Jens Spahn was sitting in Schumpeter Hall at the German Institute for Economic Research. It was the day after “Super Sunday” elections, in which the right-wing Alternative for Germany dealt a blow to the mainstream parties, entering the parliaments in three states.
The hall is named after Austrian-born U.S. economist Joseph Schumpeter, who coined the term “creative destruction” in economics. Mr. Spahn, who was the youngest member of parliament when he was elected to the Bundestag in 2002, is at the center of just such a moment today.
Mr. Spahn, now 35, prefers to think his center-right Christian Democrats are on the verge of “constructive change” following their electoral setbacks. After more than a million immigrants flooded into Germany last year, many worry that Chancellor Angela Merkel and other conservative leaders have lost control. Mr. Spahn, however, sees the defeats as a fresh opportunity for conservatives.
At Schumpeter Hall, he listened as Martin Schulz of the center-left Social Democrats spoke onstage. Mr. Schulz, who is president of the European Parliament, valiantly insisted the elections amounted to victory for his party, the junior coalition partner to Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their Bavarian allies in the Christian Social Union.
The voting heralded a new SPD era, Mr. Schulz claimed, even though Social Democrats ended up behind the far-right AfD in two states. The party did however hold on to Rhineland-Palatinate, due to the popularity of sitting premier, Malu Dreyer.
At his seat, Mr. Spahn smiled. When Mr. Schulz finished, he rushed onstage and countered: If these SPD election results serve as a run-up to a new era, then he was excited about what still lies ahead. Many members of the audience laughed loudly.
“People ask, ‘Is the government still capable of guaranteeing my security. Does it even know who is in the country and who isn’t?'”
Mr. Spahn’s mixture of impudence and toughness warms CDU hearts at a time when conservatives desperately need it. And if anyone can deliver that now – whether in talk shows, speeches or appearances as deputy finance minister – it is Mr. Spahn.
He is already a member of the Christian Democrats’ executive committee. And following the defeat of rising CDU star Julia Klöckner in Rhineland-Palatinate, many see him as the conservative’s most influential young politician.
“He has as much political talent as (former CDU chancellor) Helmut Kohl,” said one high-ranking Christian Democrat. “I consider him to have immense potential for the time after Ms. Merkel.”
After the poor showing in state elections earlier this month, where they failed to recapture two target states, Merkel’s conservatives continue to officially support the chancellor. But a growing frustration over not her refusal to set limits on refugees is no longer limited to Bavaria and the CDU’s sister party there, the Christian Social Union.
“The minimum that Ms. Merkel must now offer the party is more realism and less idealism,” said a party official.
That is exactly what Mr. Spahn, a trained banker, stands for. He voices what his boss at the finance ministry, Wolfgang Schäuble, often can only think, out of loyalty and respect for the chancellor. And Mr. Spahn does it with rhetorical finesse.
His recent performance at the German Institute for Economic Research, or DIW, was a good example. The issue up for discussion was growing inequality in Germany. DIW president Marcel Fratzscher presented an entire report on the subject. But Mr. Spahn needed only a few sentences to sow doubts.
He argued that after taxes and redistribution, the German income gap is smaller than the average calculated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Moreover, he pointed out, increases in wages and pensions were particularly high this year.
“Personally, most of us are doing better than ever before,” he called out in a volume fit for a beer tent.
That sounded a bit like Ms. Merkel’s oft-repeated promise on Germany’s immigration crisis, “We can manage this.” But it was not meant to.
“At the moment, our society is more politicized and polarized than I have ever seen it,” said Mr. Spahn.
As a member of parliament representing the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia since 2002, he has a sharp sense of fears many citizens face with the influx of refugees. Last November, Mr. Spahn presented a report on the refugee crisis in which he diagnosed a sort of failure on the party in the state.
“People ask, ‘Is the government still capable of guaranteeing my security,’” he wrote. “Does it even know who is in the country and who isn’t?”
After the New Year’s Eve robberies and sexual assaults in Cologne by a number of men described as of Arab and North African origin, he even called for an outpouring of indignation.
