Angela Merkel lines up with David Cameron to rein in Brussels - and to defeat Germany's new eurosceptic party
By Andrew Gimson
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Angela Merkel is taking emergency action to try to avert the rise of Germany's new eurosceptic party. Allies of the Chancellor last night indicated via Bloomberg News that if elected to a third term on 22 September, she will "curtail the reach of European Union rulemakers" and align herself "with British Prime David Cameron's fight to claw back powers".
Bloomberg cites "officials and lawmakers in Berlin and Brussels" who say Merkel is "likely to air proposals to return some commission powers to national capitals and streamline others" once the German general election on 22 September, in which she is expected to win a third term in office, is "out of the way".
According to Markus Ferber, an MEP from the Chancellor's Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union, "Merkel's playing a new tune. It's about keeping the UK in the EU by returning some commission powers and that overlaps with Germany's aim to forge a stronger euro area."
All this is good news for Cameron: it makes his European strategy more convincing if he can say that he will be doing it in alliance with Berlin. And it delights the Fresh Start group of British eurosceptic MPs.
Leadsom believes Merkel is very much "in the market for reform", and has signalled a willingness to agree to "absolutely game-changing" and "really quite momentous" reforms including the introduction of a double majority lock, which will prevent non-euro members from being outvoted by euro members.
But British eurosceptics should be wary of becoming jubilant.
Merkel has clearly done this for domestic reasons. Her aim is not to support British euroscepticism: it is to defeat German euroscepticism. She has become worried that the new eurosceptic party which is contesting the German elections, Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, or AfD), will clear the five per cent hurdle and win parliamentary seats.
In its admirably brief manifesto, AfD demands an orderly dissolution of the euro and the reintroduction of national currencies (or else the creation of smaller and more stable currency unions). It calls for a Europe of sovereign states which share a common market.
Merkel will not go anything like as far as that. European politicians often make eurosceptic noises in order to get elected. Merkel's own predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, did this in a very successful way in Germany, as did Jacques Chirac in France.
Neither Schröder nor Chirac then pursued a eurosceptic policy. Nor will Merkel. It would be astonishing if she went much beyond a change of tone supported by token measures.
The real significance of what she is doing is that AfD now has to be taken seriously. Before starting a visit during the last few days to Berlin, I had resolved not to pay too much attention to this new party, which was founded earlier this year and was standing at a mere two or three per cent in the opinion polls. I reminded myself that British eurosceptics often get over-excited by signs that German eurosceptics are at last making headway.
But on my first morning in Berlin, I visited my old friend Tilman Fichter, a veteran Social Democrat and a penetrating observer of German politics. He astonished me by saying: “I think AfD will get into Parliament. I think they will get seven to nine per cent of the vote.”When I objected that the opinion polls put AfD at around a third of this level, Fichter said: “People don’t tell the pollsters how they will really vote. The lie is the only weapon of a weak people.”
The pollsters themselves admit that they may be under-reporting support for AfD. Manfred Güllner, head of Forsa, told Bloomberg: “I’m unsure as to what’s really below the visible tip of the iceberg. We have them at 2-3 percent in the polls right now, but I don’t know what’s below the waterline.”
Güllner explained why he cannot tell what will happen: “The AfD pushes into a segment of German society that has always been somewhat difficult, a segment of the middle class that worries about losing its status, that feels crushed between the top and bottom. Many of them don’t talk to us.” But in Forsa's most recent poll, published on Wednesday of this week, AfD had moved up to four per cent.
I heard of another poll which put AfD on 8 per cent in its raw data: a figure which was then drastically reduced because the party had never stood before.
Nobody knows what will happen on 22 September, by which time opinion may have shifted from wherever it is now. Although many Germans opposed the introduction of the euro, many of them also reckon it is now too late to go back to the mark, and continue to believe that if only the Greeks and others can be subjected to strict enough rules, all may yet be well.
But if I were a German voter, I think I would be infuriated by the refusal of the two main parties even to have a proper debate about Europe, and would be tempted to express my anger by voting AfD.
Part of the trouble is that as far as the euro is concerned, the Christian Democrats, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the Social Democrats, whose candidate for the chancellorship is Peer Steinbrück, are essentially on the same side.
