This afternoon’s football match between England and Germany will be seized on by both sides as a welcome distraction from the pandemic.
When German politicians want to avoid controversy, they often talk, in a most expert manner, about football.
But the greatest of those politicians are also capable of talking about politics in such a way as to avoid controversy, or indeed to avoid saying anything at all.
From her earliest years, Angela Merkel mastered the art of giving nothing away about her personal opinions: a skill which was indispensable to her as the child of a Lutheran clergyman in Brandenburg, in what was then East Germany.
Armin Laschet, chosen by the Christian Democrats as their candidate to succeed her as Chancellor, possesses also that skill, albeit developed over a long period under quite different circumstances.
He is from Aachen, on the far western border of Germany, close to Belgium and the Netherlands. While Merkel speaks excellent Russian, he speaks excellent French.
She was Lutheran. He is a devout Roman Catholic, which is normal for a leader of the Christian Democrats. In the words of a penetrating observer from the German Left,
“He’s a nice fellow, but he is not a strategic person. He is not a second Konrad Adenauer. He is not even a Boris Johnson.
“He is part of the Catholic opposition against the Prussians – a very funny opposition of weak, small people who fight with all their humour against the people at the top of society.
“He is a very charming and weak person who is always laughing at himself. People like him but nobody thinks he is a leader.”
He is in fact the Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, which has about 18 million inhabitants, more than any other German state, having been created by the British in 1946 from former Prussian territories.
He had a hard fight to become the Christian Democrats’ candidate for the Chancellorship, but at length defeated Markus Söder, an altogether more striking figure who is Minister-President of the state of Bavaria.
In early life, Laschet, who is 60, took a law degree, worked in journalism and edited a Catholic newspaper in Aachen. But he soon became a professional politician, a member of the Bundestag from 1994-98 and the European Parliament from 1999-2005 before concentrating his efforts in North Rhine-Westphalia, where he became Minister-President in 2017.
He was now well-placed to become leader of the Christian Democrats at national level, which he managed in January this year, after other superficially more popular, energetic and interesting candidates fell by the wayside.
The task of succeeding Merkel, Chancellor since 2005, is by no means an easy one. Her many grievous errors were recently summed up for ConHome by Leon Mangasarian.
But in Germany’s consensus politics it is more helpful to bury errors than to admit to them, and this Laschet is well qualified to do. He possesses in a high degree the casuistical skills which can help to blur every issue: a form of politics which flourishes also among those who uphold, in the face of such discouraging events as Brexit, faith in the present success and future greatness of the European Union.
The press, fed up with sitting through numerous occasions when Laschet has given them nothing to report, tends to write him off as a bore.
That does not do justice to him. He has a subtle gift for making not having a stand-up row, indeed not making a decision, sound reasonable. His intonation is delightful: he speaks as one might imagine an unresentful friar would speak, at ease with the whole world.
He stands accused of being too friendly towards Russia and China, but professes friendship towards everyone.
At a recent appearance at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, he was asked what he would change in Germany and the European Union’s policy towards Russia, and what his attitude is towards Nord Stream 2, the Baltic pipeline which will bring Russian gas direct to Germany, cutting out Ukraine.
He replied in a mild tone that he would not change anything, for the joint German-French declaration in Minsk offers a good way out of warlike tensions – it has not yet achieved final success, but a big war, a big conflict has been avoided.
As for Nord Stream 2, he recognised that behind this question lay concern about the geostrategic effect on Ukraine – would Ukraine’s energy security be endangered, would it become more dependent on Russia?
No, he insisted in his sweetest tone, it would not be, for the position of the German Government is that the position of Ukraine must not be affected by the pipeline.
It is hard to see why in Kiev any reliance should be placed on that assurance, but Laschet behaved as if it settled the matter.
Germany, it was pointed out to him, has despatched a frigate, the Bayern, to the Indo-Pacific region. Will Germany be sending more frigates there?
Laschet raised his hands in a pacific gesture. He is good at soothing hand movements. This, he explained, is just a part of Germany’s relationship with China, for which the European Foreign Ministers have developed “a good formula – China is partner, competitor and rival”.
If German voters wish their next leader to be all things to all men, which it appears that they do, Laschet is their man. He is almost ten points ahead of his nearest rival, the Green candidate Annalena Baerbock, a former trampolinist who is laughably inexperienced, as one can see when she gives straight answers to straight questions.
She is against Nord Stream 2, pro-American, has an economic policy which German business thinks is disastrous, and has recently been found to have doctored her curriculum vitae.
Like most German politicians, Laschet is in favour of “a stronger Europe”, which “must end in treaty changes”, and in “a European Constitution which is close to the people”.
But when it was put to him that this must mean he favours a common European budget and the pooling of European debt, he replied at once, with a smile, that he had been “misunderstood”, and that was not what he meant at all.
With imperturbable good humour, he indicates that he will take care of everything. It is a beguiling prospectus, for a Germany which is determined to go on pretending to be weak.