Jens Spahn: “Chancellor in the wings”

Following Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s announcement that she is resigning as leader of the conservative CDU, Health Minister Jens Spahn, a hope bearer for many on the right of the party, was widely tipped to throw his hat into the ring. Instead, in February he surprisingly teamed up with the ‘continuity candidate’, Armin Laschet, as Laschet’s deputy. Yet since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Spahn’s profile and popularity have shot up, and the prospects of key players in the leadership pack have been re-shuffled.

The government has received impressive support for its handling of the crisis, and, as Health Minister, Spahn has played a central role on the stage and won widespread praise for his work. Ambitious, young and often seen as arrogant, Spahn previously had a reputation, as a Tagessschau article noted, as a ‘calf biter’ who indulged in show politics. But that has all changed. In April, infratest dimap found that he had 60% approval (in third place, after Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz) and 89% knew who he was. A  survey about who would be the most popular Chancellor candidate for the CDU/CSU in the 2021 election put Spahn in second place with 21% (+10), behind Markus Söder, Bavaria’s Minister President, whose popularity has also increased in the last two months.

A recent Berliner Zeitung article argued, “The corona pandemic could now give him the title of crisis manager. This has been the highest level of political recognition in Germany since the 1962 Hamburg flood, which made Helmut Schmidt famous.”

Spahn discussing Germany’s handling of the corona crisis

Spahn has overseen Germany’s impressive testing programme (with a capacity of over 120,000 daily tests now and an increase to four and a half million a week planned) as well as an expansion of intensive care beds from 28,000 to 40,000, both of which have contributed to the fact that Germany’s mortality rate so far is only just over 4%. Germany is also undertaking the first mass antibody testing in Europe.

Not everything has been an unqualified success; as in the UK, there has been a scramble to procure enough Personal Protection Equipment, and some equipment has been inexplicably lost on its way to Germany; for example, in March six million protective masks, “disappeared without a trace” at an airport in Kenya. The Zeit reported that union ver.di has received a large number of criticisms about a lack of protective equipment, worries about infection or poor work organization amongst health care workers, and that employees are worried about consequences if they complain.

Collaboration on a corona app developed in Germany has been dropped; the government announced it would switch instead to a Swiss-developed app supported by Google and Apple. A month ago Spahn failed in his attempt to pass an amendment to the Infection Protection Act to ensure that cellphone data could be evaluated without owners’ consent. As the FT pointed out, the app raised questions in a country which is very committed to data privacy: “in a country that lived through decades of institutionalised snooping by the Stasi and the cruelty of the Gestapo there are deep misgivings about anything smacking of mass surveillance.”

Advice on wearing masks has been confused and contradictory. It was only when individual states started to introduced an obligation to wear masks in public places that national agreements followed

In April, against social distancing advice from his own department, Spahn was photographed crammed into an elevator together with the Minister President of Hesse, the head of the Federal Chancellery (who is also a doctor), Hesse’s Minister of Social Affairs, and the  spokesman for the Hessian state government, plus some doctors.  The Frankfurter Allgemeine reported that as a result, many people had reported the incident to the police. 

At nearly 40, Spahn has climbed the CDU ladder very quickly.  He is a skilled user of social media, a frequent guest on TV shows and known for not being shy of controversial  ideas. 

Born in 1980 in Ahaus, a small town in North-Rhine Westphalia, he completed an apprenticeship as a banker, and then worked as a banker until he was elected to the Bundestag as the youngest member at the age of 22 in 2002.  He later studied for  and obtained an MA in politics.  He joined the party health committee, becoming chair in 2009, and was elected to the CDU party executive in 2014.  

In 2015 he became deputy finance minister and, in this higher-profile role, he severely criticised Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees, arguing that public support for the decision was “ebbing by the hour.”   In 2016, in what the Financial Times called an “act of almost breathtaking insubordination,” Spahn forced a vote at CDU party conference, against Merkel’s wishes, to limit dual citizenship (he lost the vote). 

In February 2018, he was made health minister in a move which was viewed as a weakened  Merkel caving in to pressure from the party’s right wing, and in December of that year he stood in the CDU leadership election. Labelled the ‘anti-Merkel’ candidate, he lost in the first round to the ‘mini-Merkel’, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. In February of this year, in a veiled criticism of Merkel’s power, he said that the party must “learn to walk again” and be more independent – an echo of the words Merkel herself used when she took over from Helmut Kohl twenty years ago.

Spahn has set out his right wing stall very clearly.  As the Deutsche Welle noted,  Spahn “supports law-and-order policies, wants to cap the number of refugees allowed into the country and demands a burqa ban. He rejects the right to dual citizenship and favours the idea of a so-called German “Leitkultur” (which roughly translates as “guiding culture”). In March 2017 he called for an ‘Islam law’ including German sermons in mosques, German tests for imams, registration of mosques and training of imams and teachers of religion to be paid for by taxes, possibly something similar to the Church tax.   He was reported as saying that, “financing by foreign actors must stop.”  Later that year, he attacked the amount of English being spoken in Berlin, criticising elitist hipsters and saying that German was being relegated to a second language in the capital.  

As a gay Roman Catholic man, he extended his criticism of refugees  to Islam generally in 2018, arguing that the arrival of so many Muslims meant that “German society risks becoming more anti-Semitic, homophobic, more macho and violent than it’s been up till now,” and that, “homosexuals like me are thrown from a tower.”    

He has been criticised by feminist groups for spending 5 million on a report to investigate the psychological effects of abortion.  Abortion is a controversial issue in Germany: it is technically illegal and doctors are banned from advertising abortion services.   In February 2019 he offended many cancer patients with a tweet that appeared to blame cancer sufferers for their disease and was rebuked by the medical community for announcing that cancer would be defeated in 10 – 20 years.

Nevertheless, even prior to the corona crisis, Spahn has made an impact in his position as health minister. He has headed a very active department which has, amongst other things, introduced a compulsory measles vaccination for kindergarten and school children (which came into force in March this year), increased digitalisation through a Digital Supply Act (which will create a digital network for the healthcare system), increased the amount of carers in homes by 13,000, introduced measures to reduce waiting times, and planned to restrict health contributions.

A Zeit article earlier this year argued that, “Spahn can afford to stay in the wings until all of his rivals have destroyed each other. He will remain Chancellor-in-the-wings until 2025 at the latest.”

Thanks to the corona pandemic, his time may come sooner than thought.

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