The Germans have a word for everything, including for the mood hanging over Thursday’s meeting of European conservatives in Berlin.
Torschlusspanik describes a fear that time is running out. And, ahead of Germany’s September 26th federal election, leading members of the European People’s Party (EPP) fear that the centre-right group in the European Parliament is now poised to lose Berlin.
After ruling for 16 years here, all polls place the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – seeking re-election with leader Armin Laschet instead of Angela Merkel – in second place behind a resurgent Social Democratic Party (SPD). Amongst themselves at a luxury Berlin hotel, EPP members spoke gravely of the “Titanic mood”.
Laschet wore a fixed smile as prime minister Ingrida Simonyte whispered: “We’re praying for you.”
Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar dragged the EPP’s crisis into the open, warning that the group was “electorally not in a good place”.
He recalled the running joke of a decade ago that, with so many of their own governing across the continent, decisions in Brussels were made not at EU summits but at EPP pre-summit gatherings.
“As things stand [now] there is no EPP head of government west of Berlin,” said Varadkar in Berlin. “And if we do not win the elections here, we will be relying on EPP governments in the Balkans, Baltics and central Europe.”
He urged a fresh focus on core EPP values: a shared commitment to the social market economy (where the state corrects market excesses where needed), law and order and prudent post-pandemic public finances.
“Budgets will need to be balanced again but not so quickly that it stops the economy from growing,” he said, “but we cannot continue to accumulate debt forever and we have to be the party brave enough to say that.”
He suggested the EPP consider a rebrand of its “Christian democracy” politics. Ireland was “proud of our Christian roots and the Christian social thinking that has helped inform our political thinking”, he said. But it had never used the term “Christian democracy”, a label he said was anachronistic given Europe is now the most secularised continent in the world.
“We do need to think about how we speak to younger voters and secular voters,” he said.
Fine Gael MEP Seán Kelly, also at the Berlin gathering, intervened to suggest the EPP change its name to “The Party of Opportunity and Compassion”.
Rebranding would not be enough, warned Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzawskowski, because the EPP was “no longer strong, no longer relevant, no longer sexy” and had forgotten how to push back against populists.
“We need to get back control of the agenda and talk about the real projects of the future. We are terrible at telling stories,” he said.
At the Berlin gathering, EPP parliamentary leader Manfred Weber announced he was not interested in becoming European Parliament leader, instead hoping to become head of the EPP.
In his own address, Laschet told EPP delegates that Europe remained “in the DNA” of Europe’s Christian Democratic parties. But looming transnational challenges – migration, security and the “Green Deal” climate package – will struggle to be advanced at EU level given next year’s French election and Germany’s September 26th poll.
“We are facing into difficult months,” he said. “It could be there’ll be a long period of coalition talks that can last until the end of the year.”
Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, telegraphing the CDU’s main election message, said he had “huge concerns” that a left-wing Berlin coalition would create a “different Germany and a different Europe”.
With anxiety about the immediate future, many EPP delegates in Berlin looked longingly instead at the past: to Angela Merkel, ending her 16-year run as chancellor. With an eye on the polls, the departing German leader said “it was clear to everyone in the CDU that one wouldn’t get back into the chancellery without effort”.
“We are in the middle of an election battle and it is a real battle,” she added.
Varadkar praised the departing German leader for being alert to the needs of smaller countries.
“She has been a tower, she has been a rock, she has shown enormous strength,” he said, adding, perhaps prophetically: “We are really going to miss her, I believe.”