Wednesday

8th Feb 2023

Analysis

Germany's CSU eyes centre-stage in Europe

  • The CSU's 'Political Ash Wednesday' rally in Passau saw Manfred Weber campaign for the commission presidency (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

Germany's regional powerhouse, the Christian Social Union (CSU), is gearing up to take over the EU executive.

Only last year, the Bavarian party was entangled in a bruising fight with its sister party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), that threatened to bring down the government in Berlin.

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Interior minister and then-CSU leader Horst Seehofer, in an effort to push back against the rising far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) chipping away at CSU voters, was pushing a much more strict migration policy, piling pressure on chancellor Angela Merkel on the issue.

Now the CSU is promising to be the "people's party for Europe", and is campaigning for its vice-chairman Manfred Weber to clinch the EU Commission presidency after European elections in May.

The about-turn, marked by the new CSU leader Markus Soder, after a poor show at the polls last October, was on display in full force on the traditional Ash Wednesday rally, a kind of "political Octoberfest" in Passau on Wednesday (6 March).

Besides being a Bavarian feast of beer and pretzels, a reinforcement of Bavarian identity and life-long CSU commitment, the Ash Wednesday rally also offered "a Bavarian for Europe" in Manfred Weber.

"We made mistakes last year, but we learned from them," Soder told the 10,000 party enthusiasts who had been downing beers since the morning.

And he had a message for AfD moderates: "Come back to us and leave the AfD to the Nazis alone!"

Weber, the leader of the largest political group in the European Parliament - a soft-speaking Bavarian who has served in the EU parliament since 2004, but still flies back to his home country every weekend from Brussels or Strasbourg - wore the traditional Bavarian leather jacket to address the crowd.

Weber, who campaigns on being a man of compromise and building bridges, argued that CSU as the 'people's party' knows how to fight populists.

"Politics needs to be shaped from the middle. Not from leftists, nor from the right-wing," he said.

Weber, however, is entangled in a deep rift with its own populists of the centre-right European People's Party.

The Fidesz problem

The EPP's parliamentary group leader has been criticised for having been slow to put pressure on Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban to change course. Orban's Fidesz-led government has run a series of anti-EU campaigns.

Weber set out his demands to Orban to allow Fidesz stay in EPP, as the party discusses its Hungarian member's future on 20 March - but it remains to be seen if those conditions will be pushed by the entire EPP.

Top Fidesz officials in Hungary said the party rejected Weber's demands for an apology, or stopping the anti-EU campaigns or allowing the Central European University to stay in Budapest - but at the same time said they are seeking a compromise to avoid being kicked out of EPP.

The CSU and Orban's Fidesz have had close ties. The Hungarian PM was a guest at a CSU party conference last year and he is admired for his tough stance on closing the borders of the EU to migrants.

Hungary and Bavaria have also close ties in manufacturing, as the German region's two automaker giants, Audi and BMW, have both invested heavily in Hungary.

Weber in his speech on Wednesday did not mention Orban. On populism he pointed to AfD and praised Bulgarian prime minister, fellow EPP member Boyko Borissov, for keeping migrants out with a fence at the Turkish border.

"We will defend our Europe against its enemies. This is the AfD in Germany. I don't want a country, I don't want a Europe where the AfD has a responsibility," Weber said.

Taxes

Weber received one of the biggest applause when he pledged to stop Turkey's accession talks with the EU, that have already been stalled for years.

"If I become president of the commission, I will instruct the services to end the EU accession talks with Turkey," Weber said. In the EU, member states have the final say on which countries are allowed enlargement talks.

Weber also tapped into another deep-seated fear of Bavarian voters, trade wars with the US which has threatened to raise tariffs on German cars that Washington suggested are a national security threat and unfair competition from China.

"We, as Europeans, do not allow ourselves to be blackmailed," Weber told the cheering crowd in the manufacturing heartland of Bavaria.

"I want not only the Europeans to pay fair taxes, but also the Apples and Facebooks of this world," Weber said.

The rally ended with the Bavarian, German and European anthems, hammering home the point that these identities belong together and are not exclusive in the CSU - which has won every election in Bavaria since 1945.

"This party did so much for Bavaria, for its success," the local CSU chairman in the town of Hauzenberg, 24-year-old Simon Bloch, told EUobserver on the sidelines of the Political Ash Wednesday. Bloch said Weber is the "best guy to lead Europe".

"He would bring a new European spirit, one of unity, and this is what Europe needs now. He would bring a better understanding of regional interests," he added.

Underestimated?

One of Weber's biggest assets is that he is constantly underestimated, EPP officials argue.

When he announced his candidacy to lead the EPP's campaign and run for the EU commission top job, many pointed to Weber's lack of executive experience compared to previous commission presidents, who had served as prime ministers of their countries.

But once the campaign kicked off, EPP leaders, including Merkel and Orban, lined up to lend their support to Weber.

The EPP is expected to come first in the European elections, and if Weber manages to build a coalition in the EU parliament, it would be politically difficult to push him aside - especially with no consensus alternative candidate visible.

The European parliament will however push to the end to have its candidate, once again, at the helm of the commission.

Weber's commission presidency would not only mean that a regional political party with a national and European ambition gets centre stage in Europe.

It would also mean a tighter relationship between the EU executive and the European parliament, with plans to give the assembly an indirect role to initiate legislation, now reserved exclusively for the commission.

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