Analysis

There’s a Merkel-Sized Hole in European Conservatism

Pushed by an ascendent far-right, the search for an attractive, modern conservatism won’t be easy.

By , a Berlin-based journalist.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and new Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz listen to their countries' respective national anthems upon Kurz's arrival at the Chancellery on Jan. 17, 2017 in Berlin.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and new Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz listen to their countries' respective national anthems upon Kurz's arrival at the Chancellery on Jan. 17, 2017 in Berlin. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Chances are there won’t be a single center-right-led government between the Barents Sea in Europe’s far east and Gibraltar in the far west once Germany forms a new government and elections next happen in Austria. The neighboring countries’ leaders, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Austrian counterpart Sebastian Kurz, will no longer be in office. Merkel announced her departure before her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party folded haplessly in the Sept. 26 general election, with a historic worst result; Kurz resigned in the face of corruption allegations on Oct. 9.

These thumping defeats for the European center-right on top of Christian democratic parties’ virtual erasure in Italy and France, where they constituted the backbone of the postwar republics—as they did in Germany and Austria as well—leaves Europe’s Christian conservatism leaderless and disoriented. What had secured it so many decades of dominance was an almost magical big-tent recipe: a family-church-and-fatherland ethos combined with a heart for big business but not to the exclusion of sympathy for the little man, too. This formula simply no longer works in crowded party landscapes.

The real danger for Europe is if the German CDU fails to make it to its feet in time to reestablish itself as an attractive, moderate conservative party. If it doesn’t, and all signs are that a protracted internal battle could waylay the party for some time, Christian democracy’s clearest voice—long a beacon for center-right conservatives across the continent—would be muted at a time when it’s badly needed. Such a vacuum could be exploited by the far-right, as has happened in both France and Italy. Across Central Europe, the weakness or complete absence of classic Christian democratic parties opened the way for such national populist ones as Viktor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary, the Kaczynskis’ Law and Justice in Poland, and Janez Jansa’s Slovenian Democratic Party.

Chances are there won’t be a single center-right-led government between the Barents Sea in Europe’s far east and Gibraltar in the far west once Germany forms a new government and elections next happen in Austria. The neighboring countries’ leaders, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Austrian counterpart Sebastian Kurz, will no longer be in office. Merkel announced her departure before her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party folded haplessly in the Sept. 26 general election, with a historic worst result; Kurz resigned in the face of corruption allegations on Oct. 9.

These thumping defeats for the European center-right on top of Christian democratic parties’ virtual erasure in Italy and France, where they constituted the backbone of the postwar republics—as they did in Germany and Austria as well—leaves Europe’s Christian conservatism leaderless and disoriented. What had secured it so many decades of dominance was an almost magical big-tent recipe: a family-church-and-fatherland ethos combined with a heart for big business but not to the exclusion of sympathy for the little man, too. This formula simply no longer works in crowded party landscapes.

The real danger for Europe is if the German CDU fails to make it to its feet in time to reestablish itself as an attractive, moderate conservative party. If it doesn’t, and all signs are that a protracted internal battle could waylay the party for some time, Christian democracy’s clearest voice—long a beacon for center-right conservatives across the continent—would be muted at a time when it’s badly needed. Such a vacuum could be exploited by the far-right, as has happened in both France and Italy. Across Central Europe, the weakness or complete absence of classic Christian democratic parties opened the way for such national populist ones as Viktor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary, the Kaczynskis’ Law and Justice in Poland, and Janez Jansa’s Slovenian Democratic Party.

The pathetic campaign and figure of the CDU’s chancellor candidate, Armin Laschet, premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and party chairperson, is merely a symptom of the party’s decline—not its mainspring. Since Merkel herself stepped back from the party’s leadership in 2018, after 18 years at the helm and four terms as chancellor, the CDU, a top-down party not accustomed to division or fractious debate, has struggled mightily to emerge confidently out of her shadow.

The first candidate to attempt to fill Merkel’s extra-large shoes failed just as miserably as Laschet did in his brief foray. The defense minister and Merkel’s personal pick, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a moderate like Merkel, won the spot in a tight, hard-fought runoff against the edgy, hard-line conservative and business-friendly Friedrich Merz. Merz, a staunch Merkel critic, argued that only a lurch to the right, back to the party’s roots, would enable it to make up ground lost to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The AfD has capitalized on the populist issues that Merkel soft-pedaled, such as immigration, European Union allegiance, Islam, and nationalism. Merz openly praised Kurz, Austria’s populist, anti-immigration chancellor, as just the type of leader Germany needs to recapture its right wing from the clutches of the far-right. The close contest between Kramp-Karrenbauer and Merz illustrated how deeply divided the CDU is about its post-Merkel future. And Kramp-Karrenbauer’s very short tenure in the position—she announced her plan to resign a year later when she failed to prevent the Thuringian CDU from cooperating with the AfD—signaled how short the leash of every Merkel successor will be and how perilous the threat is from the far-right.

Laschet’s ascendance to party head and chancellor candidate thus came quite late, in January of this year, just eight months before the general election. Laschet, a CDU centrist and Merkel confidant like Kramp-Karrenbauer, also had to fend off Merz, which he too managed by the slimmest of margins. He then went head to head with Markus Söder, Bavaria’s premier, for the spot at the top on the ticket. While Laschet prevailed, again just barely, the Rhinelander was weakened by the rightist faction’s faint praise and Söder’s incessant sniping. In the federal election campaign, Laschet never gained traction, hurt not only by missteps but also by an abject failure to present a vision of any kind for governing Germany except more Merkel without Merkel. Yet it very soon became clear that he was not cut from the same cloth as the straight-faced, steady-handed politico Germans call Mutti, or mommy. The horrific election result—just 24 percent, down 9 points from 2017’s worst-ever tally—was the price paid for the CDU’s chaotic, disjointed campaign, for which Laschet bears some but not all of the blame.

