The migration crisis is not just about Merkel

Take a look at the German party system – including the AfD’s role as largest opposition party – to understand the faultlines running under the chatter about Merkel.

Ahead of the crucial European Council this week, Angela Merkel addressed the German Bundestag to set out her government’s approach to the summit. Migration and asylum policies have come back to threaten Merkel’s chancellorship after those eventful months of 2015-2016, at the height of the refugee management crisis.

As Josef Janning mapped out in last week’s Note from Berlin, unlike two years ago, today’s events are not driven by migrants trying to make their way into Europe in large numbers, but by a political crisis on migration and identity issues inside the three-month-old grand coalition which Merkel heads. The agreements reached at this week’s European Council will certainly give Merkel breathing space to pacify the crisis within her government. But the new rifts emerging in German politics will not suddenly close up.

Debate about the German government’s political crisis often focuses on the chancellor herself. Observers from across Europe appear to have realised that even the powerful German leader of more than a dozen years’ standing will leave the stage one day; and if she had to step down as a result of a domestic political drama – well, wouldn’t that be a rather un-Merkellian departure? Merkel does not like open conflict, and, when she can, she leaves drama to others.

But well beyond the future of this particular chancellor (and her strongest critic within her cabinet, interior minister Horst Seehofer from Bavaria), the current crisis illustrates ongoing shifts in the political landscape in Germany, a country that has won a reputation as a beacon of stability in Europe. When Merkel travelled to Brussels to attend the gathering of leaders of the European People’s Party family ahead of the European Council after her policy declaration in the Bundestag that same day, she carried with her the weight of a party system under stress.

The arrival of a new party on the very right of the political spectrum has been a shock to Germany’s political culture

Until the early 1980s, only three parties – the CDU/CSU sister parties, the SPD, and the Free Democrats – had seats in the German Bundestag. In alternating coalitions, they together shaped successive governments of the Federal Republic. 1983 not only marked the beginning of the Kohl era, but saw a new party, Die Grünen (The Greens), entering parliament, still located in Bonn in West Germany in those days. This was the first addition to the left of the political spectrum. Reunification in 1990 then brought the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), with its main constituency in eastern Germany, into the Bundestag. In the aftermath of the labour market reforms of the then coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, a new left movement emerged that in 2007 merged with the PDS to become Die Linke (The Left party). This left the German Bundestag with five parties – strictly speaking, six (including the Bavarian regional conservatives) – on the eve of the federal election in 2017.

The latest addition is the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), which entered the Bundestag in September 2017. The arrival of a new party on the very right of the political spectrum has led not only to further fragmentation of the Bundestag, which now includes seven parties. It has also been a shock to the political culture of a country that has shown a great deal of sensitivity about its 20th century past of National Socialism.

What makes the AfD even more of a challenge is the fact that it is the largest opposition group in parliament, occupying 92 of the 709 seats overall. Given the government’s solid majority, this number might look not impressive. And the government retains ample power to shape policies. But being the largest opposition group gives the AfD the right, for instance, to respond first to statements in parliament from the governing parties. One should not underestimate the impact the presence of the AfD in the Bundestag is having on the political culture in Germany at large, and on the political discourse. As ECFR’s José Ignacio Torreblanca and Mark Leonard argued in 2014, the biggest impact of these newly emerging parties “may be on mainstream politics”.

The current crisis is an illustration of this. The challenge that the AfD poses goes beyond the conservative parties of CDU and CSU, but this is where the challenge is very real right now. “There must not be any democratically legitimised party further to the right of the CSU”: this often-quoted mantra by former CSU leader and Bavarian prime minister Franz-Josef Strauß has re-emerged with force lately in conservative circles, as polls show the AfD is set to enter the Bavarian parliament in the October 2018 state election.

The CSU has adopted a more rigid stance on migration issues. For quite some time already this has created a headache for Merkel, also within her own party, the CDU. With the prospect of losing its absolute majority in Bavaria in October 2018, and the likely arrival of the AfD in the Munich parliamentary assembly too, the CSU has escalated tensions within the federal government over the course of migration and asylum policies to a point that even a breakup of the old alliance between the CDU and CSU no longer seems taboo. This remains unlikely to happen for now, since both parties are aware of the impact on their respective abilities to shape governing majorities at federal level – and Merkel has managed for now to tame the conservative critics within her own CDU party. But the cracks run deep.

Current events in Germany span well beyond what might become the swansong of a still-powerful leader. They illustrate the frontlines in a major battle over identity, and the future orientation of the federal republic’s party system.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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