In the shadow of the Brexit referendum, leaders of Germany's conservative parties are gathering for a 'quiet weekend' of meetings. They hope to finally lay to rest their energy-sapping in-fighting over refugees.
For more than a year now, Christian Democratic sister parties, CDU and CSU have been publicly fighting over a number of political issues - not only, but most boisterously, over the issue of refugee policy.
The good news first: The fight has meanwhile moved beyond the stage of paralysis. Recently, the parties reached agreement with each other, as well as with their coalition partner in Berlin, - the SPD - on a number of other important and long discussed issues: like how to promote renewable energy, and how to design the inheritance tax in such a way that the judges on Germany's Constitutional Court could not once again knock it down. Nevertheless, over the weekend, the CDU and CSU will meet in peaceful Potsdam outside Berlin to hold a kind of "pow-wow" to patch up the broken china. But the focus will not only be on finding inner-union harmony: Both parties are also very worried about their respective futures.
Note to the people's parties
If one looks around at other countries throughout Europe, it is clear that the classic, broad-based, social democratic and conservative party models are losing their decades-long grip on power. Those parties are being challenged by populists to their right and to their left.
Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) is in free-fall in a number of states, and is barely winning double-digit percentages of the vote. Its national popularity rating of less than 20 percent is an all-time low for the party. Are the Union sister parties in danger of a similar fate? The rightwing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) currently has a 15 percent favorability rating - and AfD's gains are coming at the expense of the other parties - both left and right.
The CDU currently has a favorability rating of around 30 percent, that is ten points less than it was in the parliamentary elections of September 2013.
The Bavarian CSU party's 40 percent approval rating looks better - but only on paper - because expectations are generally much higher there. The CSU always aims to win an absolute majority in Bavaria so that it has no need of coalition partners and can rule on its own.
The Christian Democrats say that, only then, can they have a real voice on federal political issues. CSU boss Horst Seehofer says that he does not want to have to talk to a "third person" before he steps into the Chancellor's Office. The most frequently used image to accompany that statement is the lion in the Bavarian coat of arms - powerfully and impressively roaring at Berlin - that is the self image of the CSU.
Christian Social threat
There is aways a touch of tactical political calculus in such publicly conducted party fights. Because the public stage allows one to emphasize one's own profile. So a bit of fighting is always welcome. Yet, there is a fine line dividing such behavior from outright destructiveness. Too much fighting does not sit well with German voters, they prefer consensus.
The latest tussle between the CDU and CSU was just such a case. It got out of hand. But why? The CDU and CSU have fundamentally different opinions in questions regarding asylum and refugee policy. CDU leader and German Chancellor Angela Merkel looked for a European solution to the problem of redistributing those people in need of protection for months.
The CSU leadership was principally in agreement, but was irked by the fact that no European agreement could be reached on the issue of distribution quotas for new arrivals. Their suggestion: shutting the borders should supplement the European plan. The chancellor would hear nothing of the sort. So the CSU boss turned up the heat. His threats ran the gamut from a compulsory limit on the number of asylum seekers to be accepted, and lodging a complaint at the Constitutional Court, to threatening to withdraw from the joint parliamentary relationship with the CDU in the federal government. The latter is the CSU's biggest weapon. The Christian Democrats have used it only once, for a few weeks in 1976. After that, peace was made and the CSU received much more attention in the seat of government at the time in Bonn.
Pulling together before parliamentary elections
Ultimately, it was the Austrian government that provided a relaxation in relations within the Union. After Vienna successfully sealed the Balkan route by instating its own upper limits, very few refugees arrived in Germany.
But the fight has left scars. More than anything, Seehofer's public chiding of Merkel as he stood next to her on stage during a CSU party convention, will go into the annals of party history. Many CDU members held that against him, even those who were in agreement with his stance on the refugee issue. The rivals now want to come together in Potsdam to look toward the future - for a "nice weekend," as CSU's parliamentary leader Gerda Hasselfeldt described the atmosphere to the press corps.
Dealing with the past is not on the agenda. "We want to come together and get people excited about our policies," added CSU General Secretary Andreas Scheuer. His counterpart, CDU General Secretary Peter Tauber listed the major topics to be addressed: Europe, competitiveness, innovation, digitalization, societal cohesion and migration. Party leaders seek to come up with shared positions on these topics.
The Union has to come together. Parliamentary elections will be held in a little over a year. In the heat of the fight, the CSU threatened to campaign on a separate election program. No one is talking about that threat now in the days prior to the Potsdam meeting.
More importantly perhaps, will be discussions about how to deal with the Green party. The CDU wants to keep the option of a coalition with the Greens open for 2017. In the CSU there are massive doubts about such a cooperation. There are, for instance, major differences of opinion between the CSU and the Greens in the federal government on the issue of asylum policy, because the latter are propagating a more or less wide-open "welcome culture." The issue, in any case, has not lost any of its explosive potential.