Approximately three weeks ago, the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) held an election to replace their leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbaur, who herself was Angela Merkel’s replacement after Merkel decided to step down from the CDU leadership in 2018. While Kramp-Karrenbaur had resigned last February, following difficulties she faced with establishing her authority within the party, an election to replace her had had to be postponed as a result of the pandemic.
The results of the elections, wherein long-term Merkel loyalist Armin Laschet was elected, has a number of implications for the direction Germany may be heading in with regards to climate and energy policy. While Laschet prides himself on the way in which he will essentially act as a continuation of Merkel and her policies, saying, “It’s important to me that we don’t choose a rupture with Angela Merkel, but rather continuity,” and highlighting how the 16 years of Merkel’s chancellorship brought about positive developments for Germany and that such policies should be maintained.
While Laschet has only been elected as the leader of the CDU, not as the Chancellor, he is a strong contender for the role. His main opponent can be seen as Markus Söder, the Minister-President of Bavaria, from the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU). Söder, it should be noted, has been portraying himself as an ecologically-oriented conservative and vying for an alliance with the Greens, who are at this point Germany’s second-largest party. Such an alliance would deliver a majority of almost 60%.
If Laschet were to emerge victorious from this race for the Chancellor position, it is likely he would not push as strongly for the same green agenda that Söder might. Despite being a strong backer of the transition Germany has in plan to a more hydrogen-based economy—again not diverging from the position established by Merkel—he, nonetheless, brings with him a reputation of being quite pro-industry. This is especially the case with regard to his role in Germany’s coal phase-out.
Though Laschet has argued for the need for climate action, he has also stressed the importance of achieving a balance so that climate policies, such as climate taxes and rules, do not cripple the economy. His personal background is somewhat telling as well: as the son of a coal miner coming from a coal-reliant state, he played a notable role in delaying the date by which Germany plans to phase out coal to 2038.
This phase-out plan stipulates that the mines and utilities impacted by this exit from coal would be compensated for their lost production. Overall, approximately €40 billion has been earmarked for compensation payments, with the four states with lignite mines and coal-fired power plants being targeted in particular—namely, Brandenburg, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and North Rhine-Westphalia.
As the former Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s biggest coal mining state, it is not surprising that Laschet played a significant part in such negotiations. In fact, he has even he has expressed his support of the phase-out, despite the way in which it is North Rhine-Westphalia that will bear much of the burden of this policy. However, regardless of the support he has voiced, Laschet has also taken a notably industry-friendly position when it comes to the compensation that the owners of such coal plants will receive.
While Laschet can be seen as mainly a continuation of Merkel’s policies, some have argued they diverge when it comes to climate action. It is claimed that Laschet’s view of tough climate policies pushing industry away, given higher power prices and stricter regulations, diverges from Merkel’s stance of how taking determined action on climate brings long-term economic stability.
As Franziska Brantner, an MP for the German Greens has expressed, “If Laschet carries his course on climate and coal policy in NRW (North Rhine-Westphalia) over to the federal government, things will look bad for climate protection in Germany.” This sentiment is particularly telling since, as mentioned above, the Greens appear to be the most likely coalition partner of the CDU/CSU, but if Laschet maintains his current position, it may turn out to be a rocky coalition.
It remains to be seen how well Laschet will perform on the national stage—with the upcoming elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatine to act as early indicators of his political success. Likewise, whether or not a more ‘green’ conservative, such as Markus Söder, will take Laschet’s place as the joint CDU/CSU candidate for Chancellor also seems likely to become clearer with time.
One thing is more evident, though: whoever is to replace her, Merkel’s departure creates a leadership vacuum at the EU level that is going to be difficult to fill, at least at the current moment. The loss of the political leadership and direction she has long provided the EU could have negative impacts on how well difficult compromises she played a key role in crafting, such as with the raising of the EU emissions reductions targets, hold up in the absence of such strong leadership.