By Manuel Schneider
The magnitude of the current refugee crisis’s impact on European and, in particular, German politics cannot be overstated. In the most recent German parliamentary election, the Alternative for Germany (AFD), a party many consider radically right, secured 13 percent of total votes. Since the German parliamentary system is a multiparty system, giving smaller parties considerable say, the AFD now possesses significant political power. When comparing the AFD’s election results to those of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which only received 33 percent of all votes, many people are concerned by the AFD’s recent popularity. Not having been able to secure a single seat in Parliament just four years prior, the AFD has become the third most influential party in Germany. This article sheds light on how a party associated with the far-right entered the German Bundestag for the first time since 1945.
To understand the AFD’s rapid ascendence it is necessary to analyze the effects of the European refugee crisis on Germany in its unique national context. I will focus on two aspects. Firstly, I examine the social implications the recent wave of immigration – 1.2 million refugees entered Germany in 2015 and 2016 alone – had on a country bent on combatting social inequality. The tension between a system of universal care and open borders policy will be elaborated. Secondly, I focus on the leftwards shift of the conservative party, the CDU under Merkel.
For a long time, the norm was that there should be no party right of the CDU. In other words, the CDU should at any moment be just conservative enough to prevent a party with illiberal ideas to gain a foothold in the German parliament. With the AFD entering parliament, this policy has clearly come to an end. The question that needs to be addressed is why people who had voted for moderate parties in the years before, now chose to cast their ballot for a party with radical views. Finally, this analysis highlights that to combat the radical right, liberals and centrists must shift their platforms to include those favoring certain immigration restrictions. Only by doing this can the rise of the radical right be restrained in Germany and the rest of the world.
Germany has long considered itself an intensely egalitarian country. To many citizens Germany’s potent safety net is responsible for the cohesiveness of society, simply because it reduces divides along socioeconomic lines. Germany provides universal healthcare to all citizens, the quality of public schools is comparable across regions and neighborhoods and higher education is public and free for all. Private schools and universities do not play a significant role in educating Germany’s youth. It is thus very common for the child of very wealth people to go the same school as the child of low-income parents, as schools are not separated by neighborhoods. Unlike the United States, Germany has an open-ended unemployment insurance where people receive social benefits for an indefinite period of time, regardless of their prior contributions. These unemployment benefits, colloquially known as Hartz IV, are contingent on attending workshops and require recipients to take on any job offered to them by the job center. It is largely undisputed among major political parties, as well as among the population, that this egalitarian system is one of Germany’s biggest assets and must therefore be preserved.
To many people, the recent refugee crisis threatens this system of significant social services, such as free higher education and generous social benefits. In 2015 and 2016 alone, about 1.250.000 people applied for asylum in Germany. This is almost equivalent to the population of Germany’s third biggest city, Munich. Education will have to be provided for a majority of refugees for an extended amount of time. Refugee integration into the highly specialized German job market, which increasingly relies on robots to replace manual labor, will remain a challenge for the foreseeable future. According to estimates of the German Federal Office of Labor, nearly 10 percent of refugees find employment after one year and abut 50 percent after five years. The remaining 50 percent are expected to be either in school, retired or unemployed five years after applying for asylum.
At the same time, refugees are entitled to the full extent of German social care. The German Government expects to spend about 20 billion Euros on refugee care annually for the near future. For comparison, the budget for the Ministry of Education is about 18 billion Euros. This highlights the general conflict between a system of universal care and a policy of open borders. The current refugee crisis puts a significant financial strain on the German safety net.
Balancing this additional strain on the German safety net by simply increasing its budget might seem reasonable at first. However, it becomes clear upon further analysis that an increase in budget through higher taxation is not a viable solution. This is mainly because taxation in Germany is already more significant than in most other nations. For instance, while the Goods and Services Tax in the United States is currently at 5 percent, its German equivalent is at 19 percent. This means a resident in Germany pays 19 percent of the value of all goods and services to the government, aware that a significant portion of this revenue will benefit the German safety net. This is just one example of relatively high taxation in Germany. Increasing taxes is thus generally not seen as an opportunity to increase revenues in order to set off the increase in strain on the social system due to immigration.
