A Half-Tone Victory for Merkel

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Credit Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

Angela Merkel won a fourth term at the helm of Germany ensuing the German federal parliamentary election. In postwar Germany, she is now one of the longest serving Chancellors after Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl. Despite winning her fourth mandate and maintaining her status of most seasoned European politician, she is facing some serious challenges at home. Her conservative party, the CDU, scored one of the lowest results in recent memory and lost almost 1 million voters to the extreme-right anti-immigrant party, Alternative for Germany (AfD). Time will tell, but this general election sends a signal to Germany, Europe and the world: traditional postwar german politics appear to be changing. This election marks very well a substantial political shift.

Data and Political Landscape

The big story of this election is the rise of the AfD as the third largest bloc in the parliament with over 88 deputies, as it received 12.6% of the vote. As argued by Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times, “Germany now looks more like a ‘normal’ western country. And that, ironically, is not something to be welcomed.” The normality implies a Western country with a relatively strong presence by a extreme-right anti-immigrant party. Germany is not immune anymore.

The AfD was founded in 2013 in response to the bailout of the Eurozone economies. It was an eurosceptic party created by conservative intellectuals six months prior to the 2013 elections, led by a professor of economics at the University of Hamburg, Bernd Lucke, opposed to the bailouts by Germany of other eurozone economies. At that time, the party failed to make it into the Bundestag receiving only 4.6% of the vote, or 0.4 percentage points below the 5% cutoff. The 2015-16 refugee crisis leading to an open-door policy by Chancellor Merkel, welcoming over 1 million refugees, was used by the AfD leadership in order to shift the party ideology from eurosceptism to anti-immigration. The three figureheads of the party being Alexander Gauland, Alice Weidel, and Frauke Petry have used incendiary rhetorics and not shied away from addressing Germany’s nazi past.

Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 11.14.51 AM
Source: The Guardian

With 32.9% of the vote, Merkel’s CDU won the night and a significant share of the Bundestag. However, it is a half-tone victory considering one of the worst results for the CDU losing over 8.6% of the votes compared with the 2013 general election. Furthermore, Merkel’s CDU saw the migration of roughly 1 million voters towards the AfD (see chart below). Merkel’s agenda throughout the campaign was mainly based on the concept of continuity. But the migration towards the AfD may not be only about immigration policies. Chancellor Merkel played a considerable role on making Germany one of the strongest world economies and the economic power of the European bloc. The reforms began in the 1990s, continued by Merkel, implementing neoliberal economic programs permitting to grow the economy, lower unemployment and averse the debt. For instance, four of the world largest companies are German and the country has one of the lowest unemployment level at 5.7%. But these policies came at a cost as the trade-off allowed a huge wealth to companies and low wages. Over the 12 years under Merkel, the disparity between the wealthy and the poor has widened and 16% of the population is at risk of poverty.

Arguable one of the major losers of the 2017 election is the SPD receiving its worst defeat since40674809_303 postwar with 20.5% of voters. In a four year period, the party led by Martin Schulz, the former President of the European Parliament, lost over 5% of voters. One of the major problems for Schulz, whom lacked strong domestic presence, was his inability to articulate a clear alternative to Merkel’s CDU. In addition, traditional SPD voters, its blue-collars base, is declining and represents roughly 19% of the electorate. This number almost mirrors the final results of the SPD at this election. In addition, almost half a million of SPD voters migrated towards the AfD during this election cycle. Schulz’s call to bring the party into the opposition, meaning it won’t join the coalition with the CDU, is no surprise. During his announcement, the SPD leader declared that “in a democracy the opposition is perhaps a more decisive force than the government.” The hope and strategy is to redefine the values, policies and ultimately ideology of the SPD for the next general election in order to attract more voters.

Voter Migration - 2017 German Elections
Source: Deutsche Welle

This illustration below provides a substantial and brief analysis of the Bundestag since the end of the World War two. As one can observe, the SPD-CDU have historically held a substantial majority until the 2017 elections. Last, as illustrated at the bottom of the illustration, a extreme-right party, the AfD, makes his first appearance in the Bundestag since postwar Germany.

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Source: Financial Times

Jamaica Coalition

In order to govern, Chancellor Merkel will need to form a coalition. The evening of results, SPD leader, Martin Schulz, called for the party to stand as the opposition and not forming a grand coalition with Merkel’s CDU. This leaves Merkel with the possibility to join forces with the pro-business Free-Democrats, or FDP, and Green party. This triumvirat is known as the Jamaica Coalition, considering that the colors of each party mirror the colors of the flag of the Caribbean island (Black, Green and Yellow).

The development of the coalition is a priority for Merkel, which will be a major challenge for the Chancellor. For starter, candidates of the FDP and Green party disagree on substantial issues and won’t be imageseasily brought together. A “deal to form a coalition” writes Stefan Wagstyl “could take months to put together, given stark policy differences between the parties on several issues including environmental protection.”

