The recent migration row that threatened to sink Germany’s government looked, on the face of it, a gloves-off in-house policy battle between Chancellor Angela Merkel and a rebellious coalition ally, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.
But analysts say that, in the background to this high-stakes internecine feud, the real force pushing the ruling conservative bloc close to breaking point was the rising threat of the far-right Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD) party.
Observers warn that Germany’s turmoil is a telling sign of how much this disruptive new nationalist force, once dismissed as a fringe movement, has already transformed the German political landscape, forcing some on the center-right to co-opt AfD’s hardline positions on immigration and identity to try to blunt its rising appeal.
Specifically, the battle over border control between Merkel and Seehofer, head of the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union (CSU), was a direct result of the latter’s anxiety at the prospect of losing votes to the AfD in state elections in October, according to Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“It’s really driving the CSU nuts,” he told VICE News. “That’s why the CSU is panicking — trying to do whatever it takes to hold the AfD down and secure its vote.”
Faced with the prospect of rising support for the AfD — up to 14 percent in recent polls — costing the party its absolute majority in the Bavarian state parliament, the CSU has tacked sharply to the right on immigration, adopting the hardline stance that led to the standoff with Merkel.
In recent weeks, Seehofer vowed to unilaterally close borders to migrants, threatening to resign over the issue and potentially collapse the fragile coalition government, before forcing Merkel into an eleventh-hour compromise deal Monday that will see migrant “transit centers” created on the border. The deal still needs to be approved by their other coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats, who have previously opposed such centers.
While the compromise may have averted a government collapse, just three months into its term, the standoff has left big questions over the health of the longstanding alliance between Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union and the CSU, often referred to as its sister party. In the post-World War II period, the parties have acted as a constant political alliance, with the CDU not contesting elections on the CSU’s Bavarian territory, but recent tensions have placed Germany’s longest-running political marriage under strain.
If you can’t beat ‘em
Formed in 2013 as a eurosceptic party, the AfD soon pivoted in response to the 2015 migration crisis, adopting a populist anti-immigrant, anti-Islam platform that saw its support surge as a result. It created political shockwaves by winning 12.6 percent of the national vote in the September 2017 federal elections, becoming the third largest party — and the largest opposition party — in the German parliament.
Janning said the CSU’s co-option of AfD-style politics reflected a standard response by the political mainstream to the arrival of a new political force. After an initial period of denial — writing off the newcomers as a flash-in-the-pan, single-issue party whose support would crater once voters realized they offered no solutions — the next step was to absorb their agenda once they realized they were here to stay.
“That means that even though the AfD isn’t in government, its views enter politics through the backdoor, because the parties next to them morph to the right.”
Nina Schick, director at political consulting firm Rasmussen Global, told VICE News that this rightwards lurch could be seen in recent CSU moves to “adopt Trump-like policies around identity.”
These included a new law, introduced last month, requiring a crucifix to be displayed at the entrance to every public building in Bavaria. And in March, in his first major interview since being sworn in as Interior Minister, Seehofer raised eyebrows by stating that “Islam does not belong to Germany.”
“It’s the kind of rhetoric that we see emanating from Trump, but also all across Europe from far-right and populist states,” she said. “It’s part of a much bigger trend across the Western world. People feel emboldened to say and do things that would not have been acceptable a few years ago.”
Janning said the CSU had also followed the AfD’s lead by taking a more critical position towards the EU — advocating for a more national-oriented stance, and arguing that the age of orderly multilateralism was over.
“The AfD is getting traction with its argument that the EU is a bunch of unelected technocrats that are ruling us; now the CSU are echoing some of their arguments,” he said.
Janning believed the CSU’s dangerous brinkmanship with Merkel over migration was also a reaction to AfD barbs that the CSU lacked credibility — that the party talked tough, but didn’t follow through with action.
“I think this partly explains the self-destructive moves we have been seeing from the CSU,” he said.
How to respond?
Analysts acknowledge there are genuine anxieties about migration across Germany. This is particularly true in Bavaria, a traditionally wealthy, conservative state in the country’s south that has been on a frontline on the migrant transit route from the Mediterranean, receiving thousands of newcomers a day at the height of the crisis.
Since then, migration into Germany has dropped dramatically. But a string of high-profile violent crimes involving migrants have helped stoke anxieties about migration, despite crime rates being at a 25-year low.
“I would tend to see the AfD as a symptom, as much as a cause of the problem,” said Hans Kundnani, senior research fellow in the Europe programme at London’s Chatham House think tank.
“There’s clearly an anti-immigrant sentiment among the population which the AfD is to some extent exploiting, but it didn’t invent it.”
Schick said the challenge for mainstream parties was to strike a balance between showing that they had taken onboard public concerns about migration, integration, and the challenges that came with it — without adopting the policies and rhetoric of the rising far-right.
“Mainstream politicians need to find a way to capture this debate,” she said. “If they don’t, it’s really problematic if voters start to think that only the far-right — properly xenophobic, neo-fascist parties — have a grip on the problem.”
Janning said he believed that Merkel’s CDU and their other coalition partner, the Social Democrats, were demonstrating a responsible way out of the dilemma — attempting to restrict the number of new arrivals under existing asylum rules, while rejecting the politics of the extremist fringe. But their partner the CSU, spooked by the AfD’s gains on the right, had broken rank, highlighting the pressures the new party was exerting on the mainstream.
“It needs guts to do it and the recognition that the majority of the people are not voting for the AfD,” said Janning. “They’re not voting for either the left or the right fringes — they’re still voting for the center — but, ironically, the center is disintegrating.”
Cover image: Supporters of the party Alternative for Germany (AfD) gather at Brandenburg Gate to protest under the slogan 'Zukunft Deutschland ' (Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images)