A Tough Five Years
When German voters go to the polls tomorrow (Sunday 25 May) in the European elections, in some parts of the country they’ll be offered up to 25 parties to choose from.
The range is from the established CDU (ruling Conservatives) and SPD (Germany’s socialist party); to the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany; then Die Partei (the Party), founded around a satirical magazine; and various Christian parties, including Christian Mitte (the Christian Middle Way), which calls for a Germany “according to God’s Holy Law”.
There is no doubt that the last five years have been the toughest in the EU’s history: debt, unemployment, austerity, the ever-louder calls for reform. Many citizens seem at best disappointed with the European project – and at worst embittered. And this has led, in turn, to opposition – to differing degrees – to immigration.
There is also a relatively silent majority that is broadly satisfied with the EU.
This group is prepared – for the common good – to accept certain, some-times questionable rules and regulations and a pooling of sovereignty. Large numbers in this group are perhaps resigned to the status quo – but they still feel somewhat disillusioned with it.
European To The Core…?
So: enter the protest groups – the “anti’s”.
These fall broadly into two camps: the “let’s get-the-hell-out-of-here” groups (Britain’s UKIP for example); and the “let’s get to Brussels as quickly as possible and reform, reform, reform” groups.
Germany is of course at the very heart of the EU – historically, geographically, economically, psychologically even.
And as André, a Berlin physiotherapist, told me, “it’s heresy in this country to criticise the EU project. You’re immediately cast as a right-wing nutcase!”
Enter stage (Right) the ‘Alternative für Deutschland’, AfD (Alternative (party) for Germany). It was formed just over a year ago by a group of (mostly) academics, hence the nickname ‘the Professors Party’. And its number one candidate in tomorrow’s election is indeed Bernd Lucke, a professor of Economics at Hamburg University.
Within months of being founded, the party stood in last September’s general election in Germany – and missed out by a whisker on getting MPs into the Bundestag.
The German political establishment was stunned – and a little stung too.
History – And Planet ‘Blue’
And at its final national rally last night in Berlin, the Party pulled off what looked like another coup, gaining permission to stage the event on the famous Pariser Platz, the grandly renovated square dominated by the monumental Brandenburg Gate – just a few voting slips’ lengths away from the Bundestag, the very heart of German politics.
To do this it had got the permission of the Berlin police, Berlin City Council – and air traffic control (see below).
As I emerged from the underground station, the top of the Brandenburg Gate hove into view. In a split second it brings to mind a rush of thoughts of the world-changing historic events witnessed by this capital over the last hundred years. And with personal family links to Berlin going back more than a century too, I never fail to reflect on Berlin’s last tumultuous century.
But I’m then brought up short: I’m greeted by a man from – well, a blue planet!
He’s a cross between a blue Spider man (my 7-year-old godson would approve) and a Telly Tubby (I’ve no idea who would approve). AfD Party workers dressed from head-to-toe (faces covered too) in a blue suit (so much more than a ‘onesie’) and carrying blue balloons have become a common sight at AfD rallies.
The body-suits and balloons are all part of the professors’ efforts to appeal to a section of German society beyond the walls of academe.
The party was founded on the basis of strong criticism of the measures employed by the EU to tackle the bloc’s debt and banking crisis. Political commentators are broadly agreed that the young party is a Right-wing, populist party – but the AfD claims all it wants is a ‘grown up debate’ about how the EU works.
As the party faithful wait for their leader to appear on stage, there is a brief drama further along the Square. A group of Green Party supporters have approached and begin to serenade the crowd with a home-spun ditty, with the catchy refrain “Aufwiedersehen AfD”. But the ladies and gentlemen from the Blue Planet are ready for them: they hastily hand out whistles to AfD supporters.
The ‘musical’ cacophony is complete.
The police then move in and usher the Greens further back – but the strains of their song can still be heard faintly in the background (and no doubt by the guests in the lobby of Berlin’s most prestigious hotel, just across the road).
One party worker, who refused to give me even his first name, was willing to tell me that while out campaigning he’d been called a Nazi, had been jostled and that his wife had been insulted. “I try to ask them why they are against an open debate about the EU,” he tells me, “but they have nothing to say. They are just prepared to follow it all – like sheep. I’m no sheep.”
It’s All About The Head: Straw Boaters And Erudite Grammar
Then the party top brass starts to arrive.
Hans-Olaf Henkel, the Party’s number two candidate, is a 74-year-old former president of the BDI (German Federation of Industry). He sports a boater and to all the world is ready for a day out at Henley Regatta. “Our supporters are intelligent and not from the fringes of society,” he tells waiting journalists. “The main-stream media have conspired to paint us as right-wing extremists: we are not.”
