Germany's recent polls show that this corrosive development will have a profound effect
LONDON • The recent elections in Germany have confirmed - if any further confirmation was needed - that, when any European ballot is deemed to be "predictable", that's the moment one should start planning for the utterly unpredictable.
For the unexpected outcome of the German vote and the make-up of the country's next government not only raise serious questions about our understanding of Europe's current politics, but also serve as a warning that the German "motor" which powers the continent and acts as its standard-bearer is nowhere near as strong as originally assumed.
Assessments of Europe's condition come in waves mimicking fashion cycles; they appear suddenly, and are then discarded just as suddenly, always without an explanation. In the wake of last year's British referendum to leave the European Union, most analysts feared that Europe was about to be engulfed by a wave of far-right populism which might consign the continent to a repeat of its dark 1930s, a period when almost everyone strutted around wearing uniforms with high boots, when virulent nationalism was the order of the day and minorities were treated as sub-humans.
However, when elections this year in European countries indicated that nothing of the kind is happening and that populists are failing to seize the high ground, the narrative suddenly shifted. Allegedly, those opposing immigration and rejecting the current political order no longer mattered, old established political parties have proven that they can still win elections, the status quo was here to stay, and Europe could march forward to sunny uplands.
Last week's German elections have reminded everyone that, while the dark scenario so frequently predicted for Europe last year is clearly not about to be realised, the optimistic scenario which currently prevails is not necessarily applicable either.
For both Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Socialist chief opponents have registered heavy losses of monumental, historic proportions: in the case of the CDU, the percentage of German voters who ticked the party list on the ballot papers fell to its lowest since 1949, while the Socialists got the smallest share of the vote since the early 1930s. These are not blips, but fundamental cracks in Germany's political tectonic plates.
And they mirror elections in France, where the surprise triumph of Mr Emmanuel Macron's bid to be president masked the potentially much more significant complete meltdown of the established order of political parties. It is, therefore, simply untrue that populist tendencies in Europe have been defeated; at best, they have been temporarily diverted, and for a period of time nobody can tell.
It's also worth pointing out that a stunning 60 per cent of the seats in the recently-elected French Parliament are taken up by people with no previous political experience, belonging to a party which did not exist until early this year, while in Germany, more than one in five of all voters opted for fringe parties of either the far-left or far-right variety. Those who argue that Europeans still cling to the status quo clearly live on another planet.
A similar conclusion applies to analysing trends in Europe's populist backlash against immigration. In the elections held this year in both France and Germany, an explicitly anti-immigrant political movement - France's National Front and the Alternative for Germany - emerged as the third-biggest party in their respective countries and, curiously, by almost exactly the same share of the national vote: 13.2 per cent in France, and 12.6 per cent in Germany. And in the Netherlands which also held elections this year, the anti-immigrant and Islamophobic Party for Freedom is now the country's second-biggest movement, having recorded a major boost in its electoral support.
To be sure, different electoral systems mean differing levels of parliamentary representation for racists in various European nations. But it is nonsense to suggest that they have been defeated; in fact, they remain very much on the march and, on current trends, can still look forward to capturing power in their countries. Europe's racist bubble has not been pricked; it is simply being ignored.
But to make matters worse, this corrosive political development will, sooner rather than later, have a profound effect on Germany, Europe's most populous nation. Not that you'd get Chancellor Merkel to acknowledge this basic fact; the woman who has been running Germany since 2005 and can now look forward to remaining in power until 2021 has just returned to Berlin over the weekend from an EU summit where she pretended that business remained as usual, and that Germany looks forward to launching an exciting programme of EU reforms.
Officially, the German Chancellor supports French President Emmanuel Macron's idea of creating a European finance minister, a European budget and, eventually, a European army, or a "rapid reaction force", as Mr Macron gently called it, and all within the next 18 months. But in practice, Dr Merkel is unlikely to be able to deliver on any of these points, not even during the four years of her mandate.
Even if one assumes that these initiatives to deepen EU cooperation don't require new treaties followed by laborious and risky ratification procedures - and that's a brave assumption - Dr Merkel is unlikely to get the necessary concession within her future coalition government to implement such moves.
Her Liberal partners are dead against any concessions to France on the management of the euro single currency and are determined to exclude any discussion about a single European budget. Meanwhile, the Green ecologists are going to corner the Chancellor from another angle: immigration. They are likely to demand as their price for joining Dr Merkel's coalition that Germany refrains from measures to tighten immigration procedures, so the future German government will have only limited ability to address the growing disquiet in the population about immigration levels and border controls.
Chancellor Merkel has navigated many political minefields of this kind in the past, and she can be relied upon to try and do the same again. This time, however, matters are different, for it is obvious that the elections represented a personal rebuff to her, and it is equally obvious that this is her last term in office.
In not more than a year from now the real battle in Berlin won't be about Europe, but about the succession issue - who should be installed as Chancellor by 2020 at the latest. The chances are, therefore, high that the next German government will be quite introspective and cautious, and therefore not best suited to provide the leadership Europe needs.
In public, every European government dismisses this danger. But in private, every single European government rates German inactivity as the biggest and most imminent danger to the continent; President Macron's urgent appeal for EU reform is largely based on the fear that, without an ambitious agenda from Paris, Berlin will simply do nothing.
Yet the Europeans underestimate the sense of vulnerability which the Germans feel about their future, and the reticence they have about undertaking new commitments. They may be Europe's top exporter and manufacturer, and their economy may continue to grow. But both the country's workers and Germany's leaders are deeply worried about the impact on their economy from the new so-called "Fourth Industrial Revolution", which combines digital innovation with automation for an overhaul in manufacturing, fretting that the incoming revolution will render not merely the unskilled, but also the educated and highly-skilled people unemployed, hitting Germany hardest.
It is, therefore, not surprising that many of those who voted for the far-right Alternative for Germany were not the dispossessed or the unskilled, but middle-class workers in places such as the former East Germany or the southern German state of Bavaria, where there are few foreigners; they voted out of fear for the future, rather than resentment of the present.
There is an optimistic spin to Europe's current predicament: the continent's leaders, led by Germany, have won a respite of a few years during which they can address their electorates' concerns.
But the work ahead is vast: it requires not only better efforts at integration of migrants, but also a clever programme of reintegration for anti-immigrant activists as well. And it requires both a political consensus and a political courage of a kind none of Europe's governments ever showed itself capable of forging.
Either way, Europe continues to sit on a populist volcano. And the biggest one is smouldering right under Dr Merkel's feet.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2017, with the headline 'Racists remain on the march in Europe'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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