Mini-Merkel handed 'ejector seat' job of German defence minister

Justin Huggler
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was appointed defence minister at a ceremoney in Berlin - REX

Angela Merkel on Wednesday named the woman widely seen as her chosen successor as the new German defence minister, one of the toughest jobs in German politics. 

In a surprise move, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was appointed at a ceremony in Berlin to succeed Ursula von der Leyen, who is moving to Brussels to become head of the European Commission.

The appointment sent schockwaves through the German political establishment, where it was viewed as a political gamble full of risk for the ambitious Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer.

It was also a U-turn. Popularly known as "mini-Merkel", Ms Kramp-Karrenbuaer pledged when she was elected leader of Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrat party (CDU) last year that she would not take any ministerial office, but would concentrate on running the party.

Instead she has now taken on a job widely seen as one of the toughest in government, and known as the “ejector seat” for the number of careers it has ended. 

Mrs von der Leyen was herself once seen as a potential successor to Mrs Merkel, until her prospects foundered at the defence ministry.

“The men and women in the Bundeswehr show their commitment to this country in a very special way,”  Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer said at Wednesday's ceremony. “That's why they deserve the highest political priority and deserve the full commitment. I take up this office with full conviction.”

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer is taking over from Ursula von der Leyen (right), who is moving to Brussels to become head of the European Commission Credit: CLEMENS BILAN/EPA-EFE/REX 

She will be formally sworn in at a special session of parliament next week, and faces with a formidable in-tray once she starts work.

 Years of chronic underfunding have left the armed forces suffering from low morale and equipment shortages so severe Germany’s own parliamentary watchdog warned last year it could not meet its Nato commitments.

At one point soldiers were forced to train with broomsticks instead of guns. But there is little political will to increase military spending.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s decision to take on the job was seen in German political circles as a bid to rescue her hopes of succeeding Mrs Merkel as chancellor.

When she was elected CDU leader last year Mrs Merkel appeared to have secured her succession. But since then it has all gone wrong for Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer: a series of mis-steps have seen her approval ratings plummet, and she led the CDU to humiliating losses in the European elections.

Her rivals have been circling, and there were suggestions she may have accepted the defence ministry to block Jens Spahn, the ambitious health minister, from getting it.

The role gives her the opportunity to prove herself in high office, in a job which involves foreign and security policy, but is also fraught with pitfalls.

Mrs Merkel’s restive coalition partners lost no time in rounding on the appointment on Wednesday, seizing on Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s U-turn over taking ministerial office.

“I feel sorry for the armed forces,” Johannes Kahrs of the centre-Left Social Democrats (SPD) said. “Breaking your word is not a good start for a defence minister.”

As chairman of the German parliaments’ influential budget committee, Mr Kahrs could prove a thorn in Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s side.

Opinion was divided as to what was behind Mrs Merkel’s decision to hand the defence ministry to Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer.

There were suggestions it could be a signal she is contemplating stepping down early. Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer is not currently an MP, but under the German system, as a cabinet minister she could take over a chancellor without having to be parachuted into parliament.

But others suggested Mrs Merkel may have deliberately handed her former protege a poisoned chalice.

There were reports earlier this year — swiftly denied — that relations between the two woman had soured after Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer appeared to be trying to manouvre Mrs Merkel out of office early.