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During an unfortunate 13-day period, Europe’s dominant political family – the European People’s Party – saw its most experienced leader, Angela Merkel, enter the sunset and its brightest new star, Sebastian Kurz from Austria, crashed to the ground.
When Merkel did not run for another term, her Christian Democratic Union was defeated in the federal election on September 26 – the latest in a series of setbacks – which means that the European alliance between center-right and conservative parties almost certainly will soon lose control of its biggest prize, the German government.
The party of EU founders like Schuman, De Gasperi and Adenauer – and more recently Berlusconi, Sarkozy and Van Rompuy – has now gone into what some party leaders call its worst magic in the political desert that any of them can remember.
The EPP, which has dominated EU policy for decades, remains the largest faction in the European Parliament, and Ursula von der Leyen, a disciple of Merkel, still holds the presidency of the European Commission. But the EPP currently claims only nine of the 27 seats for heads of state and government around the European Council table.
Perhaps even more shocking, if a new Social Democratic-led government forms in Berlin, as expected, the westernmost European capital with a Conservative leader will be Ljubljana.
It is a fantastic trip to a party that has previously controlled all the major members of the EU: Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland. “Now we have none of the big five,” lamented an EPP insider.
In recent years, the party has found itself increasingly pressured to the right, by more extreme populists and nationalists and to the left by liberals and especially the Greens, driven by concerns about climate change.
Merkel’s long – awaited departure after 16 years at the helm of the EU’s largest, most powerful member state had already cast doubt on the EPP’s ability to stand out as the most influential mainstream force in Brussels.
But Kurz’s surprising resignation on Saturday, at the center of a worsening corruption scandal, has now deprived the EPP of the leader that many insiders saw as the party’s model for regaining the interest and imagination of European voters.
“We are not in enough governments at the moment when you look at the member states,” said an EPP member from a northern European country, who asked for anonymity to speak honestly about internal party politics.
“In a way, we are being thrown into a corner,” the EPP member said. “We… can lose voters to both the kind of right-wing… populist movement that may attract some of our former voters, but at the same time modern people in the cities can go to [a] Renew party [a centrist or liberal party from the Renew Europe group], or Green, or whatever. ”
Kurz, who was just 31 when he first became chancellor in 2017, had managed to mediate a coalition for his second government between his Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Greens, which other conservatives hoped would be a magic elixir.
“Of course, many of us have actually looked at Sebastian Kurz, as you know, could that be a way to do it?” said the northern EPP member. “Be tough on migration and the kind of issues that are important to many voters, but at the same time show that you are modern, you are progressive. For example, you take climate change seriously – so of course his resignation and the debate about him are problematic. ”
Among those who had seen Kurz as a model was Manfred Weber, the veteran German Member of the European Parliament, who was not unanimously re-elected as leader of the EPP’s parliamentary group on Wednesday, and who has stated that he intends to run. up as president of the party throughout Europe.
“I would like to implement something similar throughout Europe, what Sebastian Kurz managed to do with the People’s Party of Austria, namely to make the People’s Parties future-proof,” Weber said in a question and answer just last month with the Austrian newspaper Die Presse. “We must break out and set new creative accents, create a modern People’s Party for Europe.”
“Sebastian has managed to give the ÖVP a new touch and bring it closer to the people,” Weber said. “It starts with him appreciating women in important positions. He consistently implements his electoral programs, calls for a new basic treaty for Europe and has many ideas on how we can move the EU forward. In this way, he manages to find acceptance with Christian Democratic values in today’s world. ”
At present, however, Kurz appears to have largely come closer to a potential charge of corruption. (He denies guilt.)
Meanwhile, despite his overwhelming re-election on Wednesday, Weber is seen by some members of the EPP as a symbol of the party’s problems rather than a key to its revival.
Bavaria was EPP’s Top candidate, or leading candidate for President of the European Commission, in the 2019 European Parliament elections, only to be rejected by the European Council. Weber returned to his post as group leader and was widely expected to be the party’s candidate for parliament president in 2022 under an agreement imagining the post moving to the EPP from the Socialists.
But last month, Weber declared that he no longer wanted the job, and would instead seek the presidency of the Europe-wide party, replacing Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister and president of the European Council, who announced in July that he would resign as EPP chairman and return to national politics.
Several EPP members in Brussels said Weber had concluded that the Socialists had no plans to respect the 2019 power-sharing agreement and that he was likely to lose a contested race for Parliament’s presidency.
By insisting on retaining the group leadership position and seeking the party chairmanship, these EPP members said that Weber both put his personal interests ahead of the party and also prevented new leadership from emerging.
