German Euroskeptics Rising, But Taking Few Risks

Third parties like Alternative for Germany are unlikely to reap the benefits in the September 22 elections.

Alternative for Germany (AfD), a euroskeptic startup party, is failing to gain much traction in the polls, but that is not to say German dissatisfaction with the European project isn’t playing a role in the election campaign.

Surveys unanimously predict that Chancellor Angela Merkel will cruise to a third term in office on September 22 when Germany elects a new parliament. Her Christian-Democrat parties (CDU/CSU) have enjoyed more than 40 percent support since May, while the opposition Social Democrats (SDP), the second-largest party, seem unable to get more than 28 percent of the vote.

The continuation of Merkel's government is not guaranteed, however. Her pro-business coalition partners, the Free Democrats, are struggling to cross the 5 percent election threshold. If they fail to reenter parliament, a "grand coalition" between Merkel's conservatives and the social democrats is the likeliest outcome. Polls show a vast majority of Germans would prefer such a government, even if the social democrats do not. "We all know what happened last time around," said Peer Steinbrück, their leader, earlier this month. The SDP's support plunged from 34 to 23 percent in 2009, after it had entered a grand coalition four years earlier.

If the Free Democrats do get 5 percent support or more—and most polls say they will—Merkel's right-wing coalition will be at the mercy of a dozen or so euroskeptic lawmakers, many of them from the conservatives' Bavarian party CSU, and still without a majority in the upper chamber of parliament where the government has relied on the social-democrats to push through its European agenda.

When Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a fiscal hawk, suggested recently that Greece might need a third rescue package, the CSU's leader and president of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, rejected the proposal outright, saying another bailout "is not in question." The state's finance minister, Markus Soeder, agreed. "It was completely wrong to announce a third program now," he said.

The Finance Ministry has tried to put a good face on the bailouts, knowing they are deeply unpopular. It claims that Germany has benefited from the crisis in terms of lower interest payments, saving the country some €41 billion ($55 billion) while costs to the German taxpayer have been just short of €600 million ($800 million). Those figures do not include German commitments and guarantees to Europe's new rescue mechanisms, however, nor do they take into account the European Central Bank's financing of southern European nations' sovereign debts. It's the latter so many Germans are apprehensive about. The ECB printing money to prop up profligate euro states in the Mediterranean is not only an affront to Germans who, as Merkel likes to say, have "done their homework"; it stirs memories of the Weimar era, when hyperinflation was a harbinger for political radicalization.

It is not surprising, then, that while polls have shown little change in the political landscape for months and Germany might, at a glance, seem a beacon of tranquility in a continent where virtually no government has survived the European crises, Euroskepticism is shimmering beneath the surface. Just 54 percent of Germans still believe economic integration in Europe has brought more benefits than costs, down from 59 percent a year ago. Similarly, favorable attitudes toward the European Union as a whole are down 8 points since 2012, a Pew Research poll showed in May. Another survey, from the Allensbach Institute, found recently that 28 percent of Germans have "great confidence" in the euro; up from 17 percent in 2011, but still far below the 44 percent support the single currency enjoyed in 2009.

So why isn't AfD doing better? Around 25 percent of voters sympathize with the party and a greater share of the electorate shares its Euroskepticism—if not necessarily its antibailout policies. The problem is not that it is perceived as a fringe party like so many Euroskeptics in other countries. It doesn't have firebrands like the Netherlands' Geert Wilders, nor does it appeal to blue-collar voters with isolationist rhetoric like France's National Front. AfD is a middle-class party, led by academics, and is vying for the same conservative and liberal voters as the ruling parties.

And that is its problem. Voters on the right are reluctant to abandon Merkel and the liberals because they have such a razor-thin majority. A vote for AfD could be a vote for the left. Merkel has repeatedly warned against this, saying that an all-left coalition, led by the social-democrats and including the Greens as well as The Left, the successor to East Germany's ruling party, is likelier than a grand coalition if the conservatives and Free Democrats fail to win reelection. Euroskeptic Germans might not be comfortable with Merkel's pledge to keep the eurozone together whatever the costs, let alone the ECB's promise to do "whatever it takes" to preserve the single currency, but the alternative, a left-wing, more pro-European government, would be worse.

Nick Ottens is a historian from the Netherlands who researched Muslim revivalist movements and terrorism in nineteenth century Arabia, British India and the Sudan. He has been published in Asia Times Online, Elsevier and The Seoul Times and is a contributing analyst for the geostrategic consultancy Wikistrat.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mathesar. CC BY-SA 3.0.