After the backlash in state elections, he said “the coming weeks are crucial in determining whether Europe will fall apart.”
He denies that this sharp tone is by any means disloyal. “I admire Angela Merkel and her strong nerves,” he insisted.
Up to now, Mr. Spahn has avoided distancing himself from the chancellor, as CSU head Horst Seehofer and Ms. Klöckner have done.
In February the media described a meeting of young conservative politicians, including Mr. Spahn, as a summit of those who opposed Ms. Merkel’s refugee policy. But the young CDU politician quickly rejected that characterization.
He openly acknowledges that the Merkel government has made mistakes on the immigrant issue. He believes that Greeks, Italians and Turks should have been supported much earlier, rather than leaving them to handle the refugees on their own for years.
Like the chancellor, Mr. Spahn favors a European solution. Decisions about granting asylum should be made in Greece. Refugees refused that status should be sent to back Turkey or Libya.
But between the lines, one hears doubts: “Can we really manage this?”
In conversations with citizens, Mr. Spahn points out that every second person in Africa is under age 20. In 30 years, Nigeria’s population will be 500 million and exceed that of the entire European Union. “And everyone there can quickly see on their mobile phones how prosperous we are,” he said.
When the Christian Democrat paints that scenario, his listeners imagine an endless caravan of people boarding boats for Europe.
“We live in an important intermediate stage,” said Mr. Spahn.
Germany must make thorough preparations, he said, preferably together with all Europeans, but alone if necessary.
This could be the new, realistic nuance that the Christian Democrats need – and a possible repositioning on the refugee issue if the chancellor is replaced or resigns before the crisis ends.
At a recent citizens’ meeting in Westphalia, one older woman voiced her indignation at politicians in Berlin. Then she asked: “And when will you become chancellor, Mr. Spahn?”
Mr. Spahn didn’t take the bait. “That can’t be planned in politics,” was his reply.
A year ago, there was no indication that the chancellor would offer him the position of junior finance minister. He was the party’s health spokesman and had been tipped as a future health minister, but he accepted the offer. It was time to get to know a larger ministry, he said.
The finance ministry could be a training ground for greater tasks. His 73-year-old boss Mr. Schäuble is a thorough professional and more than twice his age. But the two seem to feel at ease with each other.
Both quickly absorb complex material, cultivate a wider perspective and love the art of fact-based provocation. Mr. Schäuble is a Protestant from Baden, Mr. Spahn a Catholic from Westphalia. Both are driven by a work ethic and a sense of social responsibility.
Mr. Spahn long ago incorporated Mr. Schäuble’s debt-free, balanced budget into his DNA. Whoever wants to wheedle money from him is rebuffed in sometimes more and sometimes less friendly tones – even people like Hasso Plattner, the German billionaire who co-founded SAP software.
At a recent appearance in Berlin, Mr. Plattner called for research support through tax incentives. Mr. Spahn countered gruffly: “Always the same annoying tax incentives.”
The junior minister never tires of saying the state has a surplus, but nothing left over. Mr. Schäuble himself couldn’t say it better.
So Mr. Spahn has become increasingly important in the party, one appearance after another. He has not yet outgrown the Junge Union, the youth organization of the conservative parties. And he fought for a place on the CDU executive committee against Hermann Gröhe, a confidant of the chancellor. This was interpreted as a brave act of defiance.
“At the moment, our society is more politicized and polarized than I have ever seen it.”
Since the sudden death last year of Philipp Missfelder, a 35-year-old foreign policy expert in the party, Mr. Spahn represents the younger generation almost on his own on the executive committee. And he is a savvy user of media in which young people are active, especially social networks.
How cleverly he manages this could be seen in a recent duel between Mr. Schulz of the Social Democrats and DIW head Mr. Fratzscher. Both had publicly espoused the idea that equality is threatened these days in Germany.
Mr. Spahn, however, was quick on the draw. “Germany is not a social disaster zone,” he tweeted from the finance ministry.
The next day his retort made headlines — and again, the up-and-coming young conservative had the last word.
This article first appeared in WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author: email@example.com