German Elections Explained – Inside the politics of the 2017 campaign

Wong Tsz 

Germany has just experienced one of the most turbulent general elections in recent history. Merkel has gained another 4-year term; for the first time since WWII, a far-right party, the AfD, has made its way into the German parliament; and a three-party coalition seems inevitable. But what else can we tell from this election?

Winners and losers:

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Official election figures. (Source)

Coalition

A record six parties have entered the Bundestag. They are: The centre-right CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union), SPD (Social Democratic Party), The Left (Die Linke), The Greens (Die Grünen), the FDP (Free Democratic Party), and the AfD (Alternative for Germany).

As it stands, no party wishes to cooperate with the AfD, and die Linke is a traditionally difficult ally due to its uneasy past regarding the East German Stasi (Staatssicherheitsdienst, SSD). Since the SPD vows to withdraw from the grand coalition that it has formed with the CDU since 2013, the only feasible possibility is the CDU-Greens-FDP coalition – also known as the ‘Jamaica’ coalition, named after the three colours. Although coalition government is not something new for the German politics, a three-party coalition is still not commonly seen in the German parliament. Continue reading “German Elections Explained – Inside the politics of the 2017 campaign”

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Nationalism in Europe: Where did it come from, and what does it mean?

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Olga Starikova

At the end of the 20th century, it seemed barely possible that nationalism would come back to the West. The international community was supposed to learn the harsh lessons of the past and reach the important conclusions. Terms like globalization, multiculturalism and internationalism were no longer just a part of political discourse, but also entered the language and the reality of common people. Being cosmopolitan became trendy – especially to younger generations in the West. The fifteen years following the 1993 Maastricht Treaty became a sort of Golden Era for the European Union. The integration process seemed unstoppable – three enlargements of the EU took place, including the biggest in the history of the Union in 2004. The common currency was established in 2002, replacing the national currencies of twelve member states within the Eurozone, which also kept on growing. Nationalism in Europe was close to dying out in the new millennium.

However, reality has collided with this optimistic picture, and despite the common trends of globalization and integration, the right wing started gaining popularity. Nationalism has changed its look, and has probably become more moderate and polished, but it did come back.  This turn in the development of Europe is not illogical: the economic crisis, the so-called Islamization of Europe, and financial inequality of member states have all contributed. The recent European migrant crisis tops the cake.

Yet, what’s really striking is how fast something that was commonly seen as intolerant, odd or just shameful can get significant support in Western society. In this regard, the only thing more impressive than this phenomenon itself is the speed of its evolution. Right-wing politicians and public figures that were formerly treated with disdain suddenly achieved high-profile positions.

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French National Front leader Marine Le Pen. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

The French National Front, with its charismatic leader Marine Le Pen, serves as a shining example. Even though the ultra-right populist party experienced a decline in the first decade of the 21st century, it’s managed to rise from the ashes like a phoenix in this one; seeing success first at municipal elections, and then in 2014 winning 24 of France’s 74 seats in European Parliament – an unprecedented number for the National Front. Now, the scariest thing for liberals is Le Pen’s presidential campaign this year. Considering the events of the past five years, her candidacy should not be underestimated.

Similar things are happening in Germany, where luckily they have not yet reached that extent. The right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland is represented in the majority of German states, despite the fact that the party is fairly young and was only founded in 2013. In the European elections of 2014 AfD gained 7%, significantly less than the National Front’s 24.9% in France. Nevertheless, this number is very impressive for Germany, where the Nazi past makes the population less likely to support ultra-right political parties and the state was paying attention to the issue. Somehow, AfD leader Frauke Petry managed to successfully apply the bottom-up approach and gain the support of some people, often with low income and lower levels of education.

 

Those were the founders and the main political powers in the European Union. However, the “right turn” is typical for other countries as well, including Austria, Switzerland, and those in Southern and Eastern Europe. While nationalism has traditionally been rather strong in Eastern states like Poland and Hungary, the “right voice” in Scandinavia – considered to be incredibly tolerant – is much newer. In May 2016, the BBC published a brief Guide to Nationalist Parties Challenging Europe. The article is well-structured, and worth reading for those seeking basic information on the phenomenon.

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AfD leader Frauke Petry. Photo by Michael Lucan.

From 2014 to today, the trend has become too obvious to ignore, and naturally begged the question: “Why?” As mentioned before, normally financial crisis and refugee issues are named as main factors. The ideals of the European Union did not equate to those of certain cohorts of people. The establishment, in turn, did not always react appropriately, failing to suggest working solutions to current problems, and people started to look for alternatives.

Having faced multiple problems, the European Union as a huge bureaucratic machine appeared to be slow and inefficient. Unfortunately, it turned to be fertile ground for populist parties that often suggest rather extreme solutions. The European idea has definitely known better times, yet despite Brexit, it is too soon to speak of the decline of the European Union and the concept of supranational government. The EU’s history is rather short to make conclusions, as it was started in 1952 as the European Coal and Steel Community.

It is more a speculation, but maybe, using the terms of Samuel P. Huntington, there are certain waves of democratization; in this case waves of nationalism. Or, to be more precise, they are not simply waves but spiral bends, if one can see the process as a spiral rather than a sine curve. If so, the phase is temporary – the only question is its intensity. It does not help that nowadays the “right turn” does not seem to be unique to Europe, as evidenced by the recent US elections. On the bright side, European integration has gone so far and economic binds are so tight that cutting ties often means losing profit – which should make the politicians think twice. The most challenging aspect for the establishment is getting closer to common people, a skill that has been mastered by right-wing populists. So far, we have not passed the point of no return, and this “wave” is a good lesson for the EU to learn from its mistakes. To cite a famous saying: history repeats itself until the lesson is learned.

