Armin Laschet takes pole position in race to succeed Angela Merkel
Lifelong Christian Democrat has received closest thing yet to Chancellor's endorsement
A man described in a recent biography as being “too soft, too liberal” is the favourite to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the Christian Democrats’ candidate in the next federal election next year.
Armin Laschet, 59, is Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state.
The former journalist first made a name for himself as the first minister for integration in the state of 18 million people, having been a member of the CDU since he was 18.
The practising Catholic is regarded as the Merkel continuity candidate and is hoping to secure leadership of the governing party at the CDU congress on December 4.
He is up against former Member of the European Parliament and plain-speaking businessman Freidrich Merz, and Norbert Roettgen, the former federal minister for environment under Mrs Merkel, from 2009 and 2012.
Although his main rival, Mr Merz, is more popular among voters, Mr Laschet looks likely to win the popularity contest within the party, as he builds a majority of the CDU’s 1,001 voting delegates.
Mr Laschet has been busy making the inroads in Europe over the past eight weeks.
He held a private meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, his third this year, and met with Pope Francis.
He has looked to strengthen relations with the French president, and at the last meeting brought up the Lebanese singer Fairouz, of whom he and Mr Macron are fans.
As a former MEP and a French speaker of Belgian descent, who holds the position of plenipotentiary in charge of Franco-German cultural relations, Mr Laschet has strong ties to the French government.
He could be a key ally to France when dealing with the EU's future challenges.
Mr Laschet met EU leaders in Brussels this year and travelled to Israel to open a trade and innovation office in Tel Aviv, the first of its kind.
Unlike Mr Roettgen, who has been critical of Israeli policies, Mr Laschet is a staunch supporter.
The migration question
Over the years, Mr Laschet has been unwaveringly loyal to Mrs Merkel, despite the backlash she endured after welcoming more than 1.7 million asylum seekers into the country in 2015.
In August, he visited some of the refugee camps on the Greek islands and met the country’s Foreign Minister, Nikos Dendias.
Mr Laschet called on the EU to “wake up” and find lasting solutions to the migration crisis.
North Rhine-Westphalia agreed the following month to take in another 1,000 refugees from Greece after the infamous Moria camp went up in flames, displacing thousands of people.
Mr Laschet wants to address the refugee crisis by deepening relations with countries on the other side of the Mediterranean, including Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia.
He even floated the idea in an interview about offering them access to the European market.
But domestically, he has since called for a tougher stance on asylum seekers.
Contrary to many regional leaders in Germany, he was against border closures to stave off the coronavirus and thus left borders open in North Rhine-Westphalia.
The CDU is dominating the polls with about 35 per cent of the vote, and if Mr Laschet becomes the party leader there is a strong chance he will become the next chancellor of Germany.
But with the elections not being held until next autumn, this is far from guaranteed.
Germany’s Greens have had momentum and increased election hopes over the last couple of years.
Compared to the other CDU contenders, Mr Laschet may have more of chance of forming a coalition with the rival party.
He has been working with the Greens since the 1990s as part of the Pizza-Connection, a group of CDU and Green MPs that meet regularly to identify the party’s political similarities.
The CDU, Free Democratic Party and Greens nearly forged a three-party alliance in 2017, but that plan failed after the FDP withdrew from the negotiations.
Mrs Merkel has made positive noises about Mr Laschet.
When she visited North Rhine-Westphalia on August 18, she said Mr Laschet had "the tools" to run for chancellor, in the closest she has come to endorsing any potential successors.
Updated: October 6, 2020 06:54 AM