Until the Trump administration’s audacious intervention on its behalf, the European far right had been doing just fine on its own.
In Italy and Austria, Poland and Hungary, national populists are now in power while they stock a quarter of the European Parliament with their own. A handful of peers, such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Croatia, regularly latch on to the coattails of Central Europe’s strongmen, aping them in policy, though with less bravado. And of course every European state now has the extreme right in its midst, shifting debate to the right on issues from abortion to renewable energy and agitating to pull the EU apart. Germany’s incarnation, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD), now polls 16 percent nationally, up from the 2017 election’s spectacular 12.6 percent result, the absolute highest conceivable tally that any of us could fathom—at the time, that is, nine months ago.
But now the rightists have the most powerful nation in the world behind them: Europe’s transatlantic ally from way back, the United States. The storied Atlantic partnership isn’t dead, not by any means, but it is being redefined by the White House, which apparently sees itself as headquarters of a xenophobic, right-wing International. With President Trump lobbing grenades at Paris and Berlin, Europe’s national populists now have the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in their sights—a prize more precious by far than any other to date. The far right won’t replace Merkel in Germany, at least not yet, but they could well topple her government, thereby plunging the EU into deeper confusion, or simply render her unable to act purposefully to address Europe’s acute political crisis.
The Trump administration’s utter disrespect for the EU and Europe’s liberal leaders was forcefully underscored last month when Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, started a trade war, and then stomped off from the G7 summit in Quebec. Until very recently, though, the Europeans naively believed they could gain a little traction through obsequious ego-stroking and friendly pretenses. Trump may not like them, they figured, but the worst he would do was ignore Europe.
The past weeks have dispelled those illusions, effectively suspending the postwar transatlantic alliance as we knew it. The Trump administration sees European centrists, which includes Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, as opponents whom he wishes harm. The new US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, announced as much by expressing his intention to boost the far right across Europe, which Trump followed up with abusive, erroneous remarks about Germany’s immigration policies. Their goal, like that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is to destabilize the political middle in Europe and unravel the EU.
Grenell, an old Bush administration hand, wasn’t in his post for a month before he let it be known that diplomacy wasn’t his priority in Berlin. On Breitbart London, Grenell said, “I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe.… I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left.”
Since conservatives of Merkel’s brand aren’t experiencing a groundswell of any kind, Grenell was obviously referring to the hard right: the likes of the AfD, the National Front in France, Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in the Netherlands, and Central Europe’s autocrats. The AfD is the type of party that doesn’t just oppose Merkel; it despises the German chancellor, calling her, among other names, a “whore.” The AFD’s leader recently referred to the Nazi era as a “only a drop of bird shit” in the context of Germany’s “successful 1,000-year history.” The list goes on—crass insults that no previous American diplomat would ever have condoned. But Grenell says he’s in Germany to lend the hard right a hand, and the AfD promptly responded that it’s pleased to accept.
A few days ago, Trump himself chimed in, tweeting: “The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition. Crime in Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!” The next day he accused Germany of lying about its crime numbers, saying, “Crime in Germany is up 10% plus (officials do not want to report these crimes) since migrants were accepted.”
The entire German political class, including media as staunchly conservative as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, condemned the meddling of Grenell and Trump while pointing out that his numbers were false. Crime in Germany sank from 2016 to 2017. Many called for Grenell’s head, though Merkel desisted. Even in less fraught circumstances, Grenell’s and Trump’s outrageous pronouncements would have sparked an outcry as well as diplomatic consequences. But the blatantly biased intervention in German politics comes at a time when Merkel is fighting desperately for her political life.
Ever since she formed a coalition government in March, the chancellor has been locked in a knock-down, drag-out public brawl with one of her coalition partners, the Christian Social Union (CSU), led by its party chief, Horst Seehofer, who is also Merkel’s interior minister.
The CSU, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, weighs in a shade to the right of the CDU, but had usually been loyal when it counted. But state elections are scheduled for mid-October in Bavaria, and the CSU finds itself in an entirely new and uncomfortable situation: The AfD has established itself as a viable right-wing alternative to the CSU there, the heartland of German conservatism. Last year, in the general election, the AfD scored over 10 percent in Bavaria while the CSU fell by 10 points; polls show that the CSU would be hit even harder were the vote held today. The CSU is nevertheless trending at around 41 percent in the state, more than enough to hold on to power with a junior coalition partner—though not, as is currently the case, on its own.