The person most responsible for the CDU’s floundering has thus far gotten away with it unnamed: Merkel herself. As successful as Merkel’s achievements might appear at first, she had not been able, with the exception of the 2013 result of 41.5 percent, to break the CDU’s two-decade slide. Long gone are the solid 40 percent-plus tallies of the postwar decades that carried into the mid-1990s. On the state level, in cities, and in the European Parliament, the CDU has lost tremendous ground, too: to the AfD but also to the Greens and protest parties such as the Free Voters. Younger and first-time voters shun the CDU like vampires do crucifixes. Urban voters prefer the leftist parties.

Merkel bequeathed to the next-generation CDU not only a party in shambles institutionally, but also ideologically. Her legacy is a mealy-mouthed brand of Christian democracy with ever less allure for voters, including its longtime loyal base. Of course, Merkel did her party and European conservatism a great favor by cutting away many of the crusty truisms of the postwar era that ended the reign of Helmut Kohl, Germany’s chancellor from 1982 to 1998. Her pragmatism meant modernizing the party of Konrad Adenauer and Kohl. She brought the party in line with mainstream opinion on nuclear energy, same-sex partnerships, military conscription, integration, minimum wage, and gender. Yet while her liberal brand of German conservatism enabled the CDU to beat out the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in election after election, her party lost more voters—and party members—than it won. The AfD emerged in 2013, stealing right-wing voters from the CDU, particularly men.

Merkel never claimed to be a politician with new ideas and innovative visions for the country but rather modeled herself as broker, crisis manager, and champion of balanced budgets. “The German chancellor is profoundly cautious,” the Financial Times wrote in 2013. “She hates to spell out anything that might be called a ‘vision.’ She doesn’t have time for ideology. She is a pragmatist who delivers constant homilies on the need for good housekeeping.” And this applied to center-right conservatism as such, too. She pruned Kohl-era doctrine but never presented a fresh model of European conservatism. In addition to her pragmatism, her most telling asset was always her own person: as a woman, eastern German, Protestant not Catholic, childless, divorced and remarried, scientist. The person of Merkel showed more about her particular stripe of liberal conservatism than any of her speeches, party programs, or policies.

This is why she could execute her legendary campaign strategy of “asymmetric demobilization.” (Merkel never used the term herself, but rather the tactic was ascribed to her by observers.) She triumphed again and again by purposefully clouding the day’s issues and playing down the bitterest disputes with rivals. Dulled to death, voters became indifferent to the political process but felt secure. The upshot: More voters who backed the CDU’s opponents stayed home than its own supporters. The CDU ended up winning by default.

While this may have been a winning strategy for Merkel, other conservatives can’t seem to replicate it—nor is it a credible modus operandi in democratic politics. This means they have to come up with a formula that wins them if not 40 percent results at least enough to return to power, where they feel certain they belong. “The CDU has never been a party with strong program planks,” the German political scientist Thomas Biebricher of Goethe University Frankfurt said this month. “Its raison d’être is to govern.”

There’s a battle brewing in the CDU that could turn nasty and last for years—indeed as long the Social Democrats’ soul-searching lasted—before there’s a resolution. Until now, on economic matters the CDU has been able to have its cake and eat it, too: being free-market believers and best friends with Volkswagen and Siemens while simultaneously endorsing a comprehensive social welfare system. Now in opposition, they’re going to have to define themselves more precisely, with much of the political terrain, in government and the opposition, already spoken for.

Austria’s Kurz has been disgraced in a corruption scandal, but the idea of taking back the right flank with nationalist populist mimes doesn’t belong in Kurz’s domain alone. In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson’s Brexit politics have eclipsed and neutralized the UK Independence Party. It is unlikely, however, that Kurz devotee Merz can win over his own party to ideas mired in the old republic, much less a third of Germans—after all, he hasn’t been able to so far. If he did, German Christian democracy would be taking a giant step backward and forfeiting its role as temperate purveyor of middle-right conservatism. Moreover, vying with the far-right on its issues risks legitimizes and bolstering it, as happened in France and Italy.

There are other figures jockeying for position too: For example, conservative traditionalist Jens Spahn, the current health minister, is a top contender. He wants the job. But can a gay man win over arch-conservative, Christian voters?

A dark horse is Norbert Röttgen, Merkel’s former environment minister, who seems to understand that German Christian democracy must define itself anew. A no-brainer in his mind is recapturing the lead narrative on the environment. After all, the protection of God’s creation and future generations is essentially Christian. Conservation is by definition conservative. After having slept though the climate crisis until now, the CDU could probably pick this piece of low-hanging fruit and run with it. But too few Christian Democrats see Röttgen as a leadership figure.

In Germany, and indeed beyond, the center-right’s infirmity threatens to erode European democracy yet further. Germany’s CDU plans to vote on an entirely new board, including chairperson, before year’s end. Judging by the SPD’s two decades of introspection, this could prove arduous—and ugly.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration of a captain's hat with a 1980s era Pepsi logo and USSR and U.S. flag pins.

The Doomed Voyage of Pepsi’s Soviet Navy

A three-decade dream of communist markets ended in the scrapyard.

Demonstrators with CASA in Action and Service Employees International Union 32BJ march against the Trump administration’s immigration policies in Washington on May 1, 2017.

Unionization Can End America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Allowing workers to organize would protect and empower undocumented immigrants critical to the U.S. economy.

The downtown district of Wilmington, Delaware, is seen on Aug. 19, 2016.

How Delaware Became the World’s Biggest Offshore Haven

Kleptocrats, criminals, and con artists have all parked their illicit gains in the state.