Germany's Divided Conservatives Merkel Critics Deal a Blow to Chancellor

Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats are turning right ahead of her upcoming re-election campaign and they are doing so against the chancellor's wishes. An influential group of senior CDU members is leading the charge, but Merkel's patience, say allies, is "finite."
Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking to CDU executive committee member Jens Spahn

Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking to CDU executive committee member Jens Spahn

Foto: Kay Nietfeld/ dpa

It ended in a duel. Once again, it pitted Jens Spahn, state secretary in the Finance Ministry, against Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany. And once again, Spahn emerged victorious.

Just a few meters separated the two when Spahn stepped up to the microphone at the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party convention in the city of Essen. Merkel, head of the CDU, had earlier sent her allies -- Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and CDU General Secretary Peter Tauber -- onto the stage to try to convince convention delegates that the party should not reverse its course on dual citizenship. When Merkel began her current term in 2012, the CDU hammered out a compromise with its coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), reversing the ban on dual citizenship for children born to foreign parents living in Germany.

Now, at the CDU convention earlier this week, there was a movement afoot to do away with dual citizenship once again. And Merkel didn't stand a chance.

"Of course you have to make compromises in a governing coalition," said Spahn. "But we're at a party convention." The applause was so loud that it was immediately clear that he would emerge victorious  and, ultimately, a majority of the delegates present voted to throw out the deal with SPD. Spahn, who is just 36 years old, showed Merkel, who has led the CDU for 16 years, where the limits of her power were.

The vote over dual citizenship was just the latest in a series of defeats recently handed to Merkel by her own party. Even before the convention, Spahn and other members of the party's conservative wing had pushed through important changes to those parts of the convention resolution pertaining to refugees. In addition, Thomas Strobl, one of five CDU deputy heads, unexpectedly introduced a paper calling for a stricter deportation policy. Parts of it were included word-for-word in in the resolution.


Her defeat on the issue of dual citizenship was particularly disastrous because Merkel had already made several concessions  to her critics within the party in an attempt to heal growing divisions. In her speech, for example, she had said that full facial veils "should be banned wherever it is legally possible." Given that it is well known that Merkel doesn't consider the burqa issue to be of particular importance, it was a clear message of reconciliation to her critics.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 50/2016 (December 10, 2016) of DER SPIEGEL.

But it did little to slow down their momentum, showing more clearly than ever that it is no longer the CDU leader that determines the party's direction. Rather, on the central issue of refugees and integration, it is now the party itself that sets that course to be followed by Merkel. It is the kind of loss of authority that Merkel has never before experienced during her tenure as chancellor.

Merkel had hoped that the convention, coming as it did on the eve of election year 2017, would present a unified CDU to the German voters. "Now, though, it looks as though the party is leaving its leader in the lurch," says one close Merkel confidant.

Her subsequent reaction made it clear just how bothered Merkel was by her defeat. Following the convention, she said that she personally disagreed with the decision to reverse course on dual citizenship. She also said that she wouldn't make it an issue in her campaign. Conservative CDU parliamentarian Erika Steinbach responded to Merkel's reaction by tweeting: "CDU wants to limit dual citizenship. Party chair: …Shove it."

Merkel knows that there is more at stake than merely her party's position on a specific issue. In the last decade, Merkel has modernized the CDU in a number of different areas: family policy, energy policy and her party's position on immigration. A minority always considered her political course to be the wrong one. But the refugee crisis turned this minority into a majority -- one which began reversing the party's course at the convention.

The Real Conflict

Issues such as citizenship and the burqa ban, though, are only secondary. The primary conflict within the CDU is how it should meet the challenge presented by the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany  (AfD). Merkel and her allies argue that the CDU should not move to the right in order to steal voters from the AfD, believing that doing so would repel more centrist voters than it would attract right-wing voters.

Many in the party agree. Armin Laschet, head of the CDU state chapter in North Rhine-Westphalia, says that in the industrial Ruhr Valley, the AfD is primarily going after former Left Party and SPD voters. "Those who believe the CDU can gain followers by shifting to the right are mistaken," he says. "Conservatives will only win elections if they recognize people's concerns, solve problems and remain loyal to their Christian roots."

But this position is controversial even in North Rhine-Westphalia. "It was important for the CDU at the convention to once again remind people of what it stands for," says Günter Krings, a parliamentarian from the state who is also a parliamentary state secretary in the German Interior Ministry. "That is the best way for us to show that there is no need for the conservative positions held by the AfD."

That's the same line espoused by the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to the CDU. The CSU still adheres to the maxim of its former leader Franz Josef Strauss, who famously once stated that no democratically legitimate party should be allowed to develop to the right of the CSU or CDU. This week, CSU head Horst Seehofer was unsurprisingly one of the first to publicly welcome the resolutions passed during the CDU convention.

There are also important members of the CDU leadership who agree that their party unnecessarily pushed some voters into the arms of the far right during the refugee crisis. Indeed, there is an influential quartet of senior CDU members that is hoping to force the CDU to return to a more conservative course when it comes to refugees and immigration. Spahn and Strobl both belong to the quartet, as does Martin Jäger, a state secretary in the Baden-Württemberg state Interior Ministry.

The doyen of the group is Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, the most important internal critic of the chancellor's political course. As early as November 2015, he was warning of the "avalanche" that Merkel's refugee policies might trigger. Schäuble also knows the other three members of the quartet quite well: Strobl is his son-in-law, Jäger once served as his spokesman and head of planning in the Finance Ministry and he brought Spahn into the Finance Ministry as parliamentary state secretary.