Beatrix von Storch, the Party’s number four candidate, is a no-nonsense lawyer. She too is surrounded by the tv crews.
Finally Professor Lucke is on the Square, hotly pursued by journalists and cameras. He tells them, one by one, that the Euro is no good for Europe. “We need an orderly dismantling of the Eurozone,” he says. The AfD believes Germany doesn’t need the Euro; and that other countries are actually being harmed by it. He quotes Greece and the tough austerity measures imposed on Athens by the ‘troika’ of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF.
He says either national currencies should be re-introduced or there should be smaller currency unions. He fails to answer my question, shouted from the crowd, about how much that would cost Europe.
The AfD also wants a stronger EU Parliament, on the grounds that it is the only directly-elected EU institution. And the Party completely rejects any idea of Turkey ever joining the European Union.
Professor Lucke then takes to the stage.
Backdrop: the Brandenburg Gate, of course.
He begins a speech that wouldn’t be out of place in a university lecture theatre or a pulpit. And the pulse rate of many a pedant of German grammar would have been racing, as the professor’s multiple subordinate clauses, sophisticated subjunctives and elegant inflections gush out into the now rainy evening.
Trade Talks And Condoms
There is talk of the AfD aiming to take at least 10 of Germany’s 96 MEP seats in the next parliament in Brussels. That’s probably wishful thinking – but the crowd is enthusiastic of course.
He returns to the theme of the ‘disastrous’ Euro project and tells the crowd that helping Greece to leave the Euro would be “an act of kindness”. He says the Euro will eventually split Europe in two – creating an underclass of impoverished nations.
More globally the professor is concerned that the EU is on course for a United States of Europe, which he totally rejects. He also condemns the current negotiations on a trade agreement between the EU and the USA (known as TTIP – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). He says this would lead to a massive loss of sovereignty.
He says member states must have the final say over which bits of legislation should be the competency of the EU; and that they must have the right to repatriate such areas of competency, if the need arises. (He’s a little short on detail as to how this would work, but is in favour of regular referenda, promoting the example of Switzerland.)
He doesn’t specifically say whether there should be a referendum on his next example.
He poses the question: “Is it really the role of the European Commission to determine that a condom can only be labelled a condom if it has been shown to be strong enough to hold up to 5 litres of liquid?”
Shades of ‘bendy bananas’ here – but the crowd bursts into fits of laughter, with many men shifting from left foot to right and back again.
At this point you could be forgiven for thinking that there are indeed some similarities here with the UK Independence Party. And although the two parties are reported to have had talks; and although some members of the crowd tell me they are fans of Mr Farage and his ideas – there is a fundamental difference here. Professor Lucke is standing in front of a banner that reads “Look out Brussels – here we come!” (my own loose translation).
The Party’s stated aim is to carry out radical reform from within – and not to withdraw Germany, wholesale, from the EU project.
So no wonder then that Bernd Lucke has ruled out any post-election alliance with the ‘out-of-Europe’ UKIP and its European group, claiming the AfD is in fact closer to the politics of the British Conservative party.
But there’s a problem there: David Cameron’s Conservatives at the European Parliament are currently in bed with various other national groups who are highly critical of – anti, even – Germany. And Professor Lucke has rejected forming alliances with them.
But in the European Parliament, if you are not part of a political grouping, you cannot be considered for the (very powerful) roles of committee chair (‘rapporteur’ in EU jargon); and therefore you have no influence.
That would presumably torpedo the AfD’s plans to ‘radically reform from within’.
In the coming days or weeks we shall see what impact political reality has on political ideals.
And then there are complaints about the atmosphere in which the German campaign has been conducted. Professor Lucke berates those groups who have defaced AfD political placards and attacked party workers.
By now the rain is getting heavier and Professor Lucke speeds up, his voice entering a final crescendo – the crowd whistles and cheers wildly.
To strains of Ode To Joy (Europe’s unofficial anthem – and not a particular Farage favourite), hundreds of blue balloons are released into the grey Berlin evening sky.
It’s hard to work out exactly what the thrill is of watching several hundred balloons – filled with hot air presumably – being released (with the permission of Berlin Air Traffic Control of course).
Then one party supporter explains the symbolism: “Some of those balloons [courtesy of their hot air perhaps] will soon be in Brussels; and we’ll not be far behind them!”
Tags: #EUElections2014 #AfD #Germany #UKIP #Conservatives