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June 02, 2020

Watch out for Söder

The figure to watch out for in German politics is Markus Söder, Bavarian prime minister and CSU chief. Angela Merkel and Söder are the political superstars of this crisis. They are enjoying unprecedented personal approval ratings. The polls have support for CDU/CSU in the high thirties, but this is clearly a crisis phenomenon. The SPD has not benefited at all. Olaf Scholz is well-liked, but the people see him as Merkel's employee, not as a political leader.

Behind the good poll ratings for the CDU lies trouble, however. Merkel has said she would quit next year. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer will quit as CDU chairman in December. The candidates for her succession are political lightweights. And, for the first time, Söder himself is hinting that he might be interested in the top job. He said the decision on Merkel's succession will not be made in December when the CDU is due to elect its next chairman, but in January. That timetable would keep him in the loop. 

The decision is ultimately with the CDU. On two occasions in the past, the CDU accepted a chancellor-candidate from the CSU: Franz-Josef Strauss in 1980 and Edmund Stoiber in 2002. Both lost. This time would be the first where a CSU candidate would have a chance of winning. The arithmetic of German politics favours a CDU/CSU chancellor because all other parties are weak. At one point last year the Greens managed to draw level with the CDU/CSU, but Covid-19 killed the Green policy issues. That might still change, but we suspect the dominant political theme for the next year will be the recession.

Armin Laschet, state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, remains the odds-on favourite to win the CDU leadership but has had a bad crisis. He favoured an end to the lockdown too early, for cynical reasons. He chose to distance himself from Merkel. This turns out to have been a mistake. It's even worse for Friedrich Merz, who holds no office and seems strangely out of place - from a different era. Norbert Röttgen is better-known in transatlantic policy circles than in Germany.

Of course, fortunes could change. It would be folly to make predictions. But the rise of Söder has constituted an unbroken trend so far. If he manages to keep that momentum, we think he has a chance.

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June 02, 2020

Libya exposes European divisions

Libya is a mess for Europe. France just joined an alliance with Egypt to keep Turkey at bay in the Mediterranean and in Libya. With this move France now officially backs General Khalifa Haftar against the government of national accord, or GNA, propped up by Turkey. This is not what the Berlin peace process intended. Apart from Egypt, the French alliance also includes Greece, Cyprus and the United Arab Emirates. As the EU's only member of the UN security council, France plays an important role in this alliance. How far will this alliance go? Turkey's reaction shows they are ready to take the fight to the next level. This is about projecting power, not the EU's strong suit. France's move certainly makes it harder for the EU to claim neutrality. Ulrich Speck summed it up in a tweet:

"Libya painfully demonstrates Europe's failure to build a joint foreign policy. A place of huge strategic interest, and no US leadership. Italy, France, Germany, all have different approaches. Result: Russia and Turkey the decisive players, with France joining one side in the war."

Of little help is also the EU operation Irini, named after the Greek word for peace. It was intended to re-inforce the arms embargo on both sides of the Libyan conflict. In practice it is not neutral at all, the FT pointed out. It may stop arms shipment from Turkey to Libya in support of the GNA government troops. But this hands over the advantage to Haftar who receives his weapons supply via air and through the land border to Egypt.

There is no coherent foreign policy strategy at EU level. France, Greece and Cyprus are now officially in the anti-Turkey camp. Italy could have played a role in Libya's peace process but did not. EU member states could not agree on anything beyond Irini. There is also the fear of another refugee wave from Turkey.

But Turkey's increasing provocations might end up calling for a more robust military response. Where will Germany be in this scenario? Its mediation between Turkey, Russia and the two fighing factions in Libya in the Berlin peace conference did not stop the fighting.  

An angered Turkey now seeks revenge. New gas drillings are planned only six miles away from the Greek islands of Crete and Rhodes. Refugees will be encouraged to move towards the Greek borders. And, with neutrality now out of the window, the EU will find it impossible to find cohesion as interests and stakes among member states diverge further in this conflict.

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