BERLIN — Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was officially sworn in as Germany’s defense minister on Wednesday — the same day Boris Johnson took the helm as Britain’s prime minister — after already assuming that position last week. And while most of the world’s focus was on Johnson, many Europeans’ attention was on Kramp-Karrenbauer’s inauguration ceremony, as she can shape Europe’s future even more than Johnson.
The move added a key cabinet position to her résumé, which includes the unofficial title of the preferred successor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is expected to leave office at the end of her term in two years — if not sooner.
To most Germans, Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56, is simply known by her initials, AKK. Some even call her “Mini-Merkel,” a label she has been trying to distance herself from since becoming the head of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party last year. She has since found herself engulfed in controversies, especially after she joked about users of “third-gender bathrooms,”which allowed critics to portray her as provincial and responsible for the party’s declining poll ratings.
The new appointment as defense minister could prove to be her second chance.
If Kramp-Karrenbauer succeeds in her role and moves on to become chancellor, many believe she will be in a more powerful position than Johnson — a hard-charging Brexiteer — to influence Europe’s future. German support would become even more crucial to realize some of the most ambitious proposals for Europe, which include more military cooperation and reforms to the euro zone.
“The new post-Brexit Europe would certainly be shaped more by Kramp-Karrenbauer than by Boris Johnson,” said Stephan Bierling, an international politics professor at the University of Regensburg. If Johnson goes ahead with a hard divorce from the European Union as expected, Bierling said, “he has to take responsibility for the catastrophe that will ensue: the fall of Britain from its current position as one of the top players in Europe.”
Johnson has indicated that he would be willing to pursue a no-deal Brexit, which would abruptly cut many of Britain’s links to Europe that have proliferated for decades. Britain may face an economic downturn, supply shortages and a diminished role on the world stage as a result, critics of such a move argue.
The E.U. would not be immune to ripple effects, either, but some have argued that such a move could also result in a reset.
“The exit of Britain is a huge loss for the E.U.,” Bierling acknowledged, but he said the departure would shuffle Europe’s power balance. “Now, Berlin and Paris are the decisive forces, without having to take into consideration Britain’s stance."
Kramp-Karrenbauer’s appointment as defense minister could provide some clues into what future Franco-German cooperation would look like. In recent months, she has repeatedly advocated increasing the German military’s budget. That has not only been a key demand of President Trump, but a move that is also being backed by other European nations that spend more on defense, including France.
In Germany, the job of defense minister was long dismissed as a “political ejector seat,” given the German military’s relative inactivity and lack of funding. But it has since grown in prestige: Kramp-Karrenbauer’s predecessor, Ursula von der Leyen, was just named president of the European Commission.
Before becoming the head of the CDU, Kramp-Karrenbauer was first minister in the southwestern state of Saarland, which has only about a third of the population of Berlin. But she had never assumed a top office in the federal government. As defense minister, she could make up for her lack of international experience, which is usually expected from candidates for the chancellor’s office.
Analysts predict Kramp-Karrenbauer will use her new cabinet position to court a constituency within her own party that had grown weary of Merkel’s shift to more-liberal policies on issues such as same-sex marriage and the integration of migrants. The conservative CDU will favor increasing defense spending, putting Kramp-Karrenbauer in prime position to lead the push toward more-conservative positions and realign her party ahead of elections.