The Brief: Merkel plays hardball to win over right-wingers

The Brief is EURACTIV.com's evening newsletter.

MERKEL PLAYS HARDBALL TO WIN OVER RIGHT-WINGERS

Angela Merkel has admitted that the election year ahead of her is going to be the toughest one she’s ever faced. That says a lot; it’ll be her fourth run at the chancellery.

But her centre-right CDU party is limping towards the end of a year that was full of crises including power struggles with its conservative Bavarian sister party and squabbles over Merkel’s refugee policy. Trump’s win and Brexit only amped up pressure on the CDU: the party fears losing more voters to the right-wing, anti-immigration party Alternative für Deutschland.

Now the CDU is quickly bending to that pressure. At the party congress today, a majority approved a proposal to repeal two-year-old rules that made it easier for children born in Germany to foreign parents to keep dual citizenship. The proposal was made by the party’s rebellious youth organisation, made up of under-35-year-olds. So much for liberal millennials.

Social Democrats, the CDU’s coalition parter, were quick to lash out at the proposal. Merkel said she personally doesn’t want to repeal the breakthrough agreement.

But she has made other concessions to appeal to her party’s right wing and to the unhappy Bavarian CSU, which gave Merkel grief for letting in a record number of asylum seekers in 2015.

Yesterday, Merkel said at the CDU congress that she supports a ban on niqabs. “The full facial veil is inappropriate and should be banned wherever it is legally possible,” she told party loyals. Applause exploded in the room. It was a small gesture, but shows Merkel is willing to play hardball to woo her party’s right-wingers.

The CDU’s approval ratings shot to a 2016 high after Merkel announced last month that she’ll run for a fourth term as chancellor.

Merkel used to be called the “teflon chancellor” because no criticism of her seemed to stick. Yesterday, she was reelected as CDU chair with a sturdy show of 89.5% of votes at the party congress. But it’s far from sure whether her slide to the right will help win back enough former CDU voters who now prefer Alternative für Deutschland’s hardline stand on immigration.

Eleven years into Merkel’s tenure as chancellor, cracks have started to show in her popularity. Alternative für Deutschland skyrocketed since the last Bundestag election in 2013, winning seats in 10 of the country’s 16 regional parliaments.

Merkel may have shored up her party’s right wing, or maybe she’s just getting started. If this is going to be her toughest election ever, we can expect a lot more hardball.

THE ROUNDUP

European Parliament Brexit pointman Guy Verhofstadt confirmed today what many of us already assumed, that he will run to replace outgoing President Martin Schulz. The Belgian said he would vacate his Brexit responsibilities if he won the election. Verhofstadt, remember, missed out on the Commission’s top job because of UK opposition, so May et al may be hoping he does emerge victorious.

The EU’s auditors admitted yesterday that it was unable to say how billions of euros sent to Ukraine, largely for budgetary support, had actually been spent. Kyiv has also complained that it feels let down by the EU for not granting visa liberalisation yet.
Former Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle warned that Russia and Turkey would seize the chance to influence the Western Balkans, if Brussels does not engage with them more effectively.

Environmental groups breathed a sigh of relief when the Commission said it would not be tinkering with the EU’s nature directives. Instead, the executive wants to focus on better implementing the existing laws.

Malta will be guiding the EU agenda for the next six months and it hopes its recent successes on social issues will be a guiding light for the rest of the bloc.

The LuxLeaks affair didn’t have much of a dissuading effect on Luxembourg either. New research shows the Grand Duchy made 172 secret deals after the scandal broke. Maybe a new European Public Prosecutor Office will convince governments and multinationals to stop their shady dealings?

Italy will need a new prime minister and foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini might just be in with a shout of succeeding Matteo Renzi. But what next for the soon-to-resign premier?

And TIME announced its person of the year (don’t worry, it’s not Nigel Farage): 2016 is the year of Trump. He joins the US magazine’s alumni of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin.

LOOK OUT FOR…

The UK Parliament votes today at 7pm GMT on whether the government will trigger Article 50 by the end of March. Justice and home affairs ministers meet tomorrow to discuss fraud and digital contracts.

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