Friday

18th Jan 2019

Opinion

The real significance of Germany's eurosceptic party

  • The new party held its founding congress in Berlin on 14 April (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Ever since Alternative für Deutschland had their coming-out party in April, commentators have struggled to say something interesting about this new anti-Euro party.

Will they disrupt the continuation of the Black-Yellow coalition in September? Do they herald a mass movement against the common currency? Well, with a predicted share of the vote of just 2-3%, it seems unlikely.

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It is hard to escape the conclusion that AfD is rather unimportant. A party of 'frustrated professors’, it struggles to shine in political debates, is squashed by the German Volksparteien and can expect little financial support from German business for its anti-Euro agenda.

AfD's emergence is simply proof of something we all knew anyway – that Germans have a eurosceptic streak just like everyone else in the EU. AfD is nothing more than a sign of the country's normalisation.

Well not so fast, because the emergence of AfD may be evidence of an interesting development in the German political system. Just at a time when almost every other member state is relying upon the judiciary to withstand the pressures of EU integration, Germans are banking more and more on their Parliament: the emergence of AfD marks a significant shift beyond Germany's familiar judicial euroscepticism.

Until recently, the German Constitutional Court was the first port of call for eurosceptics. Yet, the Hankels and the Schachtschneiders who could always be relied upon to bring a case are now amongst the most prominent supporters of AfD. It is a reflection of the Federal Court’s own long efforts to boost the Bundestag’s responsibility for EU scrutiny, efforts made in the face of resistance from within the parliament itself.

In private, many deputies have reacted badly to the successive rulings giving the Bundestag greater powers over EU affairs: not only does scrutiny of eurozone decisions demand a focus on issues which don’t win elections. It requires some spine.

Changing Europe's political landscape?

Angela Merkel’s EU policy has until now been meekly supported by a de facto Grand Coalition in the Bundestag. The emergence of a more political brand of scepticism suggests that German MPs may now make use of their powers. This promises a change in Europe's political landscape.

Re-imagine if you will the wait for the Bundestag to ratify the European Stability Mechanism or European Financial Stability Facility as a genuinely nerve-racking experience. And imagine also a Bundestag capable of asserting its views on EU affairs Europe-wide, because that is now what will happen.

The EU’s recent forays into national economic, budgetary and defence policy has led to greater cooperation between the EU's national parliaments. But whilst almost every other parliament in the EU has been weakened by the euro-crisis, the Bundestag has been strengthened. Long pressured to boost its research and scrutiny capacity by the Federal Constitutional Court, today it is very much primus inter pares.

It is all part of the reorganisation of power in Europe, in which the national level is resurfacing and bringing out old imbalances between member states. And in this context, AfD marks a further notable shift. Beyond the headline demand for the dissolution of the Euro, AfD is promoting another previously unpalatable idea - the break-up of the Franco-German tandem.

Back in 1994, the Schäuble-Lamers paper called for multi-speed integration led by a Franco-German core and the Benelux states. It caused outrage in southern Europe, not least Italy, the only founding EU state excluded. AfD has taken another step down this path, by alluding to the exclusion of France itself from the core.

This matters. Strains on the Franco-German tandem are already making themselves felt. In the past, the relationship was sufficiently strong to absorb North-South tensions in the EU. It was also resilient enough to allow the UK to make mischief and play Paris and Berlin off against the other. That is no longer the case.

Today, the South of the EU is peeling off in the face of German interference and French weakness. Germany’s traditional tolerance for British mischief is being strained, leaving Britain’s former Central European partners with some uncomfortable choices. And the buffer zone that is Benelux is splitting into Francophone and Germanic spheres, the Dutch foreign minister last week declaring his love of all things German.

Ryszarda Formuszewicz and Roderick Parkes are analysts at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM).

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