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Pseudo-euroscepticism: German thoughts, EU implications

Posted: May 1, 2014 at 11:08   /   by   /   comments (0)

Founded just over a year ago, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) promises Germany an alternative: a way out of the eurozone, a redefined immigration policy, and a less invasive EU.

Their rhetoric is not as rash as Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, or Nigel Farage’s Ukip in the UK—this is a party of academics. AfD leader Bernd Lucke and second in line Hans-Olaf Henkel are both professors at the University of Hamburg. Their proposals are founded in facts and arguments, they say, but their ideas make most politicians uneasy.

(Above: Rainer Erkens, campaign strategist for the Alternative für Deutschland. Photos by Michelle Pucci)

Pro-EU politicians breathed a collective sigh of relief last September, when the AfD failed to reach the 5 per cent threshold needed to enter Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. But with the country’s constitutional court ruling to abolish a similar threshold to enter the European Parliament, the AfD has a clear shot at making it to Brussels.

Even though these newcomers didn’t reach the 5 per cent hurdle necessary to elect MPs, they came pretty close, mostly by absorbing former FDP voters. The neo-liberal party that was part of Merkel’s last coalition government self-destructed over the years after a series of gaffes and the changing of their leader discouraged their liberal voters. The AfD also won more votes in ridings where the far-right extremist NPD did best in the 2009 election.

This leaves the ‘Euro’-sceptic party with a piecemeal membership of generally unhappy citizens, expansionist-minded people, and a few xenophobic hardliners thrown in—making the image of a ‘professors party which fights for the concerns of everyone’ difficult to maintain.

Katarina Barley, a social-democrat member of the Bundestag, isn’t shaken by the presence of extreme left and right parties in Germany. Political extremes are not as pronounced in Germany as they are in other countries, she says.

“Germany, I think has this problem less than other countries, maybe because of history, and we’re aware of that,” says Barley. “I fear that the AfD will be successful at the end of this European election, but I hope that in the long run people will understand that either on the national or European levels, this politic leads us nowhere.”

True colours

With the local elections in Bavaria coming to a close at the end of March, Munich is still plastered with one-line slogans and forgettable faces of politicians.

In Bavaria, the official colours are white and blue, making the deep, flashy blue the AfD uses the obvious choice for other party campaigns. But, at least outside of Bavaria, the AfD sees it as an attack.

“The most ridiculous is that all these campaigns have taken our colours,” says the head of the AfD campaign. “’Make them invisible by simply stealing their colours.’”

He points out the SPD posters, which are also using blue and red this year, whereas their last elections only used red.

Although German media isn’t discussing campaign colour choices, the AfD is making headlines for other issues.

“We have a lot of problems internally,” Erkens says. “We are a young party, we have a lot of strange people inside still, a lot of infighting, so that stops us.”

Earlier this month, an AfD board member was asked to step down, after former ties with extremist party had been discovered.

“We have a lot of people who want to do with us things that are against our policies, people that want to destroy the EU,” he says. “This is not our policy, but we have people like that in the party, who joined us for the wrong reasons.”

European election campaign posters by the Socialist Democratic Party of Germany in Munich featuring presidential hopeful Martin Schulz.

Too strong for the euro
The AfD tries to argue that leaving the euro is best for everyone, because Germany is too strong for the current eurozone, which now includes 18 EU member states. The German economy benefits from the fact that the other countries with the same currency are too expensive, they say, and southern European countries have difficulty stabilizing their economies because they cannot compete.

After an onslaught of criticism in earlier campaigns, the party shifted their focus away from reintroducing Germany’s former currency the deutschmark, and now advocates for redesigned eurozones. The party proposes creating regional euros, for example, a north euro and a south euro, or state opt outs for economically fragile countries such as Portugal or dominating countries like Germany. According to the AfD, allowing Greece to have control over its own currency would give the country room to devalue it and attract investors and tourists.

“Why do we stop Greece from opting out the euro?” says Rainer Erkens, campaign strategist for the AfD. “You go to Greece, you’ll pay €3 to €4 for a cappuccino. You go to Turkey and you pay €1, and it’s 30km away.”

According to Erkens, the current euro is full of distortions. Countries with great economic disparities cannot belong to the same currency without massive state intervention and subsidies.
Thilo Sarrazin, the controversial ex-social-democrat and immigration critic, declared his support for the newcomers earlier this year.

“The economic competence in the AfD is bigger than in the leadership of the SPD, CDU and CSU combined,” Sarrazin said recently during a press conference.

