CDU and the small, pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) both refused to work with the Left party because of its past, so there was deadlock. 

But on 5 February the Thuringian branch of the FDP put forward its own candidate, Thomas Kemmerich, to be state premier. Unsurprisingly, as the two parties often work together, the CDU backed him. Much more surprisingly the AfD, which had a candidate of its own in the running, also backed him. This CDU-FDP-AfD alliance took Kemmerich to a narrow victory of 45 votes to 44 with one abstention. Kemmerich became Germany’s first state premier since 1945 to be elected with the support of a party associated with nationalism and racism. The result was consistent with a Europe-wide trend: the big surge of nationalist populist parties has flattened off, but mainstream parties are becoming ever-more willing to emulate and even work with them. 

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It also created an immediate crisis for the CDU leadership in Berlin, breaking the party’s two golden rules: no cooperation with the Left or the AfD. Merkel, on a trip to Africa, took a day to respond, but finally declared that Kemmerich should not govern with AfD support and that the Thuringian state election should be rerun. Kramp-Karrenbauer echoed her. Kemmerich stood down soon after.

But the damage – the sense that CDU’s central command was losing control – had been done. Five days later, AKK resigned. In her press conference she seemed to criticise Merkel for making the job of CDU leader available before there was a vacancy to be the party’s next chancellor candidate; only by holding both positions could someone wield the necessary authority, she implied. 

Kramp-Karrenbauer also announced that she would stay in post until a chancellor candidate had been selected, a process that may well take until December. The serious contenders include Friedrich Merz (a conservative free-marketeer and long-time Merkel rival), Armin Laschet (a Merkelish moderate and state premier) and Jens Spahn (the young health minister and darling of the urbane right). Daniel Günther (a young liberal state premier) and Markus Söder (Bavaria’s conservative but heterodox premier) remain as long shots. 

Whoever takes over from Merkel will have to hold together a party torn between its urban and western liberals on the one hand, and its eastern and rural conservatives on the other; a coalition that is losing voters to Germany’s surging Greens on the left and to the AfD on the right.

Most of all, she or (almost certainly) he will have to answer the dominant question hanging over German politics: after Merkel, what next? The chancellor remains a cryptic and popular figure. She has soothed the country through a turbulent period and consolidated the reforms of her predecessors. Yet she presides over a comfortable but all-too-sleepy Germany; a Germany not paying enough attention to wider technological, environmental and geopolitical shifts; a Germany that should have been reading the “Westlessness” report but instead was obsessing about the latest twist in its own political soap opera. Under a Merz, the CDU might turn to the right, perhaps emulate the populism of Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, edge towards an accommodation with the AfD and strike a more nationalist pose in Europe. Under a Laschet or a Günther it would be well prepared to form a coalition with the Greens that might confront the urgent domestic and European questions left unanswered by Merkel. It is imperative that the Laschet/Günther camp wins. “Westlessness” is bad enough without “Germanylessness”.

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This article appears in the 12 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose