July 24, 2019 / 2:07 PM / 24 days ago

Eyeing power, Merkel protegee starts high-stakes defense job

BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel’s protegee, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, pledged on Wednesday to push for increased military spending “in our own interests” as Germany’s new defense minister - a role likely to make or break her chances of succeeding her mentor.

Elected European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen attends the swearing-in ceremony of Germany's new Defence Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, at the provisionally plenary hall of the German lower house of Parliament Bundestag at the Paul Loebe Haus in Berlin, Germany July 24, 2019. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Kramp-Karrenbauer, who lacks high-echelon government experience, grabbed the defense role to build her credentials for the chancellery - a high-stakes move that will demand she build up a military many Germans remain uneasy about deploying.

Merkel, who turned 65 a week ago, is aiming to stage-manage her gradual exit from politics and hand over power to Kramp-Karrenbauer, who replaced her as chair of their Christian Democrats (CDU) in December.

At a swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday, Kramp-Karrenbauer - known as AKK after her initials - began the tricky task of promising to seek spending hikes that the CDU’s Social Democrat coalition partners want to limit.

At the same time, she stressed that shaping up the Bundeswehr (armed forces) was in Germany’s own interests - presenting thinly veiled resistance to U.S. President Donald Trump’s demands that Berlin boost its military budget.

“To speak quite plainly, this is not about wishes from abroad, this is not about an arms build-up, it is about equipment and personnel - it is about our Bundeswehr,” she told lawmakers to loud applause.

“It is about a Bundeswehr that can fulfill the tasks we give it - it is about our own interests. If the Bundeswehr is to demonstrate the capabilities (that) we demand and expect of it, then the defense budget must rise.”

The defense job, vacated last week when Ursula von der Leyen quit to become president of the European Commission, will raise Kramp-Karrenbauer’s profile and give her a chance to reverse her declining popularity with a view to succeeding Merkel by 2021.

But her move into a role dubbed “the ejector seat” - such is the career damage to recent incumbents - risks backfiring as she inherits the task of reviving a demoralized and under-equipped Bundeswehr dogged by scandals and right-wing extremism.

With the defense job, she also ties herself to the binds of cabinet loyalty - while as CDU chair she must still mastermind the party’s strategy for three autumn regional elections in Germany’s east, in which success is crucial to her prospects.

FLOUNDERING POPULARITY

She immediately ran into trouble last week after giving a lackluster television interview and saw her public support - already floundering - take a further dip.

Kramp-Karrenbauer brings no defense experience, but comes with a track record - albeit brief - of pushing the military’s case. In March, she said Germany’s credibility with its NATO partners was at stake unless it raised defense spending.

She underlined Germany’s NATO commitment to boost military spending toward a target of 2% of economic output, adding: “We are a reliable ally, bearing a fair share of the joint duties.”

Aiming to make a better fist than von der Leyen of cleaning up the armed forces and boosting morale and military readiness, she paid tribute to the service of Germany’s armed forces: “This service needs respect, this service needs support,” she said.

Germany's new Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is greeted during her swearing-in ceremony at the provisionally plenary hall the German lower house of Parliament Bundestag at the Paul Loebe Haus in Berlin, Germany July 24, 2019. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

In 2017, von der Leyen criticized “weak leadership” in the armed forces, provoking dismay among soldiers’ representatives, after an officer was arrested on suspicion of planning a racist attack to frame refugees.

Adding to the challenges Kramp-Karrenbauer faces, the Social Democrats are wary of committing to Britain’s plan for a European-led naval mission to ensure safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.

“We must always examine scrupulously requests for support from our partners - we mustn’t affirm hastily, nor issue knee-jerk rejections,” she said.

Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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