Which way forward for Merkel’s CDU?

Three candidates representing three future paths for the CDU. Who will take Angela Merkel’s place as the party chair? [Hayoung Jeung/ epa]

Germany’s CDU was set to choose on Friday (7 December) who will take over the party chair from Angela Merkel and possibly be its candidate for the German Chancellor one day. EURACTIV Germany gives an overview of the three candidates.

Germany will be looking to Hamburg where the 1,001 CDU delegates will be meeting to debate the broad lines of their policies and choose a new person to lead the party. Angela Merkel has been in the office for 18 years and steered the CDU through the euro crisis and the migration debate.

But many believe the CDU has moved too far to the left under her leadership. Too many voters have instead turned to the far-right AfD. Most recently, the CDU only finished with 27% of the vote at the regional election in Hesse.

Does the party have to, or want to, find its way back to its conservative Christian core? What kind of party does the CDU want to be, between right-wing populism and rising Greens?

The three contenders for the party chair will have to provide an answer to this today. The answer will shape not only Germany but will also influence the EU – as the winner can expect to have good chances of later becoming German Chancellor.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer

She is seen as Merkel’s favourite and, apparently, her rise to CDU chair after Merkel’s leave had been planned long in advance. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was the minister-president of Saarland between 2011 and 2018 and more or less held every ministerial post in Saarland over the past 18 years.

In February, she was appointed as CDU secretary-general with enormous approval, signalling that becoming Merkel’s successor as the party chair was within reach. She would like to win back voters, particularly from the AfD and continue to raise the party’s profile.

At the same time, Kramp-Karrenbauer is considered to be a convinced supporter of Merkel’s politics, to the extent that the nickname “mini-Merkel” has stuck. In refugee policy as well as most other topics, she assumes the Chancellor’s positions, even if there are occasional differences.

For example, Kramp-Knarrenbauer could quite imagine sending refugees who have committed crimes back to Syria. A devout Catholic and mother of three, she represents conservative values but also assumes quite liberal positions.

The “Christian” element of the CDU (the “Christian Democratic Union”) has to be strengthened again, she believes. At the same time, she calls for the freedom of religion. “This also means that we have to ask ourselves the uncomfortable question of whether a Muslim who is loyal to the [German] constitutions belongs more to our country than an atheist criminal throwing stones at a G20 Summit,” she said.

Not unlike Merkel, Kramp-Karrenbauer gives the EU a crucial role in the CDU’s agenda. “Europe belongs to the essence of the CDU,” she said, calling for greater cooperation among the member states, for instance in a European army, as is demanded by Emmanuel Macron.

However, similarly to the German Chancellor, Kramp-Karrenbauer is hesitant to make further, specific concessions on the eurozone. She wrote on her blog that there is no added value in having a common eurozone budget. For the European elections, she would like the “Spitzenkandidat” process to be maintained, anything else would be showing “a flagrant disregard for voters’ wishes. We can’t let this happen.”

Should Kramp-Karrenbauer be elected on Friday, this would represent a certain commitment by the party to continue progressive centrist politics, as Merkel has pursued over the past years. The chair would then face the challenge of keeping the party’s conservative wing on board. One thing is certain for Kramp-Karrenbauer: irrespective of the vote’s outcome, she wants to leave her post as CDU general-secretary. She does not know what she will do if she is defeated. “There is no plan B,” she stated.

Jens Spahn

“If you are still ‘very young’ in the CDU at the age of 38, then this is maybe part of the problem,” said Jens Spahn, who is making the case for a generational change in the CDU, He is younger than his opponents but has never made a secret of his ambitions.

In his early 20s, Spahn entered the German Bundestag and later the finance minister took him under his wing as a state secretary, where he worked from 2014 until the German federal election in 2017.

Since then, he has been the federal minister of health, as the youngest member in Merkel’s cabinet. Many were surprised that she even appointed him Spahn pulls no punches in criticising the Chancellor’s policies. By opening the borders in 2015, Merkel lost control, Spahn believes, adding that much confidence was lost.

Similarly to the other two candidates, Spahn promises to give the CDU a clear profile again because he believes the party is currently “washed-out, without a profile.” He added that it was also the CDU’s fault that the far-right AfD now sat in every German regional parliament.

