In April and May, all eyes were on France as its voters chose their next president. The same cannot be said for France’s more populous and economically dynamic neighbour, Germany, which heads to the polls on September 24th. The reason for this lack of buzz is simple: no eurosceptic parties threaten to disrupt the status quo.
Indeed, Germans are among the staunchest supporters of European integration, with polls suggesting the vast majority of them wish to remain in the EU. Ever conscious of their past, many in Germany believe that ceding more of their national sovereignty is a good thing. However, what Germany lacks in explicit euroscepticism it makes up for in implicit euroscepticism. In short, Germans are often unaware of how eurosceptic they really are.
In the following three areas, many –if not most– Germans disagree with Brussels. Those parties championing policies opposite to EU direction in these areas could produce strong results on September 24th, doing more to hamper the European project than enable it.
Germany is a trading nation, exporting more around the world than any other country, barring China and the United States. However, there is growing discontent among Germans regarding the nature of international trade agreements. Last September, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in major cities across Germany to protest the EU’s trans-Atlantic trade agreements, TTIP (with the United States) and CETA (with Canada). Labour rights activists, environmentalists, and government transparency activists coalesced around this issue, ultimately opposing EU policy.
Most Germans oppose such deals –up to 70 percent in some cases. Of the parties running in September’s federal election, two are most vocal in opposing Brussels’ trade policies: the Left Party, which believes such deals are detrimental to workers, and the Green Party, which sees these agreements as lacking in transparency, beholden to special interests, and damaging to the environment.
Economic and Monetary Union
From the beginning of monetary integration in Europe, Germany has been a cautious –if not reluctant– partner. Giving up the strong Deutschmark for a shared currency was a concern to many Germans and their policymakers. This led to the establishment of the Maastricht Criteria in 1992, which set clear rules on the amount of debt Eurozone member states may take on.
Not long after the creation of the euro, it became clear that states could break these rules with relative impunity, contributing to rapid debt accumulation in countries such as Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece. In order to avoid sovereign bankruptcies in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, more fiscally sound countries such as Germany had to participate in internationally-funded bailout programmes, effectively channelling taxpayer money into insolvent states.
Many Germans remain bitter about these bailouts. In fact, a majority were opposed to further concessions to Greece during the budget crisis of 2015. Two political parties in particular have been catering to this majority in the run-up to the election: the Alternative for Germany and the Free Democratic Party, both of which promise to halt any attempt of pooling debt between member states. The ruling Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party have members strongly opposed to future bailouts, but neither has gone so far as to oppose attempts to pool Eurozone debt.
Over one million people crossed from Turkey or North Africa into Europe in 2015 and 2016, with many, if not most of them making their way to Germany. This surge took months to control, which was finally achieved through heavy border intervention in Austria and several Balkan countries, as well as a deal struck between the EU and Turkey to prevent human traffickers from operating on the Turkish coast.
As a result, a majority of Germans now believe that their country can no longer take in refugees. Borderless travel between EU nations make it difficult for Germany to control future surges, meaning any efforts to strengthen borders run counter to the EU’s insistence on freedom of movement. Though several parties call for stricter immigration laws, no major party in Germany currently calls for reinstating border controls, although the Alternative for Germany has suggested implementing identity checks at national borders.
A land of unknowing eurosceptics?
Despite its historical baggage, Germany is slowly waking up to the problems created by European integration. In the three categories discussed above, Germans are at odds with Brussels. They dislike opaque trade agreements, want to cease bailing out insolvent Eurozone members, and want an end to unchecked migration. These traits alone make Germany fertile territory for euroscepticism of all flavours.
Regardless of who forms the next German government, they will have to contend with strong pushback against further European integration. Be it another go at trade with the US, a push from France for a Eurozone finance minister, or migrant quotas from Brussels, Germans will not be so easily cowed. When this land of unknowing eurosceptics wakes up to policies it doesn’t like, there’s no stopping it from getting its way.