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Shifting tectonics - what the recent electoral success of AfD in Germany may mean for the EU

In Germany, like in more and more EU member states, right-wing populists apparently have come to stay. At last Sunday’s (October 8th) regional elections in Hesse and Bavaria, the so-called “Alternative for Germany” (named as antithesis to a famous quote by former chancellor Angela Merkel according to whom there was “no alternative” to her slightly progressive, pro-immigration course), has obtained stunning 18,4 percent of the votes in Hesse (thus coming in 2nd, behind the Christian Democrats) and 14,6 percent in Bavaria (ranking third, after the Christian Social Union and the Free Voters). As a matter of fact, the AfD’s score in Hesse is the best ever achieved so far in the western part of Germany. In Eastern Germany, the former GDR, where regional elections will take place in three states in 2024, the AfD currently touches a record 30 percent and more in the polls. The time has come to ask, therefore, what this seemingly unstoppable rise may mean not only for Germany but for the political tectonics in the EU.

Fragile firewalls On national level, so far, the established parties pretend to stick to what they call the “fire-wall” against the AfD – a metaphor indicating that any kind of formal cooperation or coalition with “migrant-hating populists” (The Economist, October 7th) is excluded for principal reasons. The question, however, is how long this wall will hold. At municipal level, where pragmatism often trumps fundamental values, political stakeholders slowly (but surely) start to recognise that a decision to, say, build a new daycare center cannot be rejected only because the AfD has voted in favour. “We must not be taken hostage by the AfD”, the new mood goes. In one or two cases, even the Green party in city councils has voted together with the AfD. Is a normalisation already on the way? Alice Weidel, Co-Chair of the party, claimed on election night (Oct 8th) that the formation of state governments including her party is only a matter of time.

And even without, the party more and more sets the tone in controversial debates about illegal migration, gang violence, citizenship or the energy turnaround where they strongly favour a return to nuclear. Also, conservative Germany more and more sympathizes with the AfD’s positions on abortion, LGBTQ rights or sexual auto-determination. Across these policy fields, the established parties are asking themselves which kind of recalibration is needed in order to avoid the loss of even more voters to those offering simple solutions. According to some observers, a conservative backlash especially in immigration policy is already on the way in Germany, with more changes of direction to follow suit.

A less progressive European Parliament (EP)? Meanwhile, the AfD is already heading towards their next electoral success at the EP elections in 2024. In the current EP, they are member of the Identity and Democracy (ID) group to which, among others, the Italian Lega, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) and the Free Party of Austria also belong. Together, these parties are determined to slow down the Energy transformation (“Green Deal”), question sanctions against Russia and block institutional reform, such as overcoming the unanimity vote. Far from favouring the supranational approach, parties like AfD, RN or Lega advocate a Europe of nation states where no crucial decision (and no more money) must be transferred to Brussels or Strasbourg. “Winning back democracy” is a claim that we are likely to hear more often, from their side, not only on national level.

Ultimately, when it proves right that right-wing populists have come to stay, stakeholders such as businesses and their associations have to prepare for major changes of direction in energy, climate, immigration, foreign and societal policy. It is not exaggerated to predict that, the stronger the turnout for the AfD and their allies in June 2024, the less progressive, diverse and climate-focussed the next EP will be.

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