Olga studied Political Science in Russia and the USA, finished her M.A. Euroculture studies in Germany, and currently lives and works in Moscow.

Click here for more EU on The Euroculturer.

Is Euroscepticism one of the key threats to the EU? When Healthy Criticism becomes Bad Medicine

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Anti-EU Flag: Photo by Honza Groh

Elizabete Marija Skrastina

There are two types of threat – those from the outside and those from the inside.

Since the first foundations of the European Union were laid more than fifty years ago, it has changed, deepened, and certainly, become more complex. In fact, one can even argue that the EU is somewhat unique, exploring new ways for states to cooperate while allowing them to maintain their full sovereignty.  A similar system has never been attempted in the history of humankind.

However, with the these changes, new challenges have arisen. It is not a secret that the EU is currently facing an “identity” crisis, to some extent. After Brexit, a new wave of sceptics has awakened as determined as never before. Eurosceptics.

Interestingly enough, the term “Euroscepticism” first appeared in 1985 in a British newspaper. Since then, in various forms, such as hard or soft Euroscepticism, economic or political, it has become a permanent component of the political landscape of the EU.  It is a truly complex phenomenon, with many issues underlying it. With every new aspect of Europe introduced, the main focus of Euroscepticism has changed – from attacking the notion of the European citizen to opposing the common currency and immigration policy, to even the critiquing of the whole idea, as we see now.

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A vandalized EU sign in Sopot, Poland, 2003. Poland elected a Eurosceptic government last year.  Photo by Tomasz Sienicki

Having a Eurosceptic party as a member of a government coalition is common practice, and criticizing the Union is usually a “job” for the right and far right wings, who have enjoyed a recent rise in public support. Yet, what might surprise you is the fact that even in the European parliament, within the very heart of the EU, we can find Eurosceptic groups. It makes sense. The EU is an international organization made up of 28 Member States. A very popular debate among politicians and political scientists presently is whether the EU is turning into some sort of federal state, like the USA, leading to criticism of its supposed power. It is true that with every new treaty signed, the European Union has come closer to resembling a federal state, even if in reality it is far from it. It is also odd, though, because, the EU only has just as much power as the Member States are willing to grant it. The EU is the Member States, although some of its critics argue that at this point, states are pressured to be a part of it, because otherwise, the state is bound to face difficulties on trade and cooperation with others. While to some extent this is true, we can find plenty of examples where states have chosen to remain outside of the EU – Norway and Switzerland, for example, or Britain, which currently in process of leaving the EU.

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A Eurosceptic poster encouraging UK citizens to vote to leave the European Union, in Omagh, Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU. Photo by Kenneth Allen

It should be noted, that no European Union is not an option anymore, and even the harshest Eurosceptics sense that some minimal form of integration is unavoidable. The debate remains whether the EU should be an “ever closer union” or return to its original state as a free-trade zone with minimum supranational competences.

However, the close relationships between the Member States of the EU might be seen as a powerful response to globalisation. The nations of the world are ever more interdependent, and with the influential economic and cultural position of the US and the rapidly increasing influence of China, it could be argued that, if for nothing else, Europe should “stick together” for social and economic security and international competitiveness.

Nonetheless, unfortunately, most of the Euroscepticism that we see during our day-to-day lives is not based on political and/or economic facts and calculations, but rather on “she said, he said, I heard…” This is the most dangerous type of Euroscepticism. Based on the absence of knowledge or understanding, or plain ignorance, it spreads fast and effectively, and is carefully nourished by a mainstream media that submissively give the people what they want – a bad image of the EU. It is just that simple! When looking at survey data from 2015 Eurobarometer report, 42% stated that they do not understand how the EU works. If one does not understand how the EU works, are they able to critically assess the information given through the media?

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Marine Le Pen, Leader of Front National, a Eurosceptic party in France: Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

Looking deeper, since 2010 Euroscepticism has increased not only in traditionally sceptical countries, such as Denmark and the UK, but also in founder states, such as France and Germany. Moreover, in 2015, Iceland withdrew its EU membership application. This summer, the British voted “leave” and now we see speculations here and there about Frexit, Nexit, Gexit and so on. The founding states themselves are debating the future of the Union.

Therefore, the European Union is now threatened not only by the economic crisis and the refugee crisis, but also by an “identity crisis” – mistrust and ignorance. Scepticism itself is not so bad. There is an opposition for every practice in this world, and often the opposition only pushes for the better. The EU is a new form of international organisation, and, in fact, it is expanding into unknown territory. On that account, if justified, Euroscepticism can be seen as “healthy criticism” and is actually great for reflection on current policies. Unfortunately, at the moment a major part of the scepticism among people of the EU is more “unhealthy”, as it does not propose possible compromises, but is founded on a lack of information as well as  twisted information and thus, leads to resistance against any form of European Union. To fight this, people need to be informed, information needs to be made available and supporters of the EU must help disseminate an accurate image of the EU. To do that, first they must educate themselves on the inner workings of the Union. Eurosceptics will not be deterred by a Europhile who knows nothing of the EU.

Staying informed is the least we can do.

Stay informed with The Euroculturer and click here for more by Elizabete Skrastina.

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