Although migrants may not bring down the social fabric of Germany, as many on the country’s far right have suggested, they may bring down the one person fighting the hardest to protect them, Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel has heretofore resisted calls from the radical right and from within her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party to curb the flow of migrants, many of them Muslim, from the Middle East into Germany. If recent state elections in Germany serve as a harbinger for the 2017 federal election, Merkel’s refusal to compromise her values will result in the loss of her job. The CDU’s decline and the growing popularity of Alternative for Germany (AfD) reflect a bleak reality for many of Europe’s more vulnerable establishment parties.
Sinking approval ratings of Angela Merkel and her center-right CDU have coincided with the rise of Germany’s far right AfD party. The country’s center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) will perhaps benefit the most from this growing rift in the conservative wing. In early September, Merkel and the CDU suffered their first direct defeat in a state election at the hands of the AfD, but it was the SPD who won the day in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Merkel’s home state. The SPD finished with around 30% of the vote, the AfD with just under 21%, and the CDU with 19%. While the CDU has not traditionally won Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, this was its worst ever showing.
Since then, the AfD has successfully drawn more voters away from the CDU, a party that has been in power in Germany since 2005. The AfD did not finish at the top of the polls in Berlin’s late September elections, but it did gather enough support to gain its first ever seats in the state’s Parliament and deal another blow to Merkel’s CDU, which won just over 17% of the vote. The SPD won the contest with 21%.
The AfD began in 2013 as a Eurosceptic body that believed Germany should withdraw from the eurozone, thereby renouncing the Euro, the European Union’s common currency. Since then, the party has adopted a platform that has many in the European Union and elsewhere worried. “Islam is not a part of Germany” was officially adopted into the party platform in May 2016, a direct challenge to Chancellor Merkel’s commitment to maintaining an open-door policy. Now, the party’s platform includes expelling North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operations from German soil, dismantling the European Union, and reinstating mandatory military service for Germany’s youth. Despite the AfD’s radical appearance, supporting it has become common for German voters protesting the country’s traditional political establishment.
From now until fall 2017, Merkel and the CDU will fight the uphill battle of convincing voters that they are indeed a party dedicated to maintaining German security and prosperity. In order to prevail in the next election, Merkel needs to show potential supporters that their protest vote in favor of the AfD is not, in fact, in their best interest. She must demonstrate her commitment to working with Greece and Turkey on border security, and she must convince skeptical low-wage workers that the German economy is resilient and can provide work for all.
Even if the CDU fails to maintain control of Germany’s government, it is unlikely that the AfD will gain enough seats to have sway over German legislation at a federal level. The policies and example of the AfD pose the greatest threat to the more vulnerable countries and parties of the EU.
In France, for example, Marine le Pen’s right-wing National Front (FN) continues to threaten President Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party ahead of the country’s spring 2017 presidential elections. Polls show that if elections were held today, Mrs. Le Pen could win up to 30% of the national vote. Similar to the AfD, the National Front favors retreating from European integration. Mrs. Le Pen has stated that, if given the power to do so, she would allow her country to vote on a referendum to leave the EU. After Britain’s affirmative vote to leave this past June, a “Frexit” would be devastating to the future of the European Union. Indeed, France seems a more likely candidate than Germany for overrun by a conservative movement. France’s Muslim population is proportionally higher than Germany’s, sparking even greater backlash to EU immigration policy, and its people have been the victims of gruesome attacks in Paris and Nice.
Austria, another European nation dealing with a large influx of migrants, too, finds itself in a critical moment. After two botched elections earlier this year, right-wing populist candidate Norbert Hofer of Austria’s Freedom Party (FPO) will square off with Green Party candidate Alexander van der Bellen for a third time in December. Hofer and the FPO advocate an immediate cessation of migration into Austria and are also in favor of exiting the European Union.
If a party such as the AfD can gain momentum in Europe’s strongest and most stable economy, it is no surprise that similar movements are threatening other EU member states. However, a valuable lesson can be learned from Merkel and the CDU; if a country or party is going to commit itself to maintaining open borders and accepting refugees, it must do a better job of reassuring the electorate that the job is being done in the most secure and economically stable manner possible. If the traditional parties of Europe fail in conveying this message, the European Union could be edging closer to collapse.