Ousting Fidesz from the EPP wasn’t a smart move – Interview with Prof. Werner Patzelt

editor: REMIX NEWS
author: Mátyás Kohán

No one benefits from the Fidesz-People’s Party breakup, nor should the Hungarian government expect improved relations from a possible future CDU-Greens coalition; the best thing they can do now is to keep their policy sound, says German political scientist Werner Patzelt, who was asked about German domestic politics and German-Hungarian relations.

Werner J. Patzelt (born in 1953 in Passau) is a German political scientist and professor emeritus at the Technical University of Dresden. He was a co-founder of Dresden University’s institute of political science in 1991, where he taught until his retirement in 2019, which was partly politically motivated. He graduated in political science, sociology and history in 1980 from the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, after which he received his doctorate and habilitation at the University of Passau. He has been a visiting professor in Paris, London and Moscow and at several events of the International Federation of Political Science (IPSA), as well as a member of the executive committee of this prestigious professional organization from 2009 to 2015. He has been a member and periodic adviser of CDU since 1994, as well as the party’s deputy campaign chief in the 2019 Saxony state elections. He is a sought-after expert who is very active in the German media.


Who will benefit from Fidesz’s withdrawal from the European People’s Party?

I believe nobody will gain from this — except those German politicians in the CDU who have been constantly attacked by the German media for tolerating Fidesz in the EPP. They now have one reason less to be attacked. Other than that, however, I don’t think anyone will benefit from this.

Could CDU have lost votes due to media attacks?

We will know more about this following the elections on Sunday. However, I do not assume that this EU-related political move of the CDU will be significant at the domestic level. This is a topic that interests those who are into politics; it plays a role in the cooperation between journalists and politicians, but most people just ignore it. Depending on one’s stance, it strengthens one’s fundamental position. Anyone who leans toward the conservative wing of the CDU or AfD will say: Behold, we can see again that the Left is already dominating the CDU! And those on the Left will say: It was about time we won another round in the fight against the Right by ousting Fidesz.

Do you see any strategic considerations behind the move on the part of EPP leaders? Was it a politically wise move?

I don’t think it was a smart move. After all, political groups within the European Parliament aim to achieve a majority, and allowing center-left and left-wing groups to force their own group to become weaker limits their own influence. This is exactly what the EPP’s political opponents wanted to achieve, and they can now rejoice at the People’s Party’s strategic blunder.

What do you think about the timing? Why was it so urgent for the EPP to change the rules of the faction, and why has Orbán’s party had enough?

It could have been because Manfred Weber, EPP faction leader, is a CSU politician who had been prevented from chairing the European Commission and wanted to demonstrate: I am not a righty, I am acting against right-wing populism in Europe, so please do not punish my party at the upcoming election because it is too right-wing! But he may have been just a hunted man who could no longer get rid of some of the ghosts he had summoned before.

There was a sharp and not very friendly reaction from Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder to the news of the exit. Do you have an explanation as to why CSU suddenly doesn’t like Fidesz when they are traditionally the best German friends of Hungarians?

The CSU is slowly beginning to realize that it will never be able to govern alone in Bavaria, and in the years to come, its most important coalition partner will be the Greens. The CSU therefore will dismantle, step by step, any political position that could annoy the Greens; meanwhile, it also tramples on the heads of old friends. We can also call this political infidelity. We have never seen such unfortunate behavior on the part of the CDU before.

Will the separation of Fidesz from the People’s Party result in the deterioration of Hungarian-German relations, or is it entirely a political party matter?

A lot will depend on the attitude of the Hungarian side. If Hungary continues to pursue a well-explained political course without resentment, Fidesz can demonstrate that the EPP has been unfair. If it does not respond to this with harshness or bitterness, there will be the possibility of a positive restart after the European Paraliament elections. In any case, they should avoid letting themselves be chased into taking on a role previously assigned to them that makes them an ideal target.

There is also a media-policy dimension to Hungarian-German relations. At the end of February, Deutsche Welle announced that it would launch online platforms in Hungarian, and German media has run anti-Hungarian propaganda in recent weeks in ZDF and Deutsche Welle. Is it possible that Berlin wants to send a message to Fidesz through public media?

This is conceivable from those responsible for public television, less directly from the government. The tentacles of power aren’t that simple. To give a clearer picture: Roughly 70 percent of German journalists are currently leaning toward the Greens, Social Democrats or the Left; and now, this generation of journalists occupies key positions in the public media, which it uses to translate its own political beliefs and desires into journalism. In addition, there is a fundamental sympathy between Green-Left journalists and Angela Merkel, so politics and media pass the ball to each other on this issue.

However, this is not a background conspiracy that goes beyond the usual influence of politicians on the decisions of public television. It is therefore less of a kind of “secondary foreign policy” than a consequence of the Green-Left cultural hegemony, which determines Germany’s politics and its political culture.

Let’s move on to German domestic politics: This is an important election year for Germany, with federal and local parliamentary elections. Who will be the German chancellor in 2021?

We do not know yet because it is neither clear who will be CDU/CSU’s candidate for chancellor, nor can we rule out that CDU/CSU achieves such a poor election result that a Greens-SPD-FDP coalition will be possible. Besides, the Greens do not have a chancellor candidate either. The only thing that’s pretty sure is the end of Angela Merkel’s mandate as chancellor.

Can you see a favorite person within the CDU who is likely to win the nomination?

