As she seeks fourth term in office, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is moving rightwards. Under pressure from an increasingly vocal racist and anti-immigrant sentiment, she has decided to take a tough line on war refugees and their integration into German society including a ban on ‘Naqab’ or the full veil. Merkel said that it was legitimate for Germany to expect from the immigrants to integrate and this included a rejection of the ‘full veil’. She has also indicated that the liberal immigration policies of the past will not continue into the future. If Germany choses to follow Merkel’s suggestion, it will join a number of other European nations that have passed similar measures. In the face of an immigrant crisis, sluggish economic growth and the growing disillusionment with the European Union, political parties in a number of European countries have begun to adopt a right-wing political discourse as a key to securing electoral success. Up to a decade ago, this was true only for the far right political parties. However, now even the centrist political parties have made a rightward shift to keep their flock intact. Germany is only the latest example of this phenomenon.
Why such a change in Merkel’s position?
Merkel has been a vocal supporter of war refugees and Muslims despite growing racism in Europe. Her political party ‘Christian Democratic Union (CDU)’ is leading in the opinion polls but her support in the party is dwindling. So, is it a political choice or a political compulsion?
This seems to be political realism on her part irrespective of the shift to the right or to the populist measures. At a recent CDU convention, where she was selected to represent the party for the fourth term, she gave the rightward shift signals but made it amply clear that it is not possible for a single person i.e. the Chancellor to bring about a substantive change. This is significant in terms of the events of last year, when she approached the immigrants in a liberal sense even to the extent of breaking the pact with the European Union. Her own allies (including Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière) such as ‘Christian Social Union, Bavaria’ had been very critical of her approach. A repercussion of this liberal approach can be felt by the fact that in the last 5 elections that were held in Germany this year, CDU has lost every single election. There is an apparent rise of ‘Alternative for Germany’ party which is a right-wing populist and Eurosceptic political entity reviving from East Germany. The vote share of ADF in Germany has substantially increased since the aftermath of immigrant crisis. Ultimately political parties are the reflections of the public sentiment in a country and Merkel is responding to that which is why it is political realism.
Is it just the damage control mode of Merkel?
It is being realistic in context of preparing for an electoral process. There is an opinion within Germany and European continent at large that the immigrants are posing problems, not just of social nature but also in terms of economic nature i.e. employment issues at the time of economic downturn. Merkel has to keep the interests of the voter in mind while making a decision. But growing by her track record, it is unlikely for Merkel to erect barriers against the immigrants like some other European countries.
Why Merkel cannot be a stateswoman and change the political discourse herself?
People are arguing that why Merkel wants to become the leader of the lowest common denominator to win elections. Leadership is about setting an agenda and being a vanguard. But political realism dictates that in the contemporary scenario, if you are not being accommodative of the concerns of the lowest common denominators and set a populist agenda, you will lose elections. Chancellor Merkel has realised it too that the longest economic downturn in European history, immigration crisis with the subtext of terrorist Islam and disenchantment with the European Union with the subtext of ‘nation-first’ and most importantly the anti-elitism rhetoric by the populists who promise economic prosperity to otherwise economically stagnant population has changed the entire public opinion towards protectionism and anti-immigrant behaviour.
Is the immigration issue being overblown by right-wing parties in Europe?
According to a recent report by Oxfam International, most western countries including Germany has taken a very small percentage of asylum seekers from West Asian war grounds. Majority of the asylum seekers are seeking refuge in developing countries like Turkey and Lebanon.
Right wing arguments goes in the way that why is it incumbent for the Europe to take in refugees at all? It is often forgotten that the Europe has created a mess in the region under the garb of implanting certain liberal values (of western origin) in the region.
Is the new far-right of Europe different from the far-right that emerged at the beginning of this century?
The new far-right in France, Netherlands and Denmark are far better organised and much more disciplined than the previous ones, but most importantly they are not homophobic and anti-Semitic (Example – One AFD member made an anti-Semitic remark and he was removed from the party).
