Armin Laschet and the populist danger for Europe
Like many good English idioms, the phrase "canary in the coal mine" has an interesting history. Given the birds’ rapid heart rate, diminutive size, and high metabolism, canaries served as an early warning industrial safety system for much of the 20th century. The idea was to place a canary in a coal mine along with mine workers. If there was carbon monoxide poison awaiting them at the bottom of a shaft, the birds would succumb first, giving the humans enough time to escape. The phrase expanded from this practical history, coming to mean an early, specific warning sign that lays out what is to happen to everyone at a later date.
The January election of the gray, centrist, Armin Laschet, to head Germany’s dominant Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party signals the immediate triumph of establishment European parties and the eclipsing of the populist threat to the European project.
However, upon closer inspection, Laschet and Germany truly amount to a canary in a coal mine for Europe as a whole. For if populism has been seen off in the near term, it is far from dead. Instead — first in Germany but then also in Italy and France — populism is well placed in the medium term to take advantage of the copious failures of European establishment parties, who will be shown to have definitively flunked the coronavirus (COVID-19) test, the political risk event of a generation.
Laschet’s rise to power in Europe’s most important state is no accident. It was made clear to the hand-picked CDU functionaries who chose their new leader (an extremely restricted franchise of just over 1,000) that their heroine — the popular, outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel — preferred the centrist premier of North Rhine-Westphalia to his more right-wing and combative primary rival, Friedrich Merz.
Echoing Merkel’s centrism set the stage for Laschet’s triumph for two basic political reasons. First, Merkel, given her striking popularity, is in the rare position to anoint a chosen heir to run her country; picking someone sharing her basic centrist instincts was always going to be her first choice.
Even more importantly, Laschet’s centrism makes assembling the next German coalition government far easier. Polling has consistently made it clear that to assemble the strongest possible majority coalition in the Bundestag, the CDU/CSU will have to ally with the center-left Greens at the national level.
Having a centrist CDU leader makes such a tie up far more ideologically palatable than if the CDU were coming at coalition building from the right. Laschet’s centrism makes him the man to do the needed coalition deal, leaving the CDU in the strongest possible parliamentary position to govern after the upcoming September election.
Nor is the CDU’s triumph in the autumn of 2021 in much doubt. Politico’s March 1 poll of Germans found the CDU/CSU with 34 percent of the vote; the Greens well behind at 18 percent and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) at 16 percent. The populist far-right AfD was at 10 percent, and the populist far-left Die Linke at 8 percent. It is clear that Merkel’s enduring popularity is more than enough to get Laschet over the line in September. These polling numbers also make it clear that, at least for the moment, German establishment parties are polling at just over 80 percent, with the two populist parties in abeyance at only about 18 percent.
And yet beyond all this immediate good news for Germany’s establishment parties, the canary in the coal mine is warbling a clear warning. What if Europe’s vaccination drive to end the COVID-19 crisis continues to go wrong as it is today? The health, economic, and social costs to Germany and Europe, already immense, will surely spill over into intense popular frustration with a German and European political elite that has undeniably failed its people.
At this point, and in the face of Laschet’s centrism, the populist AfD and Die Linke will have a compelling story to tell — all the German establishment parties, clustered around the mushy center, have abjectly failed. Radical times demand radical measures and correspondingly radical parties. In betting against the glacially-slow vaccination campaign, German populists have a clear way forward to upend Germany’s seemingly stable establishment consensus.
There are three great powers in Europe: Germany, France and Italy. If any of the Big 3 were to steer decisively in a populist direction, the European project as we know it would be over.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
At the macro level, the political risk matrix for Europe is crystal clear. There are three great powers in Europe: Germany, France and Italy. If any of the Big 3 were to steer decisively in a populist direction, the European project as we know it would be over. All three have key elections in the offing: The German parliamentary election in September, the French presidential elections in April-May 2022, and the Italian presidential election, no later than January 2022.
In all three cases, in the short run, establishment forces are clearly in the ascendant. But, equally in all three, failure to master the ramifications of the pandemic leave each establishment clearly vulnerable in the medium-run. Predictably, for those who can only see to the tips of their noses, there will soon be a series of articles in the commentariat saying the populist threat to Europe has abated. Given the canary in the coal mine, do not believe them.
- Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via chartwellspeakers.com.