Party Lore

Schäuble thinks it is important for the CDU to show its core supporters that their fears and concerns are not being ignored. He wouldn't be prepared to lead an uprising against the chancellor, but Schäuble is happy to use his influence within the party to change things as he sees fit. People close to him say that prior to the convention earlier this week, he had expressed sympathy for the proposal to reverse course on dual citizenship.

That sympathy would make sense. Internally, Schäuble has often lauded himself for being the originator of the 1999 signature-gathering campaign against dual citizenship. Schäuble was head of the CDU at the time and the German government under the leadership of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in coalition with the Green Party wanted to change Germany's citizenship laws. With Schäuble's support, Hesse opposition leader Roland Koch launched the signature drive and managed to unexpectedly win state elections as a result and become governor.

The incident has become part of CDU lore, at least within the conservative wing of the party. There was also plenty of internal critique due to the xenophobic undertones associated with the campaign and much of that critique came from Angela Merkel, who was Schäuble's general secretary at the time. Now, she has once again lost a battle pertaining to German citizenship laws.

Schäuble views one of his tasks as that of protecting those who voice opposition to Merkel's refugee policies. Within the CDU, Schäuble said in an interview given prior to the convention, there are "extremely competent colleagues from the younger generation, like Jens Spahn." Among Merkel's confidants, the comment was seen as a provocation.

Still, Schäuble -- like the other members of the quartet -- is not interested in completely turning back the clock on Merkel's course of modernization. But when it comes to refugees and domestic security, he is a hardliner. On the one hand, Schäuble thought that the images showing Germans enthusiastically welcoming refugees at Munich Central Station were good for Germany's image abroad. On the other, though, he believes it was a cardinal error for Merkel to allow the weeks of chaos  in late summer of 2015 to become normality as more and more refugees arrived in the country.

A Danger to Merkel

When his son-in-law Strobl became interior minister of Baden-Württemberg, Schäuble allowed him to hire away Martin Jäger, one of his most important aides, as his state secretary. The paper on refugee policy that Strobl presented shortly before the convention to the chagrin of Merkel was largely written by Jäger.

A former diplomat, Jäger had also been a proponent of a stricter approach to refugee policies when he had worked in Schäuble's ministry, including throwing his support behind the mass deportations of asylum-seekers. He considers it justifiable to repatriate refugees to Afghanistan, believing that they do not face danger in every part of the country. And Jäger is intimately familiar with Afghanistan, having served there as German ambassador.

Jäger has no problem referring to himself as a statist, someone who believes in the power of the central government. He believes the state should be strong and effective -- and that public order can only be guaranteed if the state and its organs enjoy the respect of its citizens. That explains his dismay in late 2015 as he watched Germany's political leaders lose control of the refugee crisis. Like Schäuble, he came to the conclusion early on that such a thing could not be allowed to recur.

Spahn, who Merkel declined to appoint to an office as she was assembling her government in 2013, agrees. Schäuble appointed the ambitious young man as parliamentary state secretary in the Finance Ministry and values Spahn's free-market approach to health and retirement policy. Last year, the two realized that their conservative approach to refugees likewise overlapped.

The fact that three of the four members of the quartet are members of the party's most important leadership panel presents a danger to Merkel. Strobl is a deputy member of the executive committee while Schäuble and Spahn are full members. They don't even need to explicitly plan ahead together to push through important positions. They know they have allies. Merkel's deputy Julia Klöckner, for example, and executive committee member Volker Bouffier share many of the Schäuble quartet's concerns.

No Further

Merkel is intent on sticking to her guns and is opposed to moving the party to the right. In her convention speech, she said she will not participate in "a rhetorical competition of escalation and one-upsmanship." The chancellor believes that if the CDU were now to accede to AfD demands, it would only help the populists and while she has made significant concessions to her critics, she won't go any further.

Merkel's hope is that the vote on dual citizenship at the convention was just a one-time slip-up, a knee-jerk grumbling from the party's conservative gut. But what if it wasn't? Among Merkel critics, the fate suffered by the Social Democrats is seen as a warning. In the early 2000s, then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder pushed through tough welfare cuts that were ultimately good for the country, but which drove a wedge through the SPD's left wing, a divide which still hasn't been overcome today . Conservatives would like to avoid seeing the same thing happen to the CDU.

Those close to Merkel also see the SPD as an example of what can go wrong, though they point to an altogether different episode. In the last general election campaign in 2012, the party campaigned on a platform that its candidate Peer Steinbrück didn't support. "If we want to suffer the same fate, then all we have to do is continue down the path we are currently on," says one party leadership member.

Merkel, in any case, does not want to be led through the campaign on a leash by the party's conservative wing. Her patience is "finite," says a Chancellery source. If the CDU wants to shift to the right, the source says, then "it has to find a person that fits the platform."

Things haven't yet gone that far, say Chancellery officials. But the fact that Merkel's possible withdrawal from the race is even being openly discussed shows just how seriously the chancellor views the situation.

She isn't just concerned about the approaching campaign, she also believes her legacy could be in danger. After all, outgoing US President Barack Obama was just in Berlin  for a farewell visit. She is well aware that his eight-year tenure  could be all but erased by a couple of strokes of his successor's pen.

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