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07 Dec 2018, 19:29
Sven Egenter Julian Wettengel

German conservatives elect Merkel-confidante as new party leader

 	Merkel-confidante Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was elected as new conservative party head with a razor-thin majority. Photo: CDU/Tobias Koch 2018.
Merkel-confidante Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was elected as new conservative party head with a razor-thin majority. Photo: CDU/Tobias Koch 2018.

Germany's conservative Christian Democrats elected general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel at the helm of the party. The election of Merkel's close ally and former premier in the federal state of Saarland ensured continuity also in energy and climate policy, federal government officials said. However, analysts warned that the 56-year-old Kramp-Karrenbauer's narrow victory over the free-market champion Friedrich Merz, a favourite of many traditional conservatives, made a more decisive shift of the CDU towards stronger climate action difficult.

Germany’s conservatives elected Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a close confidante of Chancellor Angela Merkel, as party leader, opting for continuity in German politics at a crucial time for energy and climate policy. However, CDU general secretary Kramp-Karrenbauer only won a razor-thin majority over Friedrich Merz, a vocal critic of Merkel and a favourite of traditional conservatives. Merkel stressed at the party convention she would continue as Chancellor. However, Kramp-Karrenbauer has long been seen as her favourite to follow her as German leader. The head of the CDU has traditionally been the top pick for the chancellorship.

“We need the courage to get out of our comfort zone,” Kramp-Karrenbauer told the nearly 1,000 delegates at the party’s convention in Hamburg in her application speech. “We must change from ‘could have, should have’ to a ‘we will do it’", she said. She got loud cheers and some standing ovation, wooing delegates with an emotional and personal speech that also featured her experience as former premier of the state of Saarland as well as her role as mother of three children.

Merkel had announced to step down as party leader after 18 years following severe losses of her conservative CDU/CSU alliance in recent regional elections, when conservative voters left in droves to both the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Greens. The defeats also raised doubts whether her current coalition in Berlin with the Social Democrats (SPD) – also in disarray after severe losses – can muster the strength to drive the country’s energy transition, pass a climate protection law and get a coal exit underway once the coal commission has published its final proposals.

The election of Kramp-Karrenbauer – who in Germany is often referred to as “AKK” - means continuity for Germany’s energy policy, according to energy and economy minister Peter Altmaier (CDU). “I assume that in the coming days and weeks we will honour some of the commitments we made in the coalition agreement, starting with the additional expansion of renewable energies and extending to the question of the extent to which we will implement the results of the Structural Change Commission once it has presented them,” Altmaier told Clean Energy Wire on the sidelines of the convention, referring to the commission also charged with defining a path to phase-out coal-fired power generation. “We want to implement them in such a way that we create jobs and at the same time continue with the transformation,” said Altmaier, who like Kramp-Karrenbauer hails from the small Western state of Saarland.

His parliamentary state secretary echoed his view: "Angela Merkel has made it clear that she will remain chancellor,” Thomas Bareiß told Clean Energy Wire. “That was a good and important signal. One of the reasons why AKK has been supported by many delegates is that she is very close with Angela Merkel, the two co-ordinate closely. The CDU part of the government will speak with one voice.”

Jamaica experience

Many free-market proponents within the conservative party had publicly endorsed the 63-year-old Friedrich Merz. Photo: CLEW/Wettengel 2018.Merz

56-year old Kramp-Karrenbauer won 517 of 999 delegates’ votes, beating Merz in the run-off for leadership. The third candidate, health minister Jens Spahn, went out after the first round. Polls have shown that German voters – including CDU members - prefer Kramp-Karrenbauer over Merz.

The small majority once again laid bare the deep division within the party which has grappled over the past few years with the rise of the right-wing populist AfD and Merkel’s approach to modernise the party – which many members consider a shift to the left. In particular her decision to keep borders open during the 2015 influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees has deeply divided her party and the country.

Energy and climate issues played second fiddle during the candidates’ campaigns for leadership, during which they addressed thousands of party members at events in eight cities, a novel process for a party usually known for a more top-down approach. Kramp-Karrenbauer most clearly voiced support for climate action, telling the party members at the regional conference in mining state North Rhine-Westphalia that Germany had to do its share.

Overall, Kramp-Karrenbauer has presented herself as an experienced leader and hard-working party official. She headed the first three-party government together with the Green party and the pro-business Free Democrats FDP in a German federal state outside one of the city states. She ended the coalition after severe quarrels within the FDP blocked the government. She secured the so far last election result with over 40 percent for her party in state elections in 2017.

Merkel failed to build such a three-party coalition – often called “Jamaica coalition” in reference to the colours of the Caribbean country’s flag – after the 2017 federal election after FDP leader Christian Lindner pulled the plug on talks. He has since signalled his openness to another attempt once Merkel has left office.

A new Climate Chancellor on the horizon?

Asked by a delegate how she would win back voters from the Greens, Kramp-Karrenbauer promised to reconcile environmental and economic policy. "It's about how we deal with the preservation of creation, in all its forms, environmental protection and preservation of creation on the one hand, and at the same time to consider economic aspects.”

