The Christian Social Union (CSU), Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), are having their annual post-Christmas retreat this week. And it’s a chance to reboot the party after a pretty unsatisfactory year.
Party chairman and Bavarian premier, Horst Seehofer, and Gerda Hasselfeldt, the CSU parliamentary leader, will welcome prominent guests at the Wildbad Kreuth resort in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. Günther Oettinger, the European Union Commissioner for Digital Economy and Security, is on the guest list for the annual meeting that begins on Wednesday, as are NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Hans Peter Wollseifer, president of the German Confederation of Skilled Crafts.
After a botched first year in government, where the party's reputation was battered by the embarrasing resignation of one of its ministers, and an unpopular stance over road tolls, the CSU aims to recharge its batteries in Kreuth.
And Mr. Seehofer's annoucement on the eve of the gathering, in an interview with Die Welt, that he does not intend to stand again for premier when Bavaria holds regional elections in 2018 will undoubtedly help the party in its quest to find a new direction. The 65-year-old had previously avoided clarifying his plans for the next state election. Leading party members will likely now begin to vie for the party leadership with Bavarian finance minister, Markus Söder, and economics minister, Ilse Aigner, already being touted as possible candidates.
As for this week's meeting near Lake Tegernsee, under clear skies and against a background of snow-clad mountains, party leaders hope it will allow them to finally leave behind the CSU's annus horriblis. The then agriculture minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, stepped down in February after telling a fellow politician about a child porn investigation into SPD parliamentarian Sebastian Edathy. The party also lost support after pushing for a road toll on foreign drivers traveling through Germany.
"We want to be an initiator for national policy," Ms. Hasselfeldt told Handelsblatt. "And we don't need that to be based on a catchy phrase every year."
We are interested in more investment and less bureaucracy. Gerda Hasselfeldt, CSU Parliamentary Leader
The CSU is taking a more restrained approach this year. It's slogan “Those who cheat are out,” in response to supposed abuses of the German social welfare system by immigrants, was popular in 2014, but now, against the background of the anti-Islam protests in Dresden and other cities, it appears reactionary. The CSU leadership now insists all it was doing was advocating shorter procedures to help refugees.
And Mr. Seehofer has also adopted a more nuanced stance on the debate over excluding Greece from the euro zone. In 2012, Alexander Dobrindt,the federal transport and digital infrastructure minister who was then the party general secretary, had openly called for a “Grexit,” a position the CSU now shies away from.
The CSU is also trying to score points in economic policy by rejecting additional tax increases and charges. "We are interested in more investment and less bureaucracy," said Ms. Hasselfeldt.
The CSU now supports the planned free trade agreements with the United States and Canada. While it was still cautious about TTIP and its Canadian counterpart at its party convention last December, the party now says that the agreements are "of critical importance for foreign trade." Christian Schmidt, the federal agriculture minister and a CSU member, has also downplayed his earlier remarks that the agreement would wipe out regional products like “original Nuremberg Bratwurst sausages.” He now says that his words were merely meant as a criticism of Brussels bureaucracy.
The CSU is still trying to distance itself a little from the two major parties, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union.
For instance, it wants "a large portion" of the €10 billion ($12 billion) in new spending proposed by Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble to be funneled into investments for transportation and expanding broadband networks – and therefore into the budget of Mr. Dobrindt. That would leave little over for Sigmar Gabriel, SPD leader and economy minister, who is eyeing the funds for the country's transition to green energy known as the Energiewende.
And the CSU wants to begin eliminating so-called “cold progression” in the tax system, whereby people move into a higher tax bracket if their wages rise, by as early as 2017 – against the will of Chancellor Merkel.
We need more than announcements and promises. David Bendels, Conservative Awakening group
The CSU also wants to make it easier for banks and insurance companies to become involved in road construction projects. Mr. Dobrindt has already filed 11 projects with the European Commission in which he aims to award contracts for highway construction and operation to private companies. The SPD and the opposition, however, are opposed to public-private partnership projects.
The economic liberals within the CSU, who are part of a group called "Conservative Awakening," are pleased that the party is clarifying its position. "But we need more than announcements and promises," says group co-founder David Bendels, who claims to have the backing of 5,000 dissatisfied party members. Parliamentary group chair Ms. Hasselfeldt remains optimistic, saying that the proposals that are to be discussed in Kreuth "make sense," and points out the fact that the party did have some successes last year. After all, she says, measures were introduced to fight abuses of the social welfare system.
Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt's Berlin office. Siobhán Dowling, an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition, contributed to this article. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected].