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‘There’s nothing retro about me’ – Friedrich Merz on his bid to succeed Angela Merkel

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As soon as Friedrich Merz launched his bid to lead Germany’s Christian Democrats, critics said he was an anachronism, a man from the 1990s who wanted to drag the CDU back to its conservative past.

Mr Merz brushes the criticism aside. “There’s nothing retro about me,” he told the Financial Times. “In fact, I would say I’m the most modern of the three candidates, even though I’m the oldest.

“How come? Because all the issues Germany will be facing in the next decade” — an ascendant China, the new great-power rivalry, profound technological change — I’ve been dealing with them for years,” he said.

It is a bold claim for a man who is still seen by many — even in his own party — as out of step with the times: a millionaire corporate lawyer who defends traditional values and thinks the CDU has drifted too far to the left under his old rival, Angela Merkel.

Many Merkelites think Mr Merz is too abrasive and too rightwing to lead their party. “I’ve nothing against him personally, but I don’t see how he can appeal to, say, workers in eastern Germany,” said one senior CDU MP. “He’s not the right person for our age.” 

Mr Merz, 65, is standing in an election that will have far-reaching consequences for Germany’s — and the EU’s — future. Whoever is chosen as the CDU’s new leader on January 16 is likely to succeed Ms Merkel when she steps down this year after 16 years as chancellor.

The contest is effectively a choice between continuity — the Merkel loyalist Armin Laschet, prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia — and a fresh start under Mr Merz, an unapologetic rightwinger.

Mr Merz, left, debating with the other candidates for the CDU leadership, Norbert Röttgen and Armin Laschet © Bernd von Jutrczenka/EPA-EFE

The third candidate, Norbert Röttgen, one of the CDU’s leading foreign policy experts, is seen as a long shot, though he has been surging in the polls in recent weeks thanks to a clever, digitally-savvy campaign that has garnered him support among younger CDU members and MPs. 

Mr Merz has also been reaching out to the rank-and-file, and his message is simple: that with Ms Merkel’s departure from power this year, Germany has a chance to break out in a new direction. 

“For the first time in our postwar history, we will have an election where the incumbent chancellor isn’t running as a candidate,” he said. That holds risks, but also opportunities: the chance to “readjust our policies”. For the first time in years, Germany’s main centre-right party has the chance to overhaul its offer to voters — and “to be a bit freer in the decisions we make”.

Ever since he launched his bid in February, Mr Merz has positioned himself as the man best suited to leading this renewal. The CDU needed to sharpen its profile after the consensual, ideologically fuzzy Merkel years. “We can’t keep saying: let’s have both x and y,” he told the FT. “We can’t keep saying yes and no at the same time.”

The idea is for the party to return to a pro-business economic agenda and a sharper focus on core conservative values. That way, Mr Merz believes, it can win back those who abandoned it “because they couldn’t figure out what [it] actually stands for any more”. Some of those defected to the populist Alternative for Germany; some, he said, no longer vote at all.

But many Christian Democrats do not agree. “The Merkel wing in the CDU says you would win back fewer conservative voters than you would lose by veering away from the centrist Merkel line,” said Andreas Rödder, a historian at Mainz University. “There’s a real conflict there over strategy.”

Mr Laschet is typical of the establishment CDU voices who dismiss Mr Merz’s offer of change. “There are a lot of people who pine for the CDU as it was 20 years ago,” he said. “That’s just going backwards.”

The reference to 20 years ago is pointed. Mr Merz was a leading light in the CDU in the 1990s and early 2000s, carving out a reputation as a pro-market reformer who famously said every citizen should be able to work out their income tax on a beer mat. 

Mr Merz with Angela Merkel in the German parliament in February 2000 © Reuters

But in 2002 Ms Merkel shoved him aside to become leader of the CDU parliamentary group. For a few years Mr Merz sulked from the sidelines, and then in 2009 quit the Bundestag to pursue a career in business, rising to the post of chairman of BlackRock Germany and becoming a millionaire in the process.

Some in the CDU think the motivation for his leadership bid is personal. “It’s late revenge on Merkel, who dropped him like a hot potato,” said one party source. 

But Mr Merz dismissed the notion that he had a score to settle with the chancellor as “nonsense”. “Ms Merkel and I had an arrangement, and she didn’t stick to it,” he said. “But that’s OK. It’s 20 years ago. I got over it long ago.”

Mr Merz is leading his rivals in polls of CDU members. Yet they are not an accurate gauge of his chances. The 1,001 delegates who will elect a new leader are cautious functionaries and elected officials: they might find it too risky to back a candidate who is adored by the CDU rank-and-file but could struggle to connect with the type of middle-of-the-road voters who, for the past 16 years, have elected Ms Merkel. 

Delegates may also worry about his ability to forge a coalition with the Greens — widely expected to enter government after this year’s Bundestag election. Mr Merz admitted that he was “not [the Greens’] preferred opponent”. “That would be Armin Laschet. He would leave them in peace and let them do their own thing and bring the CDU along,” he said.