Sarrazin has written several books with racist claims concerning immigrants that gained him notoriety in the German media. Formerly a member of the board of Germany’s national bank, the Bundesbank, Sarrazin’s economic opinions, as well as his views on unskilled migrants, mirrors the AfD’s.

Even though these highly visible figures agree, leaving the common currency won’t be happening in the near future. According to the latest Eurobarometre findings, seven out of 10 Germans feel as close to the euro as they do to the European community.

The AfD doesn’t want to abolish or leave the EU, says Erkens—a clear difference from British anti-EU Ukip’s mandate. But it’s unlikely that dismantling the eurozone is even an option.
According to Mathias Jopp, director of the Institute for European Politics, an organization dedicated to studying European integration, there is no way for Germany to leave the eurozone, without destroying the EU.

“It’s an absolute illusion to say ‘I’m against the euro. I’ll do European integration minus euro, minus agricultural policy, minus home and justice affairs. I pick and choose what I want and the show goes on,’” says Jopp. “This is absolutely crazy.”

Parties campaigning against the euro in Germany are not new. The euro has always been a controversial idea for a country with the strongest currency. Unlike the Pro-DM, one of the right-wing parties founded in the 90s with the sole purpose of campaigning against the euro, the AfD is trying to flesh out a programme that doesn’t revolve around a single issue.

They are now focusing on issues such as a new immigration policy tailored to the needs of the economy, and reducing EU influence in areas that are unnecessary, such as legislations on cucumber curvature and vacuum cleaners.

The Institute for European Politics has studied European integration since 1959, and is one of the oldest institutes of its kind in Germany. Mathias Jopp, is the director of the Institute and a professor at Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen.

The Institute for European Politics has studied European integration since 1959, and is one of the oldest institutes of its kind in Germany. Mathias Jopp, is the director of the Institute and a professor at Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen.

Permissive consensus
A pro-European attitude fits with post-war Germany’s efforts to strengthen European and trans-Atlantic bonds. European integration was initially seen mostly as a free market expansion and a way to establish a democratic culture within German society.

“Unlike other countries there has never been a real public debate on membership of Germany in the European Union,” says Carina Sprungk, professor of European Integration at the Free University of Berlin. “There might have been more euroscepticism in Germany had there been a real public debate.”

Further European integration has for the most part remained unchallenged, and the EU is still a part of every German student’s curriculum. Mainstream media and political and cultural elites never criticise the union outright, creating a “consensus” that was transferred to the population. This consensus exists because Germany benefits from being an EU member, says Sprungk.

“I grew up in Western Germany, and I grew up with the feeling that we belong to Europe,” she says. “It was part of my high school education—there was no debate about being part of Europe.”

Any anti-European ideas have been moderate at worst, and usually focus on defending the powers of the Länder, the states of Germany. The government’s checks and balances system ensures that extreme positions never gain much momentum.

On Ash Wednesday, March 5, the traditional gathering of politicians in a beer tent resulted in Brussels-bashing from the CSU head Horst Seehofer and vice-president Peter Gauweiler.

“This urge by the European Commission is strangling the European idea,” Seehofer said after a few beers in Passau. “Get rid of this centralism and bureaucracy.”

Gauweiler went on to compare EU leaders to the Emperor’s New Clothes, calling them “naked, stupid emperors”.

These attacks against the EU are expected of the party, which has always emphasised Bavarian powers, and must now work to keep more sceptical voters from turning to the AfD.

But the CSU may end up being the exception. Jopp believes the AfD could be the negative stimulus Germany needs to make EU issues more prominent.

Carina Sprungk agrees that mainstream parties will be forced to sharpen their stance on European politics. “Some of the parties might take a more pro-European attitude in order to delineate themselves further from this extreme party with regards to the euro,” she says.

During the 2009 elections, euroscepticism was covered in the media as other countries’ problems: a foreign issue. While Germany isn’t always making the first move towards integration, euroscepticism in Germany has largely been taboo.

The lowest reported turnout in 2009 weighed heavily on Germany’s pro-EU image, but European elections were overshadowed by national elections, which were taking place later that year.

In 2009, 43 per cent of Germans voted in the EP elections, exactly the same as the average turnout of EU member states. While this number isn’t as dismal as the 20 per cent turnout in Slovakia, or even the 37 per cent turnout in the Netherlands, it does contrast strongly with the 71 per cent participation rate at the federal election last September.

