For years, German foreign policy was rarely a domain of fierce debate over fundamentally different alternatives. Since reunification (1989-91), Europe’s largest country and strongest economy has defined its foreign policy in terms of European and transatlantic relations, implying ever-deeper anchoring within the European Union and Nato. In practice, this meant outsourcing German security to the transatlantic alliance, disinvesting militarily, and concentrating on boosting the country’s economic power.
Postwar Germany’s highest priority has been to forge compromises with fellow Europeans, both deepening and enlarging the EU, which German leaders have seen as the single most important contribution the country can make to peace and prosperity on the continent. Not only is the goal of a stronger EU formally enshrined in Germany’s Basic Law, but the country’s economic model relies heavily on European integration and global market access. That reliance has only increased now that cheap energy from Russia no longer underpins the economy’s competitiveness.
But Germany’s party system is changing ahead of this spring’s European Parliament elections. Newer, radical parties are openly challenging the postwar consensus. Indeed, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is promoting an exit from the EU, an end to support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia, and a reversal of the country’s decarbonisation policies.
Two years into the current government’s tenure, the AfD has risen to 20% in national polls, and it polls nearly 30% in the three eastern German states that will hold elections this fall. Domestic intelligence authorities are on the watch and have already designated three regional AfD chapters as extremist groups.
Back in 2014 (a year after its founding), the AfD made a point of openly supporting Nato and the United States. But those commitments have faded. In recent years, according to the German investigative outlet Correctiv, AfD politicians have echoed Russian narratives and talking points, describing the US as a “foreign power”. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, AfD politicians continued to travel to Russia and to Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine.
AfD members also continue to promote ties with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Community and the China- and Russia-dominated Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. And recently, the AfD incorporated the idea of a “multipolar world” – the battle cry of Russian and Chinese nationalists – into its party programme.
These changes should do away with the founding myth that the AfD is a copy of the Christian Democrats of the 1980s, firmly anchored in Western values. Never has a party in the Federal Republic adopted a policy of embracing the Kremlin so strongly. The AfD’s strategic re-orientation toward Russia sets it apart even from many other right-wing parties in Europe, including those in Finland and Sweden. In Italy, the right-wing nationalist prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has openly sided with Ukraine and criticised the AfD for its Russia ties.
Another radical party that has jumped to double-digit support in the polls is the Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW), founded just last month by Wagenknecht, a longtime senior figure in Germany’s far-left party, Die Linke. Wagenknecht wants immediate “peace” negotiations with Vladimir Putin and a resumption of cheap Russian hydrocarbon imports. When it comes to Russia’s war of aggression and internationally recognised war crimes against the Ukrainian people, she is largely silent. With Russian disinformation campaigns gearing up ahead of this year’s elections, her party has a good chance of entering German state governments and the European Parliament.
Support for the BSW and the AfD has come at the expense of the ruling coalition members: the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the pro-business Free Democrats. Their popularity is now at historic lows, with some eastern German chapters polling at levels below the 5% threshold to remain in parliament.
True, support for the coalition parties is higher nationally (the eastern states represent only one-fifth of the electorate), and even if the AfD or the BSW make it into regional governments, foreign policy would remain primarily a federal matter. Nonetheless, the AfD’s growing support has led established parties – especially the centre-right Christian Democrats – to harden their positions on issues such as migration.
German business leaders are waking up to these developments as the country enters its second year of recession. One big worry is that if the AfD gains more ground, sorely needed high-skilled migrant labour may dry up and foreign investment may decline. Companies planning to set up shop in Germany – such as the chip producers TSMC and Intel – would have a hard time persuading their staff to move to a country with increasingly nativist politics. Corporate leaders are speaking up, realising that protecting Germany’s open society is an economic priority as much as it is a moral and political one.
Even more importantly, millions of Germans have taken to the streets following a report by Correctiv that AfD members had met with neo-Nazis to discuss mass deportations of immigrants and “non-assimilated citizens.” Even the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has now distanced herself from the AfD.
Following these revelations, this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27) and the promise of “never again” acquired a newly poignant resonance. More people are recognising that far-right extremists could become a part of the government in the near future. The fragility of democracy, and the possibility that Germany – or even Europe – will return to the darkness of its past, cannot be discounted.
For now, Germany’s commitment to Ukraine holds. While the governing coalition is often criticised for late arms deliveries, it has just earmarked another €7bn ($7.6bn) for Ukraine aid. Germany is now shouldering over half of all EU aid, even though it accounts for only one-quarter of the bloc’s GDP.
But with the prospect of a victory for Donald Trump in this year’s US presidential election, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has made it clear that others must step up. Germany needs to invest billions into digitalisation, the green transition, its ailing military, transportation infrastructure, and education; but it cannot afford to weaken its European commitment. While the three governing parties have each become somewhat more restrictive on migration, they have doubled down on strengthening the EU.
That means the upcoming European elections will finally offer voters a real choice with far-reaching implications. Moderates will need to explain that a symbolic protest vote for radicals holds real dangers. As Scholz recently warned: “Nationalists act against national interest.” At a time when Germany and Europe must adapt to a new geopolitical environment, the danger is acute. — Project Syndicate
l Daniela Schwarzer, a member of the Executive Board of the Bertelsmann Stiftung and a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, is a former director of the German Council on Foreign Relations and former executive director for Europe and Central Asia at the Open Society Foundations.