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18 February 2020updated 08 Apr 2020 9:24pm

Norbert Röttgen’s bid to lead the CDU offers a taste of what Germany has been missing

The presence of the foreign policy expert in the contest will bring a new worldliness to the country’s political debates. 

By Jeremy Cliffe

Norbert Röttgen is not a household name in Germany, let alone beyond it, but today he became one of the most significant figures in the country’s – and perhaps even Europe’s – politics. The independent-minded head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee surprised many in Berlin by announcing his candidacy for the leadership of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The contest has not yet officially started: Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU’s beleaguered leader and erstwhile frontrunner to succeed Angela Merkel, has announced her resignation but not its timing. And Röttgen, whose renown is greater among the foreign-policy Twitterati than it is in his own party, is unlikely to win it. But his participation promises to improve the quality of the debate – and bring a new worldliness to Germany’s political stage in the coming months.

That is welcome and necessary. The politics of Europe’s largest economy – and what should be the continent’s geopolitical keystone – can be exasperatingly parochial. Where turbulent events rage in the outside world, the German political establishment spends astonishing amounts of time and attention on petty squabbles, low-rent imitations of American culture wars and relitigations of old arguments and rivalries. Much of this is personified in the candidacy of former CDU parliamentary head Friedrich Merz, a cadaverous spectre from the federal republic’s political past who lost a power struggle with Merkel in 2002 and has returned in the twilight of her chancellorship, sculpting the unreconstructed politics of that bygone era into pseudo-populist provocations for the Twitter age.

Where German politics does range onto the wider world, discussions can tend to the vague or the unserious. For every substantive speech or paper grappling with real trade-offs, there are ten or more sonorous discourses on the importance of Europe, taking responsibility, standing up for values and the like, that do not really say or do much. At its worst, German foreign policy can feel like a branch office of its export policy; when for example the country slides, as it is now doing, towards the security liability of inviting the Chinese firm Huawei to build parts of its 5G telecoms infrastructure. Old excuses for such strategic myopia – post-war Germany’s legacy of conflict, division and military subordination – are wearing thin over 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

[See also: It is no longer certain that Angela Merkel will complete her term as German chancellor]

That is why Röttgen’s candidacy is so refreshing. Since 2012 – when Merkel sacked the then environment minister after his chequered and unsuccessful bid to lead the CDU back to power in the populous western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) – he has remade himself as the most forceful and informed voice for an activist Germany in the world.

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Where Merkel has frustrated many of Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for EU reform, Röttgen has urged ambitious cooperation. Where parts of the German establishment expect greater autonomy from the US without significant improvements to Germany’s and Europe’s own military capacities, he has spoken uncomfortable truths about the need for both dedicated transatlanticism and greater German and European investment. Where Merkel and others have looked past the long-term significance of the Huawei decision, he has led the cross-party opposition. (He is also a leading voice for a close security partnership with a post-Brexit UK and recently called for a new Anglo-German “friendship treaty” along with Tom Tugendhat, his Westminster counterpart.)

Röttgen’s statement announcing his candidacy this morning was typically worldly. Tacitly criticising the frontrunners for what he characterised as a vacuous personality contest, or even an outright stitch-up, he offered a six-point pitch for the CDU: eschewing cooperation with the political extremes, bridging the gap between Germany’s west and east, tackling the causes of right-populism rather than cosying up to it, confronting the causes of the migration crisis, building greater environmental credibility and holding firm as a party of the centre. His point on migration was especially telling: “there can be no talk of the migration issue being sorted,” he said, dismissing the easy but false reassurance of falls in arrival numbers in Germany itself and pointing to the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria as proof that the crisis remains unresolved.

Contrast that with Merz, who offers more of a return to the pre-Merkel era than a prospectus for the post-Merkel one, and who dubiously proposes to sideline the far-right Alternative for Germany by offering diluted versions of some of its talking points; or with Jens Spahn, the dynamic health minister whose questionably sincere flirtations with anti-Merkel conservatism in the past have smacked of opportunism; or with Armin Laschet, the premier of NRW who is solidly moderate but perhaps too pedestrian, and, on foreign policy, too willing to make excuses for Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Of the four contenders – all men from NRW, sub-optimally in a country where female representation in the Bundestag has fallen and where the east-west divide yawns wide – Röttgen is the most credible and the one who at this stage seems to be grappling most with the realities of Germany’s issues and of its international context. His gambit today increases the chances of an open contest, rather than the closed-doors deal between the other three said to be the party leadership’s preference.

The CDU’s board meets next Monday to discuss further the timing and process of the leadership decision. Plenty in the foreign-policy world, especially in Paris and Washington, will be rooting for Röttgen to win when and if the race gets going – a result that would probably set him up to be the party’s chancellor candidate at the next federal election, due by autumn 2021. The notion of a Röttgen-led Germany, probably under a highly pro-European CDU-Green coalition, is attractive indeed to those who want a more proactive, more geopolitical Germany.

It is also highly unlikely. Röttgen’s chances, to reiterate, are poor. He lacks a base in the party and can be reluctant to play the political game. And offering harsh realities – about the need to do more in Europe, commit more to defence and take more real responsibility in the big, bad world – is hardly a proven vote-winner in comfortable Germany. But Röttgen will be in the mix, putting his ideas forward, challenging the frontrunners and generally widening its horizons. And that has to be a good thing.