Amidst the flurry of campaign coverage following Theresa May’s surprising, yet correct decision to call a snap election and the ongoing French presidential election, one potentially quite significant development in European politics has been largely overlooked by the British media.
Over in Germany, the leader of the Bavarian conservative party CSU, Horst Seehofer, announced on Monday that he would not stand down and rather seek re-election as party leader and Bavarian Minister President, a reversal of a previously stated position.
A seemingly regional matter, this decision might have significant consequences for this year’s parliamentary elections in Germany and thus could turn out to be an important moment in German – and therefore European – politics in general.
Seehofer has been in politics for nearly forty years. After his election to parliament in 1980 he served as government minister in the 1990s in chancellor Helmut Kohl’s cabinet and again from 2005 to 2008 under Angela Merkel. He stepped down from federal parliament and government that year to take over the role of leader of the CSU and Bavarian Minister President, two highly influential posts in German politics.
Bavaria plays a special role in the political affairs of Germany. It is not only one of the largest and economically most prosperous states, it also has its own political party. The Christian Social Union (CSU) is the sister party of the CDU, the electorally most successful German party.
Having a strong powerbase and large numbers of members and voters alike, the CSU in the post-war era has managed to gain disproportionate influence over the Union and Union-led federal governments.
Especially since Angela Merkel took over the leadership of the CDU and is seen to have taken the party to the left on many issues, the CSU sees itself and has acted as a centre-right, conservative corrective. As such, Seehofer (who has become the personification of traditional conservatism) and his party were the only mainstream critics of Merkel’s open borders policy on refugees - her erstwhile close ally suddenly turned into somewhat of an adversary.
Seehofer and the CSU will therefore play a very important role in this year’s German parliamentary election.
Not only does Merkel need a very strong showing in Bavaria to stay in power, she also needs Seehofer at her side. Being the only political leader whom the conservative base in Bavaria, but also the rest of Germany really trust, he is essential in keeping right-wing votes from going to Alternative for Germany (AfD), the UKIP-type populists. And after repeatedly attacking her in 2015-2016, Seehofer now seems to be back on board, making his support for Merkel known.
The centre-right of German politics can only thrive when CDU und CSU cover slightly different political ground while at the same time working closely together. Seehofer is the strongest and most popular voice to ensure that.
Last week’s events might also have an impact on Brexit.
Whereas the CSU – at least by British standards – is pro-European, it also is the least ardently euro-federalist of the mainstream parties in Germany. It is no coincidence that David Cameron went to Bavaria when trying to find support for his European reform agenda ahead of last year’s referendum. His soft Eurosceptic views fell on rather fertile grounds there and Seehofer referred to Cameron’s proposals as "pure CSU".
Additionally, the Bavarian economy is closely linked to the UK, even more so than the rest of Germany’s. From the perspective of a probable Tory government aiming to get the best possible Brexit deal, the CSU therefore should be seen as a vital, even sympathetic, negotiating partner. The greater the influence of a powerful CSU led by a strong leader, the better for the UK.
Whilst going virtually unnoticed, Seehofer’s decision to stay on and remain one of Germany’s most influential politicians might have a profound effect far beyond Bavaria’s borders.
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