European elections: is the party over for the centre-right?

The political alliance that dominates Europe took shape on a cold March night in 1998, over dinner in a bungalow in western Germany. Around Helmut Kohl’s table were a gaggle of premiers and backroom fixers, the German chancellor’s trusted circle on European affairs. It was to be a fateful night for EU politics, whose heavy hangover Europe’s centre-right is wrestling with before next week’s elections.

They gathered at the Kanzlerbungalow in Bonn because Kohl’s continent-spanning ambitions for the European People’s party were floundering. Europe’s centre-right was in the throes of an identity crisis. Through years of personal effort, Kohl had slowly opened up the EPP — a pan-EU alliance launched in 1976 with deep Christian Democrat roots — to other strands of centre-right thinking. But by 1998 the expansion was not keeping pace with electoral reality.

The centre-left was ascendant across much of Europe, while the EPP’s traditional Christian Democrat parties were reeling. In Italy the EPP faced a defining test: Silvio Berlusconi, a vote-winning populist who having crushed the Christian Democrats in Rome was seeking to outflank the EPP with a new rightwing group. Wilfried Martens, an EPP founding father who attended the dinner, described it as a matter of “life and death” for the centre-right movement.

“More than anyone else Kohl feared a scenario in which the EPP would be split into a left and a rightwing,” the former Belgian premier wrote in his autobiography. “You could have the best programme, but if you did not have the numbers there was little you could do, [Kohl] believed. It was clear as daylight that the EPP had to undertake a counter-offensive.”

Colleagues recall a frustrated Kohl saying the Christian Democrats did not rebuild Europe “to hand it over to the Socialists”. The counter-offensive hatched that night came to be called “the bungalow memo”, a seven-point blueprint for a centre-right takeover of Brussels. The disagreements were plain, but the will to cement power trumped ideological coherence; “if we limit ourselves . . . we will never achieve a majority position,” the memo said.

Helmut Kohl greets Jacques Chirac in London in 1998

It was the final touch to a spectacular turnround for the party, a big-bang expansion through the 1990s that would make the EPP an unrivalled network of influence in the EU — particularly for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Its formidable political machine remains on top in Brussels, seemingly defying gravity. It holds less than a third of seats in the European Parliament and around the EU summit table, yet operates with outsized heft.

But its fortunes are fading, its ranks of leaders diminished, its member parties bleeding votes to extreme nationalists, populists and trailblazing liberals. Whether it can renew its hold on power is one of the most important tests of next week’s European elections and their aftermath.

Kohl’s party gained strength by embracing Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, French Gaullists and Nordic conservatives while reaching a working pact with Britain’s Tory MEPs. Two loose criteria for membership prevailed: a distaste for socialism, and allegiance to the EU project. Looking east, it drew in the centre-right of soon-to-be member states where Christian Democrats were marginal — including a liberal reformer in Hungary called Viktor Orban.

From left: German Chancellor Angela Merkel. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel attend a European People’s party meeting in Meise, ahead of a summit in Brussels in 2006 © Reuters

By 1999, this political M&A spree, had helped create the biggest party in the European Parliament, knocking the Socialists off the top spot for the first time. Within a decade, its representation around the EU summit table grew from two of 15 leaders to 16 of 27 in 2012, precooking positions on treaties, bailouts and assorted EU disputes.

“The EPP didn’t win through elections,” says Steven Van Hecke, a professor at KU Leuven, Belgium. “It won by taking in parties.”

Its influence translated into jobs. Since 2004 the EPP has held a stranglehold on the presidency of the European Commission or European Council, Brussels’ most important positions.

That generation of EPP leaders in Brussels are leaving office this year, just as the EPP’s grip looks shaky. The conservative parties the EPP embraced during the 1990s — from Spain, Italy and France — are all faltering. Mainstream political parties, both left and right, are feeling the squeeze.

Voters are expected to return a more divided European Parliament, with a slimmer pro-European majority, fragmented between multiple parties and hemmed in by populists who want to bring the EU house down. Some senior EPP figures even fear an upset where their party lead is overturned.

Kohl’s EPP nightmare is again a possibility: a party split between left and right, short of the numbers to be effective, playing second fiddle to Socialists and populists. And this time the threat to the right is not from Silvio Berlusconi, but the far-right Matteo Salvini of Italy’s League and Mr Orban, the illiberal Hungarian premier and EPP bad boy.

“We will be much weaker, that is for sure,” says one central figure in the EPP expansion. “We’ve been dominant for 20 years. But this is not automatic, it is not a law of history.”

Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini, second right, and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, centre, on the Hungarian-Serbian border earlier this month © AFP

On its way to becoming Brussels’ party of government, the EPP picked up two traits from Germany’s Christian Democratic Union party: its take-all-comers breadth, and its effectiveness as a political machine.

The CDU was unique among the five Christian Democrat governments involved in launching the six-country European project in 1957. Its model of politics was synthesis, a lesson drawn from the dangerous Catholic-Protestant divide in prewar politics of the German right. The CDU sought to treat all traditions equally, be they conservatives, liberals or from the Christian Social wing. The priority: to monopolise the right, and keep it bound to the centre.

This approach to centre-right reconciliation after 1945 became the EPP’s model for keeping up with the European project, as it expanded beyond Christian Democrat heartlands to the Protestant north and conservative east.

Kohl injected a sense of purpose and fraternity. From an early stage the German chancellor took a keen interest in the EPP’s development, promising to respond personally to faxed policy proposals within 30 minutes, usually with a one-word scrawl in thick pen.

In the mid-1980s he initiated the tradition of pre-summit gatherings of EPP heads of government, to share problems and develop common approaches, a custom extended to party leaders in opposition and in applicant member states.

