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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 February 2019

Euro-election threat sees German leaders harden stance on migrants

Mainstream parties in May’s elections face spike in votes for extreme parties

Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer speaks at her party's conference on migration, integration and security topics in Berlin, Germany. REUTERS
Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer speaks at her party's conference on migration, integration and security topics in Berlin, Germany. REUTERS

Germany’s Christian Democrats (CDU) have unveiled a series of proposals to tighten immigration rules in a bid to distance the party from the policies pursued by its current leader, Angela Merkel.

As European elections loom closer, the move is part of a move by mainstream parties seek to win back the votes lost to the far-right or hard left.

Eurosceptic parties are on course to take a third of seats in May’s European Parliament elections, according to estimates by Vote Europe Watch. Winning more than 33 per cent of seats would enable them to form a blocking minority that could make the adoption of new legislation much more cumbersome and impact the content of the EU’s foreign policy.

This increased share of seats could be then used by anti-European parties to abolish sanctions on Russia, veto free trade deals such as a post-Brexit agreement and undermine European values relating to liberty of expression, the rule of law, and civil rights, according to a newly-published report by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

Drifting further to the right could seal the liberal parties’ fate – as it did in last year’s local German elections. However that seems to be a risk its leaders are prepared to run.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is set to take the helm of the ruling party after Mrs Merkel steps down in 2021, shifted the CDU’s party’s line when she referred to Mrs Merkel’s open door policy as an exception that will not be repeated.

“We must make sure nothing like it ever happens again,” she said. “We have learnt our lesson.”

Among the proposals presented by Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer are tighter intelligence checks at the German border, the possibility to deport asylum seekers who commit crimes that carry a prison sentence of more than 90 days and the redefinition of countries deemed “safe” for repatriation.

The plans were announced following a two days of internal party discussions to which Mrs Merkel was not invited. The German Chancellor supported Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer’s election in December as the next party leader after she announced in October that she would not seek re-election.

The CDU’s hardening stance is seen as an attempt to win back some of the votes lost to the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in regional elections last year following increasing polarisation on the issue of migration.

AfD tripled its 2013 result to 13.1 percent in the state of Hesse and debuted in a Bavarian election with 10.2 percent – gaining seats in all 16 regional parliaments.

The CSUs push for tougher immigration checks did not pay off. The party scored over 10 per cent down on its 2013 result in the Bavarian elections, with voters haemorrhaging towards the Green party and the AfD.

Whether Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer’s new tough stance on migration will yield different results is debatable.

According to ECFR, a strategy that counters their advance should include driving a wedge between anti-European parties, demonstrating the costs of their proposals in the real world and framing the election within a pro-European agenda.

Mainstream parties could also fight an “existential threat to Europe” election, making the case that the EU cannot protect its citizens if the destructive agenda of the anti-Europeans goes ahead.

Most far-right MEPs are affiliated with one of two parliamentary groups – Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and Europe of Nations and Freedom – or are non-aligned.

A die-hard anti-EU coalition of only the far right would include France’s Rassemblement National, Germany’s Alternative for Germany and Italy’s League Party, as well as Greek and Hungarian nationalists currently holding slightly over 10 per cent of seats. It is unclear whether the Five Star Movement – the League’s coalition party in government – will align with the far right.

The bloc has so far been divided over foreign policy issues that include support to Russia, but may cast these differences aside in a bid to curb the EU’s liberal orientation and reclaim the decisional power of single member states.

Right-wing and far right parties could even formally establish a new political group, which would be the second-largest political family in the European parliament.

Germany is one of the countries where a key battle will be played in May 2019. Germany has more MEPs than any other country and the largest population in the EU.

Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer’s renewed attention for the migration and border control debate shows the extent to which this will be among the most high-profile electoral issues.

But moving further to the right in a bid to defeat a far-right party is a strategy that may end up dividing the libertarian bloc more than it weakens the opposition.

Updated: February 12, 2019 09:40 PM

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