Race to the Succession: What Europe Can Expect From Merkel’s Potential Successors

November 25, 2018




Earlier this month, the German chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she will not be running again for the position as chairperson of her centre-right Christian-Democratic Party (CDU) at the party conference in December.


According to her plans, she will remain as the chancellor of Germany until she retires in 2021. During this time, she will work together with a chairperson, who will most likely be the candidate to succeed her.


Three potential successors for the chairperson position were quick to declare their candidacy within a few hours after Merkel’s announcement, which was expected following the electoral losses of the CDU in regional elections and the defeat of a long-standing ally of hers in an internal election for the chairperson of the CDU parliamentary group in Bundestag.


These three candidates are under-recognized outside of Germany, but definitively distinct in their ideologies. Therefore, we will shine a light on these candidates, their paradigms and what Europeans can expect from them.


Jens Spahn - the conservative shooting star


Aged 38, Spahn is the youngest of the three candidates, and his election as chairman would cause a sharp generational split relative to Angela Merkel, who is 26 years older.


The candidacy of Jens Spahn was widely anticipated by the German public. As a previous critic of Merkel, he was a popular figure in the conservative faction of the CDU, which often accused Merkel of moving the party increasingly away from its conservative roots and towards the centre ground.


Indeed, when Merkel made Spahn her Health Minister earlier this year, it was anticipated that this was a move to discipline him and prevent him from regularly launching thinly veiled swipes at Merkel’s policies. However, even as the Health Minister, he regularly gives interviews where he chooses not to discuss health policy issues but topics that allow him to attack Merkel, notably migration and integration policy.


If elected, Spahn would therefore work towards making the CDU more conservative again. This would cause policy shifts in a number of areas that are of relevance from a European perspective.


First of all, a more restrictive approach to migration is expected. Unlike Merkel, Spahn has counter-factually and publicly stated that the Islamic religion is not a part of Germany and he equally advocates restricting the access to German citizenship. Whilst his position is less extreme than those of other European conservative leaders like Viktor Orban and Sebastian Kurz, Spahn’s election would make solving migration debates in Europe more difficult.


Secondly, he would arguably be even more fiscally conservative than Merkel. He is a strong advocate for the end of the European Central Bank’s quantitative easing programme, which is a thorn in the side of German savers, who are generally weary of the stock market and prefer investing into saving accounts which currently yield virtually no interest payments. Furthermore, he would almost certainly never agree to any means that would amount to a collectivisation of European debt.


In spite of this, Spahn also has some noteworthy Europhile standpoints. He is a supporter of the programme to give free Interrail passes to European youth and has equally called for increased inner-European collaboration on areas such as defence, digitalisation and security.


Friedrich Merz - the return of the force?


Whilst Jens Spahn has been a rival of Merkel in recent years, Merz was a rival of Merkel when she first rose to power in the early 2000s. Specifically, Merkel forced Merz out of his job as the chairman of the CDU parliamentary group and the leader of the opposition in the German parliament when she was elected as party chairwoman. This forced Merz to accept a demotion to become the deputy chairman and paved the way to him to exit politics and leave the Bundestag in 2009.


Since his exit from politics, Merz has become a wealthy corporate lawyer and a member of the supervisory board of the German branch of the asset manager BlackRock. Especially this latter role has brought him criticism given the role of BlackRock in the current CumEx and CumCum scandals.


Merz, similar to Spahn, is strongly conservative and largely advocates neoliberal policies. Merz likely holds a very similar standpoint to Spahn on topics like migration and European fiscal policies. However, given that Merz has been absent from the political frontlines, it is difficult to assess how Europhile he is and how he would respond to progressive European causes.


Where Merz differs from Spahn is his age. Merz will be turning 63 this year, making him only one year younger than Merkel. In many ways, therefore, Merz stands for the long bygone days of a pre-Merkel, truly conservative CDU which regularly claimed ~40% in elections. His supporters will likely be older: traditional CDU members who think that Merkel has made the CDU more centrist and want a return to the good old days. Young conservatives, however, are more likely to rally around Spahn.


Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer - the mini-Merkel


Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer differs from Merz and Spahn in a number of ways. Not only does she have a name which is a tongue twister even for German speakers (hence she is often referred to by her initials, AKK), but she is also the only female candidate and the only candidate who is ideologically aligned with Merkel.


Indeed, AKK’s career has been heavily influenced by Merkel, who helped AKK to become Secretary General of the CDU in February. Previously, she was the Minister-President of the Saarland, a small federal state on the Franco-German border.


For these reasons, AKK is often referred to as being a mini-Merkel. She represents the continuation of the policies and practices of the Merkel era, namely a centrist political course, continuity and stability, conservative stances on civil rights (like Merkel, AKK opposed gay marriage) and deferred, gradual decision-making.


Similarly, her election and an eventual chancellorship would not be good news for progressive Europeans, given that she would bring little impulses. In contrast to Spahn and Merz, she is much more centrist, but advocates of Macron-like reforms will find her to be just as disappointing as Merkel.


Who should progressive Europeans root for?


This is a difficult question to definitively answer. AKK is the embodiment of the status quo of essentially having no European policy, whereas Merz and Spahn are more sceptical towards European reform and would advocate stronger fiscal conservatism and restrictive migration.


However, the election Spahn or Merz would create one opportunity that an election of AKK would not. The centre-left Social Democrats (who are much more Europhile and reform-friendly than the CDU) have, over the last decade, seen an erosion in their support, as an increasingly centrist CDU has stolen many of their centrist  voters. Similarly, however, the CDU has lost votes to the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). A more conservative CDU under the leadership of Spahn or Merz would allow the Social Democrats to win back some previously lost votes and gain strength. Similarly, a more conservative CDU without Merkel could appeal to former CDU voters that have recently voted for AfD, who have fiercely opposed to Merkel’s leadership and have branded her as an enemy of the state.


There are therefore two possible outcomes from the election. The first option is continuing the CDU’s status quo of non-ideological pragmatism with endlessly deferred decision-making under the leadership of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. The second option is a more conservative and less centrist CDU, which would grant more pro-European parties the room to win over the centrist voters that the CDU would lose. Given that the status quo is not serving Europe well, it is that second outcome which would serve progressive Europeans well.


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