DUESSELDORF – As a child of the Cold War in West Germany, Armin Laschet remembers when then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan came to Berlin in 1987, stood at the barrier separating East from West, and said, “Tear down this wall!”
“For many West Germans, that was a utopia that didn’t seem realistic, but which fulfilled itself in the end,” said Laschet, who is seeking to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor in the country's Sept. 26 election.
The 60-year-old governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, is still grateful that in his youth the Americans were reliable guarantors of peace and stability against the Soviet Union.
“They were always there for us, they secured the freedom of Berlin,” Laschet said in an interview this week with The Associated Press at his office in the western city of Duesseldorf.
For Laschet, close U.S. relations are of utmost importance as Merkel steps down after nearly 16 years in power. He hopes to advance progress on global challenges with the help of a new U.S. leader, President Joe Biden.
Recent polls give the Union bloc a 7-10 percentage-point lead over the environmentalist Greens, making Laschet a front-runner to become the leader of Germany, with Europe’s biggest economy. The bloc is made up of his Christian Democratic Union party and the Bavaria-only Christian Social Union party.
In his interview with AP, Laschet expressed relief that Biden has brought the U.S. back into the leadership of international challenges, such as global warming, after the Donald Trump administration.
“It is good that the new American administration has returned to multilateral agreements and has rejoined the Paris climate accord,” Laschet said. “I have big hopes that under the leadership of the U.S., which has dedicated itself to this goal politically, economically and also financially, we will manage to bring about a big push forward.”
He is more reserved about Biden's assertive stance on China, favoring Merkel's firm but not so confrontational approach.
“China is a partner, but a systemic rival, and that means we have to keep our principles up, continue to remind China about them, but at the same time foster our economic relations to China," he said, adding that this is true of other countries that aren’t close Western allies.
“Wherever countries have a model of society that is different from ours, we need to win them over to join us — whether it is Russia, China or the Arab world.”
Like Merkel, Laschet is known as a centrist favoring integration over polarization. So far, he has been guarded in deviating from her successful middle-of-the-road path on domestic issues.
“Currently, Laschet appears to all of us like a Merkel 2.0 light version,” said Wolfgang Merkel, a political analyst at Berlin's Social Science Center and no relation to the chancellor. “He has not distinguished himself as somebody who will do politics differently from Merkel. In many ways he is so much alike her that he cannot differentiate himself from her.”
Laschet “is somebody who can build bridges as a political leader, somebody who mediates, who can make compromises,” he added. "He is not a macho politician.”
So far, Laschet hasn't taken positions glaringly different from those of the outgoing chancellor.
“I don't think he will really do that until the election,” the analyst said. “He's extremely careful. The slogan right now is: Don't make any mistakes now in the final spurt of the campaign.”
Laschet is the son of a miner in Aachen, a university town on Germany’s western border with Belgium and the Netherlands. A slim man with a shock of dark hair and a mischievous smile, he still speaks in the region's singsong dialect.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Susanne, and the devout Catholics have three adult children and still live in Aachen's Burtscheid district.
Growing up in the heart of the continent made him a true European, he says.
“Many people live in one country and work in the other, for shopping one goes across the border ... and the idea of the classic nation-state has long been overcome because one knows that many problems can only be solved transnationally,” Laschet said.
He earned a law degree and worked as a journalist before joining Germany's parliament as a lawmaker with the CDU in 1994. From 1999-2005, Laschet was a member of the European Parliament. He became governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, a center-left stronghold, in 2017.
Laschet has led his state in a coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats, a traditional CDU ally, but is considered capable of working with the more leftist Greens.
In the late 2000s, Laschet was his state's minister for the integration of immigrants. Well before other German states, he stressed the importance of language fluency, stronger women's rights in immigrant communities, an easier path to citizenship and a need to bring Islamic religious teaching out of storefront mosques and into classrooms, with teachers raised and educated in Germany.
The fight against growing antisemitism in Germany is also close to his heart. He strengthened high school exchanges between Germans and Israelis, and, like Merkel, is a strong supporter of Israel.
“I think every young person should have visited Auschwitz once to get a sense of the place, of the horror that happened there, to understand what the Holocaust meant as a crime against humanity,” he said.
Laschet worries about recent populist and autocratic tendencies in central and eastern Europe, but is very clear about his vision of the European Union.
“We need all 27 member states, also Hungary and Poland, if we want to further develop Europe. At the same time, one needs to insist on the rule of law. Everybody who joined the EU has to accept the position of the European Court of Justice, and if somebody violates European law that will lead to sanctions and consequences, for example, when it comes to the allocation of funds,” he warns.
The new chancellor must “intensify the dialogue with the democracies of central and eastern Europe.”
Sitting on the white couch in his office that overlooks the Rhine, Laschet remembered how a previous German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, initiated another key dialogue early in his career.
Kohl organized a meeting of young lawmakers with President Bill Clinton in 1997 to “talk to him for 45 minutes about world politics.”
"And that really impressed me,” he said, leaping off the couch to grab a framed, yellowed photo of himself shaking hands with Clinton in the Oval Office.
Pietro DeCristofaro in Berlin contributed.