Power play

Angela Merkel brings her gadfly, Jens Spahn, into her cabinet

Der Parlamentarische Staatssekretaer im Finanzministerium Jens Spahn CDU aufgenommen am 19 02 201
Yes, I Spahn. Source: imago

Jens Spahn leapt to prominence in December 2016 in the rust-belt city of Essen at a gathering of his party, the Christian Democratic Union. With the refugee crisis still fresh in the delegates’ minds, the CDU was split by a controversy over limiting immigrants’ rights to dual citizenship, a privilege that had only two years earlier been granted in specific situations. Angela Merkel, the party’s boss as well as chancellor, supports dual citizenship. Mr. Spahn took to the stage as one of the last speakers. To gasps, he bellowed out his opposition to the idea, and implicitly to the chancellor. When the votes were counted, he had enough to approve a motion. It was widely seen as a rebuke to Ms. Merkel.

This public display of defiance, amid deep unease in the CDU over the chancellor’s liberal immigration policies, marked a turning point in a party once famous for its internal discipline and cohesion. And for Mr. Spahn, the 37-year-old who led the rebellion, and who has since been mentioned as a potential candidate for chancellor.

Mr. Spahn and Ms. Merkel also differ on another, more personal issue. Mr. Spahn is staunchly Catholic, but also openly and proudly gay. Just before Christmas, he married his partner – Daniel Funke, a journalist. Together they posed in coordinated bow ties at their ceremony in a castle in Essen. The German parliament had legalized gay marriages only months earlier. Ms. Merkel, liberal on most issues, had opposed gay marriage. So had the woman whom Ms. Merkel prefers as her successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, newly appointed as secretary general of the CDU

Better to hug him close than to have him at large planning ambushes.

Ever since his insurrection at the party gathering in 2016, Ms. Merkel has been pondering what to do about Ms. Spahn. Now she thinks she has found a solution. If the planned coalition between her CDU and the center-left Social Democrats goes ahead, she wants to make Mr. Spahn her minister of health care. Better to hug him close, at her own cabinet table, than to have him at large, planning ambushes with the party insurgents.

For Mr. Spahn, this health-care portfolio is another career leap. If the new coalition happens, he will take the helm at a ministry that employs 700 staff and has an annual budget of €15 billion ($18.3 billion). He knows the subject matter, having served as the CDU parliamentary group’s point man on health-care policy. But as minister, he will have to battle the Social Democrats over financing the system, and possibly to defend compromises that could mar his desired reputation as a conservative stalwart. He wants more market competition, the Social Democrats want less.

CDU-Bundesparteitag – Merkel und Spahn
I've got your back. Source: DPA

By putting Mr. Spahn in that position, Ms. Merkel, a centrist, hopes to keep her party from shifting even further to the right. Had she given him the education ministry, he would have a better platform to promote his views about protecting national “identity” and associated hot-button issues involving Heimat (“homeland”) and Leitkultur (a nation’s “guiding culture”).

As the CDU thus debates how deutsch German conservatism needs to be to win back voters who defected to the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a populist party on the far right, Mr. Spahn presents himself as the answer. He doesn’t want to be labeled “far-right” but rather “liberal-conservative.” He doesn’t see himself as a chauvinist but believes a pinch of nationalism could heal his party. He doesn’t want a police state but backs a strong government that guarantees order and security, and sets limits on immigration and rules for everyone to follow. Polls show many Germans want that, too.

Too smart to copy the slogans of the AfD but aware of the power of political symbols, Mr. Spahn supports a ban on wearing burqas in public and a cap on migration. He would like to see an “Islam law” to ensure that what is being preached in mosques around the country is “transparent.” As for migrants adapting to Germany society, he told Der Spiegel magazine: “To anyone who considers our open society to be corrupt or effeminate, or who wants to live in a theocracy, I simply say: ‘Go and find another country.’”

Mr. Spahn has made no secret of his respect for Sebastian Kurz, the conservative Austrian chancellor who has butted heads with Ms. Merkel over her liberal refuge policy, and who now governs in a coalition with Austria’s equivalent of the AfD. Mr. Spahn even went on a gratuitous media campaign against Berlin’s hipster bars and cafes for employing waiters who only speak English. His message: Too much cosmopolitanism is bad for Germany.

Charity-Gala “Rosenball 2016”
Ms. Merkel and her No. 2, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, weren't invited. Source: DPA

As a homosexual, Mr. Spahn may not seem the likeliest leader of a conservative rebellion within the CDU. He has admitted that a political career like his would have been “rockier 10 years ago” but sees no contradiction in being a gay conservative. Brash and confident, dressed mostly in black business suits, he doesn’t shy away from taking his partner to formal events and posing with him for photos among pillars of the conservative establishment.

Mr. Spahn has never made a secret of his ambition. He went to a Catholic high school, then trained to become a bank clerk, and later earned a master’s degree in political science. He joined the CDU youth organization at age 15. Only seven years later he won a seat in the Bundestag, the lower chamber of parliament. He has comfortably held his electoral district in every election since.

Although Ms. Merkel passed him over for a cabinet position after her 2013 re-election, then-finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble took him on as a deputy. Mr. Spahn kept building alliances within the CDU and in 2015 got himself elected by party delegates to the CDU executive committee, the party’s inner decision-making circle. Now, he will be minister. His appointment could cue a lively succession battle in the CDU between him and the moderate team player Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer. As Ms. Merkel is sure to have noticed, it could also constrain Mr. Spahn within the cabinet, while Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer runs circles around him.

John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the editor: blau@handelsblatt.com

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