Germany has seen a surge in right-wing parties in recent times. Henry Eviston analyses the situation.

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Last month, three states in the German Confederation held elections to form their parliaments. Two of the states returned a left-wing majority, while the third remained in the hands of the Christian Democratic CDU. The elections established the right-wing, anti-immigration AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party as a forceful presence in German politics.

Although it did not get into government in any of the three states, the AfD has managed to terrify the political establishment by capturing between 22 and 25 per cent of the vote and is now represented in eight of Germany’s 16 state parliaments.

The CDU, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party and the senior partner in Germany’s governing coalition, was expected to lose support because of its role in dealing with the influx of refugees into Germany. Last summer, as other European countries began to erect fences on their borders, Merkel announced a plan to accept and integrate up to a million refugees into Germany.

The roots of AfD’s success lie more in the favourable political climate created by the popular backlash against Germany’s policy on the refugee crisis rather than in any particular quality of the party. The refugee policy had already been met with resistance not only from the German far right, which includes groups such as the Islamophobic PEGIDA, but also from within the CDU itself.

Opposition to the policy exploded in January, however, as newspapers reported a wave of organised attacks on New Year’s Eve, mostly in the city of Cologne, during which women were surrounded, robbed and sexually assaulted by groups of mostly foreign men. If the scale and organised nature of the attacks were not sufficient, public opinion became even more inflamed by police reports stating that the majority of the attackers were asylum-seekers.

The outrage generated by these attacks created space in German political discourse for strong anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the AfD seized on this opportunity to increase its popularity. It was polling at 5 per cent nationally as recently as last autumn, but a poll taken last week put its support at 14 per cent, making it the third biggest party in Germany. Meanwhile, support for both the CDU and the social-democratic SPD, the CDU’s junior governing partner, has steadily fallen.

The ultimate fallout from the AfD’s rise is uncertain. Its presence inside local parliaments, combined with its strong poll numbers, makes it increasingly unlikely that it will be a short-lived phenomenon. Some commentators have argued that the party’s appeal lies not only in its anti-immigration stance, but also in its anti-liberalism, anti-Euro and anti-establishment positions. The continued persistence of both the Eurozone and refugee crises, which have been exploited by other right-wing groups in other countries to advance their agenda, will probably provide fertile ground for the AfD to plough.

“The AfD’s rise is part of a Europe-wide resurgence of the far-right, which has been accompanied by increasing intolerance towards immigration.”

Though Merkel’s leadership is still unquestioned, and her immigration policy is supported by major parties on the left, such as the Social Democrats and the Green Party, she may need to modify her position on many issues if sustained pressure from the AfD and factions inside the CDU cause her coalition to continue to slide in the polls.

Opposition of Merkel’s open border policies is not confined to German politics: the AfD’s rise is part of a Europe-wide resurgence of the far-right, which has been accompanied by increasing intolerance towards immigration. The Hungarian government, for example, has protested against proposals for redistribution of migrants amongst EU member states, and Austria has recently imposed a daily cap on the number of migrants it allows through its borders.

Merkel’s domestic popularity, combined with Germany’s strong economic performance, has allowed her to become the dominant political figure in Europe. Germany has always been a very strong supporter of the EU and its institutions and has consistently favoured increased integration amongst member-states. During the entire migrant crisis, and even in the aftermath of the Cologne attacks, Merkel and her allies in the SPD have constantly reiterated their commitment to the European project and their immigration policy.

She is now finding it difficult to maintain her pre-eminence in Europe’s politics, however: Germany’s leadership role during the Eurozone crisis and the immigration crisis has antagonised many European leaders, and its handling of the crises has created a lot of resentment towards Germany and the EU in national electorates.

While during the Eurozone crisis, the EU could control states’ behaviour more forcefully by restricting their access to emergency funding from the ECB (as it famously did last summer during its negotiations with Greece), it has been almost powerless to prevent member states from erecting fences on their borders and using violence to prevent refugees from entering their territory.
Perhaps even more worryingly, while the economic crisis has divided Europe into North-South factions, the migration crisis has split it into East-West factions, as countries in the Balkans rushed to close their borders.

The EU’s clear inability to find a consensual solution to the crisis resulted in its striking a deal with Turkey to try to stop the influx of migrants: in exchange for €6 billion in financial aid, looser restrictions for obtaining visas to the EU and reopening talks on integration into the EU. Turkey has agreed to allow EU countries, mainly Greece, to return refugees to Turkey. For every Syrian refugee returned to Turkey, one will be resettled in the EU.

Negotiations on the deal began in the week after the German state elections: under pressure to sign a deal with Turkey, Merkel dealt directly with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and cut out the EU institutions, alienating them even more.

The EU was built with many design flaws, which make it unable to cope with severe political crises like those it is facing now. Chief among these was the construction of a European free travel zone without a corresponding border enforcement agency or a mechanism to cope with mass immigration. The EU has shown a remarkable ability to repeatedly shoot itself in the foot over the financial crisis. This last crisis may just have been one shot too many.