By Paul Taylor
The election of Armin Laschet to the leadership of the CDU is the opening shot of 2021 in the campaign to elect a new German Chancellor to replace Angela Merkel in the federal election on 26 September.
Laschet beat his more conservative rival Friedrich Merz by 521 votes to 466 in the CDU digital party congress. He was elected on a platform of continuity Merkel. He is also portrayed as the person most likely to unite all wings of the CDU. He went on to consolidate his victory by winning more than 80% of the votes in the subsequent postal vote.
But there is no guarantee that Laschet will be the CDU/CSU candidate for Chancellor later this year. His main challenger is likely to be Markus Söder, Minister President of Bavaria since 2018, and Leader of the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU) since 2019. The final decision will be taken by a joint meeting of the parliamentary groups of the CDU and the CSU in the spring.
State elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate on 14 March will also provide serious tests for Laschet and his challengers.
Biden and the United States
Over the coming months there will be intense pressure within Germany, and from the United States, over the who will be the CDU/CSU flagbearer in September.
German foreign policy under Laschet will be centre stage in the build-up to the federal election.
The defeat of Donald Trump by Joe Biden will impact strongly on the relationship between the USA and Germany. Trump’s ‘America First’ policy was a rational response to the challenges facing the US economy after the 2008 crash and the continued rise of China, but it badly undermined the prospect of building a pro-US, anti-China international coalition.
The huge backing for Joe Biden from big business highlights a rejection by the US ruling class of Trump’s reckless foreign policy.
As Vijay Prashad recently explained, “Biden wants to rebuild the Western military alliance system that Trump has eroded. An indication of Biden’s enthusiasm was an early photo callto French President Emmanuel Macron, to suggest that the United States is back as a player in Europe. This is not an advance toward a multilateral world order, but rather a return to the old alliance system where the United States (with its Canadian and European allies) attempts to dominate the world system by the use of its military, diplomatic, and economic power.”
The United States, as the most powerful capitalist country in the world, does not just try to use its power to decide the leadership of semi-colonial countries: it also seeks to win its preferred candidates in other imperialist countries.
Trump’s instructions to Farage to stand down and back Johnson in the 2019 UK general election is the most recent example. Following Chirac’s refusal to support Bush’s attack on Iraq in 2003, the US made a huge and successful effort to support Sarkozy’s presidential bid. The cables Wikileaks gave to French daily Le Monde exposed US support for ‘Sarkozy the American’, the nickname he was given by the US embassy in Paris.
As France Soir highlighted, “Sarkozy made no secret of his admiration for Washington as he began his presidency, but some of the French voters who elected him might have been surprised by just how closely he supported then US president George W. Bush….
“…. French voters, and Sarkozy’s current political friends and foes, might also be surprised to learn that their president told the US embassy about his plan to run for office before he informed the public.
“He was also, according to the leaked cables, not afraid to criticise the foreign policy of Chirac’s government to his American friends, even while he was interior minister in the outgoing French administration….”
Wikileaks also revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) also bugged the phones of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Angela Merkel.
As Reuters explained in 2014, “ Sueddeutsche (Zeitung) also cited U.S. government sources and NSA insiders as saying the reason for the snooping on Social Democrat (SPD) Schroeder was his opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq under then President George W. Bush. ‘We had reason to believe that (Schroeder) was not contributing to the success of the alliance,’ the newspaper quoted one person with knowledge of the monitoring as saying.”
Over the coming months the CDU/CSU is likely to come under sustained pressure to be more pro-US over its choice of candidate for Chancellor.
As the front runner to be Chancellor Laschet will be under specific pressure about positions he has previously adopted.
Comments he made on US policy in Syria have resurfaced. As the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported in 2014, ‘The deputy CDU chairman Armin Laschet calls for German support for the air strikes on the terrorist militia “Islamic State” (IS) in Syria. “If the United States initiate a change of course and fight IS terrorists in Syria, we should support them with our resources,” …. “The fact that this also benefits the regime in Damascus must not prevent us from doing so,” he added
Laschet admitted, however, that the air strikes in Syria were of benefit to the ruler there, Bashar al Assad, in the civil war against rebel groups. Nevertheless, he advocated the attacks: “Any support in the fight against the brutal IS brigades is needed and welcome.” Totalitarian jihadism and the “Islamic State” are currently the greatest threat to peace and freedom in the world.”’
Laschet’s current attitude to China is at odds with President Biden, who has staffed his foreign policy posts with anti-China hawks.
The recent EU – China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) was met with bi-partisan dismay in Washington. Of note, is the leading role Germany took in achieving the agreement, albeit with French acquiescence, as the EU rotating presidency in 2020. As the Diplomat put it, “The CAI reflects an effort by Chancellor Merkel and some other European leaders to assert the EU as a major pole in a multipolar world.” Laschet played an important role in achieving the agreement. In an interview published in Politico he spells out his views:
“POLITICO: Another fundamental question is China, where both Germany and other European countries have built deep economic relationships. What should Europe’s policy be toward Beijing, which has become more belligerent on a number of fronts?
“LASCHET: Economic ties are only one part of an extensive network of relationships. We stand for a rules-based international order, both in terms of commercial relations and politics. That includes market access, fair competition and the guarantee of inalienable human rights. Europe needs to speak with one voice on foreign policy. On trade, that’s already the case.
