28 March 2019

A more comprehensive picture of the German Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK) is emerging, as she has elaborated on her domestic and European agenda, after being elected CDU leader last December. Unrestricted by coalition dynamics that current Chancellor Angela Merkel has faced, being Chancellor under three coalition governments, AKK seems able to openly shift her stance to the right on social issues and use this period to reach across the more conservative wing of the party. Domestically, she has hardened her rhetoric on immigration. On EU reforms, she has shown clarity that has been absent during the Merkel years, although in essence her views are similar.

“Mini Merkel” has always been a misleading term to describe AKK. The leadership election last December took place during a period when Merkel, party leader since 2000 and German Chancellor since 2005, had shifted the party to the centre. AKK was seen as the “continuity” centrist candidate- despite suggesting that the 2015 migration policy to not close the German borders and admit 1 million refugees had to be reviewed. She set herself apart from running mates Friedrich Merz and Jens Spahn who both positioned themselves on the right of the party and set out an agenda to recapture votes of disillusioned voters who defected to the far right AfD party, AKK resisted setting this out as her strategy. However, after a tight victory over Merz in a leadership race, AKK seems bent on altering the centrist CDU course.

Some statements and signals suggest this change of tack. AKK has hardened her stance on immigration and law and order issues; she recently said she would shut down German borders in the event of another crisis. This follows the February plans she unveiled to change immigration rules and her pledge in January to review the 2015 migration policy to “ensure it never happens again.” She also seems to be pandering to CDU voters who cleave to AfD ideas when she states that “Islamic trends are incompatible with our ideas of an open society.” She has also noted that Germany must live up to the expectations of its defence spending.

AKK has also suggested the need to take pragmatic decisions on environmental issues, since, in her words, the ecological debate had become “heated” and “absurd” at times. She stated, “More than ever, the CDU must lead the debate and propose how to implement climate change targets without deindustrialising Germany.” However, a closer look at Merkel’s premiership reveals that she has also tried to strike a balance between accepting environmental protection and protecting big industries.

The shift of centre-right parties to the right is far from an uncommon occurrence in European politics. Centre-right PP in Spain have shifted further to the right to stave off further loss of votes to far right Vox and Mark Rutte’s VVD party in the Netherlands sharpened its tone against immigration to fend off a potential victory of the far-right PVV in 2017.

AKK response to Macron

Beyond the domestic sphere, a new leader will have to grapple with Germany’s role in the EU. Of late, this has been defined by a faltering collaboration with France on the future direction of the EU, as shown in previous Open Europe blogs. In this context, AKK recently articulated her thoughts on a future EU in response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s letter, rejecting its fundamental take on the European political landscape by saying, “The question of whether one is “for” or “against” Europe does not arise for most citizens. Instead, we must consider different concepts and reshape our ideas.” AKK’s response must be seen in light of her effort to establish her domestic credentials; the unpopularity of “more Europe” among CDU voters explains the stronger tone of her response to Macron.

In some parts of her response, she went as far as appropriating some AfD promises in a softer manner. For example, AKK said that “There is no version of a European superstate which can live up to the goal of a Europe made up of sovereign Member States” and European institutions cannot claim “moral superiority” over collaborative efforts of national governments. However, she also engaged with some important questions on the future of Europe.

She specifically recommended “joint research, development and technology should be funded from an EU innovation budget.” She also called for the completion of Schengen, explaining, “Claims to asylum, refugee status or any other reason for entry must be verified directly at the Schengen border.” She also clearly opposed some of Macron’s ideas by saying that “European centralism, European statism, the communitization of sovereign debt, a Europeanization of social systems and of the minimum wage” would be the wrong way to go. As German newspaper Der Spiegel put it, “While Merkel left open by her eloquent silence whether she would like to support the French in re-organising Europe, AKK has answered no, despite cloaking her answer in EU rhetoric.”

Though one must acknowledge the importance of Franco-German cooperation, other forces will be at play post-Brexit that will alter the balance of power in the EU. The Hanseatic League, a group of fiscally conservative Northern European countries, is a force to be reckoned with that already caused Macron to drop his grandiose ambitions for changes in the Eurozone, whilst Visegrad countries are resisting liberal EU norms on migration. Thus, AKK’s vision on Europe is not necessarily indicative of a future European direction, though Germany remains a heavyweight state.

Conclusion

Polls indicate mixed results about AKK’s strategy in the eyes of voters. On one hand, the AfD has fallen below 10%, indicating success in bringing back disillusioned voters.  The more conservative wing of the CDU is already calling for Merkel to resign and hand over leadership to AKK to change immigration and economic policy. On the other hand, only 34% of Germans believe that AKK is suitable to be the next German Chancellor, with 51% opposing it and 34% not knowing.  She also appears unpopular among the younger section of the electorate and more liberal CDU voters. But no party leader seems to be more popular as of yet- the fact remains that there is no convincing answer of what comes next after Merkel leaves office.

AKK may have the chance now to stake out her own position and express views that soothe more conservative CDU voters who feel that Merkel has watered down CDU conservatism. But it is also right to say that AKK is not advocating a fundamental change in German European policy. Despite the media speculating and underlining AKK’s differences with Merkel, more clarity will be needed in the future to determine whether she will depart from CDU centrism and continue sharpening the CDU profile.