Merkel’s Would-Be Successors Spar Over Defense, Foreign Policy

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Chancellor Angela Merkel’s potential successors gave their first hints at how they would lead Germany as the campaign to run Europe’s largest economy begins to take shape.

Annalena Baerbock, the chancellor candidate for Germany’s Greens, called for a more active foreign policy and a balanced transatlantic alliance, drawing a sharper distinction to the status quo than her two rivals.

Armin Laschet, the head of Merkel’s Christian Democratic party, and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who is running for the Social Democrats, were often in agreement and presented policies that suggested little change to Germany’s course.

In their first public debate, the setup was awkward. Baerbock and Scholz sat in a studio in Berlin while Laschet was on a video link from Dusseldorf, complicating interaction.

Baerbock and Laschet are the front-runners, with their parties’ neck-and-neck in the polls some four months before Germans determine a new chancellor following Merkel’s 16-year reign.

Merkel’s Would-Be Successors Spar Over Defense, Foreign Policy

After the exchange, here’s where the candidates stand on key issues:

Defense

Laschet clearly backed NATO’s goal of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense. Baerbock called the target “absurd,” saying defense spending should be oriented on security needs rather than economic output. She indicated that she would support Europe taking on a greater role to defend itself, including cyber security. Scholz was vague about his commitment to defense spending, saying it would continue to rise.

Middle East

In view of the current Hamas attacks against Israel, Laschet and Scholz have voiced solidarity with Israel, and the CDU candidate has even called for military support for the country. Baerbock has taken a more critical stance. While she said Israel had the right to defend itself, she spoke out against the export of German submarines to Israel and underscored her opposition to selling weapons into conflict zones. To defuse the conflict, she said “telephone diplomacy” should take place with Hamas, while Laschet was skeptical of negotiations with Hamas.

Transatlantic Relations

Baerbock called for an alliance with the U.S. on “eye level,” including a more active foreign policy. She also defended her call for the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from German soil. All three candidates called the U.S. Europe’s most important external partner.

Nord Stream

Both Laschet and Scholz voiced support for the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and dismissed U.S. concerns over Germany becoming too dependent on Russian gas. Baerbock opposes the project and said it puts Ukraine’s security at risk by bypassing the country. Scholz countered saying it’s the government’s ongoing responsibility to ensure the Ukraine remains involved in gas transit.

Climate

Laschet and Scholz rejected the moderator’s suggestions that governing parties needed a court order to accelerate Germany’s goal of creating a climate-neutral economy by five years to 2045. Baerbock called for even tougher targets, including a ban on new combustion-engine cars from 2030, no new oil-based heating systems and restrictions on domestic German flights.

Migration

Baerbock said Europe bears responsibility for refugees drowning in the Mediterranean and called for the EU’s Frontex agency to not only secure the bloc’s external borders but also save migrants in danger. She said other European countries can’t leave Greece to fend for itself. Laschet said Germany can’t solve the refugee problem on its own and needs an EU-wide solution. Scholz also called for a fair distribution mechanism of refugees within the EU.

China

Both Laschet and Scholz stand for a continuation of Merkel’s China-friendly course. The CDU chief has said he would sign the EU investment agreement with China, even though the EU parliament has stopped the ratification process in reaction to Chinese sanctions. Baerbock, in contrast, has condemned human rights violations in China and said that, as chancellor, she would block imports of Chinese goods produced with forced labor.

EU Funding

All three candidates are supporters of a further EU integration, but they differ over funding. Scholz welcomes the EU recovery fund as a first step toward deeper fiscal integration, Laschet opposes any kind of common debt. Like Merkel, he sees the recovery fund’s joint borrowing as a one-off. Baerbock’s Greens, in contrast, even go further than Scholz and demand the introduction of EU taxes, a fiscal union and a relaxation of debt rules.

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