“It became a political family to me,” says Jyrki Katainen, a commission vice-president and former premier of Finland. This collective spirit is something Mr Katainen sees as distinguishing the EPP from the Socialist group, which struggled to rally its big stars in government, such as Britain’s Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, his German counterpart, or François Hollande of France.

EPP leader Joseph Daul, left, shares a smile with Viktor Orban, right, at the European People’s party congress in Helsinki, Finland, last November © AFP

For the EPP, co-ordination and discipline meant power. Witnesses marvel at how today’s national leaders — some of the most powerful men and women in Europe — sit attentively at gatherings while Joseph Daul, EPP president, delivers “finger-wagging lectures” to the group. Whether on the question of job appointments, new treaties, the eurozone crisis or specific national concerns of member parties, party leaders and ministers try to act as a caucus, with broad positions socialised and prepared before formal EU deliberations.

The EPP view is far from unified on every issue, nor always decisive. But it is a fixture of any big EU negotiation, part of the regular cycle of policymaking. “What was initiated by Helmut Kohl and Wilfried Martens was important,” says Antonio López-Istúriz, the EPP secretary-general. “People got used to making decisions inside the EPP, with an EPP flag. What felt artificial at the beginning became natural over time.”

Indeed for some the EPP way has become all too natural for the EU. While lacking the clout to transform the bloc alone, the EPP club has the numbers to stop change — as many centre-left and liberal politicians have discovered. The EPP’s weight in Brussels has naturally narrowed the field of vision on policy — usually to the liking of Berlin.

“They are extremely powerful,” says Shahin Vallée, a former EU official and adviser to Emmanuel Macron, the French president. “There is a symbiotic relationship between the power of Merkel and Germany and the power of the EPP. The EPP is Merkel’s instrument to project power in Europe.”

Impatience with EPP dominance is undoubtedly growing in European capitals, just as the EU is braced to select new presidents for all the bloc’s top institutions, including the prized commission role. The EPP helped to establish the custom of the biggest group in European elections claiming the job, notably when Jean-Claude Juncker was appointed president in 2014 after leading the party’s election campaign as the so-called Spitzenkandidat.

This time it has a bigger fight on its hands. The EPP lead candidate Manfred Weber, a Bavarian MEP, has no government experience, unlike all previous commission appointees. In the European Council, meanwhile, EPP leaders take up just nine of 28 seats. Mr Macron is an outspoken opponent of the Spitzenkandidat process — where lead election candidates claim the Commission job — and the “clan thinking” he sees as hurting the European project.

“The pro-European political spectrum in Europe should recognise itself in the institutions. And that, today, sadly, is not the case,” says Frans Timmermans, the Socialist Spitzenkandidat who spent the past four years as Mr Juncker’s deputy. “After 15 years of conservative leadership, it’s almost like a ruling party in the commission. That’s not a healthy situation.”

An election campaign poster of the German Christian Democrats (CDU), showing lead CDU/CSU and EPP candidate Manfred Weber, on May 14, in Berlin © Getty

EPP insiders admit the price they have paid for EU pre-eminence comes in the shape of Mr Orban and his virulent brand of nationalism. The Hungarian gives the EPP a familiar dilemma: how far can the alliance stretch its principles to keep a grip on EU power?

When threatened in the 1990s, the EPP’s approach was to colonise the conservative “peoples’ parties” so it could span the full spectrum of pro-EU rightwing politics. That tolerance extended for years as Mr Orban railed against immigrants, ran anti-Semitic campaigns and pursued a brand of illiberal government that has harried out opposition in Hungary. Aware of Mr Orban’s many sympathisers within the EPP — who see him as having correctly taken a hard stance during the migration crisis — Mr Daul wanted to tame the “enfant terrible” from “inside the family”.

But a line was crossed early this year when Mr Orban courted far-right leaders such as Mr Salvini, lambasted EU bureaucrats for trying to “liquidate Christian culture” and ran election campaign posters against Mr Juncker, the EPP Commission president. Mr Orban’s Fidesz party was suspended in March and the EPP tone shifted markedly. “I don’t give a damn who stays and leaves the EPP,” Mr Daul declared last week. “We have rules to respect.”

Kohl’s open-armed strategy had reached its limit. “That big tent philosophy is no longer credible if the contradictions cannot be managed within one movement,” says Luuk van Middelaar, a political theorist and former EU official. “Orban is beyond the pale and they have no way to deal with that. They can only think of bringing people into the tent, they are ideologically unable to think about exclusions. The EPP are the big synthesisers.”

Sara Hagemann, associate professor in European politics at the London School of Economics, argues the election may determine whether Mr Orban will “remain something the EPP has to deal with internally”. Handling him as an external opponent could be easier for the party. But there are downsides: losing Mr Orban’s seats could bring the Socialists close to the top spot in the European Parliament. The Hungarian could also act as a rallying point for the right in Europe — narrowing the appeal of the EPP, much as they feared Mr Berlusconi would in 1998.

With the EPP divided over Mr Orban’s fate, some observers see the Hungarian as having the upper hand. He can gamble on the EPP being unwilling to expel him later this year, while making the case for the EPP working with nationalist and anti-immigrant politicians such as Mr Salvini. “I have the impression that the identity battle for Europe’s right is a fight Orban is winning, not losing,” says Mr Vallée. “He is pulling the EPP, and in reality the entire European political structure, to the right.”

Carl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden who was at Kohl’s bungalow dinner, sees the Orban question as fundamental for the EPP. “They should have taken a firm line from the beginning,” he says. “It is obvious they underestimated Orban. They thought they could manipulate him. Now I know Orban and he is a bloody smart fellow. He was better at manipulating them.”

Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels