‘They Would Never Have Agreed with Viktor Orbán’ – What Are Real Christian Democrats Like?

Author: Krisztián B. SIMON Original title: „Soha nem értettek volna egyet Orbán Viktorral” – Milyenek az igazi kereszténydemokraták?
Publication: hvg.hu , Photo: MTI-Zsolt SZIGETVÁRY Date: 06:30 18/09/2015

‘They Would Never Have Agreed with Viktor Orbán’ – What Are Real Christian Democrats Like? 

Why is it unacceptable to a German Christian democrat that Viktor Orbán is a fan of China and Russia and is attacking the EU on a nationalist platform? Why is Angela Merkel so accepting of refugees? An interview with historian and political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, professor at Princeton University in the US, about the largest populist party in post-war Europe, European integration, and the relationship between illiberalism and Christian Democracy.

hvg.hu: What makes a party Christian Democrat?

Jan-Werner Müller: In the 20th century Christian Democrats were located at the centre of the political spectrum and frequently played the role of mediator between the left and the right and different groups of society. Political plurality, an organic view of society (with the family at its heart) and solidarity between different social groups including harmony between capitalists and the working class were always important to them.

They saw themselves as anti-liberal, because they rejected materialism and individualism, which they thought were the main characteristics of liberalism. But they rejected nationalism and traditional conservatism as well. The secret of their success in post WW2 Western Europe was being the most prominent ant-communist party during the cold war, when the traditional right had been rendered unacceptable by fascism.

Their position was also strengthened by a general yearning for strong moral foundations after the political catastrophes of the mid-20th century and this led to a Christian revival. Because of these factors, Christian Democrats played an extremely important role in rebuilding post-war Europe and progressing European integration during the 1940s and 1950s.

hvg.hu: You say they considered themselves anti-liberals. So if that’s how Christian Democrats saw themselves, why is everyone upset these days by Viktor Orbán building an illiberal democracy? Why can’t Orbán simply say his illiberal democracy is just a return to Christian Democrat roots?

J-W. M.: This is a very important question. The Christian democrat version of anti-liberalism wasn’t aimed at political institutions: after the middle of the 20th century Christian democrats, being pluralists and opposing excessive concentration of power, were unequivocally supporting human rights and democracy, with a special emphasis on checks and balances. They also rejected the authoritarian political Catholicism of Franco and his like.

For them, being anti-liberal meant a particular approach to the philosophical roots of liberal democracy: they were trying to find a spiritual justification to liberal democracy via thought systems like personalism, which – unlike individualism – emphasizes innate spirituality. They would never have agreed with Viktor Orbán’s appreciation of China and Russia and would have disapproved of the way he has centralized power during the past five years. They would also have judged him for the kind of nationalism that leads him to attack the EU.

hvg.hu: In Germany the SPD (the German Social Democratic party) is increasingly underperforming on elections, while Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is still strong enough to be called a people’s party. Why is this? Do you think they will remain this strong in the future?

J-W. M.: Christian Democracy is in decline, this is quite obvious in Europe judging by countries like the Netherlands or Italy where they used to be much stronger or where they had spent more time in government than in Germany. In 2009 the CDU, too, achieved its weakest election result in history. I think the elections four years later were exceptional – the victory had more to do with the person of Angela Merkel than the party’s appeal. Also, let’s not forget that, if the SPD decided to enter into coalition with the other left wing parties in the Bundestag (the radical left’s Die Linke and the greens – the editor), which is possible in principle, the CDU would be out of government. This also exemplifies that Christian Democrats are not as essential a component in politics as they were during the cold war.

hvg.hu: Sheri Berman, a prominent researcher of European social democracy said a few years ago that due to its Christian roots, protecting vulnerable social groups has always been important for the CDU, which combined with a liberal shift in Christian democracy might convince social democrat voters to choose them.

J-W. M.: It is true that the CDU has always displayed some left leaning thinking. This is partly due to the Catholic social doctrines formulated by the Church in the 19th century in the hope of reversing the increasing popularity of socialism. To some degree this is the reason why the British Tories, at the beginning of the 1990s after the downfall of Margaret Thatcher, briefly flirted with Christian Democracy. In the end though, they decided, that for them it was too left wing, too friendly towards Europe and too attached to an organic view of society, instead of being individualistic like the British themselves.

At the same time I think the Catholic –social component has become considerably weaker recently. In 2005 Merkel campaigned with a completely neoliberal programme, but since it was only enough to bring her slightly more votes than the social democrat share, she made the political decision of moving towards the centre. This is why she was even willing to accept introducing a minimum wage. Meanwhile in an EU context the new Christian Democrat programme is rooted in a Protestant ordo-liberalism.

By and large this is a German version of neoliberalism, which allows the state strong powers to ensure real market competition, but doesn’t support a welfare state. While earlier, during the 1940s and 50s, there was a good balance between Protestant liberalism and the much more corporatist social attitude of the Catholics, the later has completely disappeared in time from the CDU’s approach to European integration. Today ordo-liberalism is dominant. (The expression ordo-liberalism comes from the Latin word ordo (in German Ordnung: order). Orbán talks about order, too, but without being able to pair it up with liberalism which he uses as a swear word, although in regards to the functions of the state – creating a legal, technical, social, moral and cultural market framework – he agrees with ordo-liberalism – the editor.)

hvg.hu: The CDU has a sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) which in many perspectives is much more radical than Merkel’s party. When it comes to the refugee crisis, for example, Horst Seehofer Bavarian Prime Minister or Manfred Weber, the CSU delegated leader of the European People’s Party (EPP), have more sympathy with Viktor Orbán’s refugee policies. Why is the CSU more tolerant of Orbán than Merkel?

J-W. M.: Traditionally the CSU is somewhat more ‘social’ than the CDU, but it is more right wing than the CDU in moral issues or in its attitude to constitutional state. I think CSU politicians – wrongly, I’d like to emphasize – consider Orbán a model Christian democrat protecting Christian values like the sanctity of family. They have no clue that the implications of the Hungarian situation reach much further than party politics.

They think European left wings politicians are all picking on Orbán for being right wing, and not for undermining many basic European values, values which should be protected by both right and left wing democrats. I’m also frequently told by Christian democrats that they’re simply worried about losing the Fidesz votes in the European Parliament. This, however, attests to a very short-term thinking.

hvg.hu: In the European Parliament the largest faction belongs to the European People’s Party (EPP), and there are several Christian Democrat parties among the members. How much do these influence the working of the EU?

J-W. M.: As mentioned before, the original engineers of European integration are the Christian Democrats. Since the 19th century, Catholics especially have been feeling that nation states were malign forces trying to oppress them or at least question their loyalty towards the nation. This is why Christian Democrats, more than other parties, were attracted to supranational structures, overarching nations. Their main supporters – the middle classes, businessmen and farmers – tended to be among the beneficiaries of European integration.

Recently, however, Christian Democrats have become weaker and simultaneously their faith in European integration is disappearing, too. The EPP is a huge, heterogeneous group which includes many nationalists. So despite the EPP being the strongest fraction in the European Parliament and the strongest European politicians and the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council all being Christian democrats, it doesn’t feel like they are using their position to keep progressing European integration in any major way.

hvg.hu: During the past few weeks Angela Merkel appeared in the news with her decision to open the German borders to the refugees, and she replied to criticism that this was not her country if she had to start apologizing for presenting a friendly face in times of crisis. Is this kind of strong moral stance a characteristic of the Christian democrat mind-set?

J-W. M.: In order to understand the attitude towards refugees we have to start from the Christian Democrat anti-nationalism which, as mentioned, manifests itself in European integration. The European Community, however, was a mostly Christian club intended as an answer to the spreading of godless, materialistic Eastern communism. It had nothing to do with the politics of inclusion, the so called Willkommenskultur one hears about these days. In the 1990s Christian Democrat politicians even refused to accept that ‘guest workers’ would be able to stay in Germany. Leading Christian Democrats were talking about Germany not being ‘a country of immigrants’, while Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the 1980s was still planning to send back to Turkey at least half of the Turks living in the country.

German mentality has fundamentally changed since then, and so has the CDU. There’s been a change of guards in its leadership as well. One of Kohl’s sons, for example, married a woman of Turkish origin. As for the party politics aspect of the issue, Merkel can’t be indifferent to a potential coalition with the Greens. This is one of the reasons behind the shift in her energy policies (i.e. decommissioning nuclear plants – the editor) as well as in the German immigration and citizenship policies (the CDU is rumoured to be considering a new immigration law – the editor).

Jan-Werner Müller teaches political theory and history of ideologies on the Princeton Universty. He has published a number of articles about the EU, the democratic systems of the new member states and populists parties in The Guardian. In 2011 he published a book about political thought in 21st century Europe. The title of his latest book is Where Europe Ends, Hungary, Brussels and the Destiny of European Democracy.

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