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5 September 2023

The AfD’s nuclear option

How the German far right could end up in government.

By Wolfgang Münchau

Germany’s centrist parties have drawn a political firewall around the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). They do not cooperate with the far right at any level: federal, state, regional or local. We can see why they are doing this, but we also see that it is arithmetically and politically unsustainable. If you exclude a party that polls at 20 per cent, you invariably end up with four-party coalitions. Everyone else, bar one, is always in government. The more the centrist parties huddle together, the stronger the AfD will get.  

A powerful political theme has emerged in Germany with the potential to tie the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), Free Democratic Party (FDP) and AfD together. All three want to go back to nuclear power. That joint commitment was triggered by a throwaway comment from Olaf Scholz last weekend, who in a radio interview called nuclear energy a dead horse. This is the one big policy area in which the ruling coalition is most definitely out of step with the mood of the country. The Germany that many grew up in is not the same as today’s energy-constrained Germany. Most people fear nuclear energy a lot less than the permanent loss of industrial competitiveness. It is unsurprising that some political parties are trying to capture the shifting mood.

All three parties took up Scholz’s dead horse metaphor. The AfD called Scholz’s coalition a dead horse. The FDP noted that other industrial nations are riding that horse with some success. The head of the economic committee in the Bundestag, the CDU politician Michael Grosse-Brömer, said there was no need to kill a horse that could have been ridden for a few more years.

Scholz made the technocratically correct point that the end of nuclear power in Germany has been enshrined in law. The old nuclear power stations are being decommissioned, and will be torn down. If you want to build new ones that would take 15 years, and would cost €15bn-€20bn for a single power station. Killing them all, at a time like this, has a scorched-earth quality to it. When Scholz’s coalition took office in 2021 there were still six nuclear power stations that provided 14 per cent of German electricity consumption. This gap is now being filled by coal-fired power – an absurdity.

There is a way to save at least some of them. If after the next elections, scheduled for 2025, the pro-nuclear parties were to form a coalition, they could change the law and arrest the decommissioning processes of maybe three of the power stations. Though this is the one big issue that unites the parties of the centre right and the far right, the CDU remains opposed to cooperating with the AfD as a matter of principle. Its party leader Friedrich Merz clumsily tried to open this debate, but then had to withdraw when he received a lot of blowback. 

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This question will, however, be settled by realpolitik. Should the CDU/CSU become the largest party in 2025 and form a coalition, it will naturally turn to the FDP, its old, trusted partner. But that won’t be enough for a majority. Together they will need either the anti-nuclear Greens, the anti-nuclear Social Democrats or the pro-nuclear AfD. That is going to be the choice. The question then becomes: what do the parties feel more strongly about? The AfD firewall, or the politics that get you re-elected?

The firewall will likely crumble, just as it crumbled in other European countries. Germany is a political laggard; it adopts political trends elsewhere with a delay. The rise of populist parties came late in modern Germany. The first four-party coalition is likely to emerge in 2027. And Germany will also be late in changing its mind on nuclear energy.

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[See also: Why is the far right surging in Germany?]

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