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Stand up to China and Putin? Foreign policy at heart of Germany vote 

After German federal elections in September, Europe’s largest economy is likely to be led either by a human rights champion sending steely messages to Russia and China, or a dovish politician who wants Vladimir Putin to be given more respect.

Surprisingly, the former hails from a Green party founded by peace activists during the cold war arms race, and the latter chairs a conservative party that traditionally sees itself as America’s most loyal ally in German politics.

With a coalition between Annalena Baerbock’s Greens and Armin Laschet’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) one of the likelier electoral outcomes in the autumn, a foreign policy clash could define Germany’s early days in the post-Merkel era.

Under the outgoing chancellor, Germany has mostly trodden a middle path, speaking up about human rights violations and democratic ideals, while also heeding its ravenous industry’s appetite for Chinese export markets and Russian energy supplies.

“With Joe Biden in the White House, a geopolitical strategy of having your cake and eating it is becoming harder to justify,” said Ulrich Speck, a foreign policy analyst. “In a paradigm of strategic competition between America and China, there’s now pressure on Germany to position itself.”

Baerbock, a 40-year-old with a background in international law, has been one of the Greens’ most vocal advocates of tying German foreign policy more firmly to values rather than economic needs.

If she were to become chancellor, she has vowed to withdraw government support for the almost complete Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Germany and Russia, which critics say will boost Putin’s geopolitical influence.

Echoing rhetoric from within the White House, she recently said that Germany’s relationship with China should be marked by a “competition of systems: authoritarian powers versus liberal democracy”.

“The clarity with which the Greens now talk about sanctions against Russia – including a stop of Nord Stream 2 – and position themselves on China is remarkable,” said Ralf Fücks, a former Green politician who heads the Centre for Liberal Modernity thinktank.

Armin Laschet with Angela Merkel in 2017. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

Laschet’s foreign policy instincts, by contrast, are harder to pin down. In Germany, the 60-year-old’s jovial Rhinelander persona has created an image of a politician whose interests do not extend far beyond the borders of North-Rhine Westphalia, where he has been state premier since 2017.

In fact Laschet’s interest in foreign policy precedes his career in politics: as editor of the Catholic newspaper KirchenZeitung Aachen the then 30-year-old wrote a weekly editorial on international affairs, dedicating his first column in July 1991 to why the European community was wrong to offer financial aid to Yugoslavia and discourage independence movements in Croatia and Slovenia.

He further fed his passion after being elected in 1999 to the European parliament, where he became rapporteur to the European neighbourhood policy, designed to tie eastern and southern states more closely to the EU.

Laschet was a politician looking for partners rather than enemies, former colleagues recall: a transatlanticist, a European, a friend of Israel. His attitudes to Russia were dovish, they say, but not unduly: the idea that the EU’s eastward expansion needed to be balanced with respect for Russian interests was CDU orthodoxy at the time.

“Armin Laschet was never a maverick,” said Charles Tannock, a former British Conservative MEP who shared a seat on the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee with the Christian Democrat. “He was grounded, affable and prudent: a safe pair of hands. To call him pro-Putin would be an exaggeration.”

Some contemporaries concede the CDU chancellor candidate’s foreign policy instincts may have been formed in a period that lacked the geopolitical tensions of today, however.

“Armin arrived in Brussels the same year Putin became prime minister of Russia, when people were investing a lot of hope in this new leader,” remembers one former colleague from his party bloc.

“He left the European parliament a year after the EU’s eastern enlargement, and wasn’t there to see how former eastern bloc states changed western European’s perception of Putin’s Russia. Maybe he’s still a little bit stuck in the honeymoon years.”

It would offer an explanation for some missteps that have made even party colleagues shake their heads in bewilderment. In 2014 he criticised America for “trying to weaken” Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in his fight against Isis, in a tweet reply to US secretary of state John Kerry.

The Christian Democrat’s defenders pointed to his Catholic faith and empathy for Syria’s Christian minorities, which many western politicians believed to be best protected by Assad at the time. But the off-piste comments became a pattern.

In April 2018, Laschet used Twitter to criticise the British government for “forcing” Nato members to condemn Russia over what he saw as limited evidence proving its role behind the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal. His own country’s government had considered the evidence sufficient.

Laschet’s silence on the attempted poisoning of Alexei Navalny was condemned strongly by the Greens – Baerbock expressed her irritation with the CDU leader’s “friendly tone towards Moscow”.

North-Rhine Westphalia is not only home to energy company Uniper, one of Nord Stream 2’s financiers, but also the port of Duisburg, a key hub for China’s belt and road initiative.

There is little question about Laschet’s passion for the European project, which comes across as less learned and more heartfelt than Merkel’s from a politician who grew up in a part of Germany that borders Belgium and the Netherlands. “People from border regions have always been quicker than those from elsewhere at overcoming the divisive nature of borders”, he wrote in his debut editorial for the Aachen church newspaper.

Speaking at the Munich security conference in February 2020, Laschet and Baerbock agreed that Germany had done too little to respond to French president Emmanuel Macron’s call for a more unified European foreign policy.

“Laschet seems open to the idea of the EU becoming a more robust geopolitical actor,” said Jana Puglierin, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Berlin office. “In that area, the CDU and the Greens may find themselves on the same page after all.”

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