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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

 'Mini-Merkel' successor to German chancellor is more feisty than she might appear

With the clock ticking on Angela Merkel's departure, new CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer will be focusing on strengthening the EU

Newly elected CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer with Manfred Weber of the Bavarian sister party CSU (Christian Social Union) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during the CDU party congress in Hamburg. Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters
Newly elected CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer with Manfred Weber of the Bavarian sister party CSU (Christian Social Union) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during the CDU party congress in Hamburg. Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

German political analysts have a joke with a punchline that seems particularly apt right now: politics is a game played by various people and in the end Angela Merkel wins.

The chancellor’s firm grip on Europe’s strongest economy held true yesterday as her favoured successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, prevailed in a party leadership vote.

It is now much more likely that Ms Merkel will be able to stay in power until 2021.

It was an important and rare example of centrist politics holding in a continent that, according to Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has, in an instant, gone from being the world’s most stable region to “anything but” reliable.

The citizens of Europe’s biggest countries are angry. The French are besieging Emmanuel Macron’s reformist government. The British are so divided, the country still cannot decide how best to trade with its closest partners in Europe when it exits the EU in less than four months. Italy’s populist leaders, meanwhile, have accused the EU of “economic terrorism” in a row over its budgetary plans.

Germany is curiously implacable in the face of so much angst. At the Hamburg convention centre last week, the largely middle-aged, middle-class Christian Democratic Union party was untroubled by any protest movement. The arena’s biggest draw for crowds was not political but an adjacent trade fair for gems dealers from across the world.

It was possible to observe, on one side of the road, dazzling displays and on the other, a slow-burning political drama playing out to an inevitable outcome.

Glittering or not, the conference events mean Ms Merkel is now in a position to secure a legacy on her own terms. That matters in relation to Europe’s place in the world. Her past unflappable form suggests she will not be easily distracted by domestic crises.

Having weathered the global financial collapse after 2008, the subsequent eurozone dramas and the recent backlash against migration, Ms Merkel sees herself as a bulwark against impetuous initiatives.

Instead, she is the voice of reliability and reason for Brussels as it tries to contain the challenges it faces.

For French President Emmanuel Macron, this poses a problem to his own credibility. He is pushing for an overhaul of the EU, with a proposal that the largest economies have a greater share of liabilities and resources. Ms Merkel has responded with her own proposals for reform, which involve combining the defence capabilities of member states and building a common investment reserve.

Without a takeaway legacy from the EU, Mr Macron is simply another French president following in his predecessors’ footsteps, antagonising citizens by threatening pension and tax regulations. As increasingly disturbing images demonstrate – among them French schoolchildren being teargassed by riot police in the escalating violence over fuel price increases – the task of leading France is a thorny challenge and one where Mr Macron seems to be losing control.

Whatever his current troubles, the French president can see some hope on the horizon from the outcome in Hamburg.

More feisty than she might appear, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer comes from a completely different cultural background than Mrs Merkel, who was born in Hamburg but raised behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany. The new leader hails from a rust belt steel town near the border with France and 700 kilometres from Berlin. She is still spotted in the shops of Puttlingen, which has been alternatively German and French over the centuries.

Like Ms Merkel, she was born in the wake of the European Coal and Steel Community, a post-Second World War concept hatched by six countries, including Germany and France, to regulate industrialised production and develop a core European economic area. It served as a predecessor to the EU.

With the clock ticking on Mrs Merkel’s departure, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer will no doubt be focusing on a functioning and stable European administration in Brussels as a priority, however. Despite her affinity with the French, it is doubtful the new party leader will want to push her mentor into doing Mr Macron’s bidding.

Germany is so subsumed by Europe, the Berlin bureaucracy acts seamlessly as a backstop for the Brussels machine when the pressure grows too strong.

Expectations that European leaders will now make a dramatic push to tie a central core of states into one integrated defence, financial and political space are thus likely to be disappointed.

To retain any hopes for his futuristic ambitions, a more mature Mr Macron must first secure a second term, also in 2021.

As a footnote, there is an unhappy precedent for Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer. The last CDU leader to win a contested election, as she has, was Ranier Barzel, who was never chancellor but held the post from 1971 to 1973.

A now forgotten figure, he was replaced by the man he first beat, Helmut Kohl. The circumstances remain murky but it was a turning point in German history.

Developments in Hamburg provide some respite for the European project – but they are far from decisive.