Tilman Kuban is the Chairman of the Young Union, the youth organisation of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and an advocate of modern conservatism. He told us what that has to do with white sneakers and how the Union intends to prepare for the future. We talked to him about the turning point in foreign and security policy, the Union’s current position and the future of mainstream political parties.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Friedrich Merz, leader of the CDU and the Union parliamentary group, have spoken about a turning point in foreign and security policy. What does this mean for Germany?

When Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia in 2008 and easily occupied Crimea in 2014, the response from the West was inadequate, to say the least. China is moving ahead with the Belt and Road Initiative and the Pacific free trade area while we talk about chlorinated chickens but take no action. For too long now, people in Germany have been comfortable in the belief that they are doing well and that economic success and prosperity are a given. Meanwhile, we have turned a blind eye to the fact that the world has changed and the balance of power has shifted. These failures cannot be simply argued away.

Do we need to be more involved in world politics?

Germany enjoys a very strong position within Europe, and Europe has the ability to be a strong foreign policy player. This was true in recent years under Angela Merkel, and I hope we will retain this strong position with the new federal government. After all, it is ultimately about setting guidelines for Europe. In other words, what matters is not the German position alone, but the question: What is Europe’s position? This requires the principle of unanimity in the European Union’s foreign policy to be dropped, for example.

The reintroduction of conscription is being discussed. For young people in particular, this raises the question of the value of peace. Do we need a year of mandatory military or civilian service?

It is easy to stand up and say that mandatory civilian service or conscription need to be brought back. The truth of the matter is that this will not end the war in Ukraine. As a young generation that has grown up in prosperity, it is right for us to look to give something back to society. We all need to recognise that there are people who have things worse than us. However, something like mandatory service can be introduced only if the young generation is also in favour of it. We cannot allow politics to be seen to be working against the interests of young people once again. The coronavirus pandemic has hardly been a glorious episode in this respect.

How is the CDU shaping its own progress, and what role is the Young Union playing in the party’s development?

The CDU is adopting a new policy programme. The Young Union is responsible for delivering new impetus and shaping a modern, contemporary conservatism. During the election campaign, we called this “sneaker conservatism”. This is the only way the CDU will be able to achieve real renewal.

What are the features of sneaker conservatism?

The CDU has to develop value- based policies and refrain from chasing bandwagons. These days, this means a unifying “and”, not the “either/or” of old. It used to be the case that you had to make your choice: market or state, one parent at home or both parents work. But that way of thinking is outdated. The underlying values are what matters. Carsten Linnemann and I have developed five pairs of terms that sum up modern conservatism.

Give us an example.

Our party stands for responsibility and solidarity. We offer solidarity with people who are unable to help themselves, but we insist that people should take care of themselves and their families first. When two people take responsibility for each other as a couple, it is not the Union’s role to make a value judgement. As conservatives, we believe it is a good thing when people stand by one another, regardless of whether they are a heterosexual or homosexual couple. Another example: We stand for freedom and pluralism. This is why we are against the nationalists and protectionists of the AfD and their isolationist fantasies. However, we are also against those on the left who believe that only one opinion should be permitted on certain topics, like driving a car, eating meat or gender-neutral language. For me, what counts in a pluralistic society is the right argument, not feeding the cycle of outrage.

And what does that have to do with white sneakers?

Sneakers stand for a modern approach, and conservatism embodies the values behind this approach. These are the values that guide us and on which people can rely, because we apply them to every new decision we make. Let me give you another example. Last year, there was a big discussion around hate speech. As a party that stands up for human dignity and the rule of law, we cannot accept women – including members of our own party – being insulted and threatened online simply because they are women, or being told not to “make such a fuss”. The Union’s position has to be that we protect the victims, not the perpetrators.

However, we Germans have become less willing to compromise in recent years. Instead, everyone is keen to assert whatever point matters to them personally.

25 percent of the national vote is not the result of a mainstream party – whether the Union or the SPD. Is the concept of mainstream political parties itself outdated?

The basic idea of a mainstream political party is to include all areas of society and reach compromises within the party that reflect the views of broad swathes of society. This is what differentiates us from single-issue parties. However, we Germans have become less willing to compromise in recent years. Instead, everyone is keen to assert whatever point matters to them personally. The fact that both of the major parties were in government for a long time has undoubtedly played a role in this. I have the feeling that the difficult times we are going through are making us more appreciative of solidarity again.

Is the CDU’s desire to consistently position itself as a mainstream party one of the reasons why the Union is no longer in government and, in particular, why it struggled to reach young voters in the most recent election?

Over recent years, we have become less successful in clearly communicating what we stand for and what a vote for the Union means in terms of specific content. Opinion polls of young voters and first-time voters illustrated what was important to them when deciding who to vote for. 50 percent of them said it was about content and thematic positioning. Some mistakes were made. For example, the Young Union warned the party about the upload filter issue at an early stage, but our concerns were not heard. With regard to “Fridays for Future”, we spent too much time worrying about when the demonstrations were taking place and not enough about why. I include myself in this criticism. And then came the coronavirus pandemic, during which we neglected the young generation altogether. In debates with the education minister and the then finance minister at the start of the pandemic, we called for assistance for students who had lost their part-time jobs. The response: Their parents can just help them out instead. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

The Young Union has campaigned to increase the number of women on the national board of the CDU. How does the Union intend to make its policies attractive to women?

The Union has nothing to hide from. We had a women as our sole party leader for 20 years. No other party has managed that. But we will also need strong young women in future. The Young Union is responsible for delivering these new candidates. During my term in office, we have almost doubled the proportion of women on the national board of the Young Union, from 23 to 41 percent. We also encouraged five young women to stand for election to the CDU national board. And they were all elected – along with two strong male candidates.

The interview was conducted by Patricia Weiss and Maximilian Kosing.

Tilman Kuban belongs to the new generation of the CDU and is seen as one of the bright hopes for the party’s reorientation. Kuban studied law and has been the Chairman of the Young Union since 2019 and a member of the German Parliament since 2021. Kuban belongs to the conservative wing of the CDU.