Germany: the centre of Europe. Undoubtedly geographically; it borders more European countries than any other. But Germany is also the centre in a deeper sense. With its steadfast commitment to the European Union, strong economy, developed welfare state and stable political system, it is held up as a model to which others should aspire. In the moral realm too, it represents an ideal. It has directly experienced all the major traumas of European history — most recently the two world wars and the Cold War — and learned from them more profoundly than any other European nation. It knows at firsthand that nationalism and extremism lead to disaster.
Now all of this has been tarnished by the election results a little over a week ago; or has it? It was never seriously in doubt that Angela Merkel’s centrist Christian Democratic Union (CDU), with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), would end up as the largest bloc. But as a German friend who works for the CDU put it, “we didn’t win; we just got the most votes”. True: the CDU-CSU won its lowest percentage since 1949, some 33 per cent. The moderate left Social-Democrats (SPD) did even worse, with some 20 per cent, also their lowest score since 1949. The smaller parties did better. The liberal Free Democrats (FDP) re-entered the Bundestag after a four-year absence, whilst the ecologist Greens and the hard-left Die Linke (“The Left”) held their own. But the nastiest shock for the established parties was the arrival for the first time in the Bundestag of the AfD, the Alternativ für Deutschland (“Alternative for Germany”), with nearly 13 per cent of the vote. It is now the third largest party. The AfD was founded only four years ago by academics and economists concerned that Germany’s participation in Eurozone financial policies was unconstitutional. Since then it has metamorphosed into a classic hard-right party: anti-Europe, anti-immigrant and nationalistic. One of its leaders recently suggested that Germany should be proud of its soldiers’ achievements during the Second World War.
So what happened? The short answer is Ms Merkel’s decision at the end of 2015 to accept asylum-seekers from war-torn Syria. Since then over a million refugees have arrived in Germany. Hailed at the time as an example of humanity and decency, the policy has caused tensions. Some 50 per cent of Germans thought it the most important issue facing the country. The mainstream parties sought to allay their concerns with rational policies on integration and reassurances that the flow of asylum-seekers was at an end. The AfD responded with emotion: Germany faced a “tsunami of refugees” and impending Islamisation; a message that echoed with nearly six million Germans. Somehow we were surprised. We thought that “Mutti” (Mummy) — Ms Merkel’s nickname — would pull it off again; that her reputation for competence and caution would win the day. But that was just the problem. Many saw her decision to allow in so many refugees so quickly as incompetent and incautious. We thought “asymmetric demobilisation” — Ms Merkel’s campaigning technique — would dull emotions. This involved rarely mentioning opponents by name and welcoming their initiatives with faint praise. But this left open space for the AfD to claim that a crisis was being ignored. And deep down we thought that history had so sensitised the Germans to the dangers and unpleasantness of nationalism that never again would nationalists gain a foothold.
But our surprise was misplaced. The Germans do not live in splendid isolation. Germany is subject to the same pressures created by globalisation as other European countries. Looked at in this light, the German result is of a piece with what has happened elsewhere in Europe. In recent elections in Western Europe — the Netherlands, Austria, and France — the traditional parties have all declined, with the social democrats hardest hit. Faced with stagnant living standards and insecurity, the social democrats’ traditional working class base is no longer convinced of the virtues of moderation and cooperation. Many are now attracted instead to the easy certainties of the hard left or the hard right. Meanwhile, in the countries of the former Soviet bloc, it has become clear that liberal democracy has only shallow roots. Instead “illiberal democracy” has established itself, particularly in Poland and Hungary, where chauvinistic governments seek to dominate and stifle dissent. What is sometimes forgotten is that Germany too comprises a former Soviet bloc country — the former German Democratic Republic — and in that part of Germany the AfD did particularly well. It won roughly twice the percentage that it won elsewhere.
So what happens now? Most obviously a governing coalition has to be assembled. The process is now underway and not proving easy. The Social Democrats have ruled out re-forming the “grand coalition” with the CDU-CSU that governed before the election. As the junior party within it they were smothered and have consequently paid a high electoral price: a mistake not to be repeated. That leaves the so-called “Jamaica coalition”: the CDU-CSU (black), the FDP (yellow) and the Greens (green) — the colours of the Jamaican flag. Such a coalition has never been attempted at the national level and there would be tensions within it. Elements within the CDU-CSU want to trim to the right to counter the AfD, a move the Greens and FDP would resist. The FDP is pro-business and pro-free market; the Greens are sceptical of both. Yet despite these strains there is a will to make it work. An adviser to the Greens told me that they would be “responsible”. No doubt, since the alternative is a minority government and probably another general election, one in which the AfD’s voteshare could increase.
However, the task facing the mainstream parties is more fundamental than simply forming a coalition. They need to consider carefully how they handle the AfD phenomenon. The AfD’s success needs to be kept in proportion — 12.6 per cent is not an overwhelming surge. Furthermore, polls suggest that the AfD’s voters are more rootless than committed to the party. As the AfD reveals itself to be incompetent over time, the rising tide could ebb. Demonising the AfD would therefore be counter-productive. Unpleasant and unprepossessing as the AfD may be, heaping abuse on the AfD will only give the party prominence and allow it to play the role of martyr. Most important, however, the mainstream parties need to address the insecurity and resentment which motivates many AfD voters without jettisoning the country’s justified reputation for tolerance and moderation. Germany is not lost — far from it — but it needs to do some thinking....