Can Europe Make It?

Germany: sleepwalking into Europe?

The much needed debate on Europe is unlikely to happen in the German run-up to the European elections. But instead, a controversy pro or against the Euro might well take place, should the new right-wing Alternative for Germany prove effective. Euro elections landscape, 2014.

Steffen Vogel
16 January 2014

Canvassers for the Alternative fur Deutschland party. Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

In the last years, Germany has sometimes given the impression of belonging to another continent. Its elites display ignorance regarding the needs of a truly united Europe. Its economy still generates some, albeit small, growth in the midst of an enduring recession elsewhere in the Eurozone. And its citizens largely buy Berlin’s economic nationalism, partly out of the feeble hope of thereby avoiding austerity at home. But with regard to the upcoming European elections, two distinct European trends also apply to Germany: many voters will most likely disregard this election as unimportant, as they have done in previous years; and the anti-European right might score well in the ballot box. The latter also provides an explanation for a third European trend, the absence of a ferocious debate on austerity in the run-up to the European elections in Germany. For the disastrous effects of spending cuts are largely ignored by both the domestic political mainstream and the self-appointed Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The characteristics of the German debate on Europe are embodied in the recent policy of the Social Democrats. The SPD started preparing its campaign for the European elections early. Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament and the leading candidate of the European Social Democrats, is a member of the SPD. As a well-known figure he was supposed to mobilize the social-democratic electorate – because, more than others, the party suffers from a low turnout at the ballots (as the last national elections made clear). Poorer voters increasingly tend to feel alienated from the political process and, on election day, stay at home instead of voting for the SPD. And that's especially the case for the European elections.

European elections generally don’t count as important events on the German political agenda. With a turnout of only about 43 percent both in 2004 and in 2009, voter participation is much lower than that in general elections.  As a result, the vote is shaped by middle-class voters who traditionally prefer the Conservatives (CDU) and, to a lesser extent, the Greens. With Schulz as their frontrunner, the SPD wanted to reverse this unfavourable trend by rejuvenating its upcoming electoral campaign.

But this battle has been lost before it ever began. After it was more or less forced into a coalition government with Angela Merkel’s CDU, the SPD can’t convincingly challenge the Chancellor's course. In the negotiations preceding the formation of the grand coalition, the party did not manage to implement even the slightest change to the way the crisis has been tackled in the last years. It possibly also didn’t try too hard. While in the last years some in the party have remained highly critical of Berlin’s austerity course, its leading figures never proposed any substantial alternative. The SPD neither promoted, for example, measures to boost integration on a European level, nor did it support suggestions like the concept of a European Marshall Plan, set up by the Confederation of German Trade Unions, the DGB. With the two main parties mostly agreeing on European matters, it will be difficult to generate a lively debate on Europe.

The two remaining opposition parties in the Bundestag will find it hard to challenge a far-reaching consensus like this. Today, Germany is self-centred and inward looking. The dominant view holds that the government’s European policy should serve German interests first and foremost as both the last government and big parts of the media have maintained over recent years. This affects the prospects of the parliamentary opposition.

The Greens traditionally favour a distinctive pro-European strategy but are riven with doubts from among their own supporters. Not everyone among their academic urban middle-class-voters is unhappy with Merkel’s policy. And in parliament the party supported the last government’s European strategy. In contrast to that, the Left party has always taken a clear oppositional stance and has called for people to turn the European Elections into a vote on austerity. But this is unlikely to happen given the absence of a broader debate on this issue. The German translation for austerity (“Austerität”) is hardly in common usage in domestic discourse. What is more, the Left’s supporters don’t always share the same vision on Europe. Some, like the party leaders, want a more democratic and more social EU, including a common approach to solving the crisis. Others, among them higher functionaries, prefer to defend national welfare states.

Indeed, the only strong debate in the run-up to the European Elections that is imaginable today will be one on the common currency. This depends on the fate of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Having scored unexpectedly well in September’s general elections, the party has yet to work out a detailed programme. So far, its leadership has expended much energy avoiding the very internal debates that are now inevitable. Heavy infighting is reported. The regional branch in the State of Hesse for example is divided into a conservative wing and a much more extreme one. The internal struggle might pose a huge problem for the AfD. In order to repeat its initial good result, it must maintain the image of a rather moderate, conservative force. The scores of voters it has attracted from the CDU and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) will move away from the AfD should it turn out to be an openly right-wing populist party, or simply one that is unable to achieve its goals.

Meanwhile, the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), obviously tries to feed the same anti-European resentment that has so far fuelled the AfD. Despite legal objections and against the will of Merkel herself, the party has called for a toll on German highways that shall be exclusively paid by foreigners, a project it is now able to pursue after it secured the Federal Ministry of Transport for a party member. Recently, the CSU started a campaign against the alleged problem of mass immigration from Bulgaria and Romania. Although not explicit, the move is clearly directed against Romani people and builds on a long tradition of racist stereotypes. Even Freedom of Movement in the EU is put into question. And the EU itself is targeted by the party. In an official paper it reads: “We need a withdrawal therapy for Commissioners with regulation-frenzy.”

The AfD might find that hard to top, at least without definitely moving to the right fringe. But the European elections could also turn out to be another triumph in the party's short history. In 2011, the Constitutional Court has ruled in favour of smaller parties, which had made a case against the threshold of five per cent in the European Elections. The Bundestag reacted to this verdict last year by lowering the threshold to three per cent, but this has been brought back to Germany’s highest court by the non-mainstream parties. While this new process is still pending, it is nevertheless clear that three per cent is not beyond the reach of some smaller parties, including the AfD. The opportunity to help a new party into parliament could even motivate some more voters to participate, and the smaller formations are clearly aiming to mobilize these voters.

This also signals the most likely outcome of the European elections in Germany. With European issues lacking on the agenda, the strongest motivation for many voters might be to give a warning to Berlin’s grand coalition. Elections that are seen as being of minor importance are often used for this purpose by the German electorate. The vote in 2009 was such a case. After the country had been governed by a grand coalition for almost four years, both ruling parties lost, especially the Conservatives. In contrast, all oppositional parties improved their results, slightly in the case of the Greens, considerably in the case of the Free Democrats and somewhere in between in the case of the Left. A similar outcome can be expected now: the CDU will remain the strongest party, followed by the Social Democrats, while the Greens and the Left should be able to increase their share of the vote. The Free Democrats will struggle hard to score well in order to stop a decline which already led them out of the Bundestag last September.

In short, the prospects for a debate on European issues that, if not touching the truly important questions, is at least lively depends on the effects of a change in electoral law and on an anti-Euro party. That’s the present state of things in Europe’s biggest economy. The country seems to be sleepwalking, and one must hope, not into disaster.

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