Armin Laschet, the premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, will be the new leader of the country’s governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
The CDU has led Germany’s federal government for 52 of the past 72 years. Angela Merkel, who plans to bow out after a general election in September, represents a tradition of CDU chancellors going back to Konrad Adenauer in the postwar years.
Laschet’s victory does not guarantee that he’ll be the CDU’s man to run for chancellor — but that prospect is now a whole lot more likely. Here are five thing to know about the new party chief and his views.
Laschet spent six years in Brussels from 1999 until 2005, serving as an MEP for the European People’s Party. During that time, he mainly focused on foreign policy, international relations and budget questions.
Back in Germany, Laschet has sometimes criticized Merkel’s government for not being ambitious enough regarding Europe. “Today the French president [Emmanuel Maron] is making proposals, but we are taking too long to respond,” he said at the Munich Security Conference last year. However, he is generally seen as in line with Merkel’s views on the EU.
Laschet is considered by some critics to be a Russlandversteher, a derogatory term for people who take a soft stance on Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He said in 2019 that, given dialogue between East and West was possible even when the Soviet Union existed, “we’ve got to be able to do the same today. We need Russia for many issues in the world.”
He is also considered to have a soft line on China, as protecting German export industries has been one of his biggest concerns.
Beyond China and Russia, Laschet has said that Germany is not the passive geopolitical player the U.S. and other powers often complain about.
“Germany has been involved in the stabilization of Afghanistan for years with many thousands of soldiers,” he said at an event in 2019, noting that Mali and Somalia were also countries where Germany has been engaged. “We are active internationally,” he said.
Regarding the friendship between Germany and the U.S., which has suffered severely during the Trump presidency, Laschet has been less strident in tone than some other German politicians. Following a meeting with then-U.S. ambassador Richard Grenell in 2019, Laschet said: “The U.S. is our most significant partner outside the European Union. It is the world’s leading technology nation, and it is of critical importance to security in Europe.”
In recent days, Laschet has faced criticism over a tweet from 2014, in which he took issue with then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Syria. “You supported ISIS and Al Nusra against President Assad in Syria. And they are financed by Qatar and Saudi-Arabia,” he declared. Laschet was accused of spreading a conspiracy theory and at least appearing to confer legitimacy on Assad, widely reviled as a war criminal.
Security is also a prominent part of what Laschet has stressed in his domestic policy agenda. As leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, a state significantly affected by organized crime, he has had to deal with security concerns for some time.
As for extremism and terrorism, Laschet adopted a mantra of “zero tolerance,” noting that his start as state premier coincided with the aftermath of the 2016 terrorist attack at a Berlin Christmas market, which revealed significant shortcomings in the security authorities. “When our interior minister started working, first of all he drafted a situation report so we could find out who’s been causing trouble and how we are going to handle it,” Laschet said earlier this month.
Laschet has positioned himself in the center on economics, but signaled a preference for fiscal caution over high public spending.
Earlier this month, he told the Frankfurer Allgemeine Zeitung that while he gets along with the Greens, in his home state he has been governing “out of conviction” with the pro-business Liberal Democrats, a party known for demanding low taxes and fiscal restraint.
Laschet has also sought to strike a balance on the environment. He has stressed the need to take action on climate change. During a debate with his rivals for the CDU post earlier this month, however, he said that climate policies should not suffocate the economy.
“The first lignite plants were shut down a few days ago … This will continue year after year, which is extremely ambitious as of next year, because nuclear power will also end then,” he said, adding that affordable electricity was needed to keep the steel and chemical industries in the country.
Critics have noted that the world “climate” appeared only once in a 10-point paper setting out his vision for the future together with running mate Jens Spahn — and it wasn’t referring to the climate crisis. It appeared in the heading “a good climate for entrepreneurial spirit and innovation.”
Laschet has now been elected as party leader and the CDU, along with its smaller Bavarian sister party, the CSU, is streets ahead in the opinion polls. But that does not automatically mean Laschet will be the center-right bloc’s candidate for chancellor in September’s general election or that he will succeed Merkel as head of government.
Bavarian state premier Markus Söder, who leads the CSU, and Spahn of the CDU have also been as having a shot at being the joint candidate of the two parties, often known collectively as the “Union.” Both have outperformed Laschet in opinion polls in recent weeks.
And, of course, even if Laschet secures the nomination, his party would still have to win the election and form a government before he could become chancellor.
While the CDU/CSU alliance is currently performing strongly, it’s impossible to predict how it will fare when the popular Merkel is no longer part of voters’ calculations. And in the middle of a pandemic, there is plenty of other uncertainty around.
Some conservative politicians have suggested a decision on the CDU/CSU candidate for chancellor should be made after Easter (April 4), others expect it to come earlier.
A couple of regional elections may help party chiefs make their decision, at least partly on the basis of how the CDU fares. Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatine are both scheduled to head to the polls on March 14, pandemic permitting.