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Jeroen Bult: Germany and the EU: uncertainty ahead

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«The populist Spring has turned into a European Spring», Frans Timmermans, the Vice-President and leading intellectual of the European Commission, recently said in an interview on Dutch TV. A most premature conclusion, as the outcome of last Sunday’s Bundestag elections in Germany has underscored: the rightwing-populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) received 12.6 percent of the votes, thus causing a political and psychological landslide in post-War Germany.

Timmerman’s lofty statement was premature anyhow. Emmanuel Macron won the French Presidential elections in May, yet his victory was far from impressive, since Marine Le Pen still received 33 percent of the votes in the second round and progressive and Gaullist voters only supported Macron reluctantly. Geert Wilders’ PVV «only» won five seats in Dutch Parliament in March, but another rightwing-populist party managed to accomplish an electoral breakthrough: the self-proclaimed Forum voor Democratie (FvD, see also next week’s edition of Sirp). The Norwegian Fremskrittspartiet (Progress Party) has lost two seats in the Storting, but it will most probably rejoin the government.

Germany, the EU’s most important member state, has not been immune to the trend of rightwing-populism, to the conviction that complex international problems can be solved by safely withdrawing behind national borders, either. One might even cynically conclude that it has finally become a normal European country. But Germany will never be a normal country, since it will always be haunted by – the moral responsibility for – the Nazi past. Prior to the elections, AfD leader Alexander Gauland expressed his exasperation about this inevitable reality in a provocative way: «If the French, quite rightly, are proud of their emperor, and the British of Nelson and Churchill, then we have the right to be proud of the German soldiers’ achievements in the two world wars.» This also indicates that rightwing-populism in German will never be «normal»: it will constantly have to refute the allegation of being nothing but vulgar neonazism-in disguise. How would the AfD’s most ardent foreign apologist, the Kremlin, feel about Herr Gauland’s glorification of the Wehrmacht, by the way?

Most likely, the peculiar way of Vergangenheitsbewältigung («coming to terms with the past») by the AfD has not been decisive in its impressive electoral performance. Other factors have been more conducive to the steady rise of the party. That the AfD thankfully exploited public discontent about the Willkommenskultur, the positive attitude of politicians and other members of «the elite» towards immigration, notably towards refugees from Syria and Iraq (in 2015), hardly needs further clarification. Many voters wanted to give utterance to their dissatisfaction with the growing welfare gap in German society, the prospect of being dependent on low-paid temporary jobs and a meagre pension. It is no coincidence that the AfD succeeded in attracting so many voters in eastern Germany, the former GDR: a persisently high unemployment rate and a gradual demolition of public services (health care, public transport) have culminated into a mood of frustration. This also explains, why a great part of the previous legion of non-voters showed up – and voted for the AfD.

Now that the AfD has entered Parliament, the CDU/CSU will be confronted with a promise that it made to itself back in the late 1940s: never a political party will be allowed to ensconce itself at the right of us. Especially Franz Josef Strauss, the legendary long-time leader of the Bavarian CSU, did not hesitate to remind sister-party the CDU of that very vow, frequently flirting with populism himself. Yet, under Angela Merkel, the CDU has moved to the centre (according to some: the centre-left) of the political spectrum; the Grosse KoalitionGroKo») with the social-democratic SPD has given the party a colorless, technocratic image, while the embrace of the Willkommenskultur caused ideological confusion among the conservative CDU/CSU adherents. In other words: the promise has been broken. Strauss will turn in his grave.

Merkel, the winner and loser of the elections, must have sensed this. During her (uninspiring) election night speech, she said that «we will have to win back those, who voted for the AfD.» However, while 980,000 voters switched from the CDU/CSU to the AfD, even more of them, 1,360,000, quit for the liberal FDP. The FDP seems to have reinvented itself, after the party remained under the election threshold in 2013, by taking a more critical stance towards immigration and European integration. Over the past months, FDP leader Christian Lindner has criticized the idea of an ever-closer eurozone, with its own Finance Minister, budget, Parliament etc. He reiterated this red line during Berliner Runde, the election night debate on German TV. Lindner has also suggested lifting the EU sanctions against Russia. Apparently, the europhilia that characterized the FDP in the days of Hans-Dietrich Genscher has evaporated.

Taking all these factors and circumstances into consideration, the conclusion that German EU policy will become less pro-active and less predictable – at least until the next elections – seems to be justified. Merkel can no longer afford to ignore the eurosceptic sentiments that are slumbering in German society, the feeling that she has paid too much attention to European (and world) politics and has neglected pivotal national issues, for the AfD will immediately try to capitalize on this, both in the Bundestag and on social media. She will have to establish the right balance.

If Merkel’s CDU/CSU will indeed form a «Jamaica» coalition with the FDP and Die Grünen (the Greens), she will probably have to spend much more time on crisis management anyway: the ideological differences are huge. Traditionally, the CSU and the Greens have been strongly allergic to each other, while some Greens already complained about the lack of interest in sustainable energy on the part of the FDP. The CSU and the fiscally conservative hawks within the CDU might use Lindner’s conversion to euroscepticism to block unwanted Macron- and Juncker-like proposals. Prior to the elections, French daily Le Monde even called the prospect of the FDP joining the new government «Macron’s nightmare.» Not to mention Merkel’s own position, which has undoubtedly been weakened by the CDU/CSU’s historic loss on 24 September (the worst result since 1949). And like no other, she knows that Die Union is a snake pit of intrigues.

From this point of view, political scientist Vello Pettai was probably right, when he said that the formation of a new GroKo would be a better option for Estonia (Aktuaalne kaamera, 25 September). There is a small chance that the GroKo scenario will be activated, if the «Jamaica» talks collapse, but, understandably, the SPD has argued that now it is her turn to reinvent herself (the SPD will most likely follow the example of the PvdA, the Dutch social-democratic party, that has stubbornly refused the join coalition talks, after it suffered an electoral blow in March).

Some consolation might be offered by the fact that the AfD has resumed its notorious internal fighting and there is no doubt that numerous of its 94 honorable MP’s will get entangled in scandals. But for the time being, this will not bring a ‘European Spring’ any closer.

Jeroen Bult is a Dutch historian and publicist, specialized in Germany and the Baltic States.

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