Political analyst Arne Jungjohann said Kramp-Karrenbauer as party leader increases the chances that the CDU will adjust its course on the climate crisis and ecology. “Her election strengthens those forces within the party who want the CDU to compete with the Greens for voters who consider environmental issues as a priority. But to deliver, the CDU would have to demonstrate this was a serious effort, and not just a tactical manoeuvre,” he told Clean Energy Wire.

“Looking at the tight result and the broad support Friedrich Merz received, this is far from clear,” Jungjohann cautioned. “The conservative and industrial wing within the CDU remains strong and 2019 state elections in Eastern Germany make it less likely that the party will quickly turn green.”

All speakers pledged to work hard to win back voters from the far-right AfD as well as the Green party. Many free-market proponents within the conservative party had publicly endorsed the 63-year-old Merz, who remains best known to many Germans for his tax reform plan with a scheme so simple “it would fit on a beermat”.

Delegates at the CDU conference elected Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as their new party head. Photo: CLEW/Wettengel 2018.
Delegates at the CDU conference elected Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as their new party head. Photo: CLEW/Wettengel 2018.

Jens Koeppen, member of the economy and energy committee of the Bundestag, told Clean Energy Wire he would have preferred economy expert Merz. “I expect from Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer that the energy policy will get more market-economical features, otherwise the Energiewende will fail,” he said.

In her final speech as party leader, Merkel listed climate change as one of the “great challenges” where she sees her Christian Democrats in the position to show what they "are made of" in the future. If it could not be contained, it “will change the face of our planet,” she said.

Energy minister Altmaier said he was “convinced” that Kramp-Karrenbauer will ultimately match Merkel’s stature on international climate policy. “She will certainly do so by approaching the relevant opinion leaders, NGOs and so on. She will have a dialogue with them - which will certainly sometimes be difficult and controversial - always with the aim of making a decision that will take us further in the matter. This means, then, that it will also help in the ecological transformation process to ensure that we achieve our climate targets without jeopardising our competitiveness,“ Altmaier told Clean Energy Wire.

Merkel had earned herself the nickname “Climate Chancellor” during her first term in office between 2005 and 2009, when she put the topic firmly on the international agenda. However, many observers have questioned her commitment in recent years after her government failed to make significant progress on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and postponed the country’s 2020 reduction target and dampened ambitions on a European level.

Media observers have said one of her more controversial yet lasting legacies will remain the decision to reverse a plan to extend the running times of nuclear power stations and actually accelerate the phase-out after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. This decision also irked many in her party.

Energy transition stakeholders

Just around the time when the three candidates held their speeches, Germany had to justify its patchy climate record at the world climate summit COP24 in the Polish city of Katowice. Climate activists also awarded Germany “the fossil of the day”, a mock prize for a lack of action, for missing its 2020 climate targets.

While energy policy was not crucial for the delegates’ decisions, stakeholders in the energy transition made their case at the party conference. Picketing union members greeted the delegates and the local Lusatia section of miners’ union IG BCE handed out “Blackout Emergency Boxes”, containing a candle, a lighter, a cookie and a water bag – and a leaflet warning against “an overly hasty coal exit”. Utility association BDEW, which has urged the government to set a better framework to get ahead with the energy transition recently, and energy company Uniper, which owns large gas-powered capacity, as well as RWE’s renewables arm Innogy and a group of renewable energy firms including wind turbine maker Enercon had stalls in the foyer of the conference hall.

More comments:

Peter Altmaier (CDU), federal economy and energy minister:

“Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer stands for the centre of the Volkspartei CDU. She herself said in her speech that her role models include (former general secretary and social policy champion) Heiner Geißler and (former environment minister) Klaus Töpfer. Both have distinguished views on environmental policy, both have contributed to the fact that environmental policy has found a home in the CDU. But of course, as party leader, she will form an opinion on all the issues at stake. I cannot and will not prejudge that.

CLEW: Can Kramp-Karrenbauer fill Merkel's big shoes in international climate policy?

“I am convinced of that. After all, I supported her personally and believe that Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer will sharpen her profile in all essential issues, both nationally and internationally. She will certainly do so by approaching the relevant opinion leaders, NGOs and so on. She will have a dialogue with them - which will certainly sometimes be difficult and controversial - always with the aim of making a decision that will take us further in the matter. This means, then, that it will also help in the ecological transformation process to ensure that we achieve our climate targets without jeopardising our competitiveness.”

 “The government was and is stable. That was independent of the outcome of this election for party head. I assume that in the coming days and weeks we will honour some of the commitments we made in the coalition agreement, starting with the additional expansion of renewable energies and extending to the question of the extent to which we will implement the results of the Structural Change Commission once it has presented them. We want to implement them in such a way that we create jobs and at the same time continue with the transformation.

“Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer stands for the centre of the Volkspartei CDU. She herself said in her speech that her role models include (former general secretary and social policy champion) Heiner Geißler and (former environment minister) Klaus Töpfer. Both have distinguished views on environmental policy, both have contributed to the fact that environmental policy has found a home in the CDU. But of course, as party leader, she will form an opinion on all the issues at stake. I cannot and will not prejudge that.

