The future of the engine of Europe, Germany, will depend largely on who drives it. Frau Merkel’s successor at the head of the CDU will have a major impact on Europe as a whole.
During the CDU conference that was held in Hamburg, her native city, in December 2018, Angela Merkel stepped down as the chairwoman of the CDU, and seemed almost relieved to have lifted a huge weight off her shoulders. She would focus her energies on leading the government, at least for a while. To replace her, the delegates at the party conference elected Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who barely edged out her formidable opponent Friedrich Merz. Thus began the political ascent of AKK, as the Germans abbreviate a name that is difficult to pronounce even for them. In fact, she was no debutante: she began her political activity in the CDU at a very young age, and as is often the case in Germany, her career followed a disciplined cursus honorum, serving in local posts before rising to regional and national ones.
Neither is she a mini-Merkel, as some have suggested. There are too many differences between the two to consider her a carbon copy of the Chancellor. AKK comes from Saarland, in the far west of the Federal Republic. She speaks French, is Catholic, is the mother of three children, and is rather conservative when it comes to women’s and LGBT rights. Merkel spent the first part of her life in the GDR between Mecklenburg and Honecker’s East Berlin, she speaks Russian, is Protestant, does not have children, and on a number of issues she has brought the CDU closer to the SPD’s ideological terrain.
The leadership change in the CDU coincides with a difficult period the party is going through, much like other traditional mass parties in Germany and Europe. Lately the Christian Democratic Union has had a series of stinging setbacks. From the federal elections of September 2017 (-7.3%) to the European elections in May 2019 (-6.4%) and last regional elections in Saxony (-7.3%), Brandenburg (-7.4%), and Thuringia (-11.8%), support is eroding and the party’s strategy is wavering between trying to win back votes from the AfD or adopting a centrist line that is incompatible with courting the right.
Kramp-Karrenbauer’s task at the head of the CDU is not a simple one, and is made more difficult by divisions within the party. Nor should it be taken for granted that she will be the CDU’s candidate for the chancellorship in the next federal elections (expected to be held in September 2021), which will mark the end of Merkel’s long stint as the head of government. AKK’s appointment to the post of Minister of Defence in July, where she replaced Ursula von der Leyen after the latter’s nomination as President of the European Commission, could bring her more drawbacks than advantages in a country that is still not fully at ease with armament programmes and military missions abroad.
It remains to be seen what Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s next moves will be. At the CDU conference that was held in late November in Leipzig she showed her teeth and prevailed over her critics – at least so far – with an appeal to internal cohesion and pride in the positive results achieved by Merkel’s government in its fourteen consecutive years in power and in Germany’s renewed commitment to building Europe. She thus managed to overcome a few missteps in terms of communication and political initiative, which were pitilessly pounced upon by both allies and opponents. For example, it did not help that as Minister of Defence, she proposed to create an international security force in Syria without previously discussing it with her government coalition.
There are still many unanswered questions regarding Angela Merkel’s succession to the chancellorship, the future of the grosse Koalition – which truth be told, is not quite so large anymore as the CDU and even more so the SPD lose support – and Germany’s role in Europe. As the German presidency of the EU draws near (1 July 2020) and its contents and programmes begin to take shape, Emmanuel Macron’s individualistic assertiveness is not looked upon favourably in Berlin. The German-French relationship will nevertheless retain its centrality in the European system, even more so as the United Kingdom exits the EU. And Germany’s commitment to Europe may even be renewed, without breaks but instead with some open-mindedness, on the back of an economy that is not as thriving as in the recent past
In the coming months, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer will attempt to consolidate her position so that she may replace Angela Merkel as the Chancellor of Germany when the time comes. In any event, she will keep a close eye on the work of two other women who are crucial for the fate of Europe and with whom she will certainly find common ground: Ursula von der Leyen at the European Commission and Christine Lagarde at the ECB. Let’s not lose sight of her.