Norbert Röttgen: the smart outsider who fell from grace

The first CDU leadership candidate out of the gates was a surprise: clever, well-dressed lawyer Norbert Röttgen. Described by the Suddeutsche Zeitung as an outsider and lone fighter, Röttgen is known as a quick witted politician and smooth speaker.

Like leadership rivals Armin Laschet and Friedrich Merz, Röttgen comes from North-Rhine Westphalia. He was born in Meckenheim in 1965 and after school, he went on to study law in Bonn. He joined the CDU as a young man in 1982 and became an MP in 1994. At that time he was a member of a liberal CDU grouping labelled by the media as the ‘Wild Young Ones’, who spoke out against then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s policies. Like Laschet, Röttgen was part of the Pizza Connection, a group of CDU and Green MPs who used to meet in the 1990s to establish common ground between their parties.

Photo: © Superbass / CC-BY-SA-4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

He was spokesman for legal affairs from 2002 – 2005 and first parliamentary business manager for the CDU/CSU group of parliamentarians from 2005 – 2009. When Angela Merkel became Chancellor in 2005, Röttgen became one of her closest advisors and in 2009 he was appointed Minister for the Environment. This was the time of the phase-out of nuclear power; Röttgen was known for his anti-nuclear and pro-Green stance, although he was not entirely trusted by the Greens at that time – as the Taggeschau reported, party chair Claudia Roth witheringly asked, “What is modern about Norbert Röttgen, please?”

The Berliner Morgenpost wrote that Röttgen at that time was ‘Mutti’s (Mummy’s) smartest’. He was “an intellectual high flyer. The Crown Prince for the era after Angela Merkel. An upcoming chancellor. That was until 2012. ….Because Röttgen made a fatal mistake.” His mistake was to lose an election. In 2010 he became Chair of the CDU in North-Rhine Westphalia and then ran to be Prime Minister of North Rhine Westphalia in 2012. He lost the election disastrously, winning only 26% (8% down on the previous election) against the SPD’s 39%. During the campaign he made many mistakes including, as the Frankfurter Rundschau wrote, saying “I think I should actually become prime minister, but unfortunately it’s not only the CDU that decides, but the voters.” Following the defeat, he fell out of grace with Merkel and her inner circle and was sacked. This was only the second time a minister had ever been sacked and it caused an outcry in Germany.

Since his dismissal as Minister for the Environment, he has been a member of the Bundestag’s influential Foreign Affairs Committee. He described this as, “my first small step back into politics. And foreign policy opened a new world for me.” In 2014 he became chair of the committee and has developed a reputation as a foreign policy expert. He is a critic of Putin, and has called for a post-Brexit Anglo-German Friendship Treaty, as well as more cooperation with France over EU reforms. Germany’s place in the world is crucial, he has argued: “in Germany the CDU is the only remaining large ‘people’s party’. And Germany is crucial in Europe. Which way the CDU goes will be decisive for how things go in Europe, how things go with the USA and how we will position ourselves in relation to China.”

As refugees gathered at the Greek-Turkish border in March, Friedrich Merz delivered a clear message – ‘There is no point in coming to Germany.’ Röttgen hit back at him, saying that it was wrong in tone and content, arguing that, “We have a commitment to asylum in the Basic Law (the constitution), that we will accept those who are persecuted. That is why Germany is legally, historically and politically a country that does not ignore the needs of persecuted people.” He also criticised Laschet’s comment that Merkel’s handling of the 2015 refugee crisis had been correct, saying “There were things that went well and things that didn’t go well.” Röttgen called for sanctions on Russia to force Putin to the negotiating table in order to solve the crisis, as well as criticising the EU for having no idea about how to handle the crisis.

Röttgen has argued that the CDU needs to broaden its appeal: ” We have a majority amongst the over 60s – nowhere else.” Röttgen’s pitch for leadership is to position the CDU as a centre party resisting both the far-left Linke (Left) party and the far-right AfD. He wants to start a new dialogue with people in the east, where both the Left party and the AfD are strong, and to tackle the root causes of support for populism. Röttgen argues that, “People are afraid. The decisive reason for the rise of the AfD was the feeling of many people that politics had let them down. World financial crisis, euro crisis, refugee crisis. …..Fear is the business of the AfD.”

Environmental protection remains a key interest – “Otherwise, as a party, we risk losing an entire generation.” He regards environmental policy as being intertwined with economic and foreign policy. He has said that, “We need innovations that show the world that successful economy and ecological resource-conservation can be combined”.

Unlike Laschet, Röttgen is not known for his humour or sociability. An WDR profile put it this way: “For some party members, the always elegantly dressed Röttgen seems too vain, for some even too arrogant and know-it-all. The friend with whom you drink a beer in the evening, no, that’s not Röttgen. Always friendly and courteous, yes, but rather matter-of-fact and sober in how he speaks.” The Berliner Morgenpost had a similar comment: “He is a brilliant mind, a man who speaks inconvenient truths in a time of change. But Röttgen is also seen as vain and arrogant in his own party, as someone who lets others sense his intellectual superiority.” The Suddeutsche Zeitung wrote that, “he doesn’t make much effort to hide his superiority – you don’t make friends with that.”

He’s also seen as a politician who understands how to climb the ladder. The Taggeschau quote him as having said, “Politics is a field where frank and honest discussion do not win; instead all means and methods are used to fight – for power.”

Whether he manages to achieve power this time is questionable: opinion polls show him far behind Merz and Laschet both among CDU members and the wider public.

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