Armin Laschet takes pole position in race to succeed Angela Merkel

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - A man described in a recent biography as being “too soft, too liberal, too Rhenish”, is favourite to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the Christian Democrats’ (CDU) candidate in the European country’s next federal election next year.

Armin Laschet, 59, is Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state of 18 million. The former journalist first made a name for himself as the state’s first ever Minister for Integration, having been a member of the CDU since he was 18. The practicing Catholic is seen as the Merkel continuity candidate, and is hoping to secure leadership of the governing party at the CDU congress on December 4 this year.

He is up against former Member of European Parliament (MEP) and plain-speaking businessman Freidrich Merz, and Norbert Röttgen, the former Federal Minister for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety under Mrs Merkel from 2009 and 2012.

Although his main CDU rival Mr Merz is more popular among voters, Mr Laschet looks like wins the popularity contest within the party, as he builds a majority of the CDU’s 1,001 voting delegates.

French connection

Mr Laschet has been busy making the inroads in Europe over the last eight weeks. He held a private meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, his third this year, and met with Pope Francis.

The CDU candidate has looked to strengthen relations with the French President, and was reported to at the last meeting bring up the Lebanese singer Fairuz, of whom he and Mr Macron are both fans.

As a former MEP and a French speaker of Belgian descent, who holds the position of plenipotentiary in charge of Franco-German cultural relations, he has strong ties to the French government. He could be a key ally to France when navigating the European Union’s future challenges.

The CDU candidate met EU leaders in Brussels earlier this year and travelled to Israel to open a trade and innovation office in Tel Aviv, the first of its kind. Unlike his rival Mr Röttgen, who has been critical of Israeli policies, Mr Laschet is a staunch supporter of Israel.

Pope Francis (left) and Germany's Armin Laschet (right), federal state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, pose for a picture as they meet at the Vatican October 1, 2020. Vatican Media/­Handout via REUTERS 

The migration question

Over the years, Mr Laschet has been unwaveringly loyal to Mrs Merkel, despite the backlash she endured after welcoming more than 1.7 million asylum seekers into the country in 2015.

In August, Mr Laschet visited some of the refugee camps on the Greek islands as well as meeting the country’s foreign minister Nikos Dendias. Positioning himself as a statesman, he called on the European Union to “wake up” to find lasting solutions to the migration crisis.

His state, North Rhine-Westphalia, agreed the following month to take in another 1,000 refugees from Greece after the infamous Moria camp went up in flames, displacing thousands of people.

Mr Laschet looks to address the refugee crisis by deepening relations with countries on the other side of the Mediterranean, including Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia – even floating the idea in one interview about offering them access to the European market.

Domestically, however, he has since called for a tougher stance on asylum seekers.

Contrary to many regional leaders in Germany, he was against border closures to stave off the coronavirus and thus left borders open in North Rhine-Westphalia.

With the CDU currently dominating the polls with around 35 per cent of the vote, if Mr Laschet becomes the party leader, there is a strong chance he will become the next chancellor of Germany.

But, with the elections not being held until next autumn, this is far from guaranteed. Germany’s Greens have seen momentum and increased election hopes over the last couple of years. Compared to the other CDU contenders, Mr Laschet may have more of chance of forming a coalition with the rival party. He has been working with the Greens since the 1990s as part of the Pizza-Connection, a group of CDU and Green MPs that meet regularly to identify the party’s political similarities. The CDU, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and Greens nearly forged a three-party alliance in 2017, but that plan failed after the FDP withdrew from the negotiations.

Although not popular in all circles, the German Chancellor has made positive noises about Mr Laschet. When Mrs Merkel visited North Rhine-Westphalia on August 18, she said Mr Laschet had "the tools" to run for chancellor -- the closest she has come to endorsing any of her potential successors.

Updated: October 5, 2020 10:33 PM

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