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In an unlucky span of 13 days, Europe’s predominant political family — the European People’s Party — saw its most seasoned leader, Angela Merkel, walk into the sunset and its brightest new star, Sebastian Kurz of Austria, crash to Earth.
With Merkel not running for another term, her Christian Democratic Union fell to a defeat in the September 26 federal election — the latest in a string of setbacks — that means the European alliance of center-right and conservative parties will almost certainly soon lose control of its biggest prize, the German government.
The party of EU founding fathers such as Schuman, De Gasperi and Adenauer — and more recently of Berlusconi, Sarkozy and Van Rompuy — has now entered what some party leaders are calling its worst spell in the political desert that any of them can remember.
The EPP, which has dominated EU politics for decades, remains the largest faction in the European Parliament and Ursula von der Leyen, a disciple of Merkel’s, still holds the European Commission presidency. But the EPP currently claims just nine of the 27 seats for heads of state and government around the European Council table.
Perhaps even more shockingly, if a new Social Democrat-led government forms in Berlin, as is widely expected, the westernmost European capital with a conservative leader will be Ljubljana.
It’s a stunning turn for a party that has previously controlled every one of the EU’s biggest members: Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland. “Now, we have none of the Big Five,” lamented one EPP insider.
In recent years, the party has found itself increasingly squeezed on the right, by more extreme populists and nationalists, and on the left by liberals and especially the Greens, propelled by concerns about climate change.
Merkel’s long-expected departure after 16 years at the helm of the EU’s largest, most powerful member country had already cast doubt over the EPP’s ability to hang on as the most influential mainstream force in Brussels.
But Kurz’s surprise resignation on Saturday, at the center of a worsening corruption scandal, has now robbed the EPP of the leader that many insiders saw as the party’s model for recapturing 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 requested anonymity to speak candidly about internal party politics.
“We are in a way thrown into a corner,” the EPP member said. “We … can lose voters to both the kind of the right-wing … populist movement that can attract some of our former voters, but at the same time, modern people in the urban cities can go to [a] Renew party [a centrist or liberal party from the Renew Europe group], or Greens, or whatever.”
Kurz, who was just 31 when he first became chancellor in 2017, had managed to broker 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 this be a way to do it?” the Northern EPP member said. “Be tough on migration and those kinds of issues that are important for many voters, but at the same time show that you are modern, you are progressive. You are taking climate change seriously, for example — so of course, his resignation, and the debate about him is problematic.”
Among those who had viewed Kurz as a model was Manfred Weber, the veteran German member of the European Parliament who was reelected on Wednesday, not quite unanimously, as leader of the EPP’s parliamentary group, and who has declared his intention to run for president of the Europe-wide party.
“I would like to implement something similar across Europe to what Sebastian Kurz managed to do with the People’s Party in Austria, namely to make the people’s parties future-proof,” Weber said in a Q&A just last month with the Austrian newspaper Die Presse. “We have to 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 the fact that he values women in important positions. He consistently implements his election 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 the moment, though, Kurz mainly seems to have mostly brought himself closer to a potential indictment on corruption charges. (He denies wrongdoing.)
Meanwhile, Weber, despite his overwhelming reelection on Wednesday, is seen by some members of the EPP as a symbol of the party’s problems rather than a key to its revival.
The Bavarian was the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat, or lead candidate for European Commission president, in the 2019 European Parliament election, 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 a deal that envisioned the post shifting 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 to replace Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister and European Council president, who announced in July that he would step down as EPP president and return to national politics.
Several EPP members in Brussels said that Weber had concluded that the socialists did not plan to respect the power-sharing deal from 2019 and that he would likely lose a contested race for the Parliament presidency.
By insisting on retaining the group leadership position as well as seeking the party presidency, these EPP members said Weber was both putting his personal interests ahead of the party’s, and also preventing new leadership from emerging.
One German MEP said there were members of the group who would have preferred to see Weber resign as group leader, particularly as his conservative camp will soon be 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 years loyally waiting in the wings for a leadership role.
While Europe’s center right is eager to win back control of the government in Warsaw, and its members hope Tusk can help them do that, his resignation after just a year and a half as EPP president fueled an acute sense that the party has been largely rudderless, and lacking 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 French-German border, seemed to have EU politics encoded 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 an appearance by the much-diminished former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is now an MEP, singing the praises of Christian Democracy through a televised 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,” one of the party’s MEPs said.
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 join party chief Pablo Casado were Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Kurz — the supposed faces of the EPP’s future.
In the end, however, Kurz could not attend because of the deepening corruption scandal in Austria. “It’s great to see so many of you here: passionate about your party; passionate about your futures; passionate about your country,” Mitsotakis said in the opening of his speech, adding: “Sebastian, it’s a pity you couldn’t be here with us.”
Instead, Kurz sent a video statement, which, for some mysterious reason, was interrupted by music as he talked about migration — an issue on which his hard-line views don’t resonate as well in Spain, a front-line border country that has long demanded more “solidarity” from interior member states.
Kurz’s resignation preserved his coalition and his party’s control of the government, and some EPP members said they expected the boy wonder of Austrian politics would ultimately bounce back. But others said he could well join the ranks of former EPP stars whose reputations are now tarnished, including former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was recently sentenced for 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 2024 European Parliament election for the party to rebound, including in many of the EU’s bigger countries.
Looking for leaders
While Greece is hardly viewed as a bastion of conservatism, especially not in the German sense of the word, Mitsotakis is regarded as having some potential as an EPP standard-bearer given his relative political safety (he doesn’t 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 power players in Brussels.
Other conservative leaders with Continent-wide 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 available for a top job in 2024 hails from a country that is still not a member of the visa-free Schengen travel area, or the euro common currency.
Many eyes are now turned to France, which appears to be one of the EPP’s last hopes to regain power in a major Western European country, though that seems a long shot against the incumbent, Emmanuel Macron. Adding to the difficulties, several candidates from Les Républicains, a member party of the EPP, are now engaged 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 those presidential candidates, might turn his ambitions toward leading the EPP group if he fails to win in France.
The EPP’s current secretary-general, Antonio López-Istúriz White, a Spanish MEP, is also seen as a potential contender for the party presidency — if opposition continues to grow to the idea of putting control of the European Parliament group and the Europe-wide party in the hands of Weber. López-Istúriz White has declined to comment on his plans.
In the meantime, the mood within the party seems to swing between depression and resignation. Some party members say the EPP needs to learn the lessons of recent electoral losses, and move quickly to reinvent itself, while others voice quiet confidence that, as bad as things seem right now, the pendulum will swing back toward the center right soon enough.
“It’s normal, those are cycles,” one EPP insider said. The insider likened the party’s current travails to crossing the desert and said it had survived such barren stretches before. They said the EPP must hold together as the fate of the party and of the whole EU were intertwined.
“If the EPP explodes, it will be a fatal blow for 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 govern. We are pro-European. Of course, you need to keep those things,” this member said. “But I do think that we need to become a bit more sexy than we are.
“I mean,” this member added. “We are boring.”
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.