Part Three of our Summer Series on the Latest Developments in EU Member States

In this GED Summer Series, we analyze what’s taking place in several EU countries and how these developments are impacting Europe less than a year before the 2024 European elections. This week, we focus on the resurgence of the political far-right in Germany.

As the traffic light coalition struggles, dissatisfaction mounts

When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the “traffic light coalition,” comprised of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and Free Democrats (FDP), assumed power in December 2021, the unlikely partnership introduced an ambitious coalition agreement focused on long-awaited domestic reforms.

Despite these early ambitions, the coalition’s performance has largely been underwhelming. New polling reflects German voters’ dissatisfaction, and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is trending upward at an alarming, unprecedented rate.

The government has followed through on some coalition promises. However, the progress in these areas has been overshadowed by (perceived) shortcomings in others. This has mainly been the consequence of the residual impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and widespread intraparty and intercoalition squabbling.

Germany officially entered a recession in May. As of July, experts anticipate further contractions over the course of the year, while inflation still stands at 6.4%. Concurrent with this economic downturn, Germany has accepted nearly 1.1 million refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine – the second-highest number after Poland.

Germany’s expensive move away from Russian energy and the Greens’ simultaneous push for a clean energy transition has been a notable sticking point plaguing the ruling coalition’s popularity. A deeply contested and unpopular green heating law, recently amended and agreed upon by the coalition, seeks to phase out oil and gas heating systems in favor of heat pumps powered by renewable energy.

Dissatisfaction over these setbacks and controversial policies is reflected in recent polling. According to the July Deutschlandtrend from public broadcaster ARD, 77% of Germans are “concerned” with the current state of affairs, with 25% of respondents further citing the actions of the current government.

A nearly equal number of respondents further indicate inflation (20%), energy policy (19%), and immigration (18%). Similarly, disapproval of the three ruling parties is widespread (65% disapproval for the SPD, 77% for the Greens, and 71% for the FDP).

The resurgence of the Alternative for Germany

Waning popularity among the coalition partners has not given a significant boost to the Christian Democrats (CDU) but rather to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). According to the same ARD survey, the AfD is sitting at 20% approval nationwide, double the share of the vote it received (10.3%) in the 2021 federal election. This figure positions the AfD as Germany’s second most popular party and is the highest nationwide approval rating ever recorded by the party in the Deutschlandtrend.

The CDU’s approval rate increased only slightly to 28%, following its historically poor 24.1% performance in 2021. Greens Climate and Energy Minister Robert Habeck, whose popularity has dropped over the green heating law, has blamed the lack of a “functioning conservative party” for the AfD’s rise.

The AfD has already turned its rising popularity into unprecedented political achievements, recently winning two offices at the municipal level – a district administrator in Thuringia and a mayorship of a small town in Saxony-Anhalt.

Timing is on the side of the AfD, as it seeks to capitalize on its increasing public standing ahead of several state elections. Aside from Bavaria, where the CDU sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), stands tall ahead of the October election, in Hesse, Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia, the AfD is either the most popular party or close behind in current public opinion polls.

The recent successes of the AfD are complicating a pact made by Germany’s other political parties not to cooperate with the right-wing populists. This commitment, made when the AfD first entered the Bundestag in 2017, was easier when the party was a relative political newcomer with moderate success. The party’s current standing, especially in the east and increasingly on the national level, is complicating the status quo.

In response to the AfD’s recent successes in eastern Germany, CDU Chairman Friedrich Merz recently stated, “If a district administrator or mayor who belonged to the AfD was voted in […] it’s natural that we have to look for ways to ensure that we can continue to work together in the city.”

The comments, which seemingly challenged his party’s stance, were quickly retracted amidst rebuke from across the political spectrum and celebrations by AfD leadership. The July Deutschlandtrend indicates that 43% of Germans are against cooperating with the AfD, while 33% support cooperation on a case-by-case basis and 17% support cooperation entirely.

Despite Merz’s comments, the German political establishment’s commitment to non-cooperation remains a challenge, should the AfD indeed capitalize on its upward trend in the polls ahead of several key elections over the next year.

European elections on the horizon – What does the AfD have planned?

While Germany’s federal elections are not set to take place until October 2025, the June 2024 European elections are just around the corner. The AfD just concluded its annual party conference in the capital of Saxony-Anhalt, one of its eastern strongholds.

While the conference focused on the several upcoming state elections, it was also extremely focused on Europe. The AfD, which was founded in 2013 as a Euroskeptic party vehemently opposed to the Eurozone, has since altered its approach towards Brussels. Instead of fighting the EU from the outside, it is signaling its intention to weaken it from within.

The draft election program controversially presents its vision of a “Europe of Fatherlands” consisting of “sovereign, democratic states.” The program further proclaims that the party has lost its patience with the EU and would support the bloc’s gradual dissolution in favor of a community of economic and common interests.

The platform focuses on the concerns listed by Germans in the July ARD Deutschlandtrend – immigration, climate, and the economy. The platform promotes the idea of creating a Festung Europa (Fortress Europe) aiming to quell further immigration into the EU.

It supports the return of asylum policymaking back to the member states, dismisses manmade climate change, and thus opposes European green initiatives. It also proposes reeling in the European Central Bank, which it blames for Germany’s current inflation levels and economic decline.

Per a July 2023 INSA survey on the European elections, the AfD’s popularity stands at an alarming 23%, compared with 26% for the CDU, 19% for the SPD, and 15% for the Greens. Based on current projections, the AfD could increase its presence in the European Parliament from 9 to 20 members in June next year. If that holds true, those same democratically elected politicians will become members of a body the party sees as an “undemocratic” institution it wishes to abolish entirely.

AfD party members also voted to join the European far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) Group in Brussels, consisting of several far-right parties across Europe, including the French National Rally, Dutch People’s Party, Italian Lega, and the Austrian Freedom Party. The decision would also allow the AfD to receive more funding from Brussels.

The concoction of extreme societal change, economic decline, political deadlock, and an ineffective opposition has generated widespread public dissatisfaction and provided fertile ground yet again for Germany’s right-wing, populist forces to flourish. The AfD’s rising popularity, combined with its regressive policy ambitions for Germany and the EU, is of grave concern.

But the continued upward trend of the AfD is also not a given. The AfD has a core voting base, but its alarming rise in recent months is largely a signal of public discontent. There is still time ahead of the 2024 European elections to reverse course, but it falls on the political establishment, both on parties in power and especially on the mainstream opposition, to present concrete alternatives to dampen the anxieties of the German public. Otherwise, the same momentary discontent of Germany’s voters today could lead to long-term political ramifications in the future.

About the author

Brandon Bohrn works as a project manager in the Europe’s Future program. His work centers around U.S.-German and transatlantic relations. Previously, he worked on the transatlantic team at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Click here to read all of the posts in our Summer Tour of EU Member States Series