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Twilight for Merkel?

Explaining the inner-conservative battle waging in Germany

The last two weeks have seen massive infighting between two wings of the German conservative party. Merkel’s more moderate Christian Democratic Union (CDU) on one side and the more right-wing Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), on the other. The dispute began with a row over the government’s refugee policy. The German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) wants to reject refugees at Germany’s border who are already registered in other EU member states. Chancellor Merkel rejects this proposal as it would basically mean upending the EU’s open internal borders system. She wants to find a common European solution at the latest by the European Summit taking place June 28–29. Merkel and many others in her party believe that if Germany were to pursue a national solution to this question, it would risk the unity of the entire European Union. Another dividing line is European, and especially eurozone, reform. The CSU harshly criticized the recent compromise between Germany and France, which — in their view — will lead to transfers from northern European states to the south.

Yet the recent attack of the Bavarian CSU and Merkel’s CDU is part of a broader strategy, which is not just about the upcoming Bavarian elections. The CSU leadership wants to end Merkel’s chancellorship, and thus the reign of the centrists. They hope a sharp tack to the populist right will make the new right-wing party that is currently the biggest opposition party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), irrelevant. The outcome of this struggle will ultimately influence the future course of conservatism in all of Europe.

Why the CSU Wants Merkel to Go

The architects behind the recent feud are Markus Söder, the Bavarian minister-president, and Alexander Dobrindt, the speaker of the CSU in the Bundestag. They want to sharpen the conservative profile of the EU, the political alliance of the CDU and CSU on the federal level. Certainly, one motive behind this move is the upcoming Bavarian elections. According to the latest polls the CSU would fall short of gaining an absolute majority, which would be nothing less than a catastrophe for the CSU. In the 2017 Bundestag elections, the CSU achieved one of its worst electoral results in history. The Bavarian conservatives blame this result on Merkel’s refugee policy.

And indeed, to some extent the CSU has a point. While for most of Merkel’s chancellorship her center course was an incredibly successful electoral strategy, it also created the space for a party right of the CDU/CSU. The AfD first emerged as a response to the eurozone crisis, failing to get into the Bundestag in 2013 by only a few hundred thousand votes. Yet, it was the 2015 refugee management crisis which served as jet fuel for the AfD and rocketed the party to be the third largest party into the Bundestag.

For the CSU, a party to their right is unacceptable. In the famous words of former Bavarian Minister-President Franz Josef Strauss, “There must be no democratically legitimate party right of the CSU.” Therefore, the CSU leadership is determined to undo the Merkel’s centrist course by pushing the conservative’s hard to the right, even adopting the AfD’s rhetoric. And, indeed, polls seem to prove the CSU’s leadership’s point that the population is more conservative with regard to refugee policy. 69 percent of Germans are unhappy with the government’s refugee policy and favor a more restrictions. The ultimate goal of the recent escalation is to bring Merkel down, which in their view would satisfy the “Merkel must go” voters of the AfD and pave the way for a reorientation to the right of the German conservatives.

The Struggle Runs Much Deeper

In fact, the CDU–CSU showdown is part of a larger inner conservative conflict taking place across Europe. Ultimately, it is the battle between the authoritarian right represented by the Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban, and a moderate conservatism represented by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It is a struggle over what constitutes conservatism in the 21st century: whether conservatism will remain an ideology based on liberal internationalism, open society, and liberal democracy or whether it will turn toward nationalism and xenophobia. Orban wants to rebrand the European conservatism in Fidesz’ image, the populist party governing in Hungary, which stands for a nationalistic, Eurosceptic and strongly anti-immigrant course. So far, this strategy seems to be working as more and more conservatives are adopting strong anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic policies.

In the German context, it seems that the CSU leadership has also opted for Orban’s populist agenda. There are several reasons to believe this:

  • First, the CSU has been cozying up to Viktor Orban for years, inviting him to CSU’s convention,  and has failed to criticize him for building a de-facto illiberal state in Hungary.
  • Second, the CSU is forging an alliance with Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who recently suggested to form a Berlin-Vienna-Rome axis to fight “illegal immigration.” A deliberately provocative name for a political alliance in Europe. Kurz ran a successful campaign on a strongly anti-immigrant and anti-refugee platform and is now governing with the far-right Austrian Freedom Party.
  • Third, Söder is not only adopting AfD language and rhetoric but made a harshly criticized statement, “that the time of orderly multilateralism is over,” and that “Germany should finally put a national stamp on Europe.” He is trying to position the CSU as the only guarantor of the German national interest. In other words, “Germany First.”
  • Fourth, since Söder became minister-president, the CSU has been reclaiming Christianity as central pillar of the conservative politics. The two most prominent examples are Söder’s decree to put up crosses in Bavaria’s public buildings and Alexander Dobrindt’s call for a “conservative revolution” to overcome the legacy of 1968.
  • Lastly, the CSU is also stepping up its Eurosceptic rhetoric/agenda. Six days after the CSU fallout over the refugee question, Germany and France reached a compromise on eurozone and European reform. The CSU immediately threatened to summon the coalition committee. Söder is potentially drawing another red line with the CDU and Merkel on eurozone reform.

Will it Work?

A split of the parliamentary group between CDU and CSU seems possible, even likely at this point. This would be a risky move for the CSU. Angela Merkel is still the most popular politician in Germany, even in Bavaria, and 71 percent of Germans want a European solution to the refugee question. And there is another complication: To force Angela Merkel to step down, the CSU would need to convince Merkel’s CDU to stop supporting her. So far, this seems unlikely. As Merkel is one of the last remaining moderate conservatives in office in Europe, how this struggle ultimately pans out will determine the future of conservatism in Germany — which will, as everything in Germany, have a central impact on Europe.

-Henrik von Homeyer

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