Europe “must not bother with the little things” but instead focus on the “big issues — freedom and security”. And security meant above all protecting the EU’s external borders.
That was the main message conveyed by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, leader of Germany’s powerful Christian Democratic Union, for party supporters in the picturesque eastern town of Görlitz on Thursday, just days before Germans vote in elections to the European Parliament.
Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s campaign has been gruelling — especially considering she’s not even running. But AKK, as she is universally known, has a lot riding on these elections.
It is the first national poll since she narrowly beat millionaire corporate lawyer Friedrich Merz in the contest to replace Angela Merkel as CDU chair last December. It put her in pole position to succeed Ms Merkel when the long-serving chancellor’s fourth and final term ends in 2021.
But to cement her status as leader-in-waiting she needs to deliver strong election results — not only next Sunday, but also in three critical regional polls in eastern Germany in the autumn.
“She has to prove that the CDU can win elections with her,” said Thorsten Faas, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University. “If the party does badly, Merz’s supporters will say ‘we told you so. She’s just not a strong candidate’.”
There were plenty of sceptics in Görlitz. “I would have preferred Merz as leader,” said Horst Büchner, a car dealer, as Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer mounted the stage. “AKK follows too much in Merkel’s footsteps — she does not have her own separate identity.”
Though the CDU, together with its sister party the Bavarian CSU, is likely to emerge as the strongest force in the elections, their share of the vote is widely expected to fall. A poll published on Friday by Infratest dimap put them on 28 per cent, compared with 35 per cent in 2014.
Meanwhile the far-right, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, which has attracted thousands of disgruntled CDU voters, is on 12 per cent, up from 7 per cent last time.
If the CDU/CSU gets substantially less than 30 per cent, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer could be in trouble. “It will definitely lead some in the party to question whether she’s the right person for the job, and whether other people shouldn’t be in the frame — such as Merz,” said one CDU MP. “People will say: ‘Why is she being promoted if she is not winning us elections?’”
Yet Manfred Güllner, head of the Forsa polling agency, points to another potential outcome. “If the CDU performs badly, many in the party will blame Ms Merkel, rather than AKK,” he said.
That could increase the pressure on Ms Merkel to step down before her term officially ends and pass on the torch to Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, so she can run for chancellor in the next election with the benefits of incumbency.
The problem of Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer seeming irrelevant was noticed in Görlitz. “The thing about her is she’s not a minister or MP,” said Antje, a pensioner and CDU voter. “She has some good policy ideas, but can she really implement any of them?”
Even if the CDU does badly in the European elections, it could compensate for that with a strong performance in a regional vote in Bremen, the northern city state that has been ruled for decades by the Social Democrats. Polls suggest the CDU will emerge far ahead of the SPD.
In Görlitz, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer sketched out her vision of an EU strong and united enough to stand up to the US and China, tackle climate change without choking its economy and protect its frontiers without compromising the freedoms enshrined in the Schengen passport-free travel zone.
“We must ensure that Schengen has external borders that are safe and protected,” she said to applause. “Schengen must not only promise freedom but also security.”
The message resonates with CDU voters still fuming about the 1m migrants Germany admitted during the 2015-16 refugee crisis. This year Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer distanced herself from the liberal approach Ms Merkel adopted in 2015, saying that “as a last resort” Germany should be able to close its borders to restrict immigration.
It was one of a number of tentative steps the party leader has taken to emerge from Ms Merkel’s shadow and prove she is no simple clone of the chancellor.
It has helped to unite the CDU and reassure disappointed Merz supporters — but could backfire with the wider voting public.
“The risk for AKK is that liberal centrist voters who backed the CDU because they liked Merkel could now drift to the Greens, in protest at the way she has moved the party to the right,” said Mr Güllner.