The CDU must close behind its president – anything else would hurt the party. By the way, the CDU has so far consistently accepted a CSU chancellor candidate when there was any chance of losing the election, as in that case, the CSU candidate would be held responsible, not that of the CDU. Whether this is still the case is yet to be seen. In any event, the current Bavarian prime minister (CSU) is not being shy in his efforts of total self-denial to become popular as a possible chancellor of a black-green (CDU-Greens) coalition. If a green-red-yellow (Greens-SDP-FDP) coalition fails to come together in the autumn, we are indeed going to see a black-green coalition – that way, Markus Söder could follow in the footsteps of Louis IV of Bavaria and Charles VII of Wittelsbach as German regent.

You have repeatedly referred to the possibility of a black-green coalition, both in Bavaria and at a federal level. From 2021, do you think it will be possible to govern without the Greens at all?

There is a good chance that for many years it will not be possible to govern at the federal level without the Greens. The Social Democrats have long been happy to govern with the Greens, while CDU has navigated itself into total strategic dependence on them. Since the emergence of AfD an dthe FDP, the CDU/CSU will not gain a majority, and it is not possible or desirable to cooperate with AfD. However, any rapprochement between CDU/CSU and the Greens will further strengthen AfD. Thus, CDU’s only hope is that the radicalization of AfD will be its ruin. Overall, it can be a fun thing to be with the Greens now and succeed in politics!

What do you think about the internal state of CDU? Two “mask scandals” have broken out in recent weeks, with two CDU/CSU politicians having indulged in accepting a “brokerage fee” for mask purchases. Are these unique cases, or do they point to a kind of arrogance of power within CDU?

Hunger for power in politics is not a bad thing! CDU also deserves praise for its decision to, when in doubt, use power instead of negligible principles. However, it is scandalous for politicians to get rich through their political office at any time, especially in times of crisis. Regarding CDU’s internal affairs, one can conclude that several ambitious generations within the party have gained influence. They are less concerned with what is good for the public and more focused on their own interests. This is detrimental to CDU, but it is entirely their fault and they do not deserve any sympathy for it.

Meanwhile, the self-serving joy of the Social Democrats and Greens [in the face of CDU’s failings] is, of course, still wrong. In any case, it will make it easier for SPD to get off CDU’s sinking flagship and once again give the Greens a chance to do a little moralizing. Both parties are happy about this because, of course, for a year they were annoyed by the fact that Angela Merkel’s star was taken up again by the coronavirus crisis and CDU was hitting new highs in the polls. Now, CDU/CSU’s support is declining again, and the Social Democrats and Greens obviously cannot wait to see them below 30 percent again.

Let us talk about Social Democrats too. Do you see any chance that in 2021, after 16 years, an SPD chancellor will govern Germany again, or is that completely out of the question?

In the foreseeable future, chances for an SPD chancellor are very slim. In the fall, SPD is unlikely to get stronger than the Greens. So why should the latter hand over the chancellery in a coalition with SPD? The Greens will surely remember SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s famous saying that the bigger coalition partner is the chef while the smaller one is a waiter.

How do you evaluate the one-year performance of SPD’s new co-chairs, Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans? Has anything been achieved for the party or is the downturn continuing?

This co-presidency does not represent SPD in its full spectrum; it only displays the left-wing of the party. That is why they failed to broaden their electoral base. On the contrary, by turning SPD into a movement for identity politics and criticizing the talented former SPD Bundestag President Wolfgang Thiers, many loyal Social Democrats have been challenged. In summary, this co-presidency has proven to be particularly harmful to SPD, so there is a good chance they will not politically survive the federal election.

AfD is maneuvering in German domestic politics with virus-skeptical, anti-vaccination sentiments. Do they have a chance to benefit from this in the federal election?

By opposing the federal government’s coronavirus policy, AfD cannot achieve anything. This is because it wasn’t built only by those on the Right but also by representatives of liberal, ecopolitical and esoteric views. Coronavirus policy in no way carries as many mobilization opportunities for AfD as immigration policy. Nonetheless, the chancellor continues to enjoy such stable media support that any AfD attack on her coronavirus policy will be crushed.

AfD faces a much bigger, fundamental problem.

It has not decided whether it wants to be a “normal” party in the future that could one day be a coalition partner of CDU/CSU or a demagogic right-wing group working on abolishing Germany’s established political system. Most of the East German party base wants the latter, but many in the West German AfD, as well as the narrow majority of the national presidency, want AfD to become a coalition partner of CDU. There is a power struggle between the two camps, fought using ugly means at times. This is further exacerbated by the fact that parties are trying to use state defense agencies to dissuade as many decent people as possible from participating in AfD. Under such circumstances, of course, the “fundamentalists” of AfD only further solidify — making the goal of the “realists” seem unattainable.

Which leading personalities represent the two wings of AfD?

Currently, Jörg Meuthen represents the realist wing of the party, and nobody has emerged in the fundamentalist wing as a leader. Björn Höcke’s policy has expired, Andreas Kalbitz has been expelled from the party, Alexander Gauland is too old, Alice Weidel is maneuvering, and Beatrix von Storch does not have enough influence. However, the fundamentalist wing does relatively well within the AfD with its indefinite tendency toward outrage and solidarity and thus cannot be targeted by the realist camp.

Let’s suppose that a CDU-Greens coalition is formed in Germany in 2021. How should Hungary relate to such a government? What can Hungary expect from them? Will there necessarily be a deterioration of relations?

There is no reason to assume that a black-green German government will seek to improve German-Hungarian relations. In the alliance with the Greens, the ideological rejection of Orbán and Fidesz will not lessen. The best the Hungarian government can do in such a situation is to ensure its policies remain sober, accountable and governed by the rule of law; it should tolerate unjust accusations rather than behave in a way that justifies those accusations. One finds this attitude difficult when they think they are doing the right thing. However, a position that can be well defended in terms of content must be represented prudently, carefully, in moderation and with soberness — especially when it encounters malicious criticism.


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