It is fruitless to complain that they have made a tacit agreement not to mention AfD. What is really outrageous is that they refuse to discuss in any but the vaguest terms the measures to support the single currency which are going to be needed during the next four years.
Merkel has made a convincing show of reluctance to bail out the weaker members, and has driven some hard bargains, but in the end she has done whatever is needed to keep Greece and other struggling countries in the euro, and the Social Democrats have voted for these measures.
Bernd Lucke, the economist who leads AfD, is a man without charisma. But he has made with admirable clarity, and evident honesty, the arguments for leaving the euro.
It is impossible to dismiss Lucke as either a demagogue or a comedian. We are not dealing here with a Jörg Haider or a Beppe Grillo.
Lucke himself angrily dismisses any attempt to bracket AfD with Eurosceptic parties in other countries, including UKIP. He does not want Germany to leave the EU, and speaks well of David Cameron rather than Nigel Farage. Studious moderation is Lucke’s thing: he knows that his opponents find his arguments too strong to tackle, and will instead attempt to discredit him personally, by positing links between him and real or supposed extremists. As we reported on Wednesday, AfD has been the target of sustained abuse and indeed of physical attack.
When Handelsblatt, a serious business paper, put it to Lucke in an interview published on 30 August that if the German mark were reintroduced, it would rise in value, which would damage German exports, Lucke replied: “But imports would become cheaper. That would benefit businesses as well as households, which would become richer in real terms. That would increase domestic demand, from which the economy would benefit.”
The notion, often peddled by supporters of the euro, that German industry can only succeed thanks to an artificially low exchange rate, does not survive scrutiny. Month by month the situation becomes more dangerous. Fixed exchange rates, allied to great divergences in economic performance, have already led to intolerable levels of unemployment in the weaker countries. Support from German taxpayers has become indispensible, but German politicians know that to campaign for more help to be sent to Greece and the rest would be electoral suicide. So the politicians lie about the future by keeping quiet about it.
Merkel is instead trying to anaesthetise her own people, and is very good at it. She has made this one of the least exciting election campaigns in German history. Many Germans will vote for Merkel precisely because she is the most soothing candidate: the one who makes it easiest to avoid the agony of admitting that they are going to be forced to dig deep into their own pockets in order to bail out a bunch of Mediterranean spendthrifts.
At the top level, AfD is stuffed full of professors. Below that, its membership of 16,000 is a mixed bag. In some regions there has been severe infighting, while in others there is a good level of organisation.
In Berlin, the fourth person on AfD’s party list is Hugh Bronson, who is a British as well as a German citizen. Bronson, 52, has a doctorate in film adaptation from the University of East Anglia and currently teaches at one of Berlin’s language schools. He joined AfD on 10 March this year and was adopted as a candidate on 27 April after giving what he describes as “the speech of my life – I was so angry – there was so much infighting going on”.
While out canvassing, he found himself next to some Greens handing out literature with the words “Here is something green”. Bronson started handing out his literature with the words “Here is something blue”, which enraged the Greens: “I’ve never seen a bunch of people so humourless.”
When accused of being a nationalist or a racist, Bronson enjoys switching from German into English and pointing out that he has two passports. This political beginner will only get into Parliament if AfD polls about 11 or 12 per cent in Berlin, which strikes me as unlikely. Bronson himself says: “I have no doubt the AfD will cross the five per cent hurdle. The word on the street can’t be that wrong. On the one hand this has been the most boring election campaign I’ve ever witnessed. On the other hand it is the most unpredictable.”
While living in Berlin in the 1990s, I came to believe that German euroscepticism, defined as the belief that Germany is better off being ruled by Germans than from a city in Belgium, would in the end prove decisive. But I also recognised that this temperamental preference might take decades to impinge on a ruling class which is terrified of sounding nationalist. Whatever else happens on 22 September, it seems clear that Merkel will remain Chancellor, at the head of some sort of coalition consisting of conventional pro-European politicians.
But if AfD clears the five-per-cent hurdle, the monopoly so long enjoyed by those politicians will at last have been broken, and the long overdue argument can begin about whether the euro is the right way to build Europe.