The Jamaica coalition will affect the ability of Merkel to work with French president, Emmanuel Macron. The FDP agenda, as advanced during the campaign, goes in opposition with Macron’s proposals, as it opposes the French proposition to reform the Eurozone (i.e. creation of a European budget). On this point, President Macron will be announcing his vision for the reform of the Eurozone on Tuesday, September 26, as he was waiting for the official results of the German election. Ensuing his speech, FDP reactions will be critical for Merkel in order to define the terms of the coalition and therefore her future line with regards to European reforms.

Finally, Chancellor Merkel will need to deal with a growing opposition within her own party. For instance, Merkel is starting to see some opposition coming from Klaus-Peter Willsch, a conservative CDU, opposed to Merkel’s immigration policy. The dealing with the FDP and Green party will be challenging, but keeping in check her own party will be major dilemma.

German Political Realities and Beyond

Despite winning a fourth term and a clear mandate, the outcomes of this election cycle respond to Merkel’s most critical policy-choices: the bailouts of some of Germany’s Eurozone partners and open-door policies vis-à-vis refugees. Both decisions taken by Chancellor Merkel were the right one at the time (for the bailouts avoiding a collapse of the Eurozone) and morally justified and politically courageous (welcoming over 1 millions refugees). Unfortunately, she is now confronting the reality of a changing German electorate.

The strong result by the AfD to the 2017 federal election sends a significant signal that German politics is changing. Populism, which has been present and rising all around Germany and across the pond, finally arrived in Germany. AfD will be a force to reckon with in the legislative process, but could be the necessary evil in order for mainstream parties to craft more substantial social and integration policies.

However, the day ensuing the results, co-chair of the AfD, Frauke Petry, surprised her colleagues by announcing that she will not be part of the AfD group, but will be present as an independent. This announcement illustrates a reality regarding extreme-right parties in Europe. Winning elections has become easier for these parties, like the Front National (FN) of France and even the UKIP party in the UK, able to attract a substantial

Frauke Petry flounces out
Credit: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

share of the electorate. But they are unable to maintain unity once elected and even less able to govern. The most striking case is exemplified by the FN arriving, as expected, to the second round of the French elections in front of two mainstream parties, Les Républicains (right) and the Socialist Party (left). Marine le Pen, president of the party and presidential candidate, was correct when claiming that the FN was the largest party of France. However, after losing the second round with a high percentage (33.6%), the party has been dealing with major internal crises and is now almost irrelevant in shaping the debate and agenda. Petry’s announcement seems to prove the point that extreme-right parties grow strong as an opposition force using identity politics and deeply inconsistent policies in order to get elected. But their lack of political consistency and leadership tension affect their abilities to survive, despite stronger results at elections, and therefor to govern.

This elections mark a turning point in German politics and may bode some major difficulties ahead for Merkel. Furthermore, ensuing the election of Macron in May and its legislative majority, the world expected France and Germany to be finally on the same political page in order to advance and reform the EU. Hopefully, Europe will not be the big looser of this election.

(COPYRIGHT 2017 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).
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A Shameful Summer for Europe

Photograph: Philippe Huguen
Photograph: Philippe Huguen

It is difficult to look at Europe and its Member States and feel proud of their accomplishments and actions in the last six months. From the continuous migration crisis getting his coverage since April, to the ultra-nationalist national political campaigns (in Britain, Denmark, Poland), to the Greek fiasco, and now to the Franco-British clash over migrants held in a camp in Calais, European affairs have taken a turn for the worst. All these issues/crises share one factor in common: the inability by Europeans to control their present and shape their futures.

Migration – All the Roads Do not Lead to London

The question of migration is more than a European problem, it is a global tragedy. Reports, from newspapers, think tanks, NGOs, and other international agencies, all identify the current migrants as political, economic and environmental refugees.Faces of defiance and a despairing message as migrants prepare for the French onslaught on the Jungle These migrants are in fact for most of them coming from countries destroyed by war (Syria, Libya, Sudan, Afghanistan), by terrorism and political repression (Eritrea, Yemen, Somalia) and so forth. These migrants are traveling thousand of miles through the toughest conditions imaginable all in direction of one of the richest and most stable region in the world, Europe. As previously reported (read here and here), the routes to Europe are by the Central Mediterranean region in direction of Italy, or by the short distance between Turkey and Greece (more Eastern route). Once in Italy, the migrants just go North in direction of France, Germany and some Scandinavian countries. In Greece, migrants go North through Macedonia and then West in direction of France and Germany (see the map below)._82353692_key_migration_routes_624

Once on the European continent, these are the different routes and final destinations of most migrants as illustrated by a map produced by Europol:

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This massive migration wave is highlighting two problems: a human tragedy for all these migrants (the episode of Lampedusa and so forth illustrate the dangers of such journey); and a political tragedy of European inabilities to deal with this crisis seriously. Instead of developing a serious set of policies in order to adjust their national laws, the tensions have increased among neighboring Member States. For example, France and Italy had a rift over several hundred migrants being stuck in the border-town of Vintimille, and between France and the United Kingdom over what captphoto_1253605518858-1-0is described by London of an invasion of migrants located at the infamous so-called ‘Jungle’ camp near Calais. This camp is counting between 3,000 and 5,000 individuals (as a comparison, Turkey and Lebanon are dealing with camps from 1 to 2 millions refugees, so it is difficult to believe that one of the richest country in the world, France, cannot manage a camp of roughly 5,000 refugees). American and European media have covered in recent days a little more the camp, even though this precarious camp has existed for years and was preceded by the camp of Sangatte. Interestingly enough, all migrants in the Calais’ camp are not all trying to get to Britain. Some of them are trying to remain in France.

