Interview: Merkel's most likely heir prefers her centrist path

Armin Laschet, a West German child who was influenced by the Cold War, recalls the moment when Ronald Reagan, then President of the United States, arrived in Berlin in 1987. He stood at the barrier that separated East and West, and said: "Tear down the wall!"

Interview: Merkel's most likely heir prefers her centrist path

"For many West Germans that utopia didn't seem real, but it fulfilled itself in its end," stated Laschet. She is running to succeed Angela Merkel in the Sept. 26 elections as the country's chancellor.

The North Rhine-Westphalia governor, Germany's largest state at 60 years old, still remembers how the Americans helped him in his youth to maintain peace and stability when he was fighting the Soviet Union.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Laschet stated that "they were always there for ours, they secured Berlin's freedom" in a conversation he had this week with The Associated Press in his office in Duesseldorf.

Laschet sees close U.S.-German relations as crucial as Merkel's departure after almost 16 years of power. With the support of President Joe Biden, he hopes to make progress on global issues.

Recent polls show that the Union bloc has a 7-10 percentage point lead over the Greens in recent polls. This makes Laschet the front-runner for the title of leader of Germany's largest economy. His Christian Democratic Union party is part of the bloc, as well as the Bavaria-only Christian Social Union Party.

Laschet, in an interview with AP, expressed relief that Biden had brought the U.S. back to the forefront of international challenges such as global warming after Donald Trump's presidency.

Laschet stated that "it is positive that the new American administration has returnedto multilateral agreements, and has joined the Paris climate agreement." "I hope that the U.S. leadership, which has committed itself to this goal economically, politically, and financially, will be able to make a huge push forward."

Biden's assertive position on China is something he is less comfortable with. Merkel's firm, but not too confrontational, approach is what he prefers.

He said that China is not a rival but a partner and that we must uphold our principles, remind China about them, while at the same time fostering our economic relations with China." He also stated that this applies to other countries that don't have close Western allies.

"Wherever there is a different model of society than ours, we must win them over, whether it's Russia, China, or the Arab World."

Laschet, like Merkel, is a centrist who favors integration over polarization. He has not yet strayed from Merkel's successful middle-of the-road approach to domestic issues.

"Currently, Laschet seems to us all like a Merkel 2.0 lighter version," said Wolfgang Merkel. He is a Berlin-based political analyst and has no connection to the chancellor. "He has not differentiated himself as someone who will do politics differently than Merkel. He is in many ways so similar to Merkel that it is difficult for him to distinguish himself from her."

Laschet is "an individual who can build bridges, as a leader in politics, someone who mediates, and who can make compromises," said he. He is not a macho politician.

Laschet has not taken any positions that are radically different from the ones of the outgoing chancellor.

The analyst stated that he doesn't believe he will do it until after the election. He is extremely cautious. "Don't make mistakes in the last spurt of this campaign."

Laschet is the child of a miner from Aachen. A university town near Germany's western border with Belgium, the Netherlands and Belgium, Laschet was born in 1932. He is a slim, dark-haired man with a mischievous smile and shock of dark hair.

He married Susanne, his childhood sweetheart. The devout Catholics had three children together and they still live in Aachen's Burtscheid.

He says that he was born in the heartland of Europe, and has been a true European since he was a child.

Laschet stated that "Many people live and work in one country, and for shopping one has to cross the border."

After completing his law degree, he worked as a journalist and then joined Germany's parliament in 1994 as a lawmaker for the CDU. Laschet was an EU Parliament member from 1999 to 2005. In 2017, he was elected governor of North Rhine-Westphalia (a stronghold of the center-left)

Laschet led his state with the pro-business Free Democrats. This is a traditional CDU ally. However, Laschet is capable of working with more leftist Greens.

Laschet served as his state's minister of integration in the 2000s. He stressed language proficiency, stronger women's rights within immigrant communities and an easier path towards citizenship.

He is passionate about fighting against the growing antisemitism within Germany. He supported high school exchanges between Israelis and Germans and is, along with Merkel, a strong supporter for Israel.

He said, "I believe every young person should visit Auschwitz once to get an idea of the place, the horror that occurred there, and to understand the Holocaust as a crime against mankind."

Laschet is concerned about populist tendencies and autocratic tendencies that have emerged in central and eastern Europe recently, but he is clear about his vision for the European Union.

"We need all 27 members states, including Hungary and Poland, to continue developing Europe. However, it is important to uphold the rule of law. Everyone who has joined the EU must accept the position of European Court of Justice. If someone violates European law, that could lead to sanctions or consequences, such as when it comes to allocation of funds," he warns.

The new chancellor should "intensify dialogue with the democracies in central and eastern Europe."

Laschet, seated on the white couch overlooking the Rhine in his office, recalled how Helmut Kohl initiated another important dialogue early in his career.

In 1997, Kohl organized a meeting with President Bill Clinton for young legislators to "talk to him about world politics"

He said, "And that really impressed my," and jumped off the couch to grab the yellowed, framed photo of him shaking hands with Clinton at the Oval Office.

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