In defiance of all evidence to the contrary (see Austria, Italy, and France), the CSU’s strategy to stanch Bavarian voters’ drift to the extreme right has been to parrot far-right positions, in particular on immigration and refugees. Led by Seehofer, the Bavarians have attacked Merkel fiercely on immigration, although substantive differences between them are in fact quite small or irrelevant. The latest red line is Seehofer’s wish to set up a border regime in Bavaria that turns back refugees who are either without papers or already registered in another EU country. Italy and Austria are already on board—the new “axis of the willing,” as the new, right-wing Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz calls it. In other words, refugees are shut out and the EU’s fate is on the line because Bavaria’s local barons don’t want to rule together with a coalition partner in the Alps.
Merkel, in contrast, wants to coordinate refugee policy with the rest of the EU, a position she’s long held but with little support from any of Germany’s EU partners. It’s clear that Seehofer’s goal regarding the border checks is to stop the influx of darker-skinned people and Muslims, an obvious case of racial and religious profiling. Aside from its patent bigotry and violation of EU asylum statutes, his scheme makes no sense for a host of reasons.
But the facts don’t matter; it’s all about symbols, and here the Trump administration has given credence to the lies and exaggerations of the far right, just as Russia’s RT, Sputnik, and other news services do on a regular basis.
The CSU and the AfD have Merkel pinned to a wall. By the intensity of the fracas, one might assume that immigration is wildly out of control, and that Germany’s borders are besieged by hoards of criminal Muslims intent on sapping the welfare state and overrunning the country, a paranoid vision fanned even more by the right after the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Jewish girl in southern Germany by an Iraqi refugee earlier this month. This view is largely promulgated by the AfD, although it’s the CSU that is pushing the envelope on it, moving the discussion firmly onto their turf.
In fact, just 186,000 refugees crossed into Germany last year, which is a fifth of 2015’s record number. This year only some 50,000 have applied for political asylum, a tiny number. Merkel has been doing everything in her power to limit the number further—even contravening human-rights norms. Meanwhile, Germany’s purring economy is screaming out for labor of all kinds: Currently 1.6 million full-time positions are open and 50,000 unwanted vocational apprenticeships are there for the asking, which refugees are being schooled to fill. Also, Germany may be taking more applicants for political asylum than any other European country, but this is paltry compared to the refugees living in Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, Jordan, and Lebanon. The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees had to point out that the refugee crisis (68.5 million worldwide) is not one of the developed world, but of the millions of people forced to leave their homes and seek refugee in another country.
But none of this appears to matter when it’s election year in Bavaria.
The CDU-CSU discord is so great—and it extends beyond refugees—that the CSU could eventually opt out of Merkel’s coalition government, which would almost surely spell the end of her chancellorship. She’s now looking listless, and even a chunk of her own party wishes her gone. The CSU has given Merkel two weeks to find a European solution to the refugee crisis that works for the Bavarians. Until then, as has been the case all year, the government won’t get around to burning, existential issues such as eurozone and EU reform and climate protection.
Macron has come to Merkel’s rescue with a joint communiqué on EU reform, but it was hardly the “new founding” that the French president had envisioned. It’s a fig leaf, rather, for the much larger reforms that the EU needs—ones that Merkel is currently unable to deliver. The southern Europeans are demanding help with the refugees landing on their coasts and the mountains of debt that won’t go away even now, almost a decade into the eurozone crisis. The far right flipped Italy on exactly these issues, but only Macron seems to recognize this.
The AfD and its European allies on the far right have been delivered a script made for their purposes, which the Trump administration now explicitly endorses. And by taking up the cause of anti-immigrant agitation from the AfD, the CSU is probably sealing its own fate. There is no evidence that an incumbent can win back voters from a populist outsider by accepting the outsider’s premises. Given the choice, the voters inclined to racism and conspiracy theory will vote for the real thing. That’s how the AfD went prime-time in the first place.