Long predicted to be a dull specimen of Teutonic sensibility, in stark contrast to the recent populist upsets of the Anglo-American world and the emergence of the radical centrism of Emmanuel Macron in France, the German federal elections of this September largely lived up to their expectations. Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won yet another term as chancellor, while the Social Democrats (SDP) of Martin Schulz returned as the second largest party in the Bundestag. Mainstream European politicians breathed a sigh of relief in response to the results. Combined with the defeat of the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the French presidential elections, populism seemed safely contained in continental Europe. Despite these appearances of political monotony, the elections to the Bundestag should not let eurocrats rest easy, as the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) captured seats for the first time, while the vote shares of the CDU and SPD slumped dramatically.
Four years ago, the AfD had not yet emerged from the primordial swamp of political idea. When it did emerge, it did so as a fledgling anti-euro party, with relatively little support and few ideological similarities to the AfD of today. Since its founding, however, the AfD has risen relentlessly in the polls, thanks largely to Merkel’s handling of the 2015 refugee crisis.
For pro-EU politicians across the continent, 2017 has appeared to be a good year in election results. If, however, a party such as the AfD can rise from nothing to the third largest party in the Bundestag in such a short time, then it clearly fills a latent political need. Should the leadership of the EU continue to dismiss the concerns of AfD voters and their kin across Europe, they will continue their quiet march towards power. The leaders of the EU must take a less sanguine approach to migration, integration and economic decline, particularly in post-industrial regions such as the former German Democratic Republic in which the AfD performed so well.
It is past time for the leadership of the EU to be more forthright in their condemnation of populism and more direct in resolving the root cause of the malaise. Brexit, the rise of the fascist Golden Dawn party in Greece and dishearteningly meteoric rise of Jeremy Corbyn’s far left anti-semitic Labor Party in Britain are all symptoms of this failure to confront populism before its poisonous roots take hold. Especially in the case of Corbyn’s Labor, the western mainstream has almost welcomed it in, disregarding the grave danger it poses to the liberal order.
For too long, populism, both of the left and the right, and the root causes thereof have gone unconfronted. This unconcerned approach must change; the future of the west depends on it.