Filling The Void

This excellent article on the CDU’s fiasco makes the point that the CDU and indeed the CSU’s problems are rooted in the wider intellectual crisis of conservatism. Market libertarianism is in tatters, fiscal hawkery is discredited, the Cold War is long over, the long term trend of secularisation grinds on. The solutions don’t match the problems, and if you’re not up for strident nationalism and clientele fan-service, that just leaves managerial incumbency. Few people could do managerial incumbency as well as Angela Merkel, of course, and as George Diaz points out, she chose to move the party to the ideas.

I would disagree that she filled the void with social-democratic content, though, as Diaz says. Rather she outsourced that to the SPD. For much of the Merkel era, Europe and the Euro were the key issue. In terms of political coalitions, I think the key idea was Europeanism as opposed to nationalism or provincial particularism, and Merkel created a new diagonal coalition along those lines. This had some problems – you can’t eat the European Union – but in hindsight perhaps the biggest was whether or not the CDU/CSU itself had fully hoisted in the commitments its own hero, Helmut Kohl, had made back in the 1990s during the building of the Eurozone architecture. It is a cliché that the CDU’s iconic achievement, reunification, involved a trade-off with integration into a single currency, but the problem was whether this had been fully accepted. Ironically, this is similar to the British Tories’ inability to cope with Thatcher’s achievement of the Single Market. Europeanism is part of the CDU’s DNA, coming from its roots in Catholic politics and the Cold War and even the Weimar Republic, but the conflict that kept breaking out was whether the party was willing to back its commitments with what counted – money. The tension along the Wilhelmstrasse between Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble, the chancellor’s office and the finance ministry, dramatized the structural issue in personal terms.

The party grumbled but it eventually paid, and it did this because the strategy worked electorally. What it didn’t do was buy in beyond the level of a grudging strategic concession. You can see this in the way people like Schäuble and Friedrich Merz behave. Schäuble was insistent, pathetically, on serving on as speaker of parliament so he could stay in high office longer than Merkel. Merz’s whole engagement in politics is based on trying to pick up where he left off before he was so rudely interrupted. Armin Laschet was criticised for being a retread of Kohl without the latter’s authority.

Now, their problem is that the parties who usually sit on the European side of that diagonal won, and won big. The traffic light coalition is what it looks like when the Merkel coalition goes home. But you can’t go home, per Thomas Wolfe, and as a consequence Diaz reckons they are finished. I am sceptical. The secret sauce of conservatism is the acceptance of change. That said, for the foreseeable future there will be a lot of political space off the diagonal while the CDU and CSU bloodletting runs its course and all sorts of things might happen in it. The FDP is crucial here – not only did it flirt very seriously with a leap off the diagonal into populist territory as recently as 2017, as Ralph Böllmann says here, it’s the coalition’s effective opposition party, being the only partner that might seriously consider walking out and the one that is the most ideologically distinct from the others. A key question is whether it can grow to take on the role of the middle-class and business lobby – Böllmann notes that prominent conservatives are watching the situation in Holland where the relationship between liberals and conservatives is reversed, and Mark Rutte has been prime minister since forever.

Böllmann also points out that there is a European dimension here. The finance minister’s role in the EU makes him or her almost a second head of government, with the Eurogroup as a kind of parallel European Council that’s even more powerful for its extra-constitutional, non-treaty nature. This was awkward enough with the Merkel-Schäuble relationship. At the end of the day, although the chancellor has the power to give orders to federal ministers (the so-called directive competence), a putative FDP finance minister would also have the power to blow up the coalition if he (in this case, realistically, it’s Christian Lindner and his pronouns are no mystery) didn’t like it. The logic implies that the SPD is going to have to keep the finance ministry if the government is going to be stable, as not only would Lindner have the power to blow it up, he would also have an interest in running to his right against his own government. Apparently nobody wants to talk about this, although the commentators are talking about little else and someone is presumably briefing them.

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About Alex Harrowell

Alex Harrowell is a research analyst for a really large consulting firm on AI and semiconductors. His age is immaterial, especially as he can't be bothered to update this bio regularly. He's from Yorkshire, now an economic migrant in London. His specialist subjects are military history, Germany, the telecommunications industry, and networks of all kinds. He would like to point out that it's nothing personal. Writes the Yorkshire Ranter.