The curtains seem to be finally closing on the Shakespearean epic that has been the prolonged succession of Merkel. The struggle that had commenced two years ago with the voters in the wealthy south German states of Bayern and Hessen putting a plague on both houses of the CDU/CSU has been simultaneously a comedy, history and tragedy spanning (or one could say Spahn-ing) two acts.
The first act, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s comedy of errors (or if you are inclined to defend her, much ado about nothing) consisting of her comments on LGBT+ issues, in a way more broadly representative of metropolitan values, and calls for what was described as mass political based censorship of digital content by some, would morph into the second act.
The second act, the tragedy, a response to the CDU/CSU’s worst-ever national performance at the European parliamentary elections of May 2019, would feature her “Et tu, Brute?” moment as report after report highlighted how Merkel had allegedly lost confidence in her.
The culmination of the decision of the Thüringen CDU to support the liberal FDP’s candidacy (which was itself supported by the AfD), despite Kramp-Karrenbauer’s clear direction not to, would end Karrenbauer’s tenure on the stage.
But this article is not a history lesson. Rather, it is the case for the CDU to cast Norbert Röttgen in its leading role. As a veteran transatlanticist, firmly rooted in the preservation of the post-cold war liberal consensus, he offers Germany and Europe the best chance to preserve, or at very least delay the end of, the international order.
Pro-EU but in a good faith and open manner that acknowledges its worst excesses during the Brexit negotiations, and determined to create a new relationship between the EU and UK that is “positive and constructive”, Röttgen is emphatically the best candidate for the preservation of ties with post-Brexit Britain, having joined with Tom Tugendhat to propose an Anglo-German friendship treaty.
He would even go so far as to propose a continental partnership immediately after the referendum, which would have granted the UK free movement of capital, goods and services without demanding either free movement or participation in supranational institutions.
A pro-EU realist who wants to strengthen the union’s democratic systems while also understanding the need to ensure a willing Britain participates in European cooperation (instead of being obliged to by a dogmatic EU), Röttgen is the best candidate for both Britain and for the European Union.
Willing to tell the hard truths that Germans need to hear, that the two per cent target must be met in order to preserve transatlantic solidarity and that the migrant crisis is not yet over, he offers a refreshing and honest voice on foreign policy.
Not long after the CDU’s leadership election at the end of April, Germany will assume the rotating presidency of European council and will be in a position to help set the agenda. With it being increasingly likely that Merkel will be obliged to resign following the CDU leadership election, what better way to mark Germany’s turn in helping to set that agenda than by providing a nation confident in standing up for the neoliberal world order?
An assertive Germany that stands up for western values is something we should all welcome. The values that have dominated our neoliberal world order – democracy, human dignity, liberalism and free-market capitalism – are values worth preserving.
While they are being challenged by members of “the west” such as the Visegrád Four, and are under further attack by an assertive Russia, China and India, a confident internationalist Germany could prove the tipping force in ensuring the west’s foundational values remain strong in the face of challenges.
And Röttgen is not just the right man for Germany and the international order, but the right man (and yes, sadly, all the candidates for the role are men) to deal with Germany’s domestic issues too.
While Merz has attempted to alter the politics of two decades prior to a more populistic message designed to address the AfD, AfD-lite will not be the remedy promised – the immense potential to turn off the centrists (with 80 per cent of the electorate identifying as broadly centrist) and push them into the arms of the Greens and Social Democrats cannot be understated. Indeed, his ability to turn off the centre and inability to win over other parties could very well cost the CDU control of the chancellorship.
Compare this to Röttgen who, free from the factional interests of Merz or Laschet, representing the right and dogmatic centre respectively, can unify the CDU as the volkspartei of the centre-right. And while his idea of a more assertive Germany may turn off the country’s more professional classes, his impressive climate credentials should help to counterbalance it and make the formation of a federal black-green coalition far smoother.
The fate of Germany’s centre-right will be decided in October 2021. Without Röttgen at the helm, voters will be right to take their pound of flesh.