March 11, 2019 / 11:34 AM / 14 days ago

Merkel's protege ready to 'tango' with Macron, but don't mention the euro zone

BERLIN (Reuters) - The main takeaway from German conservative leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s call to reinvigorate the EU is that she is different from Chancellor Angela Merkel only in style, not in substance.

FILE PHOTO: Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer speaks at her party's conference on migration, integration and security topics in Berlin, Germany, February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse/File Photo

Kramp-Karrenbauer, the woman most likely to succeed Merkel, is more outspoken than the prudent chancellor and does not hesitate to make provocative demands from France.

In a newspaper article titled “Doing Europe Right”, the leader of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), suggested France’s permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council should become an EU seat and that the European Parliament should scrap its seat in the French city of Strasbourg and move to Brussels.

Both ideas are opposed by France.

But Kramp-Karrenbauer, know as AKK, said France and Germany could nonetheless find common ground on many of Macron’s proposals, including on security and defense, asylum and climate policy, as well as boosting technological innovations in the EU.

Just like Merkel, she rejected the idea of debt mutualization in the euro zone, reflecting entrenched resistance to any measures that could make German taxpayers liable for debts of their poorer peers. She has also rejected Macron’s call for an EU-wide minimum wage.

Macron’s proposals, unveiled in an open letter to citizens of Europe that was published last week in newspapers across the EU, aim to protect and defend Europe’s citizens while giving the 28-nation bloc new impetus in the face of global competition.

“INVITATION TO TANGO”

“AKK has taken Macron’s opening as an invitation to tango,” said Ulrich Speck of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.

“On the euro zone France wants more integration and centralization, Germany wants to keep things as they are. On security, Germany is willing to do more: AKK’s call for a joint European aircraft carrier signals her readiness to invest in joint European power projection,” he added.

Asked about Kramp-Karrenbauer’s comments, a French government spokesman said the German conservative leader appeared to have only three points of disagreement with Macron: the EU-wide minimum wage, scrapping the EU parliament’s Strasbourg seat and turning France’s Security Council seat into an EU one.

“It was indeed the goal, in publishing this column, that each and every one can make their own comments,” said the spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux.

Speaking to Reuters TV on Monday, Kramp-Karrenbauer rejected suggestions that her ideas for Europe differed from those of Merkel and said she sees no appetite among either the conservatives or their Social Democrat (SPD) junior coalition partners to unseat Merkel, whose final term ends in 2021.

“It is the right approach, as we have a chancellor and we want that Angela Merkel remain chancellor, and this is also what I want,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said.

ELECTION CHALLENGE

Merkel, who was criticized by some SPD ministers and media commentators for leaving it to AKK to respond to Macron, on Monday backed Kramp-Karrenbauer’s positions on Europe.

“I think it is important for the CDU to make clear where it thinks we are headed,” she told reporters.

France and Germany have been criticized for making slow progress on reforming the euro zone since Macron’s speech in September 2017 in which he highlighted his far-reaching plans for the single currency bloc and wider EU.

Merkel has said she will step down at the end of her term in 2021. But her CDU and the center-left SPD might be forced to rethink their alliance after four regional elections this year, in which they are expected to lose voters to a far-right party.

The first test is the election in May in the northern city-state of Bremen, where the SPD has ruled since 1946 and where a loss to the conservatives would increase pressure on the party to end its tie-up with the conservatives.

Opinion polls show the SPD 1 percentage point behind the CDU in Bremen.

If the SPD pull out of the coalition, the most likely scenario would be a new election. Polls show the CDU emerging as the biggest party, and Kramp-Karrenbauer is the most likely candidate to lead the conservatives and become chancellor.

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during the closing session of the Intelligence College in Europe meeting at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Paris, France March 5, 2019. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

She is expected to broadly follow in Merkel’s careful footsteps, albeit her tone will be different.

“On substance, the text by Kramp-Karrenbauer shows a lot of continuity with the current stance of the chancellor,” said Lucas Guttenberg, deputy director of the Jacques Delors Institute Berlin.

“Her difference to the chancellor seems more a matter of method than of substance.”

Additional reporting by Michelle Martin and Andreas Rinke in Berlin, and Michel Rose in Paris; Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Alison Williams

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