Thursday

20th Sep 2018

Germany's anti-euro party which became two

Leaks to the press, failed grabs for power, an extramarital affair.

The accusations and rumours surrounding a group of eurosceptic German members of the European Parliament are fodder for a tabloid newspaper or a script for an episode of House of Cards, the popular political drama series.

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  • Henkel: 'the AfD which I joined has nothing to do with the AfD which I left' (Photo: European Parliament)

But the developments which led five of seven MEPs to leave anti-establishment party Alternative for Germany (AfD) also include a fundamental disagreement over the future direction of the party, whether to focus on dissolving the eurozone, or curbing immigration.

When 2,070,014 people voted for AfD on 25 May 2014, they elected seven new politicians to Brussels: Hans-Olaf Henkel, Bernd Koelmel, party leader Bernd Lucke, Marcus Pretzell, Joachim Starbatty, Beatrix Von Storch, and Ulrike Trebesius. Now, only Pretzell and Von Storch remain as AfD members. The others formed a new party last July, called Alliance for Progress and Renewal (Alfa).

Their election followed several years of debt crises and bailouts in Europe.

With a message untouched by mainstream political parties, which have shied away from drifting too far in the right-wing corner of the political spectrum since World War II, anti-euro party AfD received 7.1 percent of the vote.

“There is a lack for a party which is conservative and liberal. We're still the one and only [German party] to address the problem of the European currency and of the need for deep reforms of the European Union”, AfD MEP Beatrix Von Storch told EUobserver in an interview.

Pegida

Three months after the AfD members began their political work in Brussels, back home in Germany another anti-establishment movement was on the rise.

Since 10 October 2014, the xenophobic Pegida movement has protested every Monday in Dresden, as well as in other German cities, against immigration by Muslims.

How to deal with Pegida, whose supporters sometimes overlapped with AfD voters, became a central issue in debates about the future of the party: embrace them, or take a distance from them?

“We have nothing to do with Pegida”, said Von Storch.

“We would never demonstrate against asylum seekers. We are not fighting those who are coming, this is what Pegida does more, we are addressing those who are responsible for the problem and that's not the asylum seekers. That's our government”, noted Von Storch.

But some of her party colleagues were less dismissive about Pegida.

Alexander Gauland, one of the party's founders, has been quoted as calling Pegida demonstrators “natural allies”, while MEP Pretzell said at a party conference: “We have had the discussion, are we the euro- or the Pegida-party? We are both!”

For MEP Hans-Olaf Henkel, the Pretzell quote was one of the reasons to quit AfD.

“I can put it in one sentence: the AfD which I joined has nothing to do with the AfD which I left”, he told this website in an interview.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

According to Henkel, established political parties and German media “labelled us as a right-wing populistic party, such as the FPÖ in Austria, or the Front National in France”.

He said he thinks that because people “were constantly bombarded by the assertion that this is a rightist populistic party, [they] started to believe it. That in turn resulted in people entering such a party. Our mistake was to have reacted too late against this infiltration of rightist, populistic, and I would say often even racist elements.”

Henkel said he also started noticing “an enormous anti-Americanism on the one hand, and a parallel movement by which the strong man [Russian president] Putin was applauded by not only individual members of the party, but by leading personalities like Gauland.”

In April 2015, Henkel stepped down as deputy chairman of AfD, following a scandal involving Pretzell and Frauke Petry, who would later become AfD chairwoman.

“He was accused of significant tax and financial irregularities, which resulted in the board asking for an independent investigation into his behaviour. There were two people who ... investigated the case and came to the conclusion that he should leave this job”, said Henkel.

But when Petry defended Pretzell, Henkel became suspicious.

“Because the rumours that she had a relationship with this guy, were all over the party. … Yeah, they didn't even hide it. I was told they went into the same hotels and whatever. For me it was so obvious that she intervened always in his favour. So I asked her: are you having a conflict of interest, and she lied, she said no.”

To Henkel, the episode shows “the rotten morale of this party”. He also accused Pretzell of “constantly” leaking information to the press.

Pretzell did not respond to a request for an interview, nor did he answer an email in which this website offered the opportunity to comment on the accusations.

Petry published a statement in early October in which she announced that she would separate from her husband, while also noting that “much more than just friendly feelings” had developed between her and Pretzell.

Von Storch said about the financial irregularities: “It was just allegations. It was just unfair what they [Pretzell's accusers] did. He had some tax things going on, but nothing to be mentioned.”

Rescue mission or power grab?

In a final attempt to save the party from what they saw as moving in a right-wing populistic direction, party leader Lucke, Henkel, and three other MEPs signed up to an association called Weckruf 2015 (Wakeup 2015) in May.

But according to Von Storch, it was an attempted grab for power.

“They were starting to split the party. Everyone could see that they were trying to split the party and take all the power [for] them.”

The following month, Lucke lost the party leadership to Petry.

According to Von Storch, the five MEPs left AfD “because they have not been voted into office as party functionaries again. If they would have been elected again into office, they wouldn't have said anything. They were frustrated about being voted out of office.”

Meanwhile, AfD is scoring about 7 percent in the polls again, benefiting from the debate about migration and the widespread discontent about chancellor Angela Merkel's policies.

“I must say, the media are not taking notice of us”, said Alfa MEP Henkel, noting it will be a “challenge” for Alfa MEPs to be re-elected in 2019. For Henkel, the political adventure ends at the end of his term – he will be 79 at the time of the next elections.

ECR

Despite the apparent animosity between the Two and the Five, both political parties are members of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the European Parliament, which is also home to the British Conservative party and Poland's Law and Justice party.

ECR spokesperson James Holtum noted that “MEPs are members of the group in their own right, and all sign up to the ECR by agreeing to support the principles of the Prague Declaration”, a document summarising the group's ideals.

For now, both parties appear to want to remain members of ECR.

Henkel said that the remaining AfD members should trade their ECR membership for the newly formed far right group set-up by Front National's Marine Le Pen and the party of Dutch populist Geert Wilders. But, “you can't kick them out”, he added.

“I see a development in our group that not necessarily counts on the membership of AfD in the future”, said a source close to the ECR group.

But he added the two camps “avoid confrontation. They didn't bring it to group meetings.”

Living together, but apart

However, the Two and the Five are reminded of each other on an almost daily basis.

The offices of AfD and Alfa are still on the same floor of the EP's Willy Brandt building in Brussels.

It takes twelve steps to go from Von Storch's office door to Lucke's, while Pretzell and Alfa member Joachim Starbatty are only separated from each other by a wall.

“I greet them. They are not always greeting back, but that's fine”, said Von Storch. Henkel also said he greets his former party colleagues. “Congratulations on your relationship”, he said he told Petry and Pretzell.

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