This time around, European election posters for the CDU still have the Angela Merkel’s face all over them. Former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Junker, who is running in the first-ever EP presidential race, is nowhere to be seen.

Treaties and the EU

The European Union, unlike all European countries, does not have a Constitution. Instead, it governs based on treaties, which are signed and ratified in every EU member state.
The most recent treaty reform established the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009. Some important changes gave the Eu- ropean Parliament more lawmaking powers and the right to elect the next president of the European Commission.

Regional differences
Experts agree that, to a certain extent, anti-EU sentiments are bound by regional borders within Germany. In Bavaria, the long-ruling CSU has always been more distant from the EU than its sister party the CDU.

In former East German regions, Die Linke, a leftist party with roots that go back to the former communist government, remains strong. East Germany, however, is also where the neo-Nazi NPD wins more support and is present in two regional parliaments. And in the last federal election, the AfD won more than 5 per cent of votes in many eastern Länder.

A higher unemployment rate, notably in the east, also coincides with more support for less EU-positive parties. Euroscepticism is prevalent where people are unhappiest.

“The less you profit from the European Union the higher the euroscepticism is,” says MP Barley.
This polarisation of support for both the extreme-left and right is the result of the different histories in post-war Germany, explains Jopp.

“The West Germans were far more acquainted with the whole idea of European integration, because this was the way to better the reputation of Germany after the second world war,” says Jopp. “Part of the history which didn’t play any role for the citizens of the East.”

“But whether this is true for the younger generation, I really don’t know,” he added.

2013 Unemployment Rates by Länder Alternative für Deutschland votes per Land
Unemployed in per cent of the total civilian active population. The result for Germany includes vacancies reported for work abroad. Source Statistics of the Federal Employment Agency (BA) Per cent of voters in each Land that voted AfD. Source Bundeswahlleiter

Social union
Sifting through research, a recurring criticism of the EU is the need to improve the union’s social aspect. Despite living in one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, or perhaps because of this, many Germans perceive the EU as a peace alliance, a foundation to improve quality of life.

As a member of the Social Democratic Party, it comes as no surprise that Barley is calling for more social initiatives.

“We come from a European Union that was built on economic freedom, which was fine at the time,” says Barley. “It was a way to ensure freedom and peace all in all, but we have moved forward. We see that the freedom of trade and worker movement is lacking a counterpart: a protection of workers rights.”

The AfD believes the EU is intervening too much in national responsibilities. European politicians have criticised the German government’s efforts to limit unemployment benefits, a policy the AfD actually supports.

“The three freedoms [of the EU], the freedom of people, freedom of services, freedom of goods was never meant to be freedom of social transfers,” says AfD strategist Erkens.

Germany’s left-wing party Die Linke on the other hand supports what some would call a radical reinvention of the EU, to support social values through more regulations and redistribution of wealth.

“The European union is based on treaties, and these treaties are very much orientating towards neo-liberal politics,” says Die Linke MP Andrej Hunko. “We fear on that ground we will lose our social protections in different countries.

“We are calling for the changing of the treaties of the European Union,” he says.

Berlin Wall memorial at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin.

Berlin Wall memorial at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin.

These two opposing criticisms of the EU want Europe to move in two different directions. Although it is true that large sums of money are transferred to less wealthy parts of Europe through the EU’s social fund and agricultural policies—these make up a majority of the EU’s budget—the amount in proportion to domestic government spending is still minimal.

“From this point of view, if you write it down as a number it looks like a lot, and if you write it down as a percentage it looks too little,” says Christian Baden, researcher at Munich’s Ludwig Maximillian University. “Both ends of the spectrum can make their argument.”

Germany has an interesting role in this discussion as an important exporter within the EU and around the world. Europe’s single market is the main reason Germany has been able to stay competitive and financially secure, even during the currency crisis.

“Germany has benefitted the most from European integration,” says Jopp. “I think this is also clear to most of the citizens, that without the European Union, perhaps the position of Germany would not be the one that it is today.”

With the elections less than a month away and anti-EU parties gaining support in opinion polls, all eyes are on the AfD, and whom it decides to work with in the parliament.

“At the moment we are not talking anything at all about that,” says Erkens. “We keep all options open. Let’s see what looks promising.”

Erkens made one thing clear, the AfD won’t be working with Le Pen or Farage.

“This is a professor party, we have people with university doctorate degrees,” he says. “It’s difficult to see them sitting with the Ukip. The Ukip is a proletarian party in its approach.”