“POLITICO: Do you think Europe was a bit naive in dealing with China, especially the expectation that China would eventually follow a Western, liberal path?
“LASCHET: Why naive? I was in China for the first time in the 90s as an MP with a German minister. China was at the beginning of a very rapid development. We helped China develop. So I don’t think it’s naive 20 years later to see that China developed quite a lot, also to the advantage of European business, which has deep trade ties with China. China is a world power today that we need to confront with realism and self-confidence.
“POLITICO: OK, but how does that address human rights abuses in China?
“LASCHET: Trade relations always require a political dialogue on human rights. That’s true for every country in the world. It’s true for Russia, China, Turkey and all the countries of the Arab world. But one can’t only pursue trade relations with countries that follow our societal model.
“POLITICO: Can you give an example?
“LASCHET: The entire conflict between east and west. Back then we traded with the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc states. A part of our energy supply, our entire oil supply, comes from states that don’t follow our societal model. We deal with them anyway.”
Laschet’s attitude to Russo-EU relations will also be of keen interest to Washington.
Biden’s appointment of Victoria Nuland as Deputy Secretary of State and the memory of her “Fuck the EU” attack on EU policy on Ukraine, also sends a strong signal to Germany over the US attitude to the EU and Germany over their relationship to Russia.
Laschet’s position, and Germany’s, on Russia will continue to be more nuanced than the United States due to longstanding geopolitical and economic factors.
But caricatures of Laschet as being ‘soft’ on Putin and Russia are wide of the mark.
As TASS summarises on 24 January in its coverage of a recent interview Laschet gave to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “Laschet argues that “there are still covert and overt acts of aggression from the Russian-dominated side in eastern Ukraine.” In his opinion, the sanctions were mainly adopted for the “illegal annexation of Crimea.” “The other part concerns the implementation of the Minsk agreements and the conflict in eastern Ukraine,” he said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, published on Friday evening. “As for the Minsk agreements, I would like to see more progress. In this regard, there is no reason to lift the sanctions now…” Laschet argued that the non-recognition of Crimea as Russian territory “remains the position of Germany and the West….”
Laschet also believes that Russia is in many ways the enemy of the West, although ways should be sought for cooperation with Moscow on important topics. “My position in relation to Russia is absolutely transparent,” Laschet argued. “Russia is an adversary in many respects, but there are still important issues that we need Russia to resolve,” he said. As an example, Laschet cited efforts to implement the Paris Agreement on climate, the settlement of conflicts, such as in Libya.”
On Nordstream 2, TASS highlights that, “Laschet said that he shares the position of the current German government on Nord Stream 2, and believes that this issue does not depend on the situation around Alexei Navalny.
“The attack on Alexei Navalny should be condemned in the strongest terms. Russia should now detain the criminals instead of detaining Navalny,” Laschet said, calling for his “immediate release.” “But the question of whether gas will be delivered to us by land or by sea does not depend on this,” he stressed.
“I made it clear that this was a commercial project,” Laschet said. “The fact that we receive gas from Russia has been a reality for 50 years, as it was during the Cold War. And this will be necessary in the foreseeable future,” he said. “We will need gas for the foreseeable future, until we can cover our energy needs from renewable sources,” the CDU leader added.
However, Laschet’s concluding comment in the interview is also not likely to go down well in Washington: ‘Laschet expressed his conviction that “Russia is part of the common European home”’.
Clean Energy campaigners have condemned Laschet’s record on climate change: “If he carries his NRW climate course over to the federal government, things will look bad.”
Der Spiegel also concluded 14 January 2021. “So far there is nothing to suggest that a chairman Armin Laschet will become a driver in climate protection. His view is too narrowed on the risks of transformation and on what is supposedly not possible. That is not enough for a chancellor in the decade that is decisive in terms of climate policy.”
Der Spiegel went on to highlight Laschat’s weakness on climate change as Prime Minister of the coal state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Laschet has also oft repeated refuted myths about the international steel industry.
“In January Laschet and Jens Spahn presented a ten-topic impulse paper as part of his candidacy, Climate only appears once in the upper points – in the phrase “Good climate for entrepreneurship and innovation”. How a CDU chairman or even Chancellor Armin Laschet wants to concretely tackle the climate crisis, the reader does not learn.”
Zeit Online 8 January 2021 noted Laschet recently prioritising German steel ahead of climate change: “North Rhine-Westphalia’s Prime Minister Armin Laschet warned against ruining German industry through excessive climate protection measures. If you want to keep the steel or chemical industry in the country, you have to provide affordable electricity, said Laschet. “If the steel industry moves to China and produces the steel there, the world climate is not served” “A steelworks in Duisburg is a contribution to the world climate, because it produces differently there under social and ecological conditions than in India, Russia or China.”
The candidate chosen by the CDU-CSU will be the favourite to become Chancellor in September. Laschet is on record preferring a coalition with the Free Democratic Party, rather than another Grand Coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Polls indicate that the CDU-CSU will get roughly a third of the vote and SPD only about a fifth of the vote. Both parties refuse to do a deal with the far right AfD.
Under Germany’s system of proportional representation there is a 5% vote threshold to be achieved before parties can be apportioned seats in the Bundestag. The political complexion of the newly elected federal government in September will also rest on the relative electoral weight of the Greens, the free-market (FDP) and the left party, Die Linke.
Socialist Action will be reporting on developments in the build-up to the federal elections later this year.