Bringing Europe's Leaders Together

Germany’s rising populist right cannot be ignored

The AFD’s radicalism can only be defeated if the CDU brings it into the fold of the German political system, writes Jurgen Kronig.

Many German politicians and commentators have never stopped castigating the British since the EU Referendum in June 2016. First Cameron was condemned for the “huge” mistake of calling a referendum in the first place, as if this decision came completely out of the blue. It did not: another EU referendum after the first one of 1975 was a topic since 1990 and the treaty of Maastricht. Tony Blair promised a referendum after the creation of the European Constitution. He did not have to call one because the French and Dutch nations rejected the constitution in two referenda. These are historical facts that a lot of politicians and commentators have obvious difficulties to remember.

There is also a reluctance to accept that the EU and Angela Merkel did contribute to the unexpected and unwelcome outcome of the UK referendum in 2016. Brussels was not prepared to give anything substantial to David Cameron when he tried to win concessions on the issue of freedom of movement and, more importantly, Merkel’s ill-advised invitation to millions of Syrians helped to further increase the already existing unease in Britain as in other European countries about immigration.

A large portion of Germany’s political and media class has never fully understood why the British did not share their determined enthusiasm for the idea of an “ever closer union” or why the idea of the nation state was not as obsolete as they prefer to suggest. Nor have they forgiven the British their perceived awkwardness if not deliberate manoeuvres to undermine the drive towards European integration. But one should always be careful not to gloat too early or throw stones while sitting in a glass house. Theresa May might not be a strong Prime Minister but for the time being she is leading relatively stable government.

In Germany however, there is still no government nearly four month after the last elections, and the new talks about that are beginning between Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, their old coalition partner, might very well end in utter failure. The SPD does not want a repetition of the grand coalition as they fear the slow death of their party. Martin Schulz may have been an unusually hapless SPD leader but his rejection of a return into government with Merkel was the right decision because it would be a “coalition of losers”, with a combined loss of approximately 13%.

But after Merkel failed to form a coalition with the Green party and the Liberals, the only option left is another grand coalition. And the Social Democrats, under pressure from the whole German establishment including President Steinmeier, gave in to a new round of talks which has now begun.

Whatever happens, whatever the outcome, this is the beginning of the end for the reign of the once all conquering German chancellor. It is Merkel’s last effort to save her position and reputation but these negotiations will most likely deliver further evidence for the old wisdom that “all political careers end in failure”. The sometimes lauded, often feared new European “hegemon” is proving to have feet of clay.

Merkel was once able to form stable coalition governments with first the Liberals and then with the SPD because she instinctively recognised that her own party had to move to the left because this is where the German electorate had moved to. But 2015 was a turning point – not only for Merkel herself but for Germany too. The AFD, a right-wing party defined originally by its rejection of the Euro and now mainly seen as an anti-immigrant party deeply worried about radical Islam, is including some uncouth, nasty neo-Nazis but has become the third biggest party in the Bundestag. It is not possible any longer to form coalitions with the help of left-leaning or green parties. The national mood has changed.

The option that remains for the Christian Democrats is far from attractive but may prove over time to be the only realistic one. Parties of the centre right like the CDU or the centre left, like the SPD, have always had the responsibility to bring more radical elements into the political system and to ‘civilise’ them.

The SPD did this in the decades after the student revolt of 1968, acting decisively against terrorist groups growing out of the hard left to form successful coalition governments, for instance under Gerhard Schröder, with former communists and green anarchists. Joschka Fischer, a street-fighter, became a respected Foreign Minister.

Similar political work is now required from the CDU. In the long run there is no alternative. The populist right can only be defeated if centrist parties change their politics and adopt measures which are appealing to voters, or try to bring new parties like the AFD – at present the “untouchables” of German politics – into the fold of the political system.

It is a sign of the times that the CSU, the Bavarian “sister party” of Merkel’s CDU provocatively invited Victor Orban as guest of honour to their traditional Congress at the beginning of the New Year. The Hungarian Prime Minister is Merkel’s bête noire, a bitter opponent of her refugee politics who refuses to share the burden of accepting immigrants to settle in his country. The CSU and parts of the CDU are demanding a tougher approach too. Voters in Germany are deeply worried about immigration, dramatically rising crime and the long term problems and costs of integrating millions of migrants.

In the long run, it is perhaps even conceivable that the AFD would be part of a coalition government as the Austrian Conservatives have already demonstrated.

Not a very palatable option, I admit, but not impossible as the period after the turmoil of the seventies in Germany showed. This time it is the task of the centre right to begin this difficult and risky approach. And it will be a task that demands a new leadership and another Chancellor, untainted by the mistakes that will, I am afraid, in the end dominate in the judgment of historians vis-à-vis the Merkel years.

Jürgen Krönig is a publicist and commentator for German, Swiss and British media and former UK  Editor of the German weekly Die Zeit.

Published in January 2018