German eurosceptics on the rise ahead of EU elections
11.02.14 @ 12:07
Berlin - The EU: a remote bureaucracy bent on spewing out meddlesome laws; taking more and more power from national parliaments and governments; sitting idly by while immigrants flood in, taxpayers are looted and banks are bailed out.
These perceptions have become mainstream in German politics ahead of the May elections for the European Parliament.
Curbing Brussels' "regulation fury" and the size of the European Commission have become the EU bugbears of the centre-right parties in the ruling coalition.
Chancellor Angela Merkel in a speech before the Bundestag in January said that EU politics should "make people's day-to-day life easier, not more difficult".
In her party's draft manifesto for the EU elections there is talk of an "effective regulation brake" and the possibility for competences to be repatriated from Brussels to member states.
Further south, in Bavaria, the political discourse is shriller.
Merkel's sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which has a super majority in the Free State of Bavaria, wants the EU commission to have fewer powers and fewer members.
Meanwhile, its campaign slogan – "Whoever cheats gets kicked out" – is stirring up migration fears, enflaming an issue that already featured, albeit less prominently, in the run-up to the federal elections last autumn.
Bavarian conservatives speak loudly and often about how citizens from poorer member states only come to Germany to abuse the country's welfare system.
"The CSU is leading an absolutely irresponsible campaign. This is an inflammable campaign," says Gideon Botsch, a researcher into right-wing extremism at the University of Potsdam.
Botsch notes that with neo-Nazi rallies organised around refugee centres in several German cities and "very strong resentment" against migrants, centre-right politicians should be more responsible in their campaigning.
"The CSU seems to feel the need to establish themselves as hardliners given that the Chancellor has become more social and moved the Christian Democrats more to the centre-left," says Botsch.
He says it was "typical" of Angela Merkel to condone such hardline campaigning because "EU elections are seen as soft elections" whose outcome will not influence domestic policies.
Despite official figures showing that rhetoric on "welfare tourism" is exaggerated, Merkel did not confront her Bavarian allies. Instead, she opted for her well-known delaying tactic, setting up a cross-ministerial taskforce to look into the issue and come up with legislative proposals by the summer.
Alternative to the euro
Merkel's tolerant stance towards the eurosceptic, anti-immigrant rumblings from Bavaria can also be traced back to the surprising success of a newcomer on the German political scene: Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD).
Less than a year after it was founded, the AfD managed to score 4.7 percent of the vote, almost making it into the Bundestag in September.
Current polls for the EU elections put the AfD at seven percent, leaving a comfortable margin for the lower threshold of three percent required for the European Parliament as opposed to the five percent threshold for the national elections.
The party's main message is to challenge Merkel's claim that there is "no alternative" to saving the euro and bailing out countries in trouble.
"The European debt and currency crisis has convinced many people that the old parties are either not able or not willing to make sustainable, transparent, citizen-oriented, law-abiding and democratic politics. We are formulating alternatives to the alleged 'no-alternative' policies," the party says in its mission statement.
Critical of the single currency but not anti-EU, the AfD is currently seeking to expand its political platform beyond the issue of dissolving the eurozone and returning to the Deutsche Mark.
Its discourse is similar to the CSU: fewer powers for the EU commission and no "social tourism".
AfD leaders Bernd Lucke, a hawkish economist, and Hans-Peter Henkel, a former chair of the Federation of German Industries, are very vocal in rejecting any associations with the neo-Nazi scene.
A demographic breakdown of their voters in the federal elections shows that while the AfD did score well in east German regions where the extreme right is also very popular, it was mostly disgruntled Liberals and Conservatives who voted for them.
Lucke is also keen on a post-EU election alliance with the British Conservatives, rather than the eurosceptic UK Independence Party – even though the latter is doing better than the Tories in recent polls.
The AfD leader has also excluded any alliance with Marine Le Pen's party in France or Geert Wilders' PVV party in the Netherlands.
"AfD is not anti-European. They are against the euro-rescue and the way it was managed. But they do not want their country to leave the EU like UKIP does," says Oskar Niedermayer, a political scientist with Freie Universitaet in Berlin.
Niedermayer expects the AfD to get five to six seats in the European Parliament.
"The question is what they will do afterwards and whom they will form a group with. The leadership is clearly in favour of the Tories, but there are members who are flirting with UKIP," says Niedermayer.
Michael Wohlgemuth, who chairs the Berlin office of Open Europe, a pro-reform think-tank, also speaks of AfD's efforts to dissociate themselves from the extreme right.
"AfD is struggling to keep these extreme members out of the party, but they have not been very successful."
There is a stronger "taboo" within German society to vote for the extreme right compared to other EU countries, he says.
The National-Democratic Party (NPD) – which is also facing a potential ban due to its links to the neo-Nazi scene – only scored 1.3 percent of the vote in the September elections and is not expected to overcome the three-percent threshold for the EU elections.
This three percent hurdle was last year challenged in the courts by the NPD and other fringe parties including the pro-internet freedom Pirate Party.
The German Constitutional Court previously agreed the threshold for EU elections was too high when it was set at five percent, but it is unlikely to reject the current three-percent threshold, which is the minimum in most EU countries. A verdict is expected before the elections, which are scheduled for 25 May in Germany.
Out of the 751 available seats in the new legislature, 96 will be taken by German MEPs, the largest national contingent among the 28 member states.