Mr Merz’s gaffes may also give the delegates pause. He recently got into trouble for appearing to suggest that some gay people were a danger to children (he blames his political opponents for “aggressively misunderstanding” him). And in an extraordinary outburst in October, he accused “parts of the party establishment” of plotting to thwart his leadership hopes by delaying the election. 

“That went down really badly,” said the senior CDU MP. “It’s not the kind of tone the party executive likes.”

Mr Merz is unrepentant. “I’m someone who is not backward at coming forward,” he told the FT. “My view is that sometimes you have to speak plainly. And the problem is that people just aren’t used to that any more.”



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UK ends damaging post-Brexit clash over status of EU envoy

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UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab has finally ended a corrosive diplomatic dispute over the status of the EU’s ambassador in London, a stand-off that had added to post-Brexit tensions.

Raab had previously refused to grant João Vale de Almeida full diplomatic status after Brexit took effect on January 1, arguing the EU was an “international organisation” not a state.

Brussels retaliated by shutting Britain’s head of mission to the EU, Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, out of key meetings with EU officials, adding to Brexit tensions on trade and Northern Ireland.

But on Wednesday the issue was settled after a meeting between Raab and Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief.

Officials briefed on the deal said Vale de Almeida would now receive the same diplomatic recognition as his counterparts in EU missions in all other world capitals, including Washington and Beijing.

In a joint statement, issued at a G7 meeting in London, Raab and Borrell said they had reached an agreement based on “goodwill and pragmatism” on an establishment agreement for the EU delegation to the UK.

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While Vale de Almeida will enjoy full ambassadorial status, British officials said Raab had secured a deal “which gives us some of what we want” regarding the legal situation of EU staff in London.

EU officials will enjoy a largely similar status to other diplomats but with some downgrades: notably, under the agreement, they will not have immunity from prosecution for road traffic accidents.

Raab insisted on this carve-out following the death of Harry Dunn, a British motorcyclist killed in 2019 in a collision with a vehicle driven by Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US diplomat. She returned to the US claiming diplomatic immunity. 

But many British diplomats were dismayed at how long it had taken to resolve the dispute. “It was a stupid thing to do in the first place and we’ve had to back down,” said one former ambassador.

The diplomatic rapprochement was hailed in Brussels as a sign of a “new cycle” in UK-EU relations following the European parliament’s formal ratification last month of the trade deal between the two sides, which took effect on January 1.

There has also been a thawing in relations over the management of tensions in Northern Ireland, as London and Brussels look for ways to soften border checks on goods coming from the British mainland to the region.

Vale de Almeida will now get to present his diplomatic credentials to the Queen — an honour not available to the heads of international missions.

Boris Johnson has never recognised the EU as equivalent in status to a national government but Number 10 insiders insisted that the Foreign Office — not the prime minister — was responsible for the diplomatic dispute.

Meanwhile, Ireland and the UK announced plans for the first meeting in two years of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, a structure created under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for the two countries to liaise on issues around Northern Ireland. 

“We are aware that there are sincerely held concerns in different communities in Northern Ireland in relation to a number of issues and firmly agree that the best way forward is through dialogue and engagement,” said Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis and Ireland’s foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney in a joint statement after they met in Dublin on Wednesday afternoon.

The meeting will take place in June, ahead of the July marching season in Northern Ireland, which could inflame tensions between unionists — who feel that their region’s status in the UK is under threat from post-Brexit trading arrangements — and nationalists, who are pushing for a vote on a united Ireland. 

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France threatens to cut power to Jersey as fishing tensions rise

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France has threatened to cut off its power supply to Jersey in the Channel Islands, as tensions rise with the UK over the post-Brexit fishing regime.

Following the UK’s full departure from the bloc in January, French fishermen have expressed concerns at difficulties in receiving the necessary licences to fish in British waters.

The dispute also comes at a time when UK and EU negotiators are in discussions over the 2021 catch quota for shared fishing stocks.

Jersey, the largest channel island and a British crown dependency, receives 95 per cent of its electricity from France through underwater cables. Its foreign policy is governed by the UK, which means it is treated as a third country by the EU.

Annick Girardin, the French maritime minister, told France’s National Assembly she was “revolted” that Jersey had granted 41 fishing licences that included conditions and specific criteria that were “decided unilaterally and without explanation”.

“It’s unacceptable,” she told lawmakers. “We’re ready to resort to retaliatory measures . . . concerning Jersey, I’ll remind you of the transport of electricity via submarine cables.” Girardin added she would “regret” any action but “we’ll do it if we have to”.

French fishermen and ministers have been complaining for two weeks about the difficulty of gaining access to British waters despite the agreement on fisheries reached at the end of last year.

The anger among French fishermen at the delays in receiving licences for fishing in UK has prompted barricades for lorries arriving in Europe with UK-landed fish.

Clement Beaune, France’s junior minister for European Affairs, last week threatened to block regulations that would allow UK financial firms to do business in the EU if Britain does not respect its Brexit commitments on fishing.

