Will Germany’s Economic and Political Malaise Lead to an EU Exit?

On February 10, Germany’s defense minister and head of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced her unexpected resignation as party chairwoman. As Angela Merkel’s heir apparent, Kramp-Karrenbauer was to set to become the CDU’s chancellor candidate in the next general election next year.

Why Did Kramp-Karrenbauer Quit?

Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation came after the reversal of her vow not to vote with the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) in regional parliamentary elections to elect a new state president. The center-right CDU had lost considerable votes in Eastern German regions, resulting in no party majorities.

In Thuringia in particular, the political tension was amplified. The AfD’s strength in the region coupled with CDU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) losses destroyed any hope of a majority or coalition government. The three-party coalition under the Left Party, SPD and the Greens lost its majority, forcing the CDU to run under a coalition with the AfD and the FDP (the Free Democrats). The election of Thomas Kemmerich, the regional leader of the liberal FDP, in October last year was the first time a minister president of one of Germany’s states won regional elections in coalition with the AfD. Elsewhere in the state of Hamburg, regional elections left the CDU to slump to third place with just 11.2% of votes.

Germany’s Mainstream Parties are in Deep Trouble

Despite pledging to step down by 2021, Merkel has received calls from members of her own party — the Values Union — to step down immediately. Meanwhile, Karenbauer’s resignation has opened up the CDU leadership bid once more to party members. One such candidate is Friedrich Merz, a businessman hoping to reform the party by pushing it further to the right. Merz is supported by the Values Union, a key faction of the CDU, who describe themselves as a bulwark against “dominant left-wing ideology”.

Although Merkel’s CDU coalition with the SPD still receives a 61% favorable poll rating among voters, fractures among the CDU, and among Germany’s political elite in general, are identical to those suffered by Great Britain shortly before and during Brexit. In Germany, left-wing and right-wing populism is rising on both ends of the spectrum, opening up the Overton window to include reformist ideas such as reigning in capitalism, overturning climate change, rejecting immigration and free movement, and demolishing meritocracy in favor of ethno-nationalism.

The Growing Divide Between the People and the Political Elite

On both ends of the political spectrum is a dissatisfaction with the status quo. Voters demand to be heard on issues formerly not on their agenda, causing a growing divide between the people and the political elite. In the Eastern regions of Germany, voters feel left behind economically, as financial benefits of the EU flow everywhere else but in the formerly communist areas of the country. The AfD, like Europe’s other ultra right-wing parties, taps into this economic malaise, blaming multiculturalism and immigration for problems caused by a lack of fair governmental spending, and promising that German nativism will solve this malaise.

On the hand, Germany’s urban and cosmopolitan youth are fearful of climate change and other environmental issues. The CDU and SPD have engaged with this fear through extended, long-term policies, for example, Merkel vowed in 2011 to gradually phase out nuclear power. The urgency of today’s environmental issues, however, are not conducive to the economically liberal ethos of the CDU party, or of the European Union. Furthermore, high living costs for cosmopolitan youth pushes them away from center parties who favor a post-industrial capitalistic system that only benefits older generations.

The Worldwide Rejection of Globalization

This rejection of globalisation is mirrored in the rise of extreme-leaning politicians in the USA, such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, both of whom are vocal against capitalism and immigration, respectively.

Like Britain, Germany reaps more political and economic benefits from the EU than it extends. The German majority, like the British majority, are desperate not just to open, but widen the Overton window. Journalists, researchers and academics alike have predicted that Germany would not – and cannot – leave the EU. As the EU’s most powerful nation and the EU’s biggest financial power, Germany’s exit would likely result in the dissolution of the EU.

Others are skeptical that the rise of populism could lead to a dissolution of mainstream politics in Germany, opening the door for the rise of populist right-wing governments, as in the United States. But the worldwide popularity of populist leaders who would have been laughed off the stage a decade ago remains a huge cause for concern in Germany.