The avalanche of Erfurt

By Guilherme Becker

In the mountains of Thüringen, the lack of snow points to a mild winter. On the ground floor of its capital Erfurt, however, an avalanche has been spread and felt all over Germany. For the first time a far-right populist party has helped electing a governor. At first, it may not look so serious, but in Germany it has been considered a completely unexpected, surprising, and worrisome taboo breaking. A blast that is hurting the political spectrum nation-wide.

What a time to be in Erfurt, from a journalistic point of view. When I started my internship at Thüringen Allgemeine, I could not imagine that I would live in such a vivid and turbulent period. Not at all. As I am currently working for the biggest newspaper of the state, in its capital city, I would like to explain what went on and what might go on regarding the state parliament leader election, its effects and the great repercussion that led even chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) to respond directly from South Africa on February 6th.

Some weeks ago I spent the whole Friday (31.01) hanging out, watching sessions, interviews and keeping my eyes close to the work of the reporters at Thüringen Parliament. It is a kind of experience that fits really well into a journalist and Euroculture student’s life. I even got time for a joke when walking through the corridor reserved for politicians from far-right populist party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland/Alternative for Germany), well known for its xenophobic, racist and anti-immigration policies. “Am I allowed to be here? You know, I am a foreigner…”, I asked a journalist. He laughed and promptly joked back: “Yes, true, but you have German blood… So don’t worry…” We all laughed.

The time for jokes ended soon after, precisely on Wednesday (05.02), when the election of the new Thüringen governor was about to happen. The predictions and expectations were all set for the reelection of leftist Bodo Ramelow (Die Linke). But then the most unlikely scenario led to the election of centrist-liberal candidate Thomas Kemmerich (FDP), at the last minute. Unexpectedly, instead of voting for their own candidate, AfD politicians decided to support Kemmerich to defeat the left. That is not the only problem: CDU (conservative right-wing) also supported Kemmerich, which means that two traditionally moderate parties made an unpredictable – if not unbelievable – “connection” with far-right extremists. A complete shock for Germany.

The impact was so huge that protests erupted – and keep happening – not only in Erfurt, but in many other cities of Germany. In the capital of Thüringen public transport was highly affected with delays not only on that Wednesday, but also on the following days given the demonstrations that followed the election.

Then on Thursday (06.02), only one day and 34 minutes after the election, the then newly-elected governor Kemmerich announced his resignation. On Monday (10.02) Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer resigned the CDU leadership. Therefore, she will not run next year in the national election as a possible substitute for Merkel. Some days earlier, Merkel had fired Christian Hirte, then minister for former East German states and secretary of state for the economy and energy. The reason? He greeted Kemmerich’s election on Twitter. One avalanche after another.

But why? Why so much anger and outrage over a vote? Well, let’s start from the beginning.

Thüringen state parliament is made up of six different parties: Die Linke (29 seats), followed by AfD (22), CDU (Christian Democratic Union, Angela Merkel’s party, conservative right, 21 seats), SPD (Social Democratic Party, socialist left-wing, 8), Grüne (environmentalist left-wing, 5) and FDP (Liberal Democratic Party, liberal centre-right, also 5).

The governor election is indirect. Therefore it is necessary to have a majority through the seats to elect the governor – and then have a future majority on approval or rejection of projects and laws. National conservative and liberal centre-right headquarters parties, such as CDU and FDP, have always claimed and made clear that any “connection” – even informal alliances – with AfD was not allowed and should not happen at all. But it did happen. Usually AfD does not give and does not get any support to or from any party. This time, though, they decided to vote for FDP instead of voting for their own candidate. A completely unexpected political trick.

I see this scenario as a sign that two traditional parties, by accepting AfD support – even not being allowed to do that -, may be ignoring national premises and acting independently to come to power. The point is that the parties’ headquarters strongly condemned the election primarily arguing that Kemmerich should not have accepted the outcome of it. But he accepted, and only later on decided to resign after seeing the pressure and the protests coming from all sides. CDU’s more conservative wings have already flirted with the possibility of approaching AfD. For the most part, however, it has been avoided at all. Moreover, the result of this election might be a message that AfD is gradually getting closer to the “political game” and attempting to gain power under any circumstances.

The reason for the shock in Germany is obvious: parties, politicians and civil society from all political backgrounds abominate the possibility of the far-right approaching power. They voted for and elected politicians precisely to not do what they just have done. In their minds, it is something completely unacceptable which I definitely agree with. When traditional right-wing and centre-right parties (such as the CDU and the FDP) accept AfD’s support, the ideology fades away, and the subsequent message is that what really matters is to come to power. A great offense, so to say.

Another great concern is that this “connection” among these parties leads people to question and consequently disregard even more the traditional parties, which in the last elections have significantly lost votes to extremists. As Kemmerich resigns and a new election is blinking, maybe CDU, for example, will connect to Die Linke, which, in my point of view, can make the electorate migrate even more to the extremists, namely AfD. In other words, it all means that there might be a huge loss of confidence in traditional parties and a vote of confidence for extremists.

