AfD victories in Germany show the country is following a European drift to the right

Written by Amandine Crespy on 15 March 2016

The triumph of the right-wing AfD in Germany's regional elections show that the country is no longer immune to the European trend towards nationalism, writes Amandine Crespy.

The Sunday, 13 March regional elections saw a taboo broken in Germany. The far-right party AfD achieved an unprecedented political breakthrough in Baden-Württemberg, Saxony-Anhalt and Rhineland-Palatinate, winning against Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party.

This was the expected backlash against Chancellor Merkel's migration policy. Ultimately, the rise of the AfD is sadly symptomatic of Germany aligning with the rest of Europe and caving in to the nationalist xenophobia that has spread across the continent.

For decades, Germany had distinguished itself in the European political landscape by not having a far-right party, other than a hard neo-Nazi movement surviving in a few parts of the country. It has been long believed that this resulted from a combination of powerful cultural and institutional factors, namely the historical trauma linked to national socialism, and the structuring of the party system geared toward the centre.  


However, we now see that there was strong demand for right-right movements that the AfD managed to motivate with its anti-Euro, anti-establishment and anti-refugee rhetoric. Since shedding its liberal wing in 2015, the party is cementing its success in the 2013 federal elections (when it won four per cent of the vote) and the 2014 European elections (seven per cent). Unsurprisingly, the AfD's best score was in Saxony-Anhalt, in the east of the country, a breeding ground for racist groups. There, the AfD won 24.2 per cent of the vote, while left wing parties lost considerable ground (-10.9 per cent for the SPD and -7.4 per cent for die Linke).

While this may appear worrying in light of the country's history, in fact the rise of German nationalism is merely part of a normalisation process that has been ongoing since the fall of the Berlin wall.

Germany is no longer the continent's weakling, constantly trying to make up for the crimes of the Holocaust on behalf of other European nations (who were in no way immune of antisemitism and authoritarianism) and fostering a pro-European idealism against all odds. Germany is now an inhibited economic and political power, concerned with its own national interests.

Like many other Europeans, some Germans do not wish to pay for others, question the benefits of further European integration (and the Euro) and do not want to open up borders to migrants in search of a better future. In this sense, Germany has simply become more mainstream in today's Europe, which faces a deep crisis as to its values.

There are many names to describe the different parties that have banked their political success on fear; populist, Eurosceptic and Islamophobic are some of them. Essentially, the tidal wave that has taken over European society is a nationalist reaction, spurred on by the nostalgia of a perfect congruence between the boundaries of economic prosperity, political democracy and national culture.

What we are experiencing is a form of nationalism that is exclusive and xenophobic, unable to accept a common destiny that goes beyond the comfortable and familiar national borders.

The fact that Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis are Muslim has further fuelled fears brought on by ignorance and the media conflation of terrorists and Muslims. This fear is most noticeable in central Europe, which has rarely interacted with Muslim culture. Certainly, Islamophobia is a powerful vector for far-right ideas, as can be seen with the movement Pegida in Germany (literally: the patriotic Europeans against the islamisation of the West) or the French National Front.

Nevertheless, the nationalist reaction is not limited to the lowest form of Islamophobia. It can be more subtle, more discreet, more acceptable. Europe has now allowed UK Prime Minister David Cameron to cap access to welfare benefits for European citizens living in his country, especially the millions of Poles and Romanians who have come to Britain to work. Another illustration is the aggressive anti-Roma rhetoric in France and elsewhere.

This nationalist reaction is that of a prosperous and ultra-materialistic Europe that is scared it will be robbed by its success by an 'outsider' that is both different and poor. Europeans have, quite simply, unlearned the principle of solidarity. Previously a core value in post-war it has been increasingly marginalised over past 20 years.

The fear that has gripped the masses is used to justify the disavowal of European and international commitments. There is silence on human rights violations and concessions made to oppressive regimes such as Turkey. Not only is this fear morally reprehensible, it also goes against all economic rationality and facts. To think that Europe can build barricades at its borders that makes it immune to misery and conflicts in its neighbourhood is both an illusion and a financial disaster.

No research or study on Europe's demographic needs, or on the economic benefits of migration, has been able to alleviate the deeply rooted sentiment among EU citizens that migrants are a threat to their material comfort and cultural integrity. Rich and ageing, they prefer to keep their own company.

In 2010, Angela Merkel noted the failure of multiculturalism in Germany, just as other EU leaders - particularly David Cameron – had done. As a result, she offered a more restrictive model, one that demands deeper integration and is based, for example, on mandatory German language classes.

Yet when Merkel, faced with the crisis, tried to call upon values such as humanism, solidarity and rationality to justify her open migration policy, she was met with the frightened public opinion. As other European governments have been developing methods of denying refugees access to their countries, voters sent a signal that German solidarity had reached its limit; in this 21st century Europe, Germans also have the right to be nationalist.

This article was originally published in French here.


About the author

Amandine Crespy is a professor of European studies at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB)

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