In the immediate run-up to European parliamentary elections, the ACG’s Eric M. Warburg Chapters in Charlotte, Nashville, and Pittsburgh hosted discussions with Martin Klingst, Senior Political Correspondent with DIE ZEIT, about European and German politics. The timing of these events coincided not only with elections across Europe but also emerging political scandals in Austria and Theresa May’s announcement that she would step down as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It was a fascinating week to discuss European politics.
The developing scandal in Austria involving the Vice Chancellor could impact the popularity of right-wing parties in European elections. It is still unclear what will come out of this scandal, both nationally and within the EU. However, these developments have put the Austrian government in a state of crisis. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has been voted out of office, but the effects will continue, as new elections will not take place in Austria until September. Nevertheless, Mr. Klingst said he has confidence in European institutions.
With regard to the United Kingdom, Mr. Klingst acknowledged that it is difficult to fully understand what is happening. The decision for the UK to leave the European Union has led to economic instability in Britain, a country that was always viewed as a voice of reason. From his own personal experience, he said that foreign-born individuals living in the UK are leaving, while British citizens are seeking citizenship in other EU countries. Brexit will create instability throughout European, not simply in the UK.
These developments are taking place against a backdrop of growing mistrust of multilateral organizations. Much of this has resulted in the growth of right-wing populism across the EU. While each country has its own populist party, the parties share different views on how the EU should move forward. For example, Poland is against relations with Russia, while Hungary is pro-Russia. However, refugees and immigration remain the cornerstone issue of populist right-wing parties and in this case, too, the parties disagree. Countries like Italy want equal distribution of refugees, while eastern and Balkan countries refuse to take any.
While myriad political and social concerns must be addressed, the European Union remains a partnership of security and rule of law. Some member states have adopted policies that question the rule of law, resulting in investigations. It is possible that these countries will lose EU voting rights. If this were to happen, it could call into the question of legitimacy of the EU. All things considered, there is still a unified front in the EU to maintain the partnership between the remaining 27 states after Brexit. There is a public sentiment not to grow the EU but to keep it where it is and focus on more important issues, like trade policy.
With regard to Germany, and particularly Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr. Klingst said that there is strong support for the EU. Now in her 14th year as Chancellor, her legacy often becomes a focus. He believes her term may come to an end sooner than expected. The results of the EU elections may force a new election in Germany. Chancellor Merkel has already said she would not run for reelection in 2021. It is clear, though, that there are two different opinions of her legacy.
Outsiders view Merkel as a point of stability. She helped lead Germany through the economic crisis, the annexation of Crimea, and the refugee crisis. Domestically, she will be remembered for changing the Christian Democratic Party (CDU). She moved her party to the middle. However, some critics will argue that she led a relatively stagnant government. Many of the policies that helped move her party toward the middle were actually introduced by the Social Democrats.
As Chancellor Merkel shifted the party to the middle, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was strengthened on the right. While the German far right has lost some of its footing, populist movements are part of the German – and European – political landscape.