CDU/CSU: Orbán to Berlusconi – always trouble with the EPP: Expert misses “clear edge”

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From: Florian Nauman

The Union and the EPP: a difficult constellation, from Kohl to Seehofer – and beyond. © Andreas Gebert/Tim Brakemeier/dpa/picture-alliance/fn

Again and again, the Union is under pressure to justify itself because of the EPP. Expert Siebo Janssen sees a variety of reasons – from Kohl to Merkel to different living environments.

Rome/Munich – There is potential for conflict in almost every relationship – it is often shown at the Christmas party at home. The situation is somewhat different for the CDU* and CSU*: their European “party family”, the EPP, is good all year round for actions in Germany that require explanation. Recently there have been increasing signs that the Brussels affinity will remain problematic for the German conservatives in the long term.

The most recent example: EPP parliamentary group leader Manfred Weber*’s support for the Italian presidential candidate and EPP friend Silvio Berlusconi is even a nuisance to CSU colleagues. And with the choice of the highly abortion-critical Maltese Roberta Metsola* as President of the EU Parliament, the next debate could dawn.

But why is the relationship between the EPP and the CDU/CSU so problematic? The Bonn political scientist Siebo Janssen sees roots in this question from the Kohl era through the eastward enlargement of the EU to Angela Merkel, as he explained in an interview with * portrays. It’s about power politics and “shifted discourses” – regionally and temporally. And also about strategic problems of the German conservatives.

Union and their difficult relationship: the roots of the EPP problem go back to the Kohl era

However, the controversies are not new. A few months ago, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz exhausted the patience of many EPP parties – before leaving the group herself*. Fodder for criticism of the CSU, which Orbán had courted for years *. So now Berlusconi, who wants to be hoisted back to power with the help of the far-right Fratelli d’Italia.

The latter problem is partly homemade, explains Janssen. “It was the CDU, under Helmut Kohl, who tried for a long time to broaden the EPP and to include all sorts of parties that had little to do with the EPP,” he recalls – including Berlusconi’s Forza Italia as a spin-off from Democrazia Cristiana. According to Janssen, Kohl’s goal as a “power politician” at the time was to become stronger than the socialists. Even then there were warnings from the Netherlands about a political slide away from classic Christian democracy towards “conservatism” – for example in view of the British Tories’ admission to the EPP.

Helmut Kohl and Silvio Berlusconi - here in 2002, after Kohl's chancellorship.
Unequal party friends: Helmut Kohl and Silvio Berlusconi – here in 2002, years after Kohl’s chancellorship. © Giuseppe Giglia/picture alliance

The situation is different for the EPP members from Eastern Europe. In these states there is “simply a shifted discourse”. Liberal and social-democratic parties are also much more national in Eastern Europe – Janssen cites the Slovakian SMER, led by its controversial leader Robert Fico, as an example. This is also reflected in the conservative parties. “In the EPP, the decisive break between Western and Eastern Europe becomes clear,” says the expert. Western Europe tends towards European integration – the East is more concerned about influence from Brussels.

Angela Merkel and the Union: CDU is moving into the “more moderate center of the EPP” – “attitudes towards life” are changing

But not only the outside world is moving. But also the Union. Janssen emphasizes that the sister parties – keyword Angela Merkel – have themselves experienced a shift in the past ten or twelve years. The CDU and CSU have “moved more into the middle, maybe even the more moderate middle of the EPP”. “What we see now is that parties like the Danish, the Austrian, the Eastern European Conservatives have a very strong national-conservative bias,” he explains. “Of course, this is now also a problem for the CDU domestically.”

“What we are seeing now is that parties like the Danish, the Austrian, the Eastern European Conservatives are taking a very strong national-conservative stance. This is now a problem for the CDU domestically.”

Because the prevailing currents of the EPP “no longer represent the attitude towards life of the people in Germany”. And, more explosively: “Probably no longer the attitude towards life of the majority of Christian Democrats in Germany”. The designated party leader Friedrich Merz (CDU)* is more compatible with the EPP mainstream – but under Merkel’s chancellorship, more liberal members also joined the Union. On the one hand, further conflicts could now threaten here. At the same time, the Union is losing influence in the EPP.

CDU/CSU, Orbán and Co.: “Ganging around” instead of a clear “cut” – strategy with negative consequences?

The situation of the CDU/CSU is “absolutely difficult”, says Janssen. In his opinion, just Manfred Weber plays an interesting role. In the case of Berlusconi, the CSU deputy actually had no choice but to support his party friend. On the other hand, the Bavarian was once the only CSU MEP in the European Parliament who voted to exclude Orbán’s Fidesz from the EPP.

“What I miss about the German Christian Democrats in the European Parliament is that they sometimes show a clear edge,” continues Janssen. The Luxembourgers and Belgians had long called for Fidesz to be excluded, but the CDU/CSU were still “wobbling around,” says the Benelux expert. The situation is similar now: “In my opinion, as a Christian Democrat, you can’t support anyone who is in alliance with right-wing extremists,” says Janssen, referring to the Berlusconi case. “You’re not ready to make a cut,” he complains – but that’s exactly a shame for the Union. The result is lack of credibility among more liberal voters as well as voters who are inclined towards a “shift to the right”.

CDU/CSU and the EPP: Union feels “rupture” in Europe – and probably has a share of responsibility

But can the Union in the EPP, with its balancing act, at least play an integrative role between East and West of the EU and their different understandings of the nation state? Janssen is skeptical on this issue. With the Polish PiS and the Hungarian Fidesz, the influential national-conservative parties in the Eastern European countries are no longer represented in the EPP. In addition, the “rupture” in the European Union also reflects social transformation processes that go far beyond the party alliance.

Janssen’s explosive tip: The Christian Democrats were of course also involved in the development of this situation. The Christian Democracy did support the admission of the Eastern European states to the EU – but always under “certain tough criteria”, as Janssen emphasizes. “It’s something that hasn’t been forgotten in Eastern Europe,” he says. Christian democracy did not cause painful changes in the countries alone. But the Western European conservatives would not have softened it either. (fn) * is an offer from IPPEN.MEDIA.

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