Merkel’s efforts to shift the conservative CDU to the left ideologically, at a time when people were already concerned about the dissolution of established conservative norms, had a significant impact on the AFD’s success. Counterintuitively, Merkel’s efforts to make her own party more liberal had the effect of strengthening the political right. Some conservative voters, unwilling to follow the CDU’s shift to the left, instead found a more conservative alternative in the AFD. During the height of the refugee crisis, the German parliament was comprised of four parties: the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) at 41.5 percent, the worker-focus Social Democratic Party (SPD) at 25.7 percent, the Party of the Left at 8.6 percent and the environmentally focused Greens at 8.4 percent. It is evident that the CDU was the most conservative party represented in parliament. In other words, whatever political position the CDU took, it was destined to be the parliament’s most conservative. In that sense the CDU became the benchmark to which other parties would compare their own political programs. In order to appeal to their voter base, parties left of the CDU would take an even more liber stance than the CDU. When Merkel decided to uphold her policy of open borders, her decision was contested within her own party, but unanimously supported by the remainder of parliament.
The unanimous support for Merkel’s decision within the German parliament was easily exploitable by the more radical AFD. It was simple for the AFD to position itself as an anti-establishment party that represented people skeptical of the surge in immigration. It thereby skillfully appealed to people’s fear of a loss of social services and to the general perception that these fears were not taken into consideration by the established parties. Indeed, at the height of the immigration crisis towards the middle of 2015, a majority of people were opposed to Merkel’s policy of open borders. According to one of Germany’s biggest polling institutes, Infra Test Dimap, about 60 percent of surveyed people indicated they were unhappy and 39 percent indicated they were happy with Merkel’s refugee policy. Again, this poll was taken at a time when all parties represented in parliament stood firmly behind Merkel’s policy. An evident mismatch existed between the opinion represented in parliament and the opinion voiced by a significant portion of constituents. It is clear that such a mismatch was bound to be resolved during the next election. Of course, the main beneficiary of this mismatch was the AFD.
The rise of the AFD could have been prevented, had the CDU taken a slightly more conservative stance on immigration. This would have made it easier for Germany to help refugees in the future. A significant portion of people who had voted for the AFD during the most recent parliamentary election stated that they cast their ballot as a protest vote. This means they did not vote for the AFD because of its particular agenda, but rather because of their unhappiness with the current stance of established parties, ostensibly in particular with their stance on immigration. This seems to suggest that opinions voiced by the AFD concerning European politics or immigration are unlikely to align entirely with the opinions of most of its voters. It is likely that a majority of the AFD’s voters has a much less radical view on immigration than the party they voted for. Only because the above issues were not sufficiently raised by established parties, partly because of their fear that this would benefit the political right, had the AFD a chance at winning otherwise moderate voters over.
The main purpose of this article is to emphasize the necessity for liberal and centrist parties in Germany – and elsewhere – to acknowledge the difficulties that necessarily arise with the form of immigration we have witnessed in Europe over the past three years. Only because these issues have been largely ignored by Germany’s established parties, including the conservative CDU, was a right-leaning party able to gain such a foothold within the German parliament. The admission of a right-leaning part into the Bundestag for the first time since World War II will undoubtedly have significant impacts throughout the coming decades. It can be expected that German politics will experience a rightward shift as radical opinions become more accepted simply by virtue of having a parliamentary party advocating for them. A more nationalistic Germany will have implications beyond its borders. European politics will be subjected to more volatility as Germany reconsiders some of its contributions. Since Germany is the biggest financial contributor to the European Union, changes in its solidarity to the EU will lead to a cascading effects. It is likely that other E.U. members will reconsider their contributions to the union. A weakened European Union will in turn complicate Transatlantic relations and become more vulnerable to an assertive Russian foreign politics. As Europe becomes less stable and more nationalistic its capacity and willingness to help refugees in the future will decrease.
Manuel Schneider ’20 is in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.