Following a difficult campaign to cement his position as Chancellor Angela Merkel's most likely successor, Germany's Armin Laschet, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's largest region, has sat for an interview with the FT where he laid out the broad strokes of his domestic and foreign policies, which largely hew to Merkel.
As the frontrunner to win September's federal election and succeed Merkel as Chancellor, Laschet said that the EU recovery fund will more than likely be a one-off, and that the COVID-19 outbreak won't lead Germany and the rest of the EU to adopt a more federal system. Laschet denies that he's trying to "put the COVID genie back in the bottle," but he insists that there's no reason why life can't go back to normal.
"Under the Maastricht rules, every country is responsible for its own debts," he says. "The basic idea is to avoid a situation where one country is liable for the debts of another...and this principle still applies."
While it's not a done deal yet, Laschet's CDU now looks to be in pole position to win in September and retain its control of Europe's biggest economy. It's a historic election given that Merkel’s 16-year reign is coming to an end, while potentially ushering in an unprecedented coalition between the German center-right and the left-wing Greens.
Germany's technocratic center-right has embraced carbon neutrality and Laschet is no exception: he favors setting the goal for neutrality by 2045. However, he's fearful of endangering Germany's status as an industrial powerhouse, and all the jobs that German industry creates.
"20% of the jobs [here] are in industry. In the steel, chemical, auto industry," he says. "Important economic sectors and key industries in our country. And we want them to be still there in 20 years."
While Laschet favors a more integrated EU, he opposes any attempt to relax Germany's "debt brake" and remains opposed to the issuance of common EU debt (like the nearly $1 trillion issued as part of the EU recovery fund).
Circling back to COVID-19, Laschet promised "a decade of modernization" to combat the aspects of Germany's economy that were seemingly unprepared for the pandemic. He has also broached the idea of a "Germany fund" to mobilize public and private investment in infrastructure.
"I’m open to thinking about models of co-operation with private capital," he tells the FT. "But of course, we can’t allow a situation to arise where you’re circumventing the government’s debt management policy. So if you do it, you have to do it according to the state stability rules."
On issues of potential conflict with the Greens, Laschet said he is open to compromise. On Nord Stream 2 (a project the Greens oppose), Laschet insists Germany needs the cheap natural gas before it can shut down its coal plants. To try and stop Russia from using the pipeline to punish Ukraine, Laschet said Germany must take steps to stop the pipeline from being "used as a geopolitical instrument against Ukraine," which the pipeline bypasses.
"The real issue at stake are the geopolitical interests and stability of Ukraine, as well as of EU member states to the east," he says. "Ukraine’s interests must be safeguarded. If the Russians don’t stick to that, the basis of the NS2 deal will cease to exist."
Laschet's biggest problems will likely emanate from the Greens' foreign policy positions. Not only does the party oppose Nord Stream 2, but it also opposes closer cooperation with China, Russia and Turkey.
Fortunately, Laschet believes his history of being an agreeable centrist - including his membership in a group of young Bundestag MPs known as "the Pizza Connection" for their meeting place in a Bonn pizzeria - will help him convince the Greens to compromise.
"For the CDU the Greens are no longer the bogeyman they were,” he says. Times have changed — the conservatives already govern with the eco-party in the two western states of Baden-Württemberg and Hesse. And coalitions “are possible on the federal level in Berlin, too."
Of course, there's no guarantee that the CDU and Greens will find themselves partners in a ruling coalition. The election is still months away, and even after the results are in, weeks of wrangling to form the next government are expected to follow, which leaves plenty of space for surprises.