The Brief – Of German vaccines and dark horses

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [EPA-EFE/FILIP SINGER]

Germany’s Christian Democrats are set to elect their new leader from the three candidates vying for the top post this weekend. But the winner might not necessarily go on to become the party’s candidate to run for the chancellorship in this year’s general election.

Surveys of CDU members show outsider Norbert Röttgen neck-and-neck with moderate Armin Laschet, both of them narrowly trailing arch-conservative Friedrich Merz. But this might soon become almost irrelevant.

As Spiegel reported ahead of the party convention, one particular dark horse has caused unrest in CDU ranks.

Health Minister Jens Spahn apparently sounded the prospects of becoming the chancellor candidate, even without the CDU chairmanship, in late December. German tabloid Bild also reported on these rumours.

Publicly, Spahn has denied such ambitions and committed to supporting North Rhine-Westphalia’s Prime Minister Laschet.

But most political observers in Berlin don’t believe in his half-hearted denial, all the more so as, according to German government sources, none of the three candidates really convinces the party base.

Laschet is considered too vague and dry, and foreign policy expert Röttgen too intellectual. Merz says he stands for an ecological renewal of Germany’s market economy, but many fear the only thing he might inspire is the shrinking arch-conservative part of the electorate.

In short, the party seems to be lacking inspiration, and good candidates, and this will most certainly cause problems in motivating the party base in the election campaign.

Given Spahn’s current popularity behind the party scenes, and his prominent role in handling the COVID-19 crisis, he might be right to harbour greater ambitions.

Whether he will still be so popular in two months’ time depends on the progress of the pandemic, where increasingly frequent mistakes are already scratching his domestic image.

Germans, proud of their national reputation for efficiency, are growing increasingly frustrated by the slow rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine.

And the government has had to deny allegations that the rollout is going slowly because Berlin took part in the EU purchasing scheme instead of negotiating individually (which, as it turns out, it also did).

“Going the European way is in Germany’s national interest and that of our citizens,” Spahn told lawmakers on Wednesday (13 January).

“It’s a question of economic common sense that we don’t vaccinate single countries but all of Europe. Only that will allow our economic recovery,” he added in an attempt to fend off criticism.

At the same time, there is a growing sense in Europe that Germany – which has always stressed the importance of solidarity-based, pan-European vaccine procurement – is becoming increasingly selfish in its attempts to secure more vaccines.

Asked in December whether bilateral negotiations didn’t go against the spirit of the solidarity approach, Spahn said talks with BioNTech and CureVac started only after it was established that the companies would be able to meet the stated demand of all EU member countries.

“We can’t be prohibited forever from buying additional vaccine doses on our own,” he said.

But the controversy over the individual purchase of vaccines by the German government has put Spahn and the health ministry in the spotlight in Brussels, where the Commission has so far refused to acknowledge that this contradicts the bloc’s joint procurement deal.

Domestically, this could work in Spahn’s favour once the campaign picks up speed, as well as the fact that he promised that every German who wants to be vaccinated should be able to get the jab. That’s what he will be judged on by the average German voter.

Yet, from a European perspective, the underlying question is what a chancellor candidate such as Spahn will mean for Europe.

The Roundup

Tectonic shifts are happening in the Greek political landscape, with the socialists turning left and apparently ending attempts to collaborate with the centre-right.

Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas resigned after an enquiry into a property development project in the capital which could see him accused of corruption.

German environment minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) is hosting a virtual agricultural congress to discuss sustainable agriculture and the connection between food production, environment and climate. At the centre, however, is a social contract.

Major airlines, including Easyjet, KLM and Air France, have joined with environmental NGOs to call for stricter policies on biofuels and reduce the aviation sector’s environmental impact.

Look out for…

  • Commission is expected to present a Communication on the Minority Safepack in response to a European citizens’ initiative and prepare the visit the Portuguese Presidency in Lisbon

Views are the author’s

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