AKK, exit stage right. Photographer: Carsten Koall/Getty Images Europe
The resignation of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK) as the leader of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) hit the German and European political elites by surprise. However, this comes with some serious problems, which affect politics beyond German borders.
It was on Monday, 10 February 2020 at 9 am, when AKK declared her gradual resignation from her post as CDU leader in a party board meeting. It barely took minutes for the news to get out to the press. AKK’s resignation comes as the second bad news for the CDU, less than five days after her companions in Thuringia together with the far-right AfD (“Alternative for Germany”) voted for the liberal candidate running for state premier – despite all warnings from AKK. It was this “breach in a dyke” that led to her leadership’s collapse. Officially, this step has had "matured and grown within me for quite some time", according to AKK. Furthermore, she couldn’t accept to split the party leadership and the upcoming chancellor candidacy. This is what Merkel stood for since she took over the chancellery in 2005, until she nominated AKK - then Saarland’s state premier - to become her successor. Indeed, on 7 December 2018 she had been elected chairwoman at a party congress in Hamburg (Merkel’s place of birth) with 51.75 per cent of the votes against Friedrich Merz, a former chairman of the CDU’s Bundestag group during Schröder’s reign, who had been displaced by Merkel’s rise in the early 2000s. With only 18 (!) votes ahead of her opponent, this day marked the beginning of the party’s split between Merkel’s loyalists and the more conservative, neo-liberal wing, de facto led by Friedrich Merz.
AKK’s leadership had always been contentious and marked by some blunders. During carnival 2019, she caused some outrage after cracking a rather tasteless joke about intersexuals. She failed in mobilising the younger generation for her party by referring to Fridays For Future’s school strikers as truants. Albeit this wasn’t unique in the German political sphere, a Youtuber named “Rezo” published a one-hour-video entitled “the destruction of the CDU” shortly ahead of the 2019 European elections, in which he pilloried the CDU’s past policies. As a result, the hashtag #neveragainCDU trended on Twitter and the party’s European election results were exceptionally poor. During her press conference after the election, she accused critical Youtubers of being "opinion makers" and announced a need for discussion, which has been widely interpreted as an initiative to restrict freedom of expression, even within her own party. Finally, despite her pledge that the party leadership required full attention, which explicitly ruled out taking over a ministry, she used her first opportunity to join the cabinet after Ursula von der Leyen was elected President of the European Commission and therefore had to hand over her post as defence minister.
Did these blunders primarily lead to AKK’s resignation? Probably not. Rather, the growing unrest within her party seemed to gradually undermine her authority peaking in the Thuringia CDU’s refusal to follow her advice not to vote for the liberal candidate. Subsequently, Merkel – then on an official working visit on the African continent – called the events in Thuringia “unforgivable”, thus stabbed AKK in the back. In addition, none of her vice-chairmen has acted in her defence. AKK’s loss of authority became irreversible and undeniable.
The unexpected resignation of AKK has sparked the public debate about the CDU’s chancellor candidacy. Friedrich Merz is widely considered the favourite for this post. This, in turn, might lead to an early ending of the current government coalition. First, the Social Democratic coalition partner might not see a further basis of cooperation in case the rather market-friendly Merz takes over the party leadership and second, it is Friedrich Merz himself who might push Merkel off the field keeping in mind that it was her who seemingly ended his political career by displacing him as parliamentary group leader in 2002. However, there are other ambitious CDU representatives, which might aim at seizing their chance to climb to the party’s throne, such as Armin Laschet, party leader and state premier in North-Rhine Westphalia, and Jens Spahn, currently serving as health minister. Also, the Bavarian state premier, Markus Söder, from the CDU’s sister party, never explicitly ruled out his ambitions for the top job. Finally, Norbert Röttgen, chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee and former health minister, until his dismissal by Merkel, was the first to announce his official campaign on 18 February.
With several high-ranking candidates in the starting block, the party will not suffer from a lack of willingness to take the helm. Nevertheless, the choice of the next candidate is nothing less than a choice of the party’s direction.
AKK’s sudden resignation, however, poses a serious problem that reaches far beyond the party’s borders – the upcoming German presidency of the Council of the EU. As Croatia's successor in July this year, Germany will begin the new trio presidency, followed by Portugal and Slovenia. At their first meeting in May 2019 the respective foreign ministers published a comprehensive but still rather vague declaration in which they outline, among other things, their commitment to “a united EU, grounded on common values, democracy, human rights and the rule of law”.
In fact, the German presidency entails some issues of major importance for long-term EU policies such as the future relationship between Great Britain and the EU, the upcoming Multiannual Financial Framework and, in this context, the Green Deal.
By the end of this year, Brussels and London aim to reach a comprehensive agreement on the post-Brexit EU-UK relations, which is nothing less than a balancing act between keeping the UK as close to the EU as possible without undermining the EU’s red lines such as the “fundamental four” (freedom of goods, capital, services and movement) and a variety of standards - an endeavour that might well take decades. An undetermined Council presidency could therefore not only be a disadvantage for the EU’s bargaining power but even more a peril to the future EU-UK relations.
Another hot topic is the forthcoming Multiannual Financial Framework, negotiations on which could last until later this year. To compensate for the loss of Great Britain as a major net contributor, the remaining members of the bloc must increase their commitments simply to maintain the status quo. Berlin, on the other hand, not only rejects this necessity but even wants to cut the European budget. Apart from the fact that European Council President Charles Michel's budget proposal is far from being innovative, as member states mainly debate regional development expenditure and agricultural subsidies - two components with a rather negligible European added value - the EU faces major challenges that require a generous budget.
Von der Leyen’s vision of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 requires not only good will but above all billions of euros, 1000 by 2030 to be exact according to the European Green Deal Investment Plan. Yet, while the German government supports carbon neutrality by 2050, actions will have to follow.
It is the growing German post-Brexit influence that should be exerted over the course of its presidency in order to pave the way for a future-oriented EU with a generous budget. This will fail, however, if the German government is primarily concerned with its own state. With the current cabinet as a mere caretaker government, the lacking ambitions of both the chancellor and AKK are nothing less than ballast for Brussels. It is AKK’s gradual resignation that could have some negative long-term consequences for the EU as a whole. With Merkel’s complete loss of ambition and a coalition partner that is only waiting for an opportunity to opt-out, it should be the CDU leader’s calling to set the agenda. Instead, AKK primarily intends to moderate the selection process of the coming chancellor candidate from the top. As things stand, Brussels is on its own.