The Brief – Germany’s crisis of conservatism

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [CLEMENS BILAN/EPA]

After a resounding defeat in the German federal election, where 16 years of conservative rule came to an end, the CDU is trying to put the party on a new footing. But it is clearly struggling to rebrand conservatism.

The crisis of traditional conservatism has been some years in the making across Europe.

In France, the candidate of the party of Charles de Gaulle is currently polling at a measly 9%, and in Italy, the centre-right has also imploded, relegated to a side role.

The CDU, seen as one of the last bastions of conservatism in Europe, posted its lowest ever election result in the 26 September elections and is now trying to pick up the pieces.

The outgoing health minister and potential new party leader, Jens Spahn, says the party faces the “biggest crisis in the history of the CDU.”

On Tuesday, the CDU announced that the next leader will be picked by party members, for the first time in history, a move in sync with efforts to rejuvenate the party and find a new raison d’être for conservatism.

The conservatives are particularly struggling to win over young voters. According to a survey by INSA, only 12% of voters aged between 18 and 35 would vote for the conservative CDU/CSU.

The crisis has been long in the making, with the CDU struggling to define the role of Christian Democracy in the 21st century.

In a world that is rapidly changing and presenting major new challenges almost daily – from climate change to the digital transition – the classical conservative stance of providing more of the reliable old fabric and being a beacon of stability no longer seems to work.

It is no surprise that the CDU’s promise of “stability and renewal” was so uninspiring for voters.

While other conservative parties – like the Tories in the UK – are adopting more populist approaches, the traditional ambition of the CDU to represent the broad centre of the political spectrum seems to be untenable, with younger voters turning in droves to the liberal FDP or the Greens.

The crisis has already generated some rather strange ideas. In 2017, Spahn said the party should push for “family-mainstreaming” as a counterweight to gender mainstreaming – whatever that is supposed to mean.

Austria has long been regarded as a potential model for the rebranding of conservatism. The tabloid Bild asked in 2017 “why don’t we have somebody like Sebastian Kurz?”

And indeed, after the election debacle, some leading CDU politicians argued that the reinvention of the party should be oriented towards Kurz’ model of conservatism.

After all, the former Austrian chancellor managed to turn the tables in 2017 and successfully rebrand his party – at least when it comes to election results – as he led his ÖVP party from 20% to 31%.

However, the Kurz role model quickly tarnished as Kurz resigned in early October over his alleged involvement in a corruption scandal.

And with the Austrian wunderkind fallen from grace, there is no real mould to reshape conservatism. Perhaps sitting on the opposition benches for the next four years will give the CDU new ideas, if they keep their eyes and minds open. The alternative is a lengthy spell in the political wilderness.

The Roundup

Digital technologies have the potential to unlock carbon emissions cuts in sectors that were previously considered hard-to-abate, such as buildings, industry and agriculture, a European Commission official said.

The European Commission will have ‘exclusive power’ to enforce obligations on very large online platforms, according to the most recent compromise text on the Digital Services Act (DSA).

A proposal to bring both nuclear power and natural gas into the bloc’s green finance taxonomy is circulating in Brussels. The paper has been branded as a “scientific disgrace” by campaigners who warned it would damage the EU’s credibility on green finance.

Speaking of energy and environment, don’t forget to check out our weekly Green Brief.

The French Secretary of State for Digital presented a plan on Tuesday (2 November) to support the French and European cloud sector with €1.8 billion over four years. French cloud industry players, however, believe these measures miss the mark as they would prefer public procurement as a means to boost the sector. EURACTIV France reports.

Nineteen European health organisations have asked that HERA be more transparent, prioritise the public interest, and involve Parliament more in the decision-making process, in a joint letter published on Wednesday, 3 November.

The European Union launched a military training mission in Mozambique on Wednesday to help local troops fight a jihadist insurgency in its gas-rich north.

Look out for…

  • COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.
  • Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans holds videoconference call with representatives of the Green 10 NGOs on COP26.
  • Commissioner Thierry Breton participates in EU-Japan Business Roundtable meeting.

Views are the author’s.

[Edited by  Zoran Radosavljevic/Benjamin Fox]

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