Jens Spahn sealed his reputation as Germany’s âanti-Merkelâ with an almost mind-boggling act of insubordination.
Mr Spahn was the ambitious young rebel who orchestrated a vote at the CDU party conference in 2016 to strictly limit dual citizenship in Germany – in defiance of the wishes of Angela Merkel, chancellor and head of the CDU. Later, a shaken Merkel insisted there would be no policy change, despite the vote.
But the incident highlighted the growing influence of a coterie of bright young conservatives who were increasingly unhappy with Merkel’s leadership, and the ambitious MP who was their figurehead.
Some believed that the rebellion would put an end to Mr. Spahn’s career. But on Sunday, Merkel gave him the post of health minister in her new government, bringing one of her most vocal critics to the forefront of the German cabinet.
For Mr. Spahn, openly gay, who married his partner, journalist Daniel Funke, shortly before Christmas, this may be just the start. He has never hidden his ambition to one day become chancellor. Reaching a ministerial post at the age of 37 could set him resolutely on the path to power.
“I think he will be in pole position when the post-Merkel era begins,” said Olav Gutting, CDU MP.
Mr Spahn grew up in the village of Ottenstein, near the Dutch border, and trained as a banker, then worked in a mortgage bank in the nearby town of MÃ¼nster. He joined the Christian Democrats as a teenager and quickly got involved in local politics, serving as a city councilor at Ahaus for 10 years.
In 2002 he was elected to the Bundestag, where he became his party’s expert on health policy. Ten years later, he broke into the presidium of the CDU, the party executive, over objections from his regional party association, which backed another candidate. In 2015, he was appointed Deputy Minister of Finance.
It was at this time that Mr Spahn first gained recognition at national level. Ms Merkel had taken the controversial decision to keep Germany’s borders open and to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees. Days later, Mr Spahn said public support for the move was waning “hour by hour”. Within weeks, he had become the most vocal internal opponent of the Chancellor’s ârefugee receptionâ policy.
âEven left-wing voluntary aid for refugees want immigration to be brought under control and they don’t want the aid we offer refugees to be abused,â he told reporters in November.
His skepticism about the influx of migrants quickly turned into an all-out attack on Islam, an attack he frequently linked to his sexuality. The arrival of so many Muslims means that “German society risks becoming more anti-Semitic, homophobic, more macho and violent than it has been so far,” he said last year.
Some men “in an Islamic society have to grow beards,” he told Die Welt last year. “But homosexuals like me are thrown from a tower.”
It was a controversial position. Some accused him of stealing rhetoric from the far-right Alternative for Germany. He said he was only trying to make sure that disenchanted CDU voters did not abandon the party for the AfD, something a million people did in the September election. Other young conservatives supported this point of view. âSpahn dares to express uncomfortable truths,â says Paul Ziemiak, head of the CDU youth wing.
A star of German television talk shows, Mr. Spahn did not stop at railing against foreigners. Last year he criticized Berlin’s trendy bars and cafes for employing waiters who did not speak German. He also gained notoriety for tweeting selfies with Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s conservative chancellor and bane of Merkel’s liberal refugee policy.
He is one of the CDU’s most active and sought-after activists. âI had it in my constituency last week, speaking to 600 people,â Mr. Gutting said. “The reception he has received has been amazing – he really knows how to get people moving.”
By appointing Mr Spahn to the cabinet, Merkel was giving in to the enormous pressure exerted on her by the young conservative activists of the CDU. The authority of the Chancellor has been severely weakened; hurt by the inconclusive election result, the failure of its efforts to form a coalition with the Liberals and Greens and the loss of the Finance Ministry to the Social Democrats in the coalition deal reached earlier this month- this.
But for a Chancellor who traditionally surrounds herself with ideological allies and loyalists and freezes criticism, Mr Spahn’s appointment to government was still a major concession.
She had no choice, according to Ralph Brinkhaus, a CDU MP. âNew times demand new approaches,â he said.