Germany on brink as Merkel’s successor on collision course with EU over Russia links

Germany: Insider addresses how Laschet and Biden will get on

Armin Laschet has been appointed new federal chairman of Germany’s centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU). He was elected earlier this month, in a runoff against conservative Friedrich Merz by 521 votes to 466, to resolve a three-way contest that also featured outsider Norbert Röttgen. Among the three candidates, Mr Laschet, who since 2017 has been the premier of Germany’s most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia, is the one who stands most strongly for a continuation of Angela Merkel’s course and a “CDU of the centre”.

In his victory speech, Mr Laschet promised to fight for the party to do well in upcoming regional elections and to keep hold of the position of Chancellor.

He is generally seen in line with Mrs Merkel’s views on key issues.

However, Mr Laschet has expressed views on Russia, Syria and China that put him outside the CDU mainstream and which have now come back to haunt him.

He warned against demonising Russian President Vladimir Putin for his annexation of Crimea, criticised Washington for supporting rebels trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and, as leader of the German state with the closest economic ties to China, voiced support for deepening the relationship with Beijing.

Asked in November about shutting out Chinese telecommunications group Huawei from Germany’s 5G network — a move supported by his CDU rivals Mr Röttgen and Mr Merz — Mr Laschet repeated Mrs Merkel’s economy-over-security talking points.

He said: “The consequences of exclusion would be a delay in deploying this technology.

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“That can’t be our goal. As an export-oriented country we have a large interest in free trade.

“German business lives from international exports, also those to China.”

Particularly striking were the remarks he made at the German-Russian Forum in Berlin a year ago, in which he appeared to cast doubt on whether Russia was engaged in election meddling, cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns, saying there was a need to clear up which of these allegations were true and which are invented.

A year earlier, in the aftermath of Russia’s poisoning of former intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury he openly questioned the British Government’s blaming of Moscow for the attack.

His controversial foreign policy views are likely to cause upheaval in Germany if he does become Chancellor, as members of the German Parliament and several leading industrial countries are asking for a tougher line on China and Russia.

Noah Barkin, a managing editor with the research firm the Rhodium Group, told CNBC: “There is a great deal of pressure to be stricter with China.

“Under Merkel, Germany did not really have red lines.

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“That needs to change. Europe needs to develop stricter boundaries.”

He added: “There is a great deal of pressure for change from lawmakers in the Bundestag but also from outside.

“German allies like India, Japan, Canada are all hiking the pressure on Germany, it will be much more difficult for Germany just to sit on the fence in the future.”

Pressure will also be coming from the EU if Mr Laschet wins the German election in September, as the bloc’s chief Ursula von der Leyen has more than once warned of the risks of closer ties with Putin’s Russia.

In her first State of the Union speech last year, the President of the European Commission said: “To those that advocate closer ties with Russia, I say that the poisoning of Alexei Navalny with an advanced chemical agent is not a one-off.

“We have seen the pattern in Georgia and Ukraine, Syria and Salisbury — and in election meddling around the world.

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“This pattern is not changing.”

Moreover, after the recent arrest of leading Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, Ms von der Leyen urged the Kremlin to “immediately release him and ensure his safety”.

US President Joe Biden also called on President Putin to release Navalny during their phone call last week.

Mr Biden pressed the Russian leader on a number of issues, including alleged election interference in the 2020 election, Ukraine sovereignty, the massive SolarWind cyber hack, and Navalny.

On Thursday, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US President did not hold back in conveying his concerns about the actions of the Russian government during the call.

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