The Center Falters in Germany

The Center Falters in Germany

The decline of the historically dominant center-right and center-left parties in Germany and in the recent EU elections sets the stage for greater conflict over how to deal with Europe’s multiple crises.

The leaders of the CDU/CSU speak to supporters after the release of exit polls on May 26, 2019. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

As the European elections loomed, Germanythe largest member state in terms of population, economy and members of the European Parliamentbraced itself for a tide of right-wing populism that would engulf the political center. To be sure, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) both lost ground. Yet the beneficiary of their losses was not necessarily the far right.

At first glance, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) might seem to have done ominously wellincreasing its share of the vote from 7.1 percent in the previous 2014 European election to 11 percent this year. Yet in 2014, those were the results of an embryonic AfD, founded in 2013 to oppose the Euro. The party only attracted a mass following in 2015 when it turned anti-immigrant xenophobia into its signature issue, going on to win 12.6 percent of the national vote in the 2017 German federal election. The AfD has actually lost ground since then. Its voters remain concentrated geographically in the former East Germany and demographically among men between the ages of thirty and sixty, those who lost the most from the shock-therapy privatization of the former East in the 1990s.

During this past campaign, the AfD repeatedly changed its own rhetoric about Europe, briefly calling for a “Dexit” before settling on reform from within: turning Europe into a “Europe of fatherlands,” nation-states linked only by free-trade compacts. This vision failed to increase the party’s vote share from the anti-immigration program of 2017.

Moreover, should the AfD ever gain significant political responsibilities, the desire to dismantle European cooperation would in fact be in significant tension with its opposition to immigration from outside Europe. The common EU asylum policy, which the AfD opposes, is not a form of “burden-sharing” but of “burden-shifting”shifting the responsibility for asylum seekers to the outer ring of EU member-states. Under the Dublin Regulation, the first EU state an asylum seeker reaches is responsible for that asylum seeker’s application. Germany took in nearly one million asylum seekers in 2015 only because Chancellor Angela Merkel suspended this regulation during an exceptional humanitarian crisis to allow any Syrian to receive a hearing in Germany. Since then, Germany has resumed outsourcing border control via the EU to states like Italy and Poland—places where right-wing populists are at least internally consistent when they marry Eurosceptic views with anti-immigration rhetoric. Anti-immigration parties like the Lega Nord in Italy—the biggest right-wing winner of these elections—may be allied with the AfD but aim to force Germany to accept more asylum seekers, not fewer. If the EU’s common migration policy breaks down, Germany would be unable to deport asylum seekers back to EU border countries like Italy, Spain, and Poland.

The election results do suggest that the AfD has a secure future as a regional protest party—an impression likely to be further confirmed by state-level elections in AfD strongholds in the former East later this year. But right-leaning voters have by and large stuck with the CDU/CSU. Moreover, this election highlighted limitations to the AfD’s growth; it was notably unsuccessful with young voters. Voters under thirty were more likely to vote for a satirical party known as DIE PARTEI (8 percent) than for the AfD (6 percent). The chair of DIE PARTEI, humorist Martin Sonneborn, previously won a seat to the European Parliament in 2014. In his first term, he mechanically alternated between “Yes” votes and “No” votes on every motion. This voting strategy managed to attract 2.4 percent of votes this year, securing two seats in the European Parliament and narrowly missing out on a third.

Voting-as-performance-art was more attractive to young voters than the AfD and almost as attractive as the center-left SPD, which received 10 percent of the under-thirty vote and reached only 15 percent overall. The SPD has been bleeding voters almost continually since it last held the Chancellorship in Germany (1998-2003), when the party forsook its roots in trade unionism to embrace Third Way austerity and workfare programs.

Left-leaning voters instead gravitated to the Green Party, which tapped into the energy of the climate strike and the Fridays for Future movement to receive 33 percent of all voters under thirty and 20.5 percent of the vote overall, coming second in a national election for the first time in their history. While the climate is their signature issue, they’re far from a single-issue party. To give one example, the Greens have a distinct profile in favor of migrants’ rights and anti-racism. They have stressed de-criminalizing rescue operations in the Mediterranean, opening new legal migration pathways to Europe, and making it easier for asylum seekers with a temporary or “tolerated” status to convert that status into permanent residency.

For all the influence that Greta Thunberg and the German leaders of the climate movement appear to have had over this election, however, they have been invoked less over the past few days in explanations of the collapse of the political center than blue-haired YouTube personality Rezo. One week before the elections, Rezo dropped a fifty-five-minute video titled “The Destruction of the CDU” that has already been viewed more than fourteen-million times. Rezo’s video argued that the governing CDU-SPD coalition has overseen soaring wealth inequality, failed to meet even its own unambitious climate-change goals, and allowed the United States to direct drone strikes from Ramstein Air Base that contravene the laws of war. Migration, arguably the defining issue of the 2017 election, only came up once in Rezo’s video—when he warned viewers that climate change would produce new refugee crises dwarfing the “so-called crisis” of 2015. He insists that a solution to this looming catastrophe will not come from the timorous CDU and SPD, and certainly not from the AfD, whom he described as climate-change-denying Nazis.

The two historically dominant parties have reacted in an underwhelming fashion. The CDU evidently filmed and then failed to release a reaction video. In the SPD’s reaction video, a spokesman argued that SPD policies are geared towards giving everyone enough money that they, too, could shop organic—a dispiriting, individualistic solution to a problem that demands collective action. Meanwhile, the head of the CDU complained that youth were improperly “influenced” by Rezo and advocated government controls on online speech.

The tepid showing of the CDU in these elections also weakens their case for the next president of the European Commission. Echoing the results of the German national elections, the center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and center-right European People’s Party (EPP) groupings have lost their combined majority in the European Parliament for the first time. While the German Manfred Weber will still enter the European Parliament as the head of the largest party grouping, that party has lost thirty-nine seats, hardly a ringing mandate. The French leader Emmanuel Macron wants to pass leadership to his own Liberal group and elect a liberal or center-left candidate to the top job.

Beyond Franco-German jockeying for leadership, these elections point to a much broader challenge for the European Parliament. In the last twenty years the European center-left has joined the center-right in broadly supporting what Angela Merkel has termed “market-conforming democracy.” The people select their leaders, who in turn base their decisions on the dictates of the business cycle as determined by the Frankfurt-headquartered European Central Bank. The far-right and the Greens have little in common, but both argue that the center has been quiescent in the face of imminent and existential disaster: for the right it is nonwhite immigration to Europe while for the left it is climate change. For the growing number of voters who support these parties, the “market-conforming democracy” of the center has deliberately forsaken the faculty of making real decisions in the face of crises. In their disavowal of decision, the center invites the real disaster.

For Merkel and the center that she continues to incarnate, the market-conforming nature of European democracy forestalls that disaster. Without the guiding influence of the market, conflicts will erupt between right and left, conflicts driven by incommensurable claims about the nature of the political community and the threat to its future—conflicts that have no natural stopping place if the business cycle no longer regulates politics. The decline of the center in Germany and in Europe now opens European parliamentary politics up to such conflicts.


Lauren Stokes is Assistant Professor of German History at Northwestern University. She researches the history of migration in Germany and Europe and is presently working on a book about capitalism, gender, and the idea of the “family migrant” in West Germany.


Wurgraft | University of California Press Lima