Four years after the populist ruptures of 2016 – the vote to leave the EU in the UK and Donald Trump’s election in the US – the academic literature and public debate are in broad agreement that a combination of cultural discontent, economic grievances and deficiencies of political representation lies behind the rise of populism. But as these factors have been overanalyzed, it is easy to forget that not all of them were present at the time of these populist successes.
By most indicators, by 2016 the American economy had fully rebounded from the economic recession. Similarly, while benefiting from the single market, the UK remained outside of arrangements like the Eurozone and Schengen it saw as burdensome. Hence, British elites could plausibly claim that the UK was enjoying the best of both worlds from EU membership. Yet it was this beneficial arrangement that a majority of British voters rejected.
The lesson from 2016, we now know, is that conventional indicators of economic prosperity and national interest that elites deploy to measure their achievements fail to capture all the grievances of western societies. This is an ominous realization for Europe’s biggest power and economy, Germany, as it now enters a period of sustained political crisis and stalemate.
The latest episode in the story of German political crisis is the resignation of the leader of the ruling CDU party, Annegret Kramp-Karenbauer, after the CDU branch in the eastern state of Thuringia voted with the far right AfD in the local parliament to elect a new state president. This violated CDU’s pledge – upheld most notably by Kramp-Karenbauer’s mentor, Chancellor Angela Merkel – not to cooperate with the AfD. Despite her denunciation of the vote, Kramp-Karenbauer’s handling compounded concerns with her leadership, resulting in her resignation.
As the CDU is now again electing its new leader, the ongoing crisis of Germany’s main parties comes into even starker relief. In recent years it was common to focus on the woes of the social-democratic SPD, the partner of Merkel’s CDU in government. In recent years the SPD suffered catastrophic results in regional and national elections and numerous leadership changes. Yet the Thuringia episode shows that the crisis of mainstream politics now fully engulfs the CDU as well.
The Thuringia episode shows that the crisis of mainstream politics now fully engulfs the CDU as well.
Much like the US and UK in 2016 however, German elites would be excused for finding discontent perplexing. In the last decade Germany successfully handled EU crises to its benefit while avoiding most sacrifices expected from it as the bloc’s leading economic and political power. In the Eurozone crisis, Germany sustained the common currency by offloading the costs of adjustment on debtor states while avoiding any measures that it would have to finance like pooled debt or a Eurozone budget.
In the refugee crisis, after the explosion of arrivals in 2015, Germany appears sheltered as a series of agreements has confined the problem of migratory flows to the frontline Mediterranean states. All this time, Germany prevaricated on calls to assume bigger responsibilities in defense and security. In effect, Germany may be seen to draw on the benefits of the ‘international liberal order’ while freeriding on the defense commitments of the US, NATO and EU partners like France.
Not unlike the UK in 2016 then, Germany seems to be enjoying the best of both worlds: a position of primacy in European affairs that serves all its national interests – political, economic and security – with most of the costs shouldered by Germany’s partners. And yet, in precisely this moment of unrivalled primacy, Germany’s society appears more restless than ever.
Yet, in precisely this moment of unrivalled primacy, Germany’s society appears more restless than ever.
The assault on the German political and economic consensus comes from two sides. On the right, the AfD expresses cultural discontent with multiculturalism and immigration. AfD strength lies particularly in places like Thuringia, states in eastern Germany with a post-communist legacy of economic malaise that feel ‘left behind’ as economic benefits flow elsewhere.
The assault from the left comes from the cosmopolitan urban youth and focuses on environmental issues like climate change. In the past Merkel had astutely moved her economically liberal party to the centre on such issues, like when she agreed to a gradual phasing out of nuclear power in 2011. But the intensity of environmental demands in light of the climate crisis is now much bigger, and the young are frustrated with the gradualism of the CDU and SPD – parties with deep ties with the management and trade unions of the powerful car industry.
On the face of it, AfD’s nativism and the cosmopolitan universalism of the climate movement share very little. Yet they express a shared desire among vast parts of German society – left and right, young and old, West and East – to see the state curb the excesses of globalization. Whether it is limiting immigration or putting a break on environmentally harmful economic growth, both nativists and cosmopolitans understand prosperity, security and the national interest in radically different ways from political and economic elites.
They express a shared desire among vast parts of German society – left and right, young and old, West and East – to see the state curb the excesses of globalization.
The analogy with the UK and the US in 2016 is striking. Much like their British and American counterparts, German elites are blind to the grievances created domestically by Germany’s course towards European hegemony: the growing economic gap between West and East, the challenges of multiculturalism, the rising cost of living in big cities for the young, and the precarity of employment in sectors outside the export-oriented industries that enjoy privileged access to Germany’s two main parties. These trends are not captured in the measures of ‘success’ – growth, employment, Germany’s hegemony of the EU – that elites like to talk about.
A bulwark no longer
Of course, it is inconceivable that Germany would ever consider leaving the EU, like the UK did. For historical and institutional reasons, it is also very unlikely that Germany will ever elect as its chancellor an avowed populist like Donald Trump. Rather, Germany is now entering a period of party system fragmentation, electoral volatility, unstable coalition governments and social polarization, all features of the politics of most other European countries.
For the last ten years, German elites successfully used EU membership to accrue political and economic benefits while offloading costs to Germany’s partners and avoiding the responsibilities and costs of European leadership. The irony is that the success of this strategy has now engendered the kind of divides inside Germany that it had forced upon most of the rest of the EU. After years of appearing like a bulwark of stability, German politics finally come to resemble the messy reality of post-2016 Anglo-Saxon democracies.