There are more important reasons to worry about our future than migration

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von Hans Dembowski

What does it mean to be “conservative” today?

Germany’s Christian Democrats elected a new leader earlier this month. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer prevailed narrowly over Friedrich Merz. The opinion pages of German and international newspapers interpreted her victory as an endorsement of Angela Merkel, her predecessor and federal Chancellor, and a repudiation of a “more conservative” course. I do not find that narrative convincing. It is not clear what “conservative” is supposed to mean.

The guiding principle of conservatism is to conserve what is good and to carefully reform what needs to be reformed. That is what students of political science are taught. Conservatives are supposed to assess the merits of the existing order and diligently introduce inevitable change in ways that do not upset society. The challenges Germany’s policymakers must rise to, however, do not really fit in well with such notions.

By international standards, Germany is a very successful and stable country. Nonetheless, many Germans feel insecure and threatened. Migration is only one of many issues that cause such emotions, and certainly not the most important one. That we keep debating this topic shows that right-wing populists have been successfully scapegoating foreigners, but not that migration is what policymakers should prioritise.

There are many overarching issues that cause anxieties. The most important ones include (though not necessarily in this order):

  • climate change,
  • weakening social protection, especially lower pensions,
  • crumbling infrastructure,
  • digitalisation and
  • the future of the European Union.

Is it conservative to protect the environment or is it conservative to protect polluting industries? Is it conservative to ensure that Germany’s government-funded social insurance systems for health, old age and unemployment are properly funded or is it conservative to leave social protection to market forces? If you think that the latter is the obvious choice, please consider that Bismarck laid the foundations of Germany’s social protection system the late 19th century, and the Prussian aristocrat was certainly not a left-wing progressive. Do conservatives want good infrastructure or do they want to reduce the size of the state? By definition, digitalisation means transformative change. What is the conservative approach? What is the conservative approach to European integration? Is it to emphasise German culture and German traditions, or is it to appreciate that the EU has served German interests in a spectacular fashion? In Germany, European integration was driven by Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, two Christian Democratic leaders. Adenauer understood that, after the disaster of Nazi rule and the 2nd world war, the EU would help Germany to become an accepted partner in international affairs again. Kohl was marked by Adenauer’s vision – and he knew that Germany’s re-unification depended on good relations with our neighbours.

The inner-party contest between Kramp-Karrenbauer and Merz did not really reveal their policy choices in regard to these big issues. The sad truth is that the Social Democrats, who are part of the government coalition, but are traditionally seen as the opponents of the Christian Democrats don’t really offer coherent answers either. Both parties seem adrift. 

Merz is generally considered to be a proponent of market orthodoxy. It isn’t conservative, however, to argue that market dynamics deliver healthy results or that state intervention in markets tend to be harmful. Historically, that is the stance of market liberalism. At a time, when Germany’s leading multinationals - from Deutsche Bank to the automakers or Bayer, the chemicals giant, - are marred in controversy and scandal, it sounds a bit out of tune.

In the run-up to the Christian Democrats’ party conference, Merz argued that more Germans should buy shares in order to prosper in old age. Well, the Federal Government introduced a policy to promote private savings whilst cutting pensions soon after the turn of the millennium. The idea was that savings would deliver massive returns, and that shareholdings would be an important component. The policy is largely considered to have failed. The global financial crisis and perpetually low interest rates ever since have eroded the value of people savings. Merz didn’t seem be aware of that at all.

On the other hand, it impressed me that Merz signed a policy document regarding the future of the EU with Jürgen Habermas, a prominent left-leaning sociologist, and several former policymakers of both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. They argued that French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiatives concerning the euro, a European finance minister or the banking union deserved support. These issues are controversial within the Christian Democrats, so Merz backtracked fast. What does backtracking tell us about his conservative principles? And are the opponents of the paper really conservative?

The unravelling of the euro would be a huge and unmitigated disaster. Mustn’t conservatives do their best to reduce the risk and preserve the EU? Or is it conservative to keep insisting on austerity? Kohl did not hesitate to increase the national debt in order to facilitate German reunification. Global warming is an equally huge challenge. Shouldn’t mitigation and adaptation be the top priority today?

Germans tend to believe that Merkel did a great job of saving the European Union in the euro crisis. They tend not to know that many citizens of neighbouring countries do not agree. Many of them think that Merkel basically subordinated their countries to German interests. And no, in view of the legal travails of Deutsche Bank or VW’s diesel scandal, they do not believe that the German system of governance is setting examples that everyone should follow. 

One need not endorse those views, but one should take them into account. German policymakers need to acknowledge that important EU partners are struggling with serious crises. And yes, European affairs are an important dimension of those troubles.

  • Italy is run by a coalition of two insurgent parties, none of which takes of facts based approach to things. Both of them appreciate aggressive sloganeering, but not sober minded policy analysis.
  • France is being rocked by the yellow-vest protests. Masses of people feel left behind and marginalised. While the uprising does not have a clearly identifiable leadership and no obvious sense of direction, there can be no doubt that its activists are appalled by the kind of market orthodox policies the EU has been promoting.
  • Britain is being torn apart by the Brexit controversy.

Germany has an interest in the stability of partner countries and the reliability of its governments. The Federal Government is not responsible for what is happening in those countries, but its policies certainly have a bearing on neighbours. The EU might be in a better shape today, if the grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats had been more responsive to the needs of Paolo Gentiloni and Matteo Renzi, the two previous Italian prime ministers, as well as to the needs of Macron and his predecessor François Hollande. In both countries, governments used to incur higher debts to build infrastructure and stimulate their economies, and they did so quite successfully. By contrast, German style austerity has not made them flourish. What is conservative about watching our neighbours’ polities disintegrate?

As for Britain, Brexit would probably not have happened without the euro crisis. The point is that the referendum result reflected many Labour voters disappointment in the EU. Xenophobia mattered of course, but the Leave campaign would never have gotten even close to 50 % without the support of voters who worried about the future of the welfare state. Labour voters hate austerity. That has not changed since the 1980s, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher cut public spending. Back then, they liked the EU because it did not endorse Thatcher’s stance. To these people, the way the European Commission treated Greece looked worse than anything that Thatcher did. If you don’t believe me, check out how Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s chief economist, sees Brexit these days.

As stated above, many Germans feel anxious and angry these days. I feel deeply upset myself. Our nation is facing serious challenges, but the Federal Government does not seem to have a coherent plant. The major parties are simply muddling through. I wish they would focus on the greatest global challenge: climate change. If humankind does not get a grip on it, all other problems will only get worse.  

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