‘I agree with the chancellor.’ German leadership hopeful sees no need to change course

Armin Laschet tells POLITICO that Europe must strike a balance between standing up for human rights and furthering commercial ties.

‘I agree with the chancellor.’ German leadership hopeful sees no need to change course

DÜSSELDORF, Germany — Armin Laschet, the premier of Germany’s largest state and a leading contender to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, called for a pragmatic approach to relations with China and Russia, saying Europe needed to strike a balance between standing up for “unalienable” human rights and furthering commercial ties.

“One can’t only pursue trade relations with countries that follow our societal model,” Laschet told POLITICO in an interview, adding that Europe has long relied on energy from states that don’t embrace the standards of liberal democracy.

A former MEP who became regional leader of North Rhine-Westphalia in 2017, Laschet is one of three candidates vying to lead Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in a party election slated for early December. Victory would make him the conservatives’ presumptive candidate for chancellor. With the Christian Democrats ahead by a wide margin in national polls, whoever tops the conservative ticket is likely to become the next chancellor.

Though he has fallen back in the polls recently, Laschet’s camp is confident he has an edge over the competition when it comes to the 1,001 convention delegates who will decide.

He also has one particularly powerful backer: Merkel.

By clinging to Merkel’s coattails, Laschet has branded himself as the safe, status quo candidate. In a conservative party like the CDU, that’s a powerful argument — provided Merkel’s popularity holds until election day next fall.

“China is today a world power that we must confront with realism and self-confidence” — Armin Laschet 

Like the chancellor, Laschet prefers as a soft-shoe approach to foreign relations, especially where Germany’s vital interests are concerned.

As the leader of North Rhine-Westphalia — Germany’s industrial heartland, accounting for more than 20 percent of the country’s economic output — Laschet, 59, oversees a region that depends on both imported natural gas for industry and trade with China.

At a time when the coronavirus pandemic has taken a major toll on both his region and the rest of Europe, Laschet warned against losing sight of fundamental economic and political realities.

“China is today a world power that we must confront with realism and self-confidence,” he said in a lengthy interview in his office overlooking the Rhine.

Laschet’s comments suggest that his strategy for dealing with difficult partners such as China, Germany’s largest trading partner, and Russia would be to maintain Merkel’s modus operandi: a diplomatic dialogue on human rights that does not jeopardize commercial ties.

It’s a softer approach than his competitors for the CDU job advocate and also contrasts with the more forceful stance pushed by the U.S., particularly on China, which Washington regards as a major threat.

Laschet made it clear that he saw no reason for Germany to veer away from Merkel’s foreign policy course.

On the question of how to respond to the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Laschet said it was important not to rush to judgment, saying there should be a “thorough investigation” after which the EU and NATO should decide how to respond.

He cautioned against focusing too much attention on Nord Stream 2, the nearly completed Baltic gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany that critics are urging Berlin to halt.

“The question of the energy relationship between Russia and the EU is much broader than Nord Stream 2,” he said. “We should avoid rash decisions and consider which steps would be the most effective. I agree with the chancellor.”

Merkel, who has defended the project in the past, signaled after it came to light that Navalny was poisoned with a Russian nerve agent that she was reconsidering her position, but has yet to announce a decision. Some of the German companies involved in the project, including energy firm Uniper, are based in North Rhine-Westphalia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and North Rhine-Westphalia Governor Armin Laschet visit the Ruhr Conference on August 18, 2020 in Essen, Germany | Hauter Pool photo/Getty Images

Laschet, a native of Aachen, described himself as a dyed-in-the-wool European in the mold of Helmut Kohl. He said he would put further integration at the top of his agenda and demand “more Europe.”

“We have to explain that more Europe makes everyone stronger,” he said. “That’s true for foreign policy, that’s true for trade policy and it’s true for every goal we set.”

He said he supported EU enlargement in the Western Balkans, despite the reservations expressed by France and other members. “The alternative of leaving them outside would have greater consequences, none of which are good,” he said.

Laschet also said he was convinced the U.S. would remain a pillar of European security, describing the military relationship as “existential” for NATO countries.

Despite failure to reach a transatlantic trade deal a few years ago, he said Europe and the U.S. had no choice but to deepen their commercial ties.

“Every new government has to work to expand trade relations,” he said. “There aren’t that many regions in the world with similar values, so Europe and America have to rely on each other.”

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Source : Politico EU More