(Too) Much Ado About Germany’s Far-Right?

European parliamentarian Elmar Brok says post-election Germany is no “problem case”

Elmar Brok is the longest-serving lawmaker in the European Parliament (EP), a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who’s known her personally for nearly three decades. Brok, who spoke out forcefully against the extreme right during the recent election campaign, has no patience for handwringing over the results of the September 24 election.

Merkel was re-elected to a fourth term, but it was also the first time that a far-right political party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), won seats in parliament since World War II.

“Eighty-seven percent of Germans voted ‘not nationalist,’” he pointed out, referring to the other major parties, the Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens. “In what [other] country of the world would you get such a result?”

Concern for the “rise” of the far-right with the 12.5 percent showing of the AfD, Brok said, is valid but should be kept in context. “That is less than in the United States and much, much less than in France,” he explained. “In Germany, the pro-Europeans are in power. In the US, partly, the hate is in power. Please, please: We have a problem, but it’s a ‘luxury problem’ compared to France or the United States.”
EU still wins the German election

Brok said Brussels has nothing to worry about, joking that the FDP and the Greens fight over which party is MORE pro-European. “For sure we have to worry about certain things,” he acknowledged, “and we will deal with that properly. But I have a feeling when I talk to foreign journalists that Germany is now [considered] a problem case!”

Brok is neither apathetic nor apoplectic about the CDU being down by 8.5 percent of the vote it received in 2013, but he notes that’s just a bit lower than the results in 2005 and 2009 and still leaves the CDU in the top spot; “13 percent ahead of the second party… an incredible margin.”

But the backlash against ruling parties went deeper and wider than that. Merkel’s CDU ally, the Christian Social Union (CSU) dropped 10 percent, its worst showing in memory. And the CDU/CSU’s coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) led by Merkel challenger and former European Parliament President Martin Schulz suffered its worst election result since World War II, announcing it would go into opposition.

Brok calls this upending a “protest” after a dozen years of CDU/CSU/SPD dominance. “We have to look into the mistakes and we have to change the debate,” he said. “We have this everywhere—70 years after the war—these debates in European countries, of these national feelings again. We have to convince our citizens, to know how to deal with that in the future.”

Tension with Trump, but admiration for America

The longest-serving member of the EP’s foreign affairs committee, Brok doesn’t believe there will be any discernible difference in post-election German foreign policy. He expects a recommitment to the centrality of NATO’s role as the guarantor of collective security in Europe and, in his words, “with different levels of support,” to the German-US relationship. 

The lawmaker has never minced words about the Trump administration and he says a re-elected Merkel will not either.  “We know that despite President Trump, the United States is a democracy and Russia is not a democracy—we know the difference,” he quipped. But beyond that he seems to expect colossal transatlantic debate. “On climate change and trade policy, there’s total disagreement,” he said. “Climate change is there with or without Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Trump. It’s a fact. And when we talk about the migration question in Africa, we have to talk about climate change and I fear that if this is not seen in the United States and climate change is not stopped, you might have to build a bigger wall than expected on the Rio Grande because more people will come.”

He’s very complimentary of the American system of checks and balances, on full display now, despite taking issue with some Trump administration policies. “I see how Congress acts despite the Republican majority,” he said respectfully, “and how your courts act. That’s a big difference with other countries.”

He shook his head about what he said is Trump’s perception that the EU was founded in order to “create problems” for the United States. He fears America’s heartland believes rhetoric like that and that matters to him. “I think the Europeans talk too much to the official circles in Washington, New York and San Francisco,” he lamented. “Who is talking to Kansas City?”

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has floated the idea of appointing a special representative for relations with the United States, with none other than Brok heading up the list of possible appointees.  But asked about that, Brok just gives a slight laugh and says he’s received no offer.

Macron-Merkel motivator for EU reform

The next order of business for Germany, Brok says, is to make a post-Brexit EU stronger, which he says is not up to Merkel alone. Brok believes EU reform must be driven by a German-French engine, but whether that’s possible depends on how successful French President Emmanuel Macron will be at home first in reinvigorating his own economy. “Hopefully [Macron] gets [his economic reform package] through and can implement it, because it has great credibility if two reform-oriented countries take the lead [in the EU],” he said. “Germany does not like to lead alone. We hope urgently that we can meet our old partner again in young strength.”

Teri Schultz is a Brussels-based freelance journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @terischultz.  

Image: “Eighty-seven percent of Germans voted ‘not nationalist,’” said Elmar Brok, a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the longest-serving member of the European Parliament. “In what [other] country of the world would you get such a result?” he added. (Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann)