June 15, 2012 / 9:15 AM / 5 years ago

Eurosceptics bid for national stage in Germany

* Unlike peers, Germany has no strong Eurosceptic party

* Euro-zone bailouts fuel growing resentment in Germany

* Eurosceptic Bavarians set sights on 2013 national vote

By Stephen Brown

BERLIN, June 15 (Reuters) - Konrad Adenauer must be turning in his grave.

The founder of Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) did not live to see the ultimate expression of his vision of European unity - the single currency - come into being.

Nor did postwar West Germany’s first chancellor live to see his own grandson abandon the party to join a small but growing band of German Eurosceptics.

Announcing his defection to the Bavarian “Free Voters” party last week, Stephan Werhahn said bailing out struggling euro zone states like Greece had “nothing to do with the European vision of the founding fathers”, including his own grandfather.

Werhahn, a businessman who has never run for office, doesn’t carry the moral authority of the ancestor once voted “the greatest German of all time”. But his decision highlighted growing volatility in German party politics, where Eurosceptics see untapped potential for protest votes.

Other northern euro zone countries which are also paying into the bailout funds, such as Austria, the Netherlands and Finland, have seen the rise of Eurosceptic parties. A German taboo on nationalism in politics, rooted in atonement for the crimes of the Nazis, has so far kept a lid on such trends.

But one clear sign that many Germans are tiring of the perceived cost of the single currency and welcome challenges to such taboos is the success of a new book by former central banker Thilo Sarrazin, called “Europe Doesn’t Need the Euro”.

The book, which argues that Germany is paying for the debt crisis to make amends for the Holocaust, went straight to the top of German best-seller lists on publication in May.

So far, Chancellor Angela Merkel has faced down revolts by Eurosceptics in her own ranks, where backbenchers from her CDU, its Bavarian CSU sister party and the conservatives’ coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), grumble about the bailouts.

As the debt crisis grinds on and Germany takes on more and more obligations for stricken euro zone partners - most recently for Spanish banks - the dissidents in Merkel’s own coalition appear to be overcome by a sense of fatalism.

“I sense resignation among many party colleagues because we have got tangled in an ever more inscrutable mesh of guarantees and aid promises in the euro zone,” CDU parliamentarian Klaus-Peter Willsch, a prominent euro rebel, told Reuters.

GRASSROOTS SUPPORT

Into the breach step the Bavarians, led by Hubert Aiwanger who predicts that the Free Voters’ debut campaign for the lower house of parliament (Bundestag) will not only win seats, but put them in the king-maker role played until now by the liberal FDP.

“Conservatives who voted for the CDU/CSU or FDP but are now against the bailouts are looking for a political alternative and I think we can get their votes,” he told Reuters.

The party is so far only represented in Bavaria’s state assembly, where it more than doubled its votes to 10 percent in the 2008 vote. The federal party organising the national campaign has 2,500 members, but Aiwanger said there are more than 300,000 supporters at state, county and municipal level. It was not possible to verify that figure independently.

With Bavarian regional elections also due next year, the Free Voters hope to hold the balance of power in the state and influence whether Merkel gets re-elected with a centre-right coalition, or has to team up with the Social Democrats.

Such optimism would once have appeared naive. But the sudden rise of the maverick Pirates, who have come from nowhere to take seats in state assemblies from Berlin to Saarland despite a conspicuous lack of policies other than promoting Internet freedom, suggests the Bundestag is more open to newcomers than it may ever have been.

“The chances have never been better for new parties in Germany as voting behaviour is characterised by an ever increasing volatility,” said politics professor Thorsten Faas at the University of Mannheim.

“Having said that, it is still a huge challenge to gain more than 5 percent of the vote (the threshold for winning seats) and I don’t really see that for the ‘Free Voters’,” said Faas, citing their very local power base.

“I am Bavarian but that doesn’t mean the Free Voters are Bavarian,” responded 41-year-old farming engineer Aiwanger, in a thick Bavarian accent.

Previous anti-euro platforms have been a signal failure in state elections. A Eurosceptical FDP campaign for Berlin’s city assembly last year contributed to the party’s most humiliating result - 1.8 percent - in a string of disastrous elections.

Despite Merkel’s attempts to rally Germans behind her in the cause of the euro in one state vote after another, the issue is not top priority for voters who tend to express concern about more local bread-and-butter matters such as jobs and education.

“Europe and European foreign policy issues are rarely the criteria voters employ when making up their minds,” said Faas.

EU‘S CASH COW

Opinion polls reflect nostalgia for the old Deutschemark and expectations that the debt crisis will get worse before it gets better, but that the single currency will survive. They show widespread opposition to further bailouts. The CDU’s Willsch expects the Spanish banking rescue to exacerbate such sentiment.

“It sends a terrible signal. Spain will get money from the European stability mechanism without constraints,” he said.

Germany’s export-oriented economy has thrived thanks to a weaker euro and low interest rates, but a common complaint is that Berlin is a “cash cow” for EU rescue schemes. One cover of business daily Handelsblatt depicted a cow in German black, red and gold being milked into a pail in European Union blue.

Designer Mark Flierl, who is selling wallpaper decorated with Deutschemark notes, told Reuters: ”It’s very topical because of all the debate going back and forth right now, with around 40 million Germans apparently wanting the D-Mark back.

“I think people feel the D-Mark solved problems whereas they think the euro creates as many problems as it solves,” he said.

Aiwanger insists he is pro-European but fears the single currency could put German economic stability at risk. He blames Merkel for letting bailouts spin out of control and wants the Bundestag to throw out a permanent euro zone bailout fund, which awaits German ratification to come into effect.

If the euro cannot be “fixed”, he said, Germany will have to think about leaving the currency bloc.

“The carousel just keeps getting faster and the question is should we jump off it now, or hope it will it slow down? I think we should jump off now and risk a few broken bones rather than sitting on it longer and breaking our necks,” Aiwanger said.

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