How much longer should we look to Angela Merkel to determine the course Europe is taking? True, Germany is the European Union’s biggest economy, but that shouldn’t prevent us from looking past the Chancellor, who has been in charge during the time of the country’s remarkable, albeit now dwindling, success. For a movement is emerging that challenges the hierarchy.
I call it a movement because it’s not yet as powerful as a political shift or change of direction. In any case, it indicates a strengthening of the Left that coincides with a rise in Eurosceptic sentiment.
We’ve seen this in other European countries as well, France for example, but with Merkel’s fairly sturdy coalition base and her ability to please many while offending few, this development is somewhat unexpected.
Peer Steinbrück, Merkel’s main opponent in the election next autumn, symbolises this changing attitude towards Europe and the European idea (Europäischer Gedanke sounds much grander). Steinbrück is a Social Democrat through and through, his agenda unabashedly pro-Europe.
Following the inconclusive results of Italy’s general election, Steinbrück referred to Italian political leaders Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo as “clowns”. The head of Germany’s most famous circus expressed his displeasure at being compared to the Berlusconi — apparently any good German clown has to be serious, too.
More importantly, it showed that most Germans didn’t seem too surprised by the lack of gravitas displayed by Steinbrück. And how could they be? The early weeks of his campaign were marked by a number of gaffes and ill-considered comments, compounded by his clumsy handling of questions about the amount of money he had earned on the speaking circuit before being chosen to lead the Social Democrats into the federal election.
And yet, his slip — for which he later apologised to Grillo, though not publicly —stands for something more: a mood swing in attitudes towards Europe. Once he would have been reprimanded for questioning the political consensus and the EU. Today, Steinbrück has got away with it. Some praised his fearless outspokenness.
While this may seem a vaguely amusing episode — or just typical of political debate on the continent — there are more far-reaching developments: a momentum is gathering that is intent on abandoning European efforts to prop up the common currency. To British eyes, this might not be worth mentioning, but part of Germany’s raison d’être is to follow and reinforce the diktat of the grand old notion of peace and prosperity through European unity.
The founders of the movement Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) are anything but political oddballs: they include some of the country’s most respected economists and Hans-Olaf Henkel, the former president of the Federation of German Industries. Their sentiments are not new on the continent — Eurosceptics can be found in the poorer regions of the south in particular — but they are virtually unheard of in German public life.
The group’s statements on its website probably sound like pure Cameroon to Brits: “The will of the people is never listened to and it is not represented in parliament. The government is depriving voters of a voice through disinformation, is putting pressure on constitutional organs, like parliament and the Constitutional Court, and is making far-reaching decisions in committees that have no democratic legitimacy.”
Germany, strained from a year of costly bail-outs, is not averse to Eurosceptics; mainstream parties have voiced concerns about the path on which Europe is going. Alternative für Deutschland is not yet formally a political party — in order to contest an election its candidates on the party list will each have to collect a minimum of 1,000 signatures in the state concerned.
Still, with concern growing over the fact that the country has become the paymaster for the rest of the eurozone, the group could attract protest votes and, judging by the current frustration within Merkel’s own party, potential support is also growing there.
Of course, judging by the figures, Germany is the country with the lowest levels of anti-euro sentiment. However, a recent survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation found that only 52 per cent of Germans think the EU brings them personal benefits, compared to 32 per cent who think being a member of the union is a disadvantage.
Germans also appear to be worried about immigration from the east, in particular from Romania and Bulgaria, which continue to export a surprising number of their citizens. (Bulgaria has lost no fewer than 582,000 since 1985.) That not only concern about immigration but also euroscepticism now have a home in Germany is a fresh worry for Angela Merkel.