Common cause: How Germany’s pro-European parties can stop the rise of the far-right

In their campaigns for the European parliament election, Germany’s pro-European parties must unite to effectively mobilise voters against the threat of the far-right party, Alternative for Germany

Visitors walk in front of a European Union flag inside the glass dome of the Reichstag Building, Germany’s parliament building, on a sunny winter day in Berlin, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Visitors walk in front of a European Union flag inside the glass dome of the Reichstag Building, Germany’s parliament building, in Berlin, Sunday, February 25, 2024
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Markus Schreiber

Less than two months ahead of the European Parliament election, Germany’s centrist parties are having an identity crisis. Mobilisation is particularly strong among likely Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Green voters – 71 per cent and 85 per cent of their supporters respectively intend to vote in the upcoming election. In contrast, the mobilisation efforts of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU) coalition and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) appear comparatively weak, at 64 per cent and 57 per cent, respectively.

Predicted European Parliament election turn-out by voter intention.

When it comes to counteracting the looming threat of a rightward shift in the European Parliament, in part posed by the AfD’s strong polling, much will depend on the ability of Germany’s conservatives and social democrats to mobilise voters, alongside the Greens’. To do so, these parties may be tempted to sharpen their respective differences in their campaigns rather than jointly address the threat of the far-right. But a Eurosceptic, illiberal, and far-right victory would be far more detrimental for Germany and the European Union than similar centrist manifestos.

Currently, however, centrist parties are pursuing neither of these strategies consistently. They warn Germans of the risks of the AfD while competing with each other by adopting AfD-lite policies and talking points on issues such as migration. In trying to get the best of both worlds, these parties risk losing sight of their own core objectives and, worse, legitimising the AfD’s. Rather, their election campaigns should urgently adopt a united front against the right in both rhetoric and substance, especially on migration and climate issues, while highlighting the threat posed by the AfD itself. Indeed, there is fertile ground for such a strategy: the mass protests against the AfD earlier this year already demonstrate the significant mobilisation potential in Germany in response to the party’s rise.  

The mass protests against the AfD earlier this year already demonstrate the significant mobilisation potential in Germany in response to the party’s rise

A recent ECFR public opinion poll highlights immigration as the issue most shaping how Germans look at their future, making them – alongside Austrians – outliers among the 12 EU countries polled. But the centrist parties’ approach on this critical issue merely highlights their credibility deficit among voters. By adopting populist and AfD-lite tactics and creating internal divisions, voters who are disillusioned with the CDU/CSU and the SPD might be pushed towards the AfD rather than being won back – and AfD voters are unlikely to be won over by a half-baked version of AfD policy.

This approach began in response to former chancellor Angela Merkel’s infamous statement “wir schaffen das” (akin to “We can do this!”) during the 2015 refugee crisis, which deeply scarred the reputation of her conservative party among anti-immigrant voters and some within the party. Her successor and long-time rival for party leadership, Friedrich Merz, subsequently moved the CDU to the right by aping AfD talking points on migration. In autumn 2022, he even briefly agitated against Ukrainians fleeing the war by accusing them of “welfare tourism”. On this, Merz faced continuous criticism from migration researchers and representatives from the SPD, the Greens, and the Left but also CDU politicians who accused him of employing populist tactics rather than those of the political centre, blurring the boundaries between the right and pro-European parties.

Since assuming the chancellorship, Social Democrat Olaf Scholz has embarked on his own controversial course adjustment on migration. Last October, the German weekly Der Spiegel titled an interview quoting Scholz “We Have to Deport People More Often and Faster”. In response, the SPD’s own youth association distanced itself. The tougher tone was not received positively by his ruling coalition either: Scholz faced accusations of taking a hard line on migration policy in order to win over AfD voters. However, with 53 per cent of Germans believing that Scholz actually wants to open up the country to migrants and refugees, such anti-immigrant posturing seems to lack credibility.

Centrist parties must therefore reassess their approaches to migration, emphasising policies that align with their core values while effectively addressing public concerns. Parties must not remain silent on migration but should refrain from using the stylistic devices of populists and the far-right and offer a migration policy in line with the core values of Germany’s constitutional order, clearly signalling to voters the need to uphold a firewall against right-wing relativising of human dignity, human rights, and the freedom of the individual.

In the upcoming election, the climate crisis will be another campaign hotspot. Yet campaigning on the EU’s climate initiatives risks alienating voters prioritising cost-of-living concerns. This balancing act is further complicated by suspicions among voters that environmental policies may lead to increased living expenses, prompting a cautious approach from political leaders. But this approach risks neglecting the issue’s urgency. It can alienate voters who prioritise climate action and may legitimise climate sceptics by downplaying the severity of the crisis and undermining effective efforts to address it.

The last time Germans went to the polls in a nation-wide vote – the September 2021 Bundestag election – the climate crisis accompanied candidates on the campaign trail. That July, severe floods had hit the country, killing almost 200 people. Two days ahead of the 26 September vote, the Fridays for Future youth-climate protest movement held major rallies across Germany. Record-breaking temperatures in recent weeks might just be a preview of what’s to come this summer and boost the salience of the climate crisis in the eyes of voters, putting the climate issue back on the agenda. Centrist parties, together with the Greens, should jointly highlight the urgency of tackling climate change, demonstrating their commitment to mitigation and adaptation – a stark contrast to the AfD’s advocacy for terminating all climate agreements – while addressing concerns about rising living costs.

Another critical aspect in the European Parliament election is the AfD’s stance on Russia and the proximity of certain party members to the Kremlin. The recent uncovering by the Czech and Belgium governments of Russian networks attempting to influence European politicians emphasises the need for effective mobilisation against the right by pro-European parties, especially as German representatives were among those reportedly paid. The AfD is heavily embroiled in this affair, with allegations of Russian influence and bribes to AfD deputies surfacing. Additionally, AfD state-level parliamentarians were invited by Russia to observe the mid-March presidential so-called election and fawned over the “unparalleled degree of transparency” of the electoral process. On this issue, pro-European parties should once again present a united front, articulating to the public the implications of high-ranking AfD politicians’ proximity to Russia and the potential consequences of Russian interference at the European level, particularly concerning the security of the EU and its allies like Ukraine. The revelations of the AfD’s connections to Russia could well diminish some public support for the party. But for their core constituency this – like the AfD’s anti-migration stance and climate denialism – are a feature not a bug of the party. Highlighting the party’s entanglements with Russian interests could nevertheless mobilise potential centrist voters on the threat the AfD presents and bring them out to the polling booth.

At this critical juncture, the decisions made by Germany’s pro-European parties, especially the SPD and the CDU/CSU, on the campaign trail will have far-reaching consequences for European policy. But the challenge to keep the AfD at bay does not end there. After the European Parliament vote comes contentious elections in three east-German states where centrists are under even more pressure this autumn, and then there’s Germany’s next federal election in autumn 2025. German politics may well remain stuck in campaign mode for the next year and a half. Throughout this, pro-European politicians must form a joint and vigorous campaign against the AfD to ensure the integrity of European democracy.

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


Research & Project Coordinator

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