Wien. Trust is dwindling – and with it power: Europe’s moderate conservatism is mired in a deep identity crisis. It is a process that has unfolded over the past few years and now, in times of war, energy shortages and inflation, as calls for a protective state grow louder, culminating in the European People’s Party (EPP) family of parties only six of the 27 heads of state and government in the EU. Even among them there are shaky candidates like Austria’s chancellor, Karl Nehammer, who is fighting miserable poll numbers and a dismantling in his own party. In Germany, on the other hand, the Union parties, which have been burned out of power, are having to reinvent themselves as a strong opposition party, while in France Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) has taken over the right-of-centre dominance. Only in parts of Eastern Europe are the conservatives still strong. There is no one-size-fits-all explanation for this development – and yet several interrelated factors have favored the fall of the traditional parties.
wear and tear of power
Europe’s major conservative, Christian-Democratic parties such as the Partido Popular (PP) in Spain, the CDU/CSU in Germany and the Républicains in France make a worn-out impression today. “There is a lack of creative drive,” analyzes Thomas Biebricher, political scientist at the Copenhagen Business School, in an interview with the “Presse”. “The parties no longer have an identity.” On the one hand, this is due to internal obstacles, such as the pale, profileless PP boss Alberto Núñez Feijóo. CDU man Friedrich Merz, on the other hand, is in the process of uniting a disoriented, exhausted party behind him. In Germany and Austria, decades of participation in the government have led to a real erosion of power in the Union parties and in the ÖVP. In addition, many core issues no longer correspond to the zeitgeist: young people do not believe in traditional values such as those anchored in the guidelines of the centre-right parties. But above all, the future issue of the climate crisis is becoming a growing problem for the conservatives: their tendentially liberal economic attitude thwarts the general desire for a progressively controlled climate policy.
competition from the right
The tactical handling of right-wing nationalist, Eurosceptic parties has always been a tricky one for the conservatives. Many populists like Le Pen are also more moderate in rhetoric than they were a few years ago – which makes it even more difficult to distinguish between them. The topics are sometimes overlapping, if you only think of the fight against illegal migration, which the extreme right can lead more credibly. Of course, there are also counter-examples such as the Greek head of government Kyriakos Mitsotakis from the liberal-conservative Nea Dimokratia (ND): His rigid migration policy (and heavily criticized by NGOs because of the pushback allegations in the Mediterranean) has met with great approval both in his own country and across Europe.
New axis of conflict
The core conflict axis of the European party spectrum no longer runs according to pure left-right criteria – and conservatives are finding it difficult to deal with this increasingly diffuse political debate. Far-right parties serve the clientele of the former workers’ parties in social policy, while economic liberals present themselves as cosmopolitan and modern in socio-political terms. “This lack of clarity is not a problem for the semi-authoritarian conservatives in Hungary and Poland,” explains Biebricher. “In any case, they are pursuing a completely anti-pluralistic concept that is trying to change the rules of the game in their own favour.” With astonishing success: Fidesz was only able to expand its power in the Hungarian parliamentary elections this spring.
scandals and corruption
Are conservative politicians more easily forgiven for scandals because voters place higher demands on them in terms of seriousness? In the ex-EU member state Great Britain, the Tories are in free flight after Boris Johnson’s extremely embarrassing failures: The prime minister had secretly celebrated parties during the corona lockdown and thus violated the law, his successor at the head of government should be known at the beginning of September. In Austria, the chat affair about allegedly manipulated surveys brought Sebastian Kurz down last fall. Biebricher: “Such cases reinforce the impression of the arrogance of power. A sentiment that, in turn, can easily be played from the outside right.”