BERLIN — Turns out Angela Merkel isn’t leaving the political stage after all. At least not in spirit.
Armin Laschet, the leader of Germany’s Christian Democrats and Merkel’s would-be successor as chancellor, delivered what his camp billed as a landmark foreign policy speech on Wednesday, best summed up with his own boilerplate: “I share the chancellor’s position.”
What about on Russia? “I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said.
China? “A competitor and partner.”
The transatlantic relationship? “Europe’s place is on the side of the U.S. and Canada.”
True to his reputation as the continuity candidate for chancellor, Laschet, currently the leader of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, made clear there was little light between himself and Merkel on foreign affairs. He endorsed Germany’s commitment to working toward spending the equivalent of 2 percent of its economic output on defense, while also signaling he would maintain Merkel’s policy of criticizing China and Russia for human rights and other abuses without sacrificing their commercial relations.
That may well be a wise strategy, considering Germans’ strong support for Merkel’s foreign policy course. Embracing Merkel’s steady-as-she-goes course should also make it easier for Laschet to attack the foreign policy ideas of his rivals as being out of the mainstream. That’s particularly true of the Greens, whose positions on Russia, China and defense stand in stark contrast to the status quo.
Laschet’s conservatives are neck and neck with the Greens in most polls, but when it comes to the question of who should become chancellor, Green leader Annalena Baerbock has a significant lead. That’s one reason why Laschet, a 60-year-old former MEP, is eager to put his international bona fides on display. Baerbock, 40, studied in London and worked in the European Parliament earlier in her career, but can’t match Laschet’s political experience, either in Germany or abroad, a point his camp is eager to stress.
That said, it’s unlikely foreign policy will play much of a role in the campaign at a time when Germans are more focused on what’s happening at home, in particular the fallout from the pandemic.
Indeed, Laschet’s speech, delivered at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a foundation close to the CDU, seemed primarily directed at the world outside Germany, especially Europe. It was livestreamed with simultaneous translation in several languages, including Spanish and French.
The only real surprise of the speech was Laschet’s embrace of a national security council for Germany, a step he said he would make a priority in his first year in office. Many countries have such councils in order to better coordinate strategy across ministries, especially in a crisis. The idea isn’t new in Germany (U.S. foreign policy wonks have been urging Berlin to take the step for some time), but it remains controversial in Berlin’s decentralized strategic apparatus.
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“In decisive moments, our country needs the expertise of the entire government including intelligence services and they all have to sit at one table,” Laschet said. “We need to act uniformly because the answers are becoming more complex.”
As has been true of Merkel, the North Star of Laschet’s foreign policy can be described in a word: multilateralism.
“We need stronger United Nations, multilateralism and better international trade relations,” he said.
To anyone familiar with Germany’s international policies, Laschet’s speech would have sounded familiar on other fronts as well, especially Europe (“the world needs a stronger Europe!”).
He described the pandemic recovery fund as a “quantum leap” and said he could imagine pursuing many of the ideas on further integration championed by French President Emmanuel Macron.
But on the most important question of all — who’s going to foot the bill — Laschet channeled his inner Merkel.
“Do I support the communalization of debt over the long term? No, I do not,” he said.
Laurenz Gehrke contributed reporting.