Bertrand Sorre, an MP for President Emmanuel Macron’s governing La République en Marche party, gave the example of a fisherman from Granville in Normandy who had previously fished for scallops and whelks for an average of 40 days a year off Jersey; he had been told he could fish for only 11 days this year, and only for scallops.

Ian Gorst, Jersey’s external relations minister, said it had issued the licences in accordance with the UK’s trade and co-operation agreement with the EU and the new regime would “take time for all to adjust”.

“If French fishermen or the authorities have further evidence they would like to submit, we will update the licences to reflect that evidence,” he said in a statement.

The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are clear that Jersey is responsible for its own territorial waters.”

UK business minister Nadhim Zahawi urged both sides to “iron out” issues with fishing. “We’ve got to look at this urgently and the best way to fix this is to work together,” he told Sky News.

A senior UK official said the government had been taken aback by the strength of the French reaction, which was seen as an “aggressive escalation” given that the UK had been working together on the question of licensing. “It’s a strange way to behave, from what is meant to be a friendly country,” they added.



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Hello, Berlin? Germany’s future raises foreign policy concerns for allies

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The writer is Fritz Stern chair at the Brookings Institution

President Joe Biden has made it clear that he really, really wants to work with Europe. After the four traumatic years of the Trump presidency, that seems an opportunity not to be missed. Also, Moscow and Beijing are undeterred by US and EU sanctions over the jailing of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and the mistreatment of Uyghurs in China.

They are dialling up the pressure on Europe with countersanctions, expulsions of diplomats and thuggish-sounding threats. But in Brussels, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is fighting with European Council president Charles Michel over charges of sexism and a Turkish sofa, instead of getting a grip on a double-dip recession and the pandemic.

British premier Boris Johnson is in trouble over costly wallpaper. French president Emmanuel Macron, up for re-election in 2022, is neck-and-neck in the polls with his far-right rival Marine Le Pen, while retired and current military officers are warning of civil war.

This would seem to be the moment for Germany, as a responsible neighbour, to step up and help out. But Europe’s most powerful economy is going to the polls even sooner than France: on September 26. As the 16-year tenure of Chancellor Angela Merkel comes to a close, the six parties scrambling to rule in the post-Merkel era are somewhat less than focused on goings-on beyond Germany’s borders.

The reason is the fragmentation of Germany’s colour-coded party landscape. In current polling, the Greens are fighting for first place with the CDU (black) at about 25 per cent, with the Social Democrats (red) far behind at 15 per cent, followed by the liberal Free Democrats (yellow) and the Left party (dark red) at around 11 per cent each.

The far-right Alternative for Germany is so radical that Germany’s domestic intelligence service wants to place it under observation. No other party will work with it, but it still captures about a tenth of the vote. This increases the likelihood that Germany’s next government will be a three-way coalition, with a kaleidoscope of possible combinations: black-green (or the reverse, with the CDU as junior partner); “Jamaica” (CDU-Greens-liberals); “traffic light” (Greens-SPD-liberals); and finally, “R2G” (SPD-Left-Greens).

This is why the small parties’ ideas suddenly matter. But in terms of foreign and security policy, none of the five presents a fully reassuring image to a neighbour or ally of Germany.

The Left party’s only path to government is R2G, a goal the powerful leftwings in the Greens and the SPD have been actively pursuing. But the Left too has radicalised, shedding its once influential east German pragmatists. Its new top duo opposes military engagement abroad of any kind. But it is also apparently clueless about pensions, and that may alienate its base.

The FDP has cabinet-ready experts on finance, digital issues and foreign and security policy — and a liability in Christian Lindner, their leader. The CDU and Greens are still smarting because of his petulant walkout from coalition negotiations in 2017. Last year, he faced a revolt in his own party after supporting the decision of a regional liberal politician to let himself be elected state governor with the AfD’s help.

The SPD’s Olaf Scholz is caught in a double bind. As Merkel’s finance minister, the opposition accuses him of oversight failures in a spate of financial scandals. As candidate for chancellor, he has seen the SPD leadership wrench the party to the left with anti-nuclear slogans reminiscent of the 1980s. Fritz Felgentreu, one of several seasoned legislators to resign in protest, calls his party’s security policy a “smouldering fire”.

Armin Laschet, the CDU candidate, has come under fire for sounding soft on Syria, Russia and China. Yet his real problems are corruption scandals and circling party frenemies. His party may be dealt another blow in next month’s state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, where some polls have the AfD in close pursuit.

All this does much to explain the rise of the Greens and Annalena Baerbock, their laser-focused candidate. Her criticism of China, the Kremlin and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is music to Washington’s ears. Yet the party’s feisty base has had ferocious fights over defence spending and nuclear deterrence. Its reliability as a partner is by no means guaranteed.

Of course, elections are generally not fought, or won, on foreign policy. But German voters would do well to remember that their country’s wealth and power depends on the stability and security of its neighbourhood. Maybe it is time to pay attention, and get a little worried. Its neighbours and allies already are.



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