Laschet, who also serves as premier of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany's most populous state, was clearly plugging his own merits as the person most likely to succeed Merkel in the federal election set for September.
But his rival Markus Söder was quick to respond. Söder, who serves as premier of another of Germany's largest states — Bavaria — and heads the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of the chancellor's conservatives, pointed out that he had just come out of a 45-minute telephone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron. Their discussion, the Bavarian premier said, had reflected "broad consensus."
Speaking in English, the two leaders had apparently discussed joint aviation projects such as the planned development of a European fighter jet, given that key players in the fields of civilian and military aviation are headquartered in Bavaria. Little doubt therefore that he was aiming to tout both his foreign policy credentials and his profile as a firm advocate of Germany's export sector.
Berlin's growing influence
Germany's conservatives are expected to decide in late May who will be their official candidate for the chancellery. And given Berlin's increasing weight in the European Union and internationally, the stakes are high: whoever wins the top job in German politics is going to face some very tough challenges, said Johannes Varwick, professor of international relations at Halle University.
"Any successor to an incumbent with one and a half decades of foreign policy experience, an incumbent who has been steeled in countless crises, is going to need time to grow into the role," he told DW.
"Meanwhile, Germany's influence in international politics has risen significantly in recent years and the next chancellor will be expected to live up to the country's growing importance. In fact, whoever takes over is going to come under even greater pressure to keep Germany at the forefront of key international developments."
'European' vs. 'an unknown quantity'
When it comes to foreign policy, and European policy in particular, Laschet is without doubt the more experienced of the two contenders. Born in the western city of Aachen, close to both the Belgian and Dutch borders, he grew up with an early understanding and appreciation for the significance of cross-border cooperation.
Even during the COVID-19 crisis, in his capacity as NRW state premier, Laschet has defended the policy of open borders. From 1999 to 2005 he served as a member of the European Parliament, where his focus was on foreign and defense policy. And he has been a passionate and consistent advocate of the process of European integration.
Bavaria's Söder has a very different track record. On European policy, Varwick describes him as "very much an unknown quantity." Thorsten Benner, Director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, goes a step further. Söder, he said, "has little or no attachment to the European project and would have no inhibitions about indulging in opportunistic agitation against Brussels if it served his political ambitions."
Merkel visits Söder
Trans-Atlantic renaissance at a price
One stance that the two do have in common is their more European-centered focus: Both tend to align on issues more with the EU and France than with the United States.
Loyalty to the trans-Atlantic relationship was sorely tested during former US President Donald Trump's four years in office. "For us, America had always been a land of freedom and democracy," Laschet lamented in an address during January's conservative party convention less than two weeks after Trump supporters rioted at the US Capitol.
Söder, too, recently admitted that his love of America had been sorely tested during the Trump years. Both are now investing high hopes in the new US president, Joe Biden, who declared last week at the virtually-held Munich Security Conference that "America is back … the trans-Atlantic alliance is back."
However, Biden's apparent determination to restore trans-Atlantic relations comes at a price. Like his predecessor, he is calling on Europe to step up military spending and shoulder more responsibility in the fields of defense and security. In principle, Söder is comfortable with those demands. But he has insisted: "We are not little children. We are partners, not vassals or underlings," as he recently put it in an interview with The Associated Press news agency.
Munich Security Conference
One obstacle to a renaissance in closer trans-Atlantic relations is Germany's stance on China and Russia. Again, like his predecessor, Biden also appears to believe that trading interests have pushed Berlin to be too lenient in dealings with Moscow and Beijing.
But that seems more than likely to remain Germany's fundamental approach regardless of whether it is Laschet or Söder who wins the race for the chancellery. Laschet recently described the West and China as "competing systems." He did not, however, rule out a role for Chinese tech giant Huawei in the construction of Germany's 5G telecom network — a position that leaves Washington seriously rankled.
Söder said last summer in an interview with German public broadcaster ZDF that "finding the right balance between interests and values seems to me to be the greatest challenge of German foreign policy in the coming years." It is not quite the hard line that Washington would wish for in dealings with Beijing and Moscow.
Soft on Russia?
When it comes to dealing with the Kremlin, what is interesting is that both Laschet and Söder are opposed to American efforts to prevent the completion of the controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany under the Baltic Sea. Laschet has also strongly condemned the reported poisoning attack on Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny,but called for it to be diplomatically addressed separately from energy issues.
And then there was Söder's visit to Moscow a year ago: it was very much in the tradition of similar visits by earlier Bavarian state premiers who had no qualms in promoting a specific Bavarian-Russian trade agenda despite serious political differences.
Germany: Conflicts over Nord Stream 2 reignited
Meanwhile, remarks apparently made by Laschet years ago could still catch up with him. Shortly after the Russian occupation of the Crimean Peninsula, he spoke of what he described as a "marketable anti-Putin populism." Of course, he said, the occupation was a "clear violation of international law." Nevertheless, he argued, if you have a diplomatic relationship with another country, it is important to "try and understand the world from the perspective of that partner."
Omid Nouripour, a foreign policy spokesman for the opposition Green Party, which is widely tipped to be a coalition partner with the conservatives in Germany's next government, was quoted as saying in a newspaper interview that such a degree of tolerance for Russia would make it difficult for Laschet to realize his stated goal of keeping Europe together. For historical and geopolitical reasons, Eastern European countries have long been strongly critical when a German government takes a soft line in its dealings with Moscow.
Merkel visits Söder
Laschet: Assad the lesser of two evils?
In 2014, Laschet even went so far as to offer tentative praise for Russia's role in the Syrian war: "From the very beginning," he said, "Russia has warned about the danger posed by jihadists. Which many in Germany dismissed as propaganda."
He also expressed a degree of understanding for Syrian President Bashar Assad, arguing that before the Syrian uprising a certain amount of religious pluralism had been possible in the country. He also expressed the view that militant Islamism was more dangerous than the Assad regime.
Varwick cautions against overestimating the significance of such sentiments: "They can also be seen as a kind of foreign policy realism that simply asks, what kind of leverage do we have? And are we prepared to use it? Only then do you start considering your rhetorical and strategic approach. I don't think that is fundamentally wrong." But even today, Laschet's comments prompt fellow conservatives to shake their heads.
Statesmanlike on the international stage
Few political insiders expect that either a Chancellor Laschet or a Chancellor Söder would engineer a drastic shift away from the broad lines of Merkel's foreign policy. Benner sees both as likely to continue the longtime chancellor's path, though not all her individual policies will hold up if the conservatives again have to form a coalition government to form a majority.
"On the one hand, because Merkel's course cannot simply be continued due to [inherent] contradictions; on the other hand, because possible coalition partners, especially the Greens, will insist on a change of course on important issues," he said.
"Both are full-blooded political professionals," said Varwick. "And neither of them has really been identified with specific foreign policy causes or concerns. Whichever one of the two becomes the next chancellor will quickly discover that foreign policy is one of the key challenges."
Laschet is certainly more experienced than Söder. But both are well networked internationally. And, potentially as least, both might claim to have what it takes to cut a statesmanlike figure on the international stage."