National Rhetorics and the Fear of the Other

The problem of migration – legal and illegal – is a central one for anyone wanting to understand the current political debates at the national and European levels. Even legal migration between the 28 EU Member States is a cause of domestic tension even though such sort of migration is directly connected to the freedom of movement, one of the four freedoms guaranteed by the common market.  So in the case of illegal migration, it is not difficult to imagine the tone of the debate.

Domestically, the radical parties (especially the extreme right) have risen above their former status of opposition parties, to becoming a shaping-force of the national debate. In the case of France, the Front National (currently facing internal family-feud) is now considered as one of the top french parties, with the Socialist Party and the newly-renamed right wing party, Les Républicains. The Front National (FN) has made its name by blaming all France’s troubles and decline on Europe, globalization and the immigrants. In the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led by Nigel Farrage, was as well an important actor framing Britain’s crises because of Europe and immigrants. His sudden rise, despite some disappointing results in the May elections, has forced Cameron’s government to talk tougher. Ensuing the June elections in Denmark, the anti-EU and anti-immigrant party, Danish People’s Party (DPP), has risen to the second rank of national parties. And these radical parties have only been identified because of the recent elections in each country. But other EU Member States, like the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, Austria, Italy, Greece, and so forth, are as well dealing with a powerful extreme right political force changing the tone of the debate.

Now, two questions remain to be answered: First, to what extent are these extremist parties throughout Europe influencing the debate on migration? Second, are mainstream right wing parties eventually showing their true colors? For instance, the recent rhetoric emanating from London are quite worrisome. Prime Minister Cameron has had some24A20A8C00000578-0-image-a-20_1421106386798 tough words about these migrants ‘invading’ Britain. In July, PM Cameron compared the migrants stuck in Calais as a “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean” and has been advocating for stricter immigration rules in Britain. Weeks later, British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, made comments aligned with his leadership about the current migration crisis and claimed that Europe “can’t protect itself.” He continued saying that “The gap in standards of living between Europe and Africa means there will always be millions of Africans with the economic motivation to try to get to Europe.” In France, under President Sarkozy, the tone towards immigrants was very negative and aggressive. Sarkozy and his Minister of Interior, Brice Hortefeux, stole some of the narratives from the Front National either for political gain or by sympathy for such belief. For instance, in June 2010, Brice Hortefeux was fined for making racist comments towards a man of North Africa origins.

It is time that center-right parties finally opposed once and for all the xenophobic and anti-EU narratives advanced by extreme-right parties. If their electorates increase it is not because Europeans are becoming more racist or anti-EU, but that they are tired of a visionless, leaderless, and scared political class. All these radical national parties in Europe share this commonality of stating clearly what they think, even though it is not true (like linking terrorism to immigration; or opposing globalization and returning to a protectionist economy). In addition, the current socio-economic climate in Europe is propice to such rise as the center-right and left parties have been unable to real make the required changes in order to launch the economic engine.

Creative Thinking for a Complex Challenge

The fear of the immigrants has always existed and Europe is not the only continent to face such problem. The current political debate in the United States about securing the southern border with Mexico and the legalization of long-term immigrants will play an important role in the 2016 Presidential election. In the case of Europe, the flow of migrants continues to grow every year and require some serious discussion, reflection and policy change at the European level.

Credit: The New York Times
Credit: The New York Times

Europe is facing serious crises requiring long-term thinking and necessitating cooperation and solidarity. In trying to ‘control’ the influx of immigrants seeking refuge in Europe, the 28 Member States will have to agree at the EU level on a ‘real’ set of measures such as quotas per countries (all the MS) based on a 10 year plan, an increase in common border control, national and european reforms of the current laws on asylum, and eventually more international operations in order to stabilize the political situations in countries of origins.

These measures can only be agreed on if the national leaders are serious in finding long-term solution and are ready to defend such plan before their electorate. On the one side, European leaders have become visionless administrators enslaved by polling numbers and reelections. On the other, Europeans have to realize that solidarity will be necessary even in these dire economic times. There are not that many options and the influx will continue. The Europeans still have the time to open their doors to these migrants with cohesive European policies and real structures to integrate them in the different societies. Integration of these migrants is possible and necessary. Rejecting them will only widen the gap and push European cohesion to its limits.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).