A German MEP said there were members of the group who would have preferred to see Weber resign as group leader, especially as his conservative camp is soon out of power in Germany.
This MEP also noted that Esteban González Pons, a Spanish MEP who has served as Weber’s longtime No. 2, has spent many years loyally waiting for a leadership role.
While Europe’s center-right is eager to regain control of the Warsaw government and its members hope Tusk can help them do so, his resignation after just one and a half years as EPP president gave an acute sense that the party is largely has been helpless, and lacks competent leadership since the retirement of his predecessor Joseph Daul, a legendary backroom political operator. Daul, as a farmer from the Alsace region along the Franco-German border, appeared to have EU policy coded in his DNA.
The EPP group’s contradictions and its struggle to project itself as a modern party were out in the open at a recent meeting in Rome, which featured a performance by the much-reduced former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, now MEP , and song praises Christian democracy through a television speech.
A traditionally large delegation in the EPP, Italy’s Forza Italia, now has only nine MEPs, and there is ongoing speculation that the party is trying to lure league members into the EPP ranks.
“We pretend that the EPP still exists in Italy,” said one of the party’s MEPs.
At a gathering of Spain’s popular party earlier this month in the city of Valencia, the main non-Spanish stars who had been invited to attend were party leader Pablo Casado, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Kurz — the supposed faces of the EPP’s future.
In the end, however, Kurz was unable to participate due to the deep-seated corruption scandal in Austria. “It’s great to see so many of you here: passionate about your party; passionate about your future; passionate about your country, ”said Mitsotakis in opening of his speechand added: “Sebastian, it’s a shame you could not be here with us.”
Instead, Kurz sent a video statement, which for some mysterious reason was interrupted by music as he spoke of migration — an issue that his hardline views do not resonate in Spain, a frontier country on the front line that has long demanded more “solidarity. “from the internal Member States.
Kurz’s resignation kept his coalition and his party in control of the government, and some EPP members said they expected the boy’s wonder in Austrian politics would eventually bounce back. But others said he could join the ranks of former EPP stars whose reputation is now tarnished, including former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was recently convicted of exceeding spending limits during his failed 2012 presidential campaign , and former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar.
Some EPP officials said there is more than enough time between now and the European Parliament elections in 2024 for the party to regain, including in many of the EU’s major countries.
Looking for leaders
Although Greece is hardly considered a bastion of conservatism, especially not in the German sense, Mitsotakis is considered to have some potential as an EPP standard bearer given his relative political security (he does not face elections until 2023) and his gilded CV, which includes a degree from Harvard. He also speaks German and is extremely close to Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, who is Greek and one of the EPP’s most influential actors in Brussels.
Other conservative leaders with continental ambitions include Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, who is now in his second term. But it also illustrates the party’s challenges when one of the few candidates seen as unemployed for a top job in 2024 comes from a country that is still not a member of the visa-free Schengen travel area or the single currency of the euro.
Many eyes are now on France, which appears to be one of the EPP’s last hopes of regaining power in a major Western European country, although it appears to be a long-standing attempt on the part of Emmanuel Macron. In addition to the difficulties, several candidates from Les Républicains, a member of the EPP, are now in a fierce battle against each other to be nominated as the Conservative candidate for the presidency.
Some in the EPP group hope that Michel Barnier, the former Brexit negotiator who is one of these presidential candidates, may turn his ambitions towards leading the EPP group if he does not win in France.
The EPP’s current secretary general, Antonio López-Istúriz White, a Spanish MEP, is also seen as a potential candidate for the party’s presidency – if the opposition continues to grow with the idea of putting control of the European Parliament group and party-wide in Weber’s hands. López-Istúriz White has declined to comment on his plans.
Meanwhile, the mood within the party seems to fluctuate between depression and resignation. Some party members say the EPP should learn from the recent election losses and get started reinventing itself quickly, while others say quietly trusting that as bad as things look right now, the pendulum will swing back towards the center just fast enough.
“It’s normal, it’s bicycles,” said an EPP insider. The insider compared the party’s current travails to crossing the desert, saying it had survived such barren stretches before. They said the EPP should stick together as the fate of the party and the whole EU was intertwined.
“If the EPP explodes, it will be a fatal blow to the European project,” this insider said.
But the EPP member from a northern country said the party needed to find a way to modernize. “We are stable. We can control. We are pro-European. Of course you have to keep these things, ”said this member. “But I think we need to get a little sexier than we are.
“I mean,” this member added. “We’re boring.”
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.