Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s centre-right party, the Christian Democrat Union (CDU), is choosing a new leader today – a decision which will act as curtain raiser for what will be a busy German election year ahead. Mrs Merkel has steered Germany and Europe through a series of crises during her 16-year reign. However, she announced over two years ago that she was not going to seek a fifth term as Chancellor.
Now, her party is seeking its second new leader since she quit that role in 2018.
That person will either run for Chancellor in Germany‘s September 26 election or have a big say in who does run.
Friedrich Merz, a lawyer who was sacked by Mrs Merkel as the leader of the CDU’s parliamentary group in 2002, is the favourite among party supporters.
Among the wider population, though, Mr Merz is seen as a divisive figure, harking back to the Christian Democrats’ neoliberal era – someone more likely to drive centrist voters loyal to Mrs Merkel into the arms of the Greens or centre-left SPD than his CDU rivals Armin Laschet and Norbert Röttgen.
He is nevertheless a staunch supporter of the European Union and NATO, having described himself as “a truly convinced European, a convinced transatlanticist”.
In a 2018 speech at Chatham House, Mr Merz shed light on what his policy priorities will be if he becomes CDU leader and Chancellor.
The leading candidate called on Germany to take a more active role in shaping the EU’s future.
He said: “This country has to sit in the driver’s seat to bring the EU forward in terms of growth and prosperity.”
He argued that Germany has an obligation to be more proactive because it has benefited most from the euro, which he described as “artificially weak.”
The European Central Bank’s loose monetary policy has helped make German exports more competitive than they would have been under the Deutsche mark, he added.
Mr Merz added: “This is one of the fundamental reasons for our strength.
“We have to do more.”
Mr Merz’s comments signalled he might be more open to retooling the eurozone than other conservative voices in his party.
Citing the growing competition Europe faces from China and other corners of the world, he noted it is incumbent on Germany to seize the initiative, if only to preserve its own prosperity.
In a swipe at Mrs Merkel, with whom he has deep policy differences, Mr Merz said Germany should have offered “more profound“ responses to EU reform proposals put forward by French President Emmanuel Macron in recent years.
If the two sides can’t agree on a eurozone budget or finance minister, which Mr Merz described as old French ideas, Berlin and Paris should instead focus on concrete projects, such as improving digital infrastructure.
Mr Macron, who is said to be using Britain’s departure from the EU to increase his influence in the EU, might not like Mr Merz’s approach.
It is no secret the French President is planning to manoeuvre himself as leader of Europe.
In November 2019, Mr Macron travelled to Beijing and met with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
As the two leaders posed for pictures, the French head stood in front of the European flag at the People’s Palace next to the Chinese leader.
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This was viewed as highly unusual as Mr Macron has no formal European Union mandate.
A Politico comment piece argued: “It appeared to show that, for China at least, the French President is viewed as the leader of Europe.”
Both leaders looked on as Chinese Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan and former EU Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan signed an EU-China agreement on geographic indications (GI), providing intellectual property protections for European gourmet food exports to China.
The latest sign of France’s growing importance in EU-China relations came this month, when President Xi sealed a landmark investment pact with the bloc, witnessed by both Mrs Merkel and Mr Macron.
Mr Macron took part in the ceremony at the invitation of the German Chancellor, who represented Germany, which was the holder of the EU Council presidency until the day after the China deal was signed.
Mrs Merkel has been the main proponent of the investment agreement but it will be up to Mr Macron to help drive its implementation, with the deal expected to take effect in 2022 during France’s presidency of the EU Council.
Mikko Huotari, executive director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a Berlin-based think tank, said: “Macron will certainly use the opportunities offered by less UK involvement and the French presidency [of the EU Council] in 2022 to give Europe-China policy more of a French touch.”