Spahn’s strategy is therefore to offer a “dropout programme for AfD voters” and he is focusing on a conservative worldview and a liberal economic agenda. It is just unfortunate that Friedrich Merz is also calling for precisely the same course.

The competition provided by the equally conservative Merz is why Spahn is given minimal chances of becoming the chair. Another is his unashamed ambition, which bothers many in the party.

This also applies to Spahn’s proposal that there should be a vote on the UN’s Global Compact for Migration at the CDU’s party conference. This is mostly a political manoeuvre: Spahn himself does not necessarily oppose the pact, but a rejection by delegates would be tantamount to a vote against the Chancellor and therefore a vote in Spahn’s direction.

Spahn is considerably more conciliatory on the European level. He argues that Hungary and Poland should not be arbitrarily punished and, instead, a dialogue should be maintained with them. Moreover, he sees Germany as a bridge-builder in the EU. “Germany has to be much more understanding and an intermediary towards Eastern and Central Europe,” he said.

However, he does not support the idea of a “European superstate” and would like this to be clearly reflected in the CDU’s programme. “We do not need a Euro-superstate, nor a Euro-finance minister or Euro-taxes. All this is not a vision for Europe, it is a nightmare which could break the EU peace project,” he wrote in a guest article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper this week. Instead, he would like a “Europe of pioneers” where individual countries move forward, for instance, to strengthen border management.

Spahn is young, conservative and critical of Islam. The question is whether this is what the delegates are looking for and whether he will also be able to convince the party’s left wing. According to projections, he will not manage to prevail – but an acceptable result might be enough for Spahn. This would mark him out as a figure who is waiting to make it to the very top.

Friedrich Merz

Friedrich Merz’s political career was derailed by Merkel more than ten years ago. After Wolgang Schäuble had to leave the CDU’s top posts in 2000, Merz assumed the position of leader of the parliamentary group for two years. When Merkel then decided in 2002 not to run for Chancellor and took on the leadership of the parliamentary group, Merz was demoted to being a deputy. The fact that she displaced him left wounds.

The 63-year-old Merz, from the state of North-Rhine Westphalia in the Western Germany, is considered to be conservative and close to business. He came under criticism when his position as the chair of the supervisory board of the German branch of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, represented a potential conflict of interest. Merz stated in December that if the party elected him, he would voluntarily resign from all of his supervisory board mandates.

To some extent, Merz is a little like Spahn. Both want to recover what the CDU once stood for: law and order, security, the homeland, the concept of a dominant culture and economic expertise. These are demands which could bring back many of the voters who defected to the AfD. Moreover, they may be won back because Merz called for a debate on the right of asylum in Germany – and was heavily criticised as a result.

“Germany is the only country in the world which has an individual right to asylum in its constitution,” Merz stated. If there was a serious desire for a European immigration and refugee policy, there had to be “a large public debate concerning whether a legal provision should be written into the German Basic Law,” he told Spiegel Online.

“Merz is an asset for the Union [of CDU and CSU]. He will strengthen our market economy profile,” said CDU MP Christian von Stetten, chair of the influential parliamentary group for small and medium-sized enterprises.

In the past, Merz has worked for deregulation and privatisation. His much-quoted remark that every citizen should be able to calculate their income tax on a beermat caused resentment after a tax concept developed under his direction in 2003 envisaged considerably lower income tax rates than the tax rate of the time. After he announced his candidacy, in addition to demanding a fundamental simplification of income tax, he also called for a speedy abolition of the solidarity surcharge.

Between 1989 and 1994, he was an MEP and has since called for Germany to make a greater effort for the European Union. In 2018, before announcing his candidacy, he signed the call “For solidarity in Europe,” together with Hans Eichel, Jürgen Habermas, Roland Koch, Bert Rürup and Brigitte Zypries.

The paper called for a joint European army, more power for the European Parliament in Brussels and “solidarity and a fight against nationalism and egoism internally and in favour of unity and shared sovereignty externally.”

According to the common consensus, many hope Merz would provide strong leadership which should give more assertiveness to the party. But the fact that he represents a quite conservative wing of the CDU may not be liked by all in the party. Moreover, the SPD, the key coalition partner, may be watching the candidates very carefully.

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