The Spahn controversy: Can the CDU’s ‘brand essence’ be saved?


The CDU is currently neither conservative nor pragmatic – this is a problem, not only for itself, but for society as a whole. Jens Spahn could change that.

It might all turn out well in the end: Chancellor Merkel returns from Brussels with an agreement that the CSU can also accept; a serious change toward a stricter asylum law in Europe. But even if such an agreement were reached, it could not solve the conflict between the sister parties. For the real question goes much deeper: what kind of Union* do CDU and CSU want to be?

Many conservatives no longer feel as if they have a political home in the CDU. They migrate either to the non-voters or to the AfD. But the AfD is not a conservative party. In the best case it is right-wing populist, in the worst case fascistoid. Electing them potentially brings neo-Nazis into parliament. To prevent this must be a priority of CDU/CSU, true to the sentence of Franz Josef Strauß: “There must be no democratically legitimized party of political relevance to the right of the Union”. Can today’s Union still do that?

Merkel’s legacy is coloured green and red

Angela Merkel is a modernizer. She has led – some would argue dragged –  her party into the middle. From state-sponsored and guarenteed daycare for everybody to the abolition of compulsory military service, from the nuclear phase-out to dual citizenship and women’s quotas – what will be remembered from the Merkel era is usually coloured green to red (authors’s note: the colours of the political left).

The Union would probably have forgiven the Chancellor for that, after all it gave the sister parties furious election results. It stood for reliability, for reason, for an ultrapragmatic policy. This is not remarkable because the CDU was not only a Christian-conservative force throughout its life, but also a liberal and pragmatic party.

But letting hundreds of thousands of people into the country who fled from war, dictators and hunger was not pure pragmatism. It was also a decision of humanity. It polarized Merkel’s voters. But those who had been Merkel’s political opponents up until then celebrated the decision and then the Chancellor. For many conservatives, however, this decision was a departure from the stability that Merkel had radiated until then.

The CSU tends to exaggerate

The AfD filled the void and many voters followed. That’s still frightening. But how to deal with it?

Probably not by making common cause with the FPÖ, the Front National or the Lega, as the Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder might be tempted to. The behaviour of the CSU alone shows that a break-up of the Union cannot be in the interest of conservatism in Germany. The CSU is far too inclined to exaggerate.

Rather, the CDU must make a new offer. It must prove that conservatism works without xenophobia, without speaking of a “fortress of Europe” or “asylum tourism”. If the CDU manages to strengthen conservative forces in its party without giving up its liberal side, it could win back many voters who are no longer voting, or already voting for the AfD.

One person who could credibly embody such conservatism is Jens Spahn. He wants to make the AfD superfluous. “Being conservative means reducing the speed of change so that it is bearable. That people come with us,” he said in an interview. This is an interesting approach that combines pragmatism and adherence to traditional values.

“Live in such a way that Jens Spahn would have something against it”

Of course, Spahn is also a polarizing figure. But that wouldn’t be bad, because unlike the Chancellor, the left doesn’t celebrate Spahn. They don’t like him, not even a little. Among young leftists there is a saying that one should live in such a way that Jens Spahn has something against it.

If the CDU were to make a credible shift towards its conservative roots, the parties would become more distinguishable. That would be good for democracy. The political landscape would represent society in its plurality and therefore be able to fend off undemocratic forces in the long run.

The Union has a common goal: to reduce the size of the AfD. The CDU and CSU can do that, but they must do it together. After all, a rupture, even a revolt, is very unlike German conservatism. They should get together again. Then they should plan for the time after Merkel together and keep the promise they embody as a party: Stability. That would really be conservative.

*Author’s note: The term Union is used in German politics to refer to the sister parties CDU and CSU.


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