BERLIN — Until recently, Julia Kloeckner was a little-known provincial politician from Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Before she joined the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, in 2002, her main claim to fame was her one-year reign as the country’s 1995-1996 “Wine Queen.” As German viniculture’s promoter-in-chief, she once had the honor of presenting Pope John Paul II with a bottle of Riesling.
This year, however, Kloeckner is back in the spotlight — not, this time, for her grape expertise, but for her stance on asylum-seekers, the issue currently roiling German politics.
Kloeckner, who is running to become premier of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, first made national headlines in January, when she reportedly told dissenters within the CDU to “just shut up for once” in response to their grumbling over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy. At the time, she looked like a Merkel lieutenant helping to maintain discipline in the ranks.
A week later, however, Kloeckner made news again — only this time for siding with Merkel’s critics. Kloeckner released a paper that recommended deciding asylum claims directly at the border and regulating the flow of refugees through daily limits, determined on an ad hoc basis. All of a sudden, Kloeckner looked like a rebel, advocating for a plan much closer to the stop-gap, unilateral measures already taken by neighbors Austria and Denmark than Merkel’s cumbersome trans-European solution.
Kloeckner was careful to dub her proposal “Plan A2” — rather than a full-fledged Plan B — to gain some distance from Berlin during an election season. In the process, the whole country began to pay attention to Kloeckner: a bold, brash, and young Christian Democrat, who promised to restore the party to its conservative roots and walk back the open-door policy that her boss was defending so fervently.
Even as Merkel’s popularity has taken a beating during the refugee crisis, the lack of a viable successor has left her firmly in charge. Yet Kloeckner’s debut on the national stage was a reminder that a new generation is on the rise.
Germany’s regional elections are scheduled to be held on March 13. The vote in Rhineland-Palatinate and two other states is being treated as a national referendum on Merkel’s refugee policies. Should Kloeckner win, her victory would put her in an excellent position in the race for who will lead post-Merkel Germany.
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Kloeckner, 43, entered politics in 2002. Following her stint as Wine Queen, she worked as the editor of a wine journal before she was recruited to run on the CDU’s party list for the Bundestag as part of the party’s effort to fill one-third of their parliamentary seats with women. Thus began a meteoric rise that would take her to the top of the CDU in her home state of Rhineland-Palatinate in less than a decade and make her one of Merkel’s five deputies in the national party.
In a collection of interviews published last year, Kloeckner, who grew up in a conservative Catholic family of vintners, described herself as a pragmatist. “Politically, my heart beats in the center,” she said. “I’m happy that I don’t have to drag a backpack through life filled with ideologies that only have a limited shelf life.” True to form, her campaign for premier is being guided by “common sense and pragmatism,” according to her website.
At the same time, Kloeckner has shown a sharp political instinct. Volker Resing, one of the journalists who co-edited the book of interviews, said Kloeckner has “embraced” the old guard of the CDU, visiting grandees such as Helmut Kohl, who launched his first bid for the chancellorship from Rhineland-Palatinate four decades ago. “She’s very power-oriented,” said Resing.
Up until this year, the secret to Merkel’s success was her predictability. Over the course of the 16 years she has led her party, she has calmly and unerringly moved the CDU to the center of the political spectrum, absorbing the positions of rival parties along the way — taking up the Greens’ long-standing demand for Germany to abandon nuclear power, for instance. When Merkel made the surprise decision to let in hundreds of thousands of refugees stranded in Eastern Europe last September, she was met with backlash from traditional CDU voters who didn’t recognize their party anymore.
Kloeckner wants to win back the CDU’s traditional supporters. She campaigns not just against Merkel’s refugee policy, but also against assisted suicide, and for balanced budgets that include more funding for police. The fact she is unmarried and has no children could still prove a political liability, Resing said.
With the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) making inroads into the political establishment, the Christian Democrats are fighting for every vote in the upcoming state elections. The CDU is expected to remain the strongest party in Saxony-Anhalt, an eastern state with an unemployment rate of almost 11 percent, even as the AfD polls at 19 percent. But in the wealthy southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, the CDU has fallen behind the progressive Greens as the leading party. And in Rhineland-Palatinate, Kloeckner’s CDU is running neck and neck at 35 percent with incumbent Malu Dreyer’s Social Democrats. “If Merkel fails to win an additional state, anxiety will break out in the party,” said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist in Berlin. “It will get hairy.” That is, it will show that the CDU is losing its appeal because of the government’s refugee policy.
Merkel is more isolated than ever. The center-left Social Democratic Party, her main coalition partner in the national government, is exploiting fears that low-income Germans will have to compete with refugees for social welfare benefits, while Horst Seehofer, head of the CDU’s arch-conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, is demanding an annual cap on refugees and even threatening to take Merkel to Germany’s constitutional court. Local politicians from across the political spectrum are complaining that the federal authorities aren’t providing enough support to accommodate and integrate new arrivals. Other EU leaders have largely ignored Merkel’s calls for a Europe-wide solution to the influx.
The chancellor is sticking to her guns: In an interview broadcast live on Feb. 28, she made an impassioned appeal for patience, arguing that by closing their national borders to refugees, EU countries were only creating the illusion of a solution by causing bottlenecks of human misery further down the line. “It’s my damned duty to do everything so that Europe finds a common path,” she said. But in the same interview, Merkel acknowledged that a new polarization, previously unfamiliar in Germany, was dividing the country. Only 39 percent of Germans are happy with her refugee policy, while 59 percent disapprove of it, according to the March ARD-DeutschlandTrend poll. At this week’s EU-Turkey summit in Brussels, Merkel again was forced to put off a final decision on a workable international solution to the refugee crisis because of new proposals by Ankara and a lack of consensus among European partners.
Merkel, who claims she isn’t even considering a Plan B, has downplayed her differences with Kloeckner, saying that the two are “on the way together.” Kloeckner, for her part, has been delicate in her public statements, calling her plan a “parallel track” to Merkel’s and blaming the Social Democrats for being the troublemakers in the coalition. The chancellor seems prepared not to take Kloeckner’s alternative refugee plan personally, with the understanding that it’s good tactics in this election for regional politicians to detach themselves from federal policies. Merkel showed up at a campaign stop in Kloeckner’s home district of Bad Kreuznach last week and is scheduled to make one more visit to Rhineland-Palatinate before the election.
Kloeckner has neither the stature nor experience to constitute a real threat yet, said Neugebauer. Kloeckner’s goal isn’t to undermine Merkel, but to win Rhineland-Palatinate as a power base to make a play for the chancellor job in the future, he said. “She sees herself as a successor for Merkel in 2021, not 2017,” said Neugebauer. “The time for old men is over. But it’s too early for Julia Kloeckner.”
Kloeckner herself avoids the obvious prospect of her candidacy for chancellor. “Why should I answer questions that aren’t really relevant? I’m running for state office,” she told a regional newspaper last month. Kloeckner isn’t plotting a coup but waiting in the wings, Resing, the journalist, said. “If it comes to a ‘Mexit’” — a new term for Merkel’s downfall — “I think she’ll play an important role,” he said. “Her big challenge will be to position the CDU in the center while keeping the conservatives inside.”
For the moment, Kloeckner still defers to Merkel — and Merkel is still in control. The same poll that showed six out of 10 voters unhappy with the chancellor’s refugee policy also found that 54 percent was generally happy with her work as the country’s leader. That apparent contradiction can be explained by a strong economy and the lack of any viable alternatives, whether in the CDU or the other parties. “Merkel is strong because so far there’s been no competition,” said Neugebauer. “She is at least one size bigger than all the rest.”
For now, anyway.