German anti-euro leader open to working with Merkel
BERLIN (Reuters) - The leader of Germany's new anti-euro party has signaled a readiness to cooperate with Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right bloc after elections in September if it takes a tougher line on aid to struggling euro zone members.
The comments by Bernd Lucke, an economics professor and founder of the "Alternative for Germany" (AfD), suggest a newfound willingness to work within the established political system if the party makes it into parliament.
In its official program, approved in mid-April, the AfD demands an "orderly dismantling" of the euro zone and return to national currencies.
But in an interview with Reuters, Lucke suggested the party might be satisfied with a course that stops short of a full breakup of the currency bloc if it could exact concessions on bailouts from established parties.
"I could imagine cooperating with a center-right government if this coalition was prepared to accept significantly tougher conditions on aid from the ESM," Lucke said, referring to the euro zone's rescue mechanism.
"In other words, only paying out aid tranches when bailed out countries really fulfill their obligations. At the moment, when a country like Greece or Portugal fails to meet the criteria, they receive aid regardless, because we are told they made a decent effort."
The bailouts are unpopular with voters in Germany, which provides the largest share of funding, but opinion polls show two in three Germans support the common currency.
Lucke criticized the "troika" - the group composed of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund which assesses compliance with reforms and budget cuts that are a condition of the bailouts - as a "politicized" body that is incapable of taking objective decisions.
He recommended that it be replaced by a new independent body of experts. This could open the door to closer cooperation with parties in Merkel's coalition, he said in the interview, conducted late on Wednesday.
At the moment, the AfD is hovering between 2 to 3 percent in opinion polls, short of the 5 percent mark needed to make it into the Bundestag lower house in September.
But the party has drawn close to 12,000 members in a matter of months and Lucke said he was optimistic that an aggressive election campaign could push the party over the threshold.
If it does get into parliament, its demands are likely to be rejected by Merkel's conservatives, who have denounced the AfD as scaremongers and populists.
Still, the AfD's tougher line on bailouts could appeal to some members of Merkel's center-right bloc. If her camp fails to achieve a parliamentary majority in September, as the polls now suggest, some members might favor loose cooperation with the AfD over a "grand coalition" with the center-left Social Democrats.
At the very least, a more conciliatory AfD could complicate the debate among her conservatives over what sort of partnership to pursue after the vote. Critics describe the AfD, which was formed earlier this year by a group of renegade academics, journalists and businessmen, as a party of "angry old men".
But Lucke said the party represented "normal taxpayers and normal voters" who felt the established parties had failed to defend their interests, especially during the three-year old euro crisis.
In addition to its stance on the common currency, he said the AfD favored a simplification of the German tax system and a more concerted drive to bring qualified foreign workers to Germany, citing Canadian immigration policies as a model.
"We clearly reject extremes on the right and left of the political spectrum. We don't want anything to do with them," said Lucke, a 50-year-old father of five who teaches economics at Hamburg University.
Lucke was dismissive about possible cooperation with other eurosceptic parties in Europe before EU-wide European Parliament elections in 2014,
In France, support for the far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen and radical left party of Jean-Luc Melanchon is strong, while in Italy, comic Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement shocked traditional parties with its strong performance in elections earlier this year.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which wants to pull Britain out of the EU, has been a thorn in Prime Minister David Cameron's side.
Lucke said members of UKIP had approached him about a meeting, but he had said no, pointing out that while the AfD opposes the euro, it is not against the European Union.
"There are no plans to cooperate with these other parties. We are focusing on Germany. We don't necessarily agree with many of these other parties and therefore we will maintain our distance," Lucke said.