Germany’s conservative CDU picks coal industry supporter Armin Laschet as leader

The premier of Germany’s coal mining heartland could be chosen as the country’s conservative alliance candidate for chancellor in a general election in September

Armin Laschet was elected leader of Germany's conservative CDU party. (Photo: Dirk Vorderstraße/Flickr)


Armin Laschet has been elected the new leader of Germany’s largest party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), clearing a major hurdle on what could be his way to becoming the next German chancellor.

The premier of Germany’s largest federal state, the traditional industry and coal mining heartland of North Rhine-Westphalia, is seen as a loyalist to Angela Merkel and stands for continuity with the parting long-term leader’s centrist course.

He succeeds defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who stepped down in early 2020 after failing to establish her authority in the conservative camp.

Although an ardent supporter of Germany’s planned transition to a hydrogen-based economy, Laschet’s reputation in climate policy is dominated by his pro-industry positioning in the country’s coal exit negotiations and his government’s heavy-handed response to protests against a new lignite mine.

Laschet, 59, who has been leading the conservative coalition government of North Rhine-Westphalia with the pro-business FDP party since 2017, could become candidate to replace Merkel as chancellor in a general election on 26 September.

Should he ultimately lead Europe’s largest economy, his experience as a member of the European parliament might come as an asset in talks with EU commission head and fellow CDU member Ursula von der Leyen over the bloc’s Green Deal and its efforts to become the first climate neutral continent.

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His ambition could still be thwarted by Markus Söder, 54, who leads the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, known as the CSU. The Bavarian state premier currently fares much better than Laschet in national polls and is seen by most Germans as the best candidate to follow in Merkel’s footsteps, who plans a post-election retirement.

The conservative CDU/CSU alliance is set to pick its candidate for chancellor after two important state elections on 14 March in Baden-Wurttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. According to a poll cited by broadcaster DW, 43% of voters would like to see Söder succeed Merkel, while only about 12% favouring Laschet.

But the CDU delegates decided they can rely on Laschet, who faces the difficult task to maintain coherence in a party that is simultaneously trying to lure voters from the environmentalist Green Party and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). With Merkel leaving office after 16 years, the CDU under Laschet faces the double challenge of keeping former Merkel voters on board while quelling an internal power struggle over the conservatives’ party identity.

On climate, Laschet’s policy record is regarded as somewhat ambiguous. During the public debates ahead of the party contest, he sought to present himself as a moderate broker of interests, pointing out his government’s crucial role in negotiating Germany’s coal phase-out.

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As the country’s biggest coal mining state, North Rhine-Westphalia inevitably had a huge say in the phase-out talks, which Laschet’s government ultimately supported and that will see the state do much of the heavy lifting in terms of early coal decommissioning. But the coal exit deal also brought him a great deal of criticism for his generous stance regarding compensation payments for coal plant owners and his defence of the newly opened coal plant Datteln IV, which Laschet claimed would “lead to reduced emissions”.

Similarly, critics slammed his government’s handling of the protests in the Hambach forest near lignite mine in Garzweiler, where the premier was accused of taking sides with mine operator RWE while disregarding the interests of the widely-supported climate activists and local residents protesting against the opencast mine’s expansion.

Climate activist network Fridays for Future greeted the new CDU leader on Twitter with a plea to halt the destruction of North Rhine-Westphalia villages for mine expansion, which began on Monday.

For Green lawmaker Franziska Brantner, the climate record of Laschet’s North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) government bodes ill for the CDU’s climate policy future. “If he carries his course on climate and coal policy in NRW over to the federal government, things will look bad for climate protection in Germany,” Brantner told news website Euractiv.

Following the coal exit deal, Laschet has largely moved on to a more optimistic narrative about the NRW’s energy policy future, positioning the core state of German heavy industry as a vanguard for the production and advanced use of green hydrogen and called for easing regulation on environmentally-friendly projects, such as railroad construction.

His state government coalition partner, the pro-business FDP, even stated NRW would be entering “a whole new dimension” in climate action through a range of ambitious policies. But recently Laschet also warned against curtailing Germany’s economic opportunities through “excessive” climate action that scares industrial companies away with high power prices and tight regulation.

This is in stark contrast to the idea vigorously promoted in Merkel’s government over the past years that rigorous and rapid climate action actually works as an asset that will bring more economic stability in the long term.

This story is an extract of an article initially published by Clean Energy Wire. Some edits have been made to reflect Climate Home News’ style.

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