CLEW: Can Kramp-Karrenbauer fill Merkel's big shoes in international climate policy?

“I am convinced of that. After all, I supported her personally and believe that Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer will sharpen her profile in all essential issues, both nationally and internationally. She will certainly do so by approaching the relevant opinion leaders, NGOs and so on. She will have a dialogue with them - which will certainly sometimes be difficult and controversial - always with the aim of making a decision that will take us further in the matter. This means, then, that it will also help in the ecological transformation process to ensure that we achieve our climate targets without jeopardising our competitiveness.”

 “The government was and is stable. That was independent of the outcome of this election for party head. I assume that in the coming days and weeks we will honour some of the commitments we made in the coalition agreement, starting with the additional expansion of renewable energies and extending to the question of the extent to which we will implement the results of the Structural Change Commission once it has presented them. We want to implement them in such a way that we create jobs and at the same time continue with the transformation.

Thomas Bareiß (CDU), parliamentary state secretary in the economy and energy ministry

"The federal government has clear targets from the coalition agreement, with clear targets, for example for renewable energies. In this respect, the general energy policy will not change and we will build on what we have done so far. We need this reliability in the market. The coalition agreement is the basis, and it will not change now".

"Angela Merkel has made it clear that she will remain chancellor. That was a good and important signal. One of the reasons why AKK has been supported by many delegates is that she is very close with Angela Merkel, the two coordinate closely. In this respect, I do not see any great danger that there will be disputes. The CDU part of the government will speak with one voice".

"The federal government has clear targets from the coalition agreement, with clear targets, for example for renewable energies. In this respect, the general energy policy will not change and we will build on what we have done so far. We need this reliability in the market. The coalition agreement is the basis, and it will not change now".

"Angela Merkel has made it clear that she will remain chancellor. That was a good and important signal. One of the reasons why AKK has been supported by many delegates is that she is very close with Angela Merkel, the two coordinate closely. In this respect, I do not see any great danger that there will be disputes. The CDU part of the government will speak with one voice".

Arne Jungjohann, political analyst

“With Kramp-Karrenbauer as party leader, chances increase that the CDU will adjust its course on the climate crisis and ecology. Her election strengthens those forces within the party who want the CDU to compete with the Greens for voters who consider environmental issues as a priority. But to deliver, the CDU would have to demonstrate this was a serious effort, and not just a tactical manoeuvre.”

“It would mean to building up green credentials, developing robust policies for environmental protection and the energy transition, and stopping the cozy course with the German car industry and the big ag corporations. Looking at the tight result and the broad support Friedrich Merz received, this is far from clear. The conservative and industrial wing within the CDU remains strong and 2019 state elections in Eastern Germany make it less likely that the party will quickly turn green.”

Jens Koeppen (CDU), member of the economy and energy committee of the Bundestag

“I expect from Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer that the energy policy will get more market-economical features, otherwise the Energiewende will fail. If we focus only on renewables expansion, then the energy transition will fail. That is why I urge that, in addition to the blind expansion, we also need a secure base load. Over the next few years, we must give intensive consideration to where this is to come from and how renewable energies can help to secure it. That is a major task and I would have preferred Friedrich Merz, as an economic politician. That would have been good for the Energiewende and renewables. Now it has to be seen whether the new boss can do it. It must not again be too one-sided in favour of the social systems, but we must now really look at the economy and - I say this as a specialist politician for energy policy - we must pay particular attention to energy policy, otherwise things may go wrong.”

Dieter Kempf, President of the Federation of German Industries (BDI)

“Impatiently, the economy now expects the CDU as well as the government to show clarity in economic policy. The expectations of Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer are high.”

“German companies with strong exports do not need a strategy based on isolation and nationalism. Digitalisation, European policy and the Energiewende require a policy that is true to principles. It must provide orientation and sometimes risk being uncomfortable.”

“The economy, but also our European partners, need a German government with strong decision-making powers - now. German industry is under pressure in the face of global risks and worsening economic expectations. The new CDU chairperson must provide fresh impetus and ideas, for example in tax and financial policy.”

Simone Peter, president of the German Renewable Energy Federation (BEE)

"The time is ripe for a more ambitious climate and energy policy. Germany must once again become a pioneer and driver of innovation when it comes to a modern energy supply based on renewable energies. The technologies are ready for this - and they are becoming increasingly cost-effective. What is crucial now is that the new CDU Chair is committed to ensuring that Germany achieves the climate protection and renewables expansion goals it has set itself. What was positive in the coalition agreement must now be implemented quickly. First and foremost a concrete path towards 65 percent renewable electricity by 2030, but also effective impulses for a transition in heating and mobility and for intelligent sector coupling. In the debate, climate protection and economic development are still all too often played off against each other. Renewable energies stand for sustainable jobs, strengthening the regions and innovation. Renewable energies can also play an important role in structural economic change in the coal regions and secure local added value."

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
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