Merkel finished: German Chancellor gears up for departure as CDU chooses new leader

Angela Merkel outlines plans for European Health Union

Mrs Merkel, who has been German Chancellor since 2005, has pledged to step down this year, marking the end of an era – and leaving a significant gap to fill. The new CDU leader will be elected by 1,001 delegates at a digital congress, with four potential candidate: Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz, Norbert Roettgen and Jens Spahn.

However, to complicate matters, Germany’s next leader could actually come from a different source – long-time Bavaria-based ally the Christian Social Union, led by Markus Soeder, seen by many as Mrs Merkel’s heir-apparent.

Mr Laschet is the Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) in the west of the country, Germany’s most populous region, with provides 298 of the 1,001 congress delegates.

However, his appeal outside of NRW is limited.

Mr Laschet has cultivated close contacts with French President Emmanuel Macron, and last year suggested Berlin had taken “too long to react” to French calls for European Union reform.

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He is more likely to attract supporters of Mrs Merkel than the other candidates.

CDU sources also believe he would also be in a good position to negotiate a coalition government with Germany’s powerful Green party, and also has an election win under his belt, in a state poll in 2017.

While not endorsing any particular candidate, Mrs Merkel last year said he had “the tools” to take over her job.

Meanwhile Mr Merz narrowly lost a 2018 leadership contest to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Mrs Merkel’s preferred successor, who has since quit after admitting she was not up to the task.

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Mr Merz, 65, was manoeuvred out of his role as CDU parliamentary leader by Mrs Merel in 2002, and who has not been a member of the Bundestag – Germany’s legislature – since 2009.

However, he has remained highly influential while undertaking a successful career in business and is popular with the CDU’s rank-and-file.

The most eurosceptic of the potential candidates, if elected, he would be likely to move the CDU to the right, and last year said the EU must be careful not to become a “transfer union” in which richer member states were asked to bankroll poorer member states.

He is also critical of the European Central Bank when it comes to administration of the eurozone.

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Outsider Mr Roettgen, 55, has boosted his chances by positioning himself as a moderniser, and is likely to appeal more strongly to women and younger people.

Mr Roettgen beat Mr Laschet in a 2010 contest to be party chief in NRW but lost a subsequent state election, after which Mrs Merkel sacked him as environment minister.

Afterwards he became chairman of the Bundestag’s powerful foreign affairs committee, and wants Germany to take a firmer stance with Russia and China.

Mr Spahn, 40, Germany’s health minister, has boosted his credentials with his capable management of the coronavirus crisis.

Some members of the CDU, unconvinced by the party’s other three contenders, would like him to run for chancellor, although he has been coy on the subject, saying on Wednesday: “As of today, I rule that out.”

As for Mr Soeder, 54, who spoke to the Congress yesterday, he is likewise coy on the subject of replacing Mrs Merkel as Chancellor, and has frequently insisted his place is in Bavaria.

However, he has also insisted the CDU and CSU will decide together who should be their chancellor candidate.

Mr Soeder has cautioned against moving away from the centre ground occupied by Mrs Merkel for the last 15 years.

No German chancellor has ever come from the CSU.

Speaking at the start of the day, Mrs Merkel said: “No matter who is elected, I know all three candidates.

“I would like a team to be elected that takes the fate of our proud People’s Party into its own hands and then works with all its members to find the right answers for the tasks of the future.”

Former German MEP Hans-Olaf Henkel spoke to about the forthcoming contest in July.

“If I was in the CDU, I would not only vote for him as Party leader, I would also vote for him as Candidate for Chancellorship.”

(Additional reporting by Monika Pallenberg)

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