Europe: democracy, or barbarism?

An open letter to Angela Merkel.

Dear Madam Chancellor,

Yours, more than any other country, bears the responsibility for the crimes of national socialism. Yours, more than any other country, has confronted the tasks of history and memory, providing younger generations with a keen understanding of the dangers of anti-Semitism and racism.

As we draw upon the 80th anniversary of the accession of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor, you have reiterated the principles of responsibility and vigilance which have guided Germany for almost sixty years. They resound evermore in a Europe which, in recent years, has experienced a rise of racism, anti-Semitism and the far right.

All those across our continent who fight for a Europe of fraternity, who build the European identity called for by the philosopher Husserl from 1935 as the only means of overcoming the dangers of nationalism during the rise of Nazism, need your support.

The voice of Germany must be clear and audible, because people are listening. You bear the responsibility conferred on you by your influence and the place of your country’s history in that of Europe.

To move from the ethic of conviction that you proclaim to an ethic of responsibility, Germany, like all countries in the EU, must put the development of democracy, and above all the fight against racism and anti-Semitism, at the very heart of its stance. Decisions on the financial, economic and institutional problems of Europe, crucial as they are for the future of the EU, must be measured against the strength they bring to democracy in Europe. The order of priorities as it stands must be reversed, and the central question of European democracies must be thus: “How are we to give life to Europe’s project of civilisation, based on peace, democracy, equality and the priority of the collective, plural and diverse above the identity of individuals?”

In this respect, the persistence of Roma ghettos in Slovakia, Romania, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, the anti-Semitic murders in France, that of the Roma in Hungary and those of Turkish origin in Germany, the annual demonstration of the past SS in Latvia, the Utoya massacre in Norway, the stigmatisation of Muslims and the rise of racial discrimination are unacceptable cases, which much be denounced with vigour.

In particular, the decay of the constitutional state in Hungary and the authoritarian trend in the Orban regime must be fought with the same energy as the burial of national debt.

Above all, the policies of Germany and Europe regarding Greece will not be solved by endless austerity, which deepens every day the social hopelessness instrumentalised by the neo-Nazis, Golden Dawn.

Germany cannot disregard the development of racist and anti-Semite positions and the increase of racist murders on its shores. It cannot ignore the permissiveness of part of the political establishment towards those who have a growing influence on our continent because they are regarded as the success story of the far right in Europe, capable of combining legal and illegal actions, of being elected to Parliament and of using physical violence against immigrants in the street.

In particular, the democratic vigilance of Germany should push you to demand that Prime Minister Samaras respect his commitment to remove neo-Nazis from the Greek parliamentary delegation in the Council of Europe, which is possible, legal and a democratic necessity. Although he firmly made this commitment in December, following an exceptional mobilisation in Athens of European civilians with the support of notable intellectuals and Nobel Prise laureates such as Elie Wiesel, Bernard Kouchner, Serge Klarsfeld, Adam Michnik and Dario Fo, in January he quietly sent a delegation including the neo-Nazi Eleni Zaroulia.

Because your country has a particular responsibility in the fight against racism and anti-Semitism you cannot remain silent in the face of this inacceptable double game, which reinforces neo-Nazism, and you must demand that the Prime Minister respect his democratic commitment.

It consists in the protection of the weakest against violence on two fronts, social and racial, and in the duty of democracy to oppose its inflexible enemies. In a word, it consists in the fundamental values of Europe and of its civilising project, without which it loses sense and will fall inevitably into barbarism.

Yours sincerely,

Benjamin Abtan, President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement

Photograph: Getty Images

Benjamin Abtan is the President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM).

Photo: Getty
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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.