Merkel celebrates 65th birthday with another coup

Chancellor surprises everyone with choice to succeed Von der Leyen as defence minister

Germany’s new defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (left), her predecessor  Ursula von der Leyen  and chancellor Angela Merkel  at Bellevue Palace in Berlin on Wednesday. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Germany’s new defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (left), her predecessor Ursula von der Leyen and chancellor Angela Merkel at Bellevue Palace in Berlin on Wednesday. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

 

To celebrate her 65th birthday on Wednesday, German chancellor Angela Merkel treated herself to her favourite kind of present: a political coup.

The previous evening her defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, was elected president of the European Commission, the first woman to hold the job and the first German since Walter Hallstein half a century ago.

Two hours later, Merkel surprised everyone by naming as new defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

In December Kramp-Karrenbauer succeeded Merkel as chairwoman of Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU). It was a political coup for Merkel, under pressure to begin her orderly departure from office, to secure the party leadership for her chosen candidate.

After early euphoria, though, it’s been downhill ever since. Kramp-Karrenbauer, a newcomer in Berlin politics, has struggled to reinvigorate the party after nearly two decades under Merkel’s leadership.

Her problem: how to retool a political party while in government, alongside an active and visible predecessor, and with no real political authority and power base of one’s own. Kramp Karrenbauer has slid in polls after a series of slips and stumbles, in particular attacking a popular YouTuber in what was perceived as an attack on online freedom of expression, following a disastrous European election result.

Now Merkel has come to the rescue again, granting the woman known to all as AKK a cabinet position and a seat on her Bundestag front bench.

In Bellevue Palace on Wednesday morning, wearing a broad smile and with no shakes in sight, the chancellor watched as von der Leyen handed over the baton to Kramp-Karrenbauer.

Later, the two women inspected the troops at the ministry in Berlin’s Bendler Block complex where, 75 years ago, Count Claus Stauffenberg was executed for masterminding the July 1944 plot against Hitler.

Today, in a very different Berlin, the question doing the rounds is: will this end well for all three women equally?

Von der Leyen escapes domestic politics and, for now at least, a parliamentary inquiry into whether, as defence minister, she had an excessive love of private consultants. Merkel has filled an empty cabinet seat without a major reshuffle, stabilising her hold on power before her summer break this weekend.

But the jury is out on AKK who, weeks ago, insisted she was not interested in joining the cabinet. Some suggest she has made one of the oldest mistakes in the book: trying to solve existing problems by adding another one to the pile.

Deep-seated problems

The German armed forces are an even bigger building site than the CDU, and the new defence minister will be at least the fourth who arrived on site promising to finish the job.

With her troops behind her, Kramp-Karrenbauer promised on Wednesday that “they have earned the highest political priority”.

“We must never be allowed forget that men and women are standing for us outside our country and, in an emergency, also fight, to defend and ensure our security in Germany,” she said.

The new minister can build on her predecessor’s efforts to make the German armed forces a more attractive employer, in particular for women and families. But she inherits deep-seated technical and staffing problems that mean just a handful of Germany’s 128 warplanes, 95 of its 244 tanks and only a fifth of 180,000 soldiers are currently deployable.

A mid-air collision of two planes during training last month killed one pilot, while the renovation of Germany’s historic navy training ship has turned into an expensive cross between a money pit and a soap opera.

As well as structural problems Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has no previous experience in federal government or in this portfolio, inherits pressures to expedite a rise in Germany’s defence spend. Even an ambitious German plan, for an 80 per cent increase in the decade to 2024, will bring spending to just 1.5 per cent of gross domestic product – short Nato’s two per cent target.

But from this moment on, whether fielding attacks from US president Donald Trump on German military spending or overseeing domestic soul-searching about the role of the German armed forces in the world, Kramp-Karrenbauer is where she wanted to be: at the heart of Berlin politics.

And the risk in accepting the poisoned defence chalice has, she hopes, boosted her chances of a successful leap into the chancellery.

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