The rise of AfD in Thüringen might have come along through many reasons, such as a strong conservatism, but also from some trauma left by DDR, and some subsequent economic reasons. Estearn German states have never got as industrialized as their Western neighbours, for instance. A study launched two weeks ago, for example, pointed out that only 22% of Eastern Germans are completely satisfied with democracy. The number is almost half of the 40% that said being satisfied with it in former Western German states.

At the same time, I see Die Linke as the current majority more as a result of the so-called utilitarian vote, in order to avoid a majority for AfD, although the region remains a traditionally working-class region, what might have led part of the electorate to migrate to the extremes, be right or left.

I do not think that I need to explain the concepts and the political agenda preached by AfD. It is actually more than only conservative. It is racist and xenophobic. One need only to google Björn Höcke and will certainly soon realise what I am talking about.

In the end, what happened some days ago in Erfurt was actually a strong and unprecedented taboo breaking. Germans are aware of the weight of their own history. They know that it was in Thüringen that the country had the first state government with the involvement of the Nazis. Incidentally, it was also in February, 80 years ago, that Hitler’s party gained substantial power. In Erfurt. In Thüringen. That was the first taboo breaking that later led Europe to the ruins, and Germany to collapse. Hopefully a majority of people are not in the mood to repeat some obvious and terrible mistakes.

Picture: Links Unten Göttingen / Flickr

The Swedish Elections: The End of the European Role Model?

By Charlotte Culine

Freshly arrived in Uppsala, my mind filled with the idealized Swedish role model, it is with great surprise that I learn that Sweden is now facing the rise of populism and Euroscepticism. Rumours has been the situation in Sweden was slowly decaying but I had not realized the extent this phenomenon had taken in this country often considered as the peace haven of Europe, until I arrived and witnessed the tensions surrounding the legislative elections. After France and the Front National, the UK and UKIP, Austria and the Freedom party of Austria, Italy and the Five Star Movement, it is now Sweden’s turn to deal with Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats party. Indeed, the Swedish elections that occurred on the September 9 has for the first time seen the everlasting left-wing Social Democrats party’s monopoly on the government endangered by nationalism and anti-immigration ideologies.
The country has gradually seen the rise of populism ever since the beginning of the 2000’s, following the first arrivals of asylum seekers coming from Iraq. From then, the number of asylum seekers has constantly increased up until 2015 when it reached its peak with 162,877 asylum seekers[i] entering the kingdom, before the government changed the immigration procedure, making it tougher. Sweden, almost unharmed by the 2008 economic crisis, remained prosper and did not seem to be the most fertile environment for such a breakthrough from the nationalist factions.

To have a better understanding of the current political landscape and the point of view of a Swede on this situation, I had an interview with our teacher Lars Löfquist, doctor in Theology, director of studies in Uppsala for the Euroculture programme as well as two other programmes concerning Humanitarian Action. Starting from this, I was able to draw some observations that could explain how Sweden got to this point, what is the current situation and what is to expect in the coming weeks. Continue reading “The Swedish Elections: The End of the European Role Model?”

All hail President Trump: How Brexit will lead to Trump’s Victory in November

If Brexit taught us anything, it’s to never assume the worst will not happen.

throne
Donal Trump on his second favourite chair

Emily Burt

I believe Donald Trump will be president next year.

A rolling poll from key swing state Ohio has placed him ahead of his democratic rival Hillary Clinton for almost a week now; and broader polls show the candidates are neck and neck with less than 50 days to go until the November presidential election.

Of course polls can be wrong. And it’s easy to see why people assume Trump is too outlandish, too ridiculous, and unreal to be elected. One of his platform policies is to build a wall around America, paid for by the people he wants to shut out. His son recently compared the global refugee crisis with a bowl of skittles. He eats KFC with a knife and fork – surely there’s at least one state where that’s illegal. With every week that passes, he drops another clanging gaffe that reverberates, painfully, across international media: and the world says this could never happen. Continue reading “All hail President Trump: How Brexit will lead to Trump’s Victory in November”

The European Union’s ‘Game of Thrones’: Who Will Be The Next President of The European Parliament?

eup.jpg
EU Parliament in session

Bastian Bayer

Who will be the next president of the United States of America seems to be the big question of 2016, but in the European Parliament another game of thrones has begun.

At the last European Parliament elections in 2014, the conservative EPP and the social democratic S&D made a deal and signed a written agreement that meant that Martin Schulz, the S&D candidate, would become president for the first half of the legislative period and  that the EPP would pick the president for the second half.

Now with the first half coming to an end in January 2017,  the current president Martin Schulz does not seem to be willing to leave office, despite the EPP insisting on the instillation a new president from among their own ranks.

The face of EU policy

schu.jpg
Martin Schulz, President of the EU Parliament

Schulz has been, with interruptions,  president of the EP since 2012 and a Member of the EP (MEP) since 1994. He is often portrayed as a down to earth politician, ingrained and diligent. He is said to have strengthened the position of the European Parliament and even critics say he has made the EP more visible to the European public and the world.

