grand coalition

Merkel's new chief of staff to push a digital agenda

Prof Dr Helge Braun MdB Staatsminister bei der Bundeskanzlerin Deutschland Berlin Deutsche Par
We'd never seen him before either. Source: imago/Metodi Popow

In many ways, Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday proposed herself as her chief of staff. That is, if she were 45, male and from the central German town of Giessen. That person is Helge Braun and, if Ms. Merkel gets her way, Mr. Braun will begin running the chancellery later this year as chief of staff. Ms. Merkel and Mr. Braun are both said to have a quiet, level-headed demeanor and both speak slowly and deliberately, accenting syllables. And both are scientists – Mr. Braun studied medicine and Chancellor Merkel studied physics.

Mr. Braun first came to Berlin in 2002 at the age of 29 as a parliamentarian and has served as a top official in the chancellery for the past four years, albeit hidden in the shadow behind Peter Altmaier, the chancellery’s chief of staff since late 2013. He began to move into the spotlight in 2013 when he spearheaded the chancellery’s response to the influx of refugees welcomed into Germany by Ms. Merkel. More recently, he headed up discussions on the country’s digital transformation during negotiations for the proposed “grand coalition” government.

Mr. Braun is well-positioned to finally usher in a new digital era in Europe’s biggest economy, a priority for the next government. Such efforts have failed repeatedly over the past four years as ministries blocked efforts from each other in favor of their own pet projects. The result: Germany, the land of engineers, still completes much of its bureaucracy with paperwork and face-to-face meetings while other countries opt for automation and streamlined, online processes. Now the digital marching orders will come from Ms. Merkel’s office, rather than more distant cabinet posts.

Although he worked as an anesthesiologist before becoming a politician, he has an odd affinity for the digital lifestyle. “The first PowerPoint presentation ever held at a county party meeting given by him, naturally,” Thomas Koch, an official with the Hessian interior ministry, told the Giessener Allgemeine newspaper. Mr. Koch referred to his friend as, “Mr. Reliable.” Meanwhile, party colleague Christoph Zörb recalled a discussion about mobile phones: “Back then, I very proudly showed him my first Blackberry and he said: ‘Steve Jobs is introducing a similar thing. I’ve already ordered one.’”

“The art in being an anesthesiologist is not in putting people to sleep.”

Helge Braun

Mr. Braun’s appointment may also be more than just the ascension of a deserving lieutenant: It creates a clever counterweight after Ms. Merkel was forced to give the cherished finance ministry to the center-left Social Democrats in exchange for agreeing to form a government. Seen as one of the few remaining traditional liberals in the CDU, Mr. Braun’s heavily pro-business stance, coupled with a CDU-led economics ministry, could be better equipped to tussle with the leftist leanings of the SPD’s finance ministry.

The job is likely not his last in Berlin. In an interview with broadcaster ARD, Mr. Braun said the CDU is currently in a state of renewal with a number of young ministers and officials moving up – including himself. And his predecessors have also moved onto bigger positions. Thomas de Mazière, who was chief of staff from 2005 to 2009, went on to become defense minister and interior minister, a post he will leave should Ms. Merkel’s conservative bloc and the SPD finally complete work to form a government, possibly this weekend. And Mr. Braun’s immediate predecessor, Peter Altmaier, is now acting finance minister and stands to head up the economics ministry.

Mr. Braun is, by all accounts, diplomatic. “The art in being an anesthesiologist is not in putting people to sleep,” he once told Die Zeit. “It’s waking everybody up again.”

Andrew Bulkeley is an editor in Berlin for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author:

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