The Future of the CDU Depends on More than Just the Next Chairperson

Dr. Norbert Röttgen discusses a way forward for the CDU after the election of its next chairperson.

There is now rivalry within the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)—and that is a good thing. The question of who will represent the party will be answered at the beginning of December. But even once the chair is chosen, another question will still linger: what will the CDU stand for after Angela Merkel?

To discuss and answer this question is absolutely imperative for the future viability of the CDU as a people’s party. To determine where we stand and where we are headed is a matter of political survival for the CDU, not only because a change in party leadership after 18 years indicates a turning point, but also because our country, like all Western democracies, faces revolutionary changes.

The CDU and the candidates running for office must not allow the focus on personnel to replace a focus on issues. The decline in support for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in three consecutive federal elections (as well as many state ones) under several party leaders has shown that changes in personnel alone cannot make voters connect to a party.

I say this without malice, quite the contrary: if one examines what every party has to say about the major issues of our time in a factual and rational way, the result is so sobering that one can only speak of a systemic weakness in our current party system.

In the face of such an analysis, even the rise in support for the Green Party proves to be less a positive reaction and more an evasive response from voters who consider the ruling parties in their current state unelectable.

The Only Remaining People’s Party

The dimensions of the task that lies ahead of the CDU are thus outlined: As the only remaining people’s party in Germany, the CDU has the responsibility to offer something against the progressive fragmentation, irrationalisation, and destabilisation of the political landscape in Germany. “something” cannot be mere technique, a ‘roadmap’, or sectoral legislation. Furthermore, new social benefits, which one believes could earn the goodwill of voters, would be the expression of a gross underestimation of the seriousness of the situation, of which many voters are fully aware.

Instead, the CDU should develop something that hardly anyone expects: a future vision of Germany that is guiding, supportive, and protective in these times of general insecurity, and inclusive in these times of increasingly aggressive social particularism. What is our concrete picture of Germany 2025, embedded in European and international responsibility?

The CDU does not have to reinvent its values, but we need to reapply them to radically changed circumstances. This is intellectually challenging, and we have a lot of catching up to do. Making clear that the only position for the CDU is at the centre can at least be considered a strategic success of Angela Merkel’s party chairmanship.

As a result of the radical changes, however, this centre must be defined. If this is expressed primarily by the elimination of competition in and around the centre, then it is inevitable that the centre will lose and the fringe will gain voters.

Thus, for the CDU it is not about profile in itself or ‘sharp edges’ but rather about the profile as a centrist party. What does this mean in concrete terms, when the CDU in Hesse loses as many votes to the Greens as it does to the Alternative for Germany (AfD)?

This may seem paradoxical, but in fact it points to the heart of the matter—namely, the question of competence or loss of competence. To answer the question: both the disregard for the climate issue and the underestimation of the integration and migration issues jeopardise the existence of the CDU as the centrist people’s party.

The question of competence as a strategic question of trust and thus of power, and the loss suffered by the CDU, can be summed up in one statement: The state that only reacts to shortcomings—and helplessly so—undermines its legitimacy and authority.

Between the global financial crisis, the euro crisis, the refugee crisis, the shortage of teachers, the lack of nurses and future shortage of doctors, and the diesel mess, citizens have experienced a decade of lagging policies that only emerge when the damage has been done.

Can Lagging Policies Govern?

Lessons must be learned and conclusions drawn. Our method of governance does not seem up to date. There is no space for strategic, networked foresight—why is there no national security council in Germany? There is no ministry with sole, clear-cut responsibility for strategic future issues, such as digitalisation and migration.

In substance, there is no doubt that refugee and migration questions have fundamentally changed the political landscape in nearly all Western countries. Despite all the controversy, we can state that the vast majority of Germans are not interested in populist and ideological aggressions, but in maintaining openness by regaining stability and control.

But nothing will ever be like it was. We must say goodbye to illusions and act realistically instead: Most of the approximately one million people who have come to Germany will stay. We simply need a new integration concept to accommodate those groups of migrants, some of whom come from very culturally distant societies.

Another truth is that, in order to prevent migration, we Europeans must have a much larger presence in the conflict-ridden Middle East, as well as in Africa, with its enormous demographic growth. I dare to venture a theory with far-reaching implications: we can no longer separate the stability of (western) European societies from the instability of these regions, but must instead address these challenges. This is what we must learn from the refugee crisis if we want to have at least a chance to prevent the next one.

The (non-)development of a humanitarian catastrophe with a considerable number of potential refugees in the Syrian region of Idlib currently lies in the hands of Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan! This brings me to Europe. The CDU should seek the decisive battle in this field not only because of the European Parliament elections in May 2019 but also because it’s who we are.

The question of European identity is decisive because it has been made a contentious election topic. The CDU must dedicate its full energy to this matter and fight for what we are: The Christian Democratic Party, the answer to an ominous, nihilistic nationalism. Our focus is on the human being with his or her personal dignity, and thus humanity; we are Europeans as a historical doctrine, as a way of life, and as a political perspective for the nation.

Europe Instead of Hopeless Nationalism

But exactly because this is what we are, we must redefine our strategy for Europe. It no longer suffices to simply argue for the status quo, if we want to prevent the European elections from turning into a fiasco next year. The EU must evolve from an internal to an external project. In her famous beer tent speech, Angela Merkel rightly explained that we Europeans should take our fate into our own hands, particularly with regard to security. However, just as we are facing this challenge, the EU finds itself in its worst shape ever. Yes, for the first time we can fail.

Among other disagreements, the counter model of an ‘illiberal democracy’ within the EU, reinforced most recently by Italy’s anti-European, left-right populist government, constitutes an existentially dangerous split. The CDU must answer the question of how we imagine Germany’s role in this situation.

I believe that the European compromise is fundamentally in our national interest. We are too big to enforce particular interests. Making Europe work is most important, the opposite would be damaging to us and, in the worst case, a catastrophe.

But the EU of 27 member states will not achieve the necessary capacity to act externally in the foreseeable future. A new approach could be to form a group of states that agree on a joint policy in the Middle East, a joint position towards China, and also in the transatlantic relationship. France and Germany must be part of this leading avant-garde and, in my opinion, Poland and post-Brexit Britain should also join in.

It must be clear to us that Europe’s fateful future development will depend heavily on Germany. This German responsibility must be the benchmark for the substantive discussions and positions of the CDU. Making this process visible and credible within the party can be described as the future project of the CDU that lies ahead.

This post was first published in German in the Handelsblatt on 1 November 2018.

Norbert Röttgen is Member of the German Parliament, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a Dahrendorf Forum Committee member.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School of Governance and London School of Economics and Political Science or its funder Stiftung Mercator.