He is considered to be the most influential president in the history of the European Parliament.

However his path to power and appreciation was rocky. The son of a police officer, he wanted to become a football player in his youth but a knee-injury made a professional career impossible. As a result this crushed dream Schulz became an alcoholic in the mid-70s which saw him lose his job and almost get thrown out of his own apartment.

However, despite this inauspicious start, Schulz eventually overcame his addiction with the help of his brother.

What followed is a remarkable career.  After a career  as a bookstore manager Schulz became mayor of his home town, Würselen, following his first engagement in the German Social Democratic Party. In 1994 he was elected member of the European Parliament and became its president in 2012. He reached a high point of his career when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize together with van Rompuy and Barroso on behalf of the European Union.

In 2014 Schulz wanted to become president of the EU Commission, but in the European elections the Conservatives became the largest party and their candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker became president of the Commission, a post he still holds to this day. Nevertheless, this setback did not stop Schulz from being re-elected as President of the EP.

Power play in the middle of the greatest crises in the existence of the EU

three amigos.jpg
Tusk, Schulz and Juncker

Schulz’s future, however, is unclear, as the first half of this legislative term comes to an end. According to the agreement, Schulz will be replaced by EPP member. However, for some, the agreement does not fit the new circumstances Europe finds itself in.

The S&D argues that with Juncker as President of the Commission and Tusk as President of the Council, already two of the key positions are held by EPP members; and to keep the balance between the largest EU parties, the presidency of the EP should stay with the S&D.

Even a prominent EPP politician and former competitor supports the idea of Schulz retaining the presidency after January 2017, with the simple reason:

“We need stability.”

Just recently Juncker spoke about the many challenges the EU faces in his ‘State of the Union’ address. Brexit, the refugee challenge, economic stagnation and youth-unemployment among many other things.

“Our European Union is, at least in part, in an existential crisis.” said Juncker.

To keep stability in these difficult times, Juncker would like to keep the leadership of the institutions as they are, namely, Schulz as president. It is no secret that Martin and Jean-Claude work closely together, Der Spiegel has even accused them of mutually securing each other’s posts.  Juncker said:”The relationship between the Commission and the Parliament has probably never been as good as it is now”, so “Why change a reliable team?”

However the EPP has made it crystal clear that they will not have Schulz for the next half of the legislative period. Schulz has been heavily criticised for not sticking to the agreement and the same critics have claimed that he has made the representation of the European people a one-man-. These critics claim that “if Schulz gave the parliament a face, it is primarily his face”.

On the other hand, if Schulz id removed; whom is the EPP going to nominate? For an internal primary on 12 December candidates need to be found. However, they lack strong candidates:

Members_of_the_Presidency_(9290654981).jpg
Antonio Tajani

So far the Italian Antonio Tajani, the French Alain Lamassoure and the Irish Mairead McGuinness have been mentioned as possible successors to Schulz. However Tajani is weakened by being close to former Italian PM Berlusconi, who has been disgraced by many scandals.  Also as former commissioner for industry and entrepreneurship, he supposedly involved in the emission scandal and has already been summoned before the investigation committee. All of this means that he is seen as unenforceable in the parliament.

220px-alain_lamassoure_-_sarkozys_meeting_in_toulouse_for_the_2007_french_presidential_election_0040_2007-04-12
Alain Lamassoure

The other candidates have similar shortcomings. Lamassoure has the reputation of being uncontrollable and prideful, some say thinking of himself as the French president. McGuinness, as a woman, current EP vice-president and a representative of a small EU Member State, seems to have the best chances of getting  a majority in the parliament. Nevertheless she is perceived as a rather plain Jane candidate and has not excited much attention.

mairead-mcguinness-768x1024
Mairead McGuinness

Currently, Schulz is fighting to forge a coalition with Liberals, Greens and EPP renegades. Yet it seems to be unlikely that he will cobble together enough votes without the backing of the EPP.

So what is next for him? Luckily another throne, perhaps a greater one, is up for grabs. In Berlin, some people would like to see Schulz as chancellor- the candidate for the SPD in place of the unpopular Sigmar Gabriel, to challenge Angela Merkel in the elections for the German parliament 2017 Regardless, it looks like Schulz has only begun to play.

For more by Bastian, click here.

The Euroculturer Recommends:

“All hail President Trump: How Brexit will lead to Trump’s Victory in November” Emily Burt shows us how the Brexit referendum has Trumped Clinton’s bid for the Presidency.

“Who Polices the Internet? Content Removal v. Freedom of Speech” Julia Mason guides us through the trenches of the internet’s most contested battleground and asks is ‘Hate speech’ the same as ‘Freedom of Speech’.

“Immigrants, Visas and Silver Bullets: How will UK migration work post-Brexit” Eoghan Hughes examines the promises, pledges and pitfalls surrounding the UK’s immigration policy in a post-Brexit reality.