The CDU leadership has gathered on a stage in Berlin’s Konrad Adenauer House, and party leader Friedrich Merz has said a few words about the Union’s success in the European elections – then EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) is connected from Brussels. Congratulations go back and forth. Then Merz says humorously to von der Leyen: “I warmly congratulate you on the success we have achieved together.”

The message: The election result, the increasingly likely re-election of the Commission President, is a joint effort. And the driving force behind this is the CDU, Berlin – he, Friedrich Merz.

The CDU has become by far the strongest political force in the European elections in Germany. According to projections by ARD and ZDF, the Union came in first place, receiving almost as many votes as the SPD, Greens and FDP combined. The result is strikingly similar to the opinion polls for the upcoming federal election: the Union is always at around 30 percent; the Union parties often receive almost as many votes as the traffic light parties combined. The forecasts have been constant for months; they are no longer a snapshot, no outlier. This is a trend, one that has become established.

And while the SPD tried to limit the damage, and party co-leader Saskia Esken even went so far as to defend Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) in his position, Friedrich Merz was unusually mild. Of course, the election result was “a disaster” for Scholz and his coalition. Of course, the election result “must really give this federal government something to think about now.” It was a “final warning” for the traffic light parties. “It cannot go on like this.” Merz left it at that.

He left it to other Christian Democrats to demand Scholz’s head. General Secretary Carsten Linnemann called on the Chancellor to put the vote of confidence in light of the SPD’s losses in the European elections. In view of the “paltry 14 percent,” Scholz must ask himself whether he is really making politics for the people, Linnemann said on ZDF. Union parliamentary group vice-chairman Jens Spahn also suggested that the Chancellor put the vote of confidence because: “The traffic light coalition has once again been voted out.”

There are two reasons for Friedrich Merz’s reticence. Firstly, he has switched from being an attacker and opposition leader who is taking on the government to statesman mode. “Anyone who is twice as strong as the governing party does not need to constantly attack,” the party says. Merz is working on his image as a possible future head of government – and Germans do not like chancellors who are looking for trouble, but rather a policy of a steady hand.

Secondly, the Union’s result is a clear victory, but not a triumph for Merz. The CDU’s target for this European election was 30 to 32 percent, in any case more than the disappointing 28.9 percent in the 2014 election. The most optimistic in the party hoped for up to 35 percent, i.e. up to five points more than most forecasts predicted. The Union clearly missed that.

It remained at the lower end of its target, only slightly exceeding the result of the previous European elections. And that was already a massive setback compared to the 2009 election. The result can be interpreted in different ways. The Union is by far the strongest force, the result is a success. That is how Merz’s colleagues are selling it.

But one could also say that it was once again not possible to break through the 30 percent mark and that the Union is at the lower end of what was hoped for. That is how it will be interpreted by those who are not fully in line with the party leader. Depending on which interpretation prevails, this will weaken Friedrich Merz or stabilize him.

One thing is certain: the CDU and CSU seem to be frozen at the 30 percent mark. The traffic light coalition is dragging itself from one crisis to the next, but the Union is not profiting from it. The AfD is doing that – as it did in these European elections. And almost all influential Christian Democrats have an opinion on the percentage mark in question: that is not enough – the CDU and CSU are not where they should be. The question will arise as to why the magic wall cannot be broken through. And this question will be directed at Friedrich Merz at some point.

During the election campaign, the Union parties relied heavily on Merz personally as a figurehead. Even though he was not running for the European Parliament, he was the face of the campaign on central posters alongside von der Leyen. The European agenda was strongly influenced by him. During her first term as Commission President from the end of 2019, von der Leyen placed great emphasis on environmental and climate protection, the “Green Deal”. It was Merz who set von der Leyen a new agenda for a prospective second term that focuses on economic development. The result of the European elections is largely down to him.

And not everyone was trying to avoid confusion on election day. The polling stations had barely closed when NRW Prime Minister Hendrik Wüst (CDU) spoke up and said he was not ruling out applying to be the Union’s candidate for chancellor. “I think the question is open, otherwise we would have decided. And as long as it is not decided, it is open,” said Wüst in the ARD program “Konfrontation: Markus Feldenkirchen trifft Hendrik Wüst,” which will be shown on Monday. He currently sees “more like five than ten” potential Union chancellor candidates.

The debate about who would run for chancellor for the Union in the upcoming federal election had actually died down after some controversy. Wüst and his Bavarian counterpart Markus Söder (CSU) had at least officially put their ambitions on hold. Merz had been considered a given for weeks. And now this violation by Wüst.

Now the official party reaction to Wüst’s contribution will be that it is once again the media that is pouring water on the election party wine and reopening the can of worms. But it is Hendrik Wüst who is doing this – unnecessarily, but at a controversial time. The same state premier who invited people to a party in the NRW state representation in Berlin on Tuesday, one of the most important political social events of the summer in the capital, which Merz did not attend. Due to other commitments. That is why Scholz was there, Esken, head of the chancellery Wolfgang Schmidt and other top Social Democrats. Is there something brewing behind the scenes in the CDU/CSU again?

Wüst is not only ambitious, but also a strategist. Almost exactly a year ago, he formulated his vision for the CDU in a guest article for the “FAZ”. He presented himself as a centrist politician in the tradition of Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel. The text was published in such a way – deliberately timed – that it determined a small party conference in Berlin. In the CDU, it was seen as a clear challenge to Merz. It will take months to at least partially repair the relationship between the two CDU grandees. And now, in keeping with the less than brilliant outcome of the European elections, Wüst is putting the K question back on the agenda. It is doubtful that this is a coincidence.

For Friedrich Merz, it is not just a question of who will be the candidate for chancellor, but also of his authority as party leader. It will be interesting to see how the State Chancellery in Munich will follow developments in the sister party.

CSU leader Söder has made so many declarations of renunciation on the K question that one could almost believe his reticence. But no one senses political weakness as early and sensitively as the Franconian. He will not have forgotten the story in the “Spiegel” about Merz. In it, Söder was portrayed as a participant in video conferences who eats like a Cookie Monster, something only Merz’s people could have said. And he probably has not lost his instinct for power.

According to a projection by Bayerischer Rundfunk, the CSU emerged as the winner of the European elections in Bavaria by a wide margin – and performed much better than the CDU in the other federal states. This strengthens Söder. And he will want to use this at some point. Possibly against Friedrich Merz.