Merkel feels the populist bite

If a political colossus such as Angela Merkel can be dealt a blow by populists, then other Western politicians would do well to take note (Mr Macron in particular)

German chancellor Angela Merkel
German chancellor Angela Merkel

If there is one thing that 2016 proved, it’s that no matter what the polls and experts may say, people and politics can surprise you. Brexit and Donald Trump were the gold standard in this case. They represented a backlash from working class workers against what they saw as the disinterested attitude of the governing elites. Whilst the reasons for that backlash are too numerous to go into detail here, some of the key ingredients included globalisation and some of its derivatives: immigration and income inequality.

The elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany were litmus tests for whether the EU would weather the populist wave that gripped both Washington DC and London. Netherlands survived, whilst Emmanuel Macron’s defeat of nationalist firebrand Marine Le Pen in France led to a wave of relief in political circles. With Angela Merkel and her Socialist rival Martin Schulz being moderate, pro-European politicians, they would continue to show their support for the EU after the election. Surely that would be the end of the whole populist craze.

Almost, but not really. The jubilation after Macron’s victory in France did not sit well with me at the time, as it presumed that the wave of nationalism which had gripped the West, both economic and political, was a cyclical, and not a structural problem that had suddenly been solved by Marine Le Pen’s defeat. Some of the statements made by EU officials such as Donald Tusk, and Jean Claude Juncker gave the impression that populism was dead, and the time was right for speeding up European integration, a tricky proposition in even the best of circumstances.

But the populist problem never went away, and the election results in Germany are the latest example. How one can assume that populism has died in one country because of developments in another is bizarre.

The German far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), is now the third largest party grouping in the Bundestag. It threatens to shake up German domestic politics in a way that will make Angela Merkel feel uneasy, and with good reason. There are some within the AfD are pushing for a different approach to viewing Germany’s role in World War II, and have called a monument to the Holocaust as a ‘monument of shame’. AfD won 12.6% of the vote, and 90 seats, making it a formidable opponent and a likely disruptor for the foreseeable future.

Angela Merkel has grown used to disruption over the past couple of years, having to contend with the eventual exit of a key EU member from the Union, and the victory of a brash political outsider in the US. Trump’s victory saw the baton of “leader of the free world” fall into her reluctant lap, as she sought to counter Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric at both the G7 and G20 summits earlier this year by continuing to champion free trade and global cooperation. But from now on, she will need to be ready to defend her politics more vigorously at home also.

Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union coalition may have won the election, but their support has fallen by 9%. Schultz’s Socialists, suffered their worst reversal since 1949, leading them to opt out of the grand coalition with Merkel’s centre-right grouping to become the main opposition party. Merkel will now need to rely on forming a coalition with the Free Democrat Party and the Greens, who have very different, and conflicting views on issues such as migration, Europe and energy policy. The FDP and Greens will want numerous concessions from Merkel, and her ability to drive policy in Germany, and outside of it will be more subject to her governing partners’ wishes than ever before. In short, she will be returning to the Chancellery, but the price of admission will be high.

Whilst the AfD was not close to winning the election, the fact that it was able to get into Parliament for the first time is noteworthy. Like other nationalist, right-wing movements elsewhere, its most fervent support derives from a working-class base, being eastern Germany, which still lags behind western Germany in a number of respects, not least employment and quality of life. Its support derives from the working classes who feel that the governing elites have not defended German interests strongly enough, not least when Merkel allowed over a million refugees to settle in Germany between 2015-16. It made sense from an economic standpoint, due to an aging population and a low birth rate, but raised the ire of the far-right, feeding nationalist parties, which helped to propel them to the Bundestag this time around.

Populists have learned how to speak to the concerns of the working classes, those most impacted by globalisation, immigration, and income inequality; and whip up their anger towards the ‘governing elites’. Populists strike a chord with the population because they highlight the areas where politicians have neglected to act. And act they must.

With the UK on its way out of the EU, France and Germany are undisputedly its most powerful members. The far-right has made considerable gains in both in the past few years. While everyone thought the European Union was threatened by populism in 2017, that assessment was premature. The warning signs are there for all to see, and they are not limited to these two countries.

If a political colossus such as Angela Merkel can be dealt a blow by populists, then other Western politicians would do well to take note (Mr Macron in particular) – one cannot hope to solve regional or global problems if trouble is brewing domestically. The far-right’s rise is a result of political inaction on the more undesirable side effects of globalisation. Those side effects need to be treated with sound policies that gain people’s trust once again. Failure to do so will lead to the far-right being given the opportunity to provide those answers, and that is not something most of us should want to see. 

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