If we see the Scandinavian countries, their economic policies are left oriented i.e. they practice economic socialism. It is on political and social side that the conservative far-right is emerging. The immigrants pose not just a social but economic problem to these welfare states. The new far-right wants to protect the social fabric from the immigrants by keeping them out but they are not in favour of making any change to the status of the welfare state in economic terms.
Has the new far-right outdid other modes of politics in Europe?
The new far-right has outflanked the agenda of both centrist and left parties in terms of conservatism. Euroscepticism and protection of the welfare state for the citizens respectively. It is to be noted that when the centre does not hold, the things fall apart i.e. the centrist political parties in Europe were myopic about the prospects of these far-right groups in the modern era and believed that it is just a usual phenomenon which would go away sooner or later. As Stephen Hawking confirmed that most of the centrist parties were elitists and the rest of the population felt abandoned by their rulers. Therefore, today’s backlash is a reflection of this mistake.
Brexit: the first threat signal?
Brexit was a consequence of disillusionment with “Brussels”. According to Jürgen Habermas, the answer to this threat of far-right populism is more integration and not isolationism. If European Union wishes to stay together, it needs more acceptance and integrationist approach by accommodating the concerns of their common people.
It is argued that Europe’s new far-right is poised to transform the political landscape of Europe through elections and if it not possible for them to secure electoral victory, then probably they might shift the centrist discourse so much to the right that their values and programmes become the new normal for the European politics. ‘Taking your country back’ is a very good way to appeal to anybody who feels alienated by showing the wands of historical and cultural supremacy of the nation. Therefore, this discourse needs to be addressed.
Why did the working class abandon the left-wing parties in Europe?
The working class has now ported to become the backbone of the far-right in Europe as evident in the UK (during Brexit), France, Denmark and Netherlands. The ‘Left’ is not seen with any substantive agenda for the working class, whereas the ‘Right’ has very cleverly accommodated the populist concerns because populism always wins over cold logic and statistics when you are dealing with the masses. The ‘Left’ kept on ranting the Marxist Universalism by which the people were disenchanted too, whereas the ‘Right’ gave the message which was exactly opposite to ‘Marxist Universalism’. Right wing message was simple, straight and xenophobic in nature and targeted individualistic pattern of society with an emotional chant that struck a chord with the common people.
Future of ‘European Union’ –
It is difficult to assume that the ideals of EU are in shambles because except the United Kingdom, the rest of the Europe has benefited immensely from the ideas of Schengen and the Euro.
Future of right-wing trend –
The right wing has managed to secure enough electoral success in Europe and the trend would continue in terms of possible accession to the power also. This trend is not only limited to Europe but it is being felt across the world (including in India). The centrist political discourse would keep on accommodating the concerns of the right wing tastes of their voters and there could be a decisive shift in their agenda too. A good news is that the right-wing political parties seek conservatism during electoral campaigns, but it has been observed that when they assume power and run the government, they go in the moderate/centrist way (as evident from Greek SYRIZA’s left-wing moderation phase).
Democracy is the pipe in which the liberal values flow like water. If the neo-liberals are to be believed, over the time the pipes have run dry and are clogged up. There is an apparent departure from the traditional centrist politics which is paving the way for the rise of nation state, populism, irrationalism and rather ‘illiberalism’. Interestingly, the whole world is stuck in a limbo between past/present which is broken beyond repair and the future which is uncertain. The populists, whether right/left wing would not have any solutions for it because they are merely movements, good only in opposition but unfit to rule. Democracy without liberal values is only a couple of years away from the trend of tyranny of majority or ‘ballotocracy’ i.e. Utilitarianism. We shall decide it today whether we want to uphold the ideals of rationalism, liberalism, globalization and humanism or we shall let the emerging trends of irrationalism, populism, state welfare through border controls and R2P to supersede modern politics. It was our decision yesterday, it will be our decision today, but remember, a decision not taken in due course of time is itself a decision.
Note -: People are using the term ‘racist’ for this cultural backlash which might be an exaggerated terminology to present the contemporary scenario because it is at the most a cultural indifference towards those who cannot assimilate themselves in European culture (German culture in this case), speak foreign language and are dissimilar to the Christian beliefs.