Merkel Is Wobbling. Europe’s Future Rests on Her Successors.

The German chancellor’s party woes should worry the EU.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at the Bundestag in Berlin on Sept. 25. (Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at the Bundestag in Berlin on Sept. 25. (Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images)

For all 13 years of Angela Merkel’s run as chancellor of Germany, she has relied upon Volker Kauder to help implement her ideas as the head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), in the German parliament, the Bundestag. Last week that ended. In an upset that shook the German political establishment, Kauder was tossed out for Ralph Brinkhaus, a member of a rising faction of disgruntled members of the CDU who are dissatisfied with Merkel’s centrist and progressive policies, which they consider devoid of a clear direction.

Global political commentary focused immediately on the beleaguered chancellor. Many predicted that it meant Merkel would not only lose the chancellorship but may even be ousted by her own party before her electoral term is up in 2021.

But Merkel’s uncertain future is less important than the course of action her in-party conservative foes will pursue. Indeed, the conservative members of the CDU/CSU have the power to upend European politics and even the European Union itself. Brinkhaus’s ascension is a worrisome signal that not only Merkel is on her way out; her very pro-European ideology may be as well.

The agenda of the conservative forces on the rise within the CDU/CSU could lead to German eurozone and immigration policies that ultimately dismantle the entire European Union. That’s because Merkel centrist trajectory, particularly her progressive take on the refugee crisis, could spark a nationalist revival within the CDU/CSU.

That progression is not hard to track. In her heyday, Merkel managed to push nearly all conservative forces to the fringes in her own party. But in the last few years, conservatives in the CDU/CSU had begun to express vocal dissatisfaction with Merkel’s centrism. With the introduction of Merkel’s refugee policy in 2015, conservatives in the CDU/CSU began losing faith in her.

The last of that faith was entirely lost in the September 2017 election, when the CDU/CSU pulled in a paltry 33 percent of the vote and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) drew a solid 13 percent on the back of xenophobic propaganda. Now, the CDU/CSU is down to 28 percent and the AfD polls at 16-18 percent. Even though in the three years since she kept open Germany’s doors Merkel’s policies have become much more conservative, she continues to publicly speak like a progressive. This has angered a growing flank of the CDU/CSU.

Depending on the question polled, one- to two-thirds of CDU/CSU voters—and particularly the parliamentary representatives who ousted Merkel’s political confidant from power in the Bundestag—had already become increasingly receptive to the conservative wing’s ideas. Where once they were demonstrably dominant, the progressives in the CDU/CSU around Merkel and the forces aiming for a much clearer conservative profile now seem about equally strong.

The progressives remain strong in northwestern Germany, in particular in North Rhine-Westphalia, the country’s most populous state. But much of the Bavarian CSU; the CDU from Germany’s economic powerhouse, Baden-Württemberg; and the CDU in all eastern Germany fall now into the conservative wing of the party. The CSU in Bavaria stands to lose its absolute majority in the upcoming regional election on Oct. 14. For most of the decision-makers in the CSU, the reason is clear: The CSU will likely lose because Merkel and CSU leader Horst Seehofer could not agree on a unifying conservative message.

These conservative forces will have a major impact on the restructuring of the CDU/CSU in the coming years. And because German conservatives are now looking for a chance to reclaim voters, they are likely to propose policies that can cater to the anti-globalist voter base of the far-right.

Here’s how it might happen. The CDU/CSU will likely continue to run the country even in the post-Merkel era. While the party has dipped significantly in the polls, it still dominates the political sphere. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) most recently polled at a paltry 16-18 percent, nearly on equal footing with the far-right AfD in some polls. Thus, the CDU/CSU could only be ousted from power if a multiparty coalition—such as a mashup of Social Democrats, the Left party (Die Linke), and the Greens—were to be formed against it. But these groups together only poll at around 40 percent, and major frictions among these groups over foreign-policy issues, particularly, make a coalition very unlikely.

Instead, a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Free Democratic Party (and maybe the Greens) or another grand coalition with the SPD is likely. The CDU/CSU would in these scenarios remain the most important party in the next German government. But by then the CDU/CSU might be hardly recognizable.

Brinkhaus, the new CDU whip in the Bundestag, has openly criticized the German handling of the eurozone crises as way too lenient. He is considered a fiscal hawk—with positions close to former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who once suggested pushing Greece out of the eurozone. A more hawkish German stance on Italian debt, for example, by exerting pressure on the European Central Bank to lift interest rates and to reject the refinancing of Italian banks if necessary could lead to a breakup of the eurozone because Italy would quickly default. The CDU’s current health minister, Jens Spahn, the darling of many CDU conservatives for his vocal criticism of Merkel’s refugee policies, is rumored to have eyes on her job. Spahn, inspired by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, is also fond of stronger national border controls. Were the CDU/CSU to take a staunchly conservative German position on borders, that in and of itself could trigger a continentwide chain reaction and the reintroduction of border controls within the EU and upend the free movement of people in the Schengen Area.

As Merkel’s progressive course loses ever more support, these once-fringe politicians might soon be embedded in a cohesive conservative agenda to regain nationalist-minded voters.

The chancellor announced last week that she would not step down but instead would run for another term as the CDU chair. German media have already predicted the possibility of open infighting at the party congress beginning in December. We may even see a standoff among rivals interested in succeeding Merkel as CDU leader: the aforementioned Jens Spahn; Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s close political confidante and current CDU party secretary; and Armin Laschet, the current CDU leader of North Rhine-Westphalia.

To avoid disaster, German conservative politicians must remember the failing of their counterparts in other Western democracies. Luring back AfD sympathizers with nationalist policies for short-term electoral gain could come at a terrible price. Indeed, Germany of today looks increasingly like the United Kingdom of the early 2010s, when then-Prime Minister David Cameron proposed a conservative antidote to pacify anti-globalist voters by calling for a vote on Britain leaving the European Union. If a German leader were to follow suit, this would lead to the dismantling of the entire European project as we know it. Germany, unlike the peripheral U.K., is the very center of the European Union.

Winston Churchill praised the British fighter pilots in World War II that prevented a German invasion with the words: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” If the European Union dear to so many still exists in 10 years, it is because the so few German conservatives mentioned above resisted the nationalist temptation. If they instead aim for short-term electoral gain, the European Union could soon collapse.

Timo Lochocki is a visiting professor of public policy at Davidson College.

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