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What is conservative?

The return of conservatism in Europe? Self-reflections and new perspectives

I. Who wants to be conservative?
Conservative is a mixed blessing when used for political self identification. In some countries „conservative“ features in the official party name and has been employed successfully for many decades like in the United Kingdom or in some of the Nordic countries. In other settings the term rather serves to attack and discredit the political opponent.

Some of the attempts to fill the idea of Conservatism with political content have ended rather painfully. In Germany inner party opponents to Chancellor Merkel linked conservatism to the reintroduction of either nuclear energy or a conscripts army. Whatever the precise merits of those might be, both proposals linked conservatism to the reintroduction of a past that had been shelved and overcome.

On the other hand it is undeniable that conservatism besides Christian democracy, liberalism and socialism forms one of the major traditions of political thinking that shapes political competition and discourse still today. And undeniably conservatism forms an essential component of the tradition and current thinking in modern Centre-right political formations, closely intertwined with Christian-democrat and liberal concepts.

So how can conservatism usefully be reconstructed under the conditions of the 21st century?

II. Reconstructing modern conservatism
Elaborating a modern idea of conservatism cannot avoid a decision: What do we want to preserve and what not?

We are not asking this question in 1945, but in 2023. We are living in a political system largely established by Christian Democrat and Conservative parties after the Second World War often against the will of political competitors and now in place for three quarters of a century and overwhelmingly supported by the citizens.

Therefore a first answer should be: The system created after 1945. This entails the responsibility to defend the open society against its enemies both inside and outside the Union: Parliamentary Democracy, Human Rights, Rule of Law, Pluralism and integration into the European Union, the democratic Union of Citizens and States that replaced Empire as the lead organizational principle on the continent.

It is conservative to believe that there is wisdom in the existing institutions build over time on the experience of so many. This implies a double no: Neither revolutionary jump forward, nor reactionary roll-back. And the experience, that not every change is necessarily progress.

III. Where is then progress coming from?
Within the given system a permanent process of conciliating the seemingly opposed under changed external conditions has to take place. Regulatory ideas help to rebalance and thus preserve the legitimacy of the system:
• Personalism: find the balance between individual freedom and responsibility towards the community
• Social Market Economy: find the balance between protection and efficiency
• Federalism: find the balance between the different levels of the political system based on subsidiarity and proportionality
• People’s Party: find the balance between different segments of society and age groups

These regulatory ideas form the essence of the Christian Democrat tradition. They do not advocate fixed solutions independently of time and space, but an obligation to debate and decide with all society involved and in mind.

All these regulatory ideas try to make our democratic societies future-proof. In another word: sustainable.

Sustainability has to be the essence of conservative and christian-democrat politics.

The willingness to preserve the system through permanent adaptation following regulatory ideas of balance establishes sustainability as the key conservative target. Reforms are conducted to conciliate the present and the future, give the future a voice today. Any political program must therefore assure the sustainability of the system through reforms.

IV. What is not sustainable?
Sustainability of the system is lost when major risks are not addressed or major opportunities missed. It is urgent to address the 7 D’s:

Defence: how can we conventionally defend ourselves in the European Union with the US focus shifting to Asia because of China?
Demography: how can we keep competitiveness and innovation in rapidly aging societies?
Democracy: how to avoid hollowing out of democratic decision-making by executives nationally and in the European Union?
Digital: how to create an efficient public administration?
Debt: how to revert to sustainable public and private debt?
De-carbonisation: how to stop global warming and at the same time preserve energy security and competitiveness?
De-globalisation: how to protect against totalitarian regimes through open strategic autonomy?

V. How to understand the political spectrum to the right of the EPP?
The political space to the right of the EPP follows political logic and can be understood as a challenge to the established system post 1945 from the basis of pre 1945 concepts. The essence therefore is not to conserve. Past thinking is reactivated that dates essentially from the inter war period between the First and Second World Wars. The heroes come from the authoritarian Right: Pilsudski, Horthy, Franco, Mussolini and intellectually Carl Schmitt.

The systematic reduction of checks and balances within the democratic system as happening both in Poland and in Hungary is therefore not accidental, but in that logic. The lead ideas are Authoritarianism and Nationalism, not shared sovereignty.

The fundamental division of that space is basically between pro American and pro Russian foreign policy orientations. There are now first indications that this division might be overcome following the ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine. Putinism is no longer a sellable political option in Europe.

VI. But Change is possible
The stability of political systems depends on the capacity to integrate towards the centre and transform anti-system forces into critical, but constructive players. This is true on both sides of the political spectrum.

Syriza in Greece has successfully transformed from a fringe party on the very left to become the alternative party of government, thus stabilizing the political system. It would nowadays have chances to be admitted into the mainstream center-left S+D political group in the European Parliament.

Thirty years ago Allianza Popular successfully transformed into Partido Popular and became one of the main pillars of the EPP. The first months in government of Prime Minister Meloni indicate that she might wish to decisively move towards more centrist positions as well.

On the other hand a move into the opposite direction has equally been experienced and finally produced a major shock to the European Union. The British Conservative party developed from a one nation Conservative Party under Prime Minister John Major towards nostalgic revival of empire thinking under the heading of „Global Britain“, with the disastrous consequences of Brexit that are now experienced by the British people and especially the most vulnerable.

VII. Is conservatism returning in Europe?
Not really. Anti-system parties are strengthened especially on the right, but not only. Their program is Social Nationalism. The promise of protection through closure and the rejection of the Open Society. In France the political system of alternation between moderate forces of the center-right and the center-left is already destroyed.

The European Union will have to prove that it is not only a liberalization project, but can protect as well under the conditions of an Open Society. The effective management of both Covid and the support of Ukraine against the Russian invasion are encouraging signs showing that we are on the way to create the necessary complementary executive capacity for the European Union.

Klaus Welle
Member Academic Council Martens Centre
Visiting Professor KU Leuven and Guest Professor in Practice LSE
Former Secretary General of the European Parliament (2009 - 2022)

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