Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the woman many consider the natural successor to Angela Merkel both in leadership style and political agenda, has set out why she should be the next head of Germany's embattled conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Wednesday's press conference in Berlin was a home game for the CDU general secretary, who staged it in the office representing Saarland, the small southwestern state she governed from 2011 to 2018. The CDU's state party had just unanimously nominated her to lead the national party, and potentially be its chancellor candidate in the next election, which is scheduled for 2021, but could easily come sooner.
Kramp-Karrenbauer addressed her most obvious problem — the curse and blessing of being Merkel's unofficial favorite — first by highlighting her connections to the chancellor, and then by insisting she has something new to offer.
"This is the end of an era with which I associate many personal relations and personal experiences," she said, before hastily making clear that she would not be staying in the chancellor's shadow. "But that era is over, and such an era can neither simply be continued nor be reversed," she said. "The decisive question is what you do with what you have inherited that is new and better."
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Reawakening the CDU
She also emphasized her recent "listening tour" of the party's grassroots organizations, and reported that the members were full of "pride, frustration, concern and uncertainty" — all of which were understandable feelings, given the CDU's poor election result in the state of Hesse and new opinion polls that suggest that the center-right party, and pragmatic centrist politics in general, are in slow decline.
The CDU's dilemma is that it is not clear which way it should turn to retrieve those lost voters. Though the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has definitely benefited from Merkel's perceived failure to control migration, recent state election results also show that the left-wing environmentalist Green party is also drawing away voters.
Kramp-Karrenbauer's solution appears to emphasize the CDU's reputation for "responsibility" — a word that she mentioned a lot, and which is also perhaps her strongest card, given that she has more government experience than either of her two main opponents: Friedrich Merz, a financial manager who has spent the past nine years out of politics, and Jens Spahn, the 38-year-old health minister with a weakness for populist rhetoric.
Her other tactic to win over the divided electorate was to insist on the CDU's centrist message. She warned against a divisive campaign, expressed the hope that both Merz and Spahn would be part of the leadership even if they didn't win, and insisted that the CDU "wants to remain a party that values the binding above the divisive."
Perennial migration problem
Kramp-Karrenbauer also used her 20-minute speech to address the worry that has most divided the CDU over the past few years: Merkel's decision in September 2015 to open the border with Austria for a group of refugees, and the political fallout that came with it.
"It's not issue No. 1, but it's there as an issue, and there's no point not talking about it," Kramp-Karrenbauer told reporters. "But if you think you can have the discussion with the idea that you can reverse what happened in 2015, we have to be honest ... and say: What happened in 2015 is reality, it's a fact. The second point is, and we have to make this very clear, is that very early after 2015, we worked to make sure that what happened in 2015 would not happen again, something I saw and helped work towards as state premier."
This was a different tone than the one set out by Spahn, who last week called migration "the white elephant in the room" in a guest article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "This debate is neither finished nor resolved" for many people, he wrote, adding that 2015 had left the impression that the state had lost control, images that "won't leave people's heads so easily." Both Spahn and Merz have called for the party to return to its "core values" of security and rule of law.
Kramp-Karrenbauer, meanwhile, emphasized international solutions: The trust in security, she said, "cannot be a question that only begins in a national context."
"We in Germany live in an open Europe, we live in a Schengen Area, and it is our task to decide how this Schengen Area can be completed," she added. "How can it create internal safety, guarantee internal freedom, but organize external security? The question of how to protect ourselves from criminals is not one we can answer in Germany alone."
There is about a month to go before roughly 1,000 CDU delegates elect their next leader at a party conference in Hamburg.