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Briefing from Berlin: EURO MA candidate Alex Baker on the upcoming German elections

September 14, 2017
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Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) politician Beatrix Von Storch stood at the podium, backed by campaign posters that read, “We’re for a Christian West,” “Truth through Courage,” and “We’re for national security” as she introduced Nigel Farage. “A man that wrote history” she called him. Farage received a standing ovation from the crowd gathered at the Spandau Citadel, a former military fortress in Berlin’s deep west, as he made his way to the podium.

Farage AfD

The event, held Friday, September 8th, comes just a few short weeks before Germany’s federal election. The AfD is a far-right German political party that has grown in popularity in recent years due to its hardline stance on migration issues. However, the party was founded in 2013 on Eurosceptic principles by economist Bernd Lücke. The AfD currently holds seats in thirteen of the sixteen German states and is seeking to enter the Bundestag for the first time, having failed to reach the five percent threshold in the 2013 federal election. The party is currently polling between eight and eleven percent (the party’s polling numbers peaked in mid-2016 at between thirteen and sixteen percent), and has a realistic chance at becoming the third strongest party in the new German parliament. The party is seeking to ride what is left of the 2016 populist wave, highlighted by the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. Farage clarified during his talk he has no formal ties with the AfD, but called Von Storch bold, wise, and a friend.

Brexit was the topic of choice for Farage on Friday. He questioned why Brexit had been largely absent as a topic of debate in the lead-up to the German federal elections. According to Farage, Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz ignored the issue of Brexit because “it is a huge embarrassment for the European dream.” The crux of Farage’s Farage AfD 2argument is that Germany, and German workers, have a lot at stake depending on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, calling trade a two-way street. Farage appealed to the audience with his claim that the label “Made in Germany” carries the utmost weight for consumers in the United Kingdom. He also cited the importance of trade between the UK and Germany for German workers, claiming that Germany has a 30 billion Euro trade surplus with the United Kingdom (it was unclear where he came up with this figure). Farage was also critical of the effects that the European Union has on popular sovereignty and national democracies, while also noting that if any country has the ability to fundamentally change the EU, it would be Germany.

Germany is the largest country in the European Union. It has the largest share of seats in the European parliament, with ninety-six (12.8%). The leader of the European People’s Party, the largest group in the European parliament, is the German Manfred Weber. And of course Germany is the economic leader of Europe.

There was no shortage of soundbites Friday night. At one point, Farage called Viktor Orban of Hungary, “the best and strongest leader of the whole of Europe.” When asked about Jean-Claude Junker, Farage said his advice to the president of the European Commission would be to, “drink less at lunch time… I mean, I like a glass of wine, but there are limits, you know.” As for current German chancellor Angela Merkel, Farage said that her decision in the midst of the refugee crisis, her “Wir schaffen das” approach, was “probably the worst decision by any Western leader in modern political history.” He also called Martin Schulz, “a dangerous man.”

Farage did point out something that many Germans are critical of, and that is the claim that Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic party and Martin Schulz’s Social Democratic Party have become indistinguishable on many issues. Farage called it “two different personalities offering the same menu.” Germany could be looking at its third consecutive ‘grand coalition’ between the CDU and SPD. The two leading candidates faced off in a debate recently which could best be described as dull and lacking substance.

 

Opinion/analysis:

As an attendee to Friday’s event, the first thing that struck me about it was the venue. The Spandau Citadel not only accommodated with ease Farage’s talk; it also represented a deeper symbolic meaning. The fortress is extremely well-preserved: built in the late 1500s, it has survived through many wars and is a staple of Berlin’s, and Germany’s, history.AfD rally 3 In a more practical sense, the Spandau Citadel is a military defense structure. Throughout centuries, the citadel served as a point of protection against invading armies from foreign lands. The AfD see themselves as the modern-day protectors of Germany. Much of their campaign rhetoric has to do with defending what they deem to be the German way of life, and German culture, from perceived threats, such as globalization, European integration, and Islam. Whether AfD leaders thought about this when they chose to host the event at the Spandau Citadel I do not know, but the irony was not lost on me.

Yet, that was not the only ironic theme of the night. During his talk, Farage chastised Obama for his meddling comments regarding the Brexit vote, in which he implored those in the UK to vote remain. This of course was rich coming from Farage, who has stuck his nose in just about every country’s politics so long as there is a right-wing, populist-leaning party on the ticket.

Whether you agree with his points or not, there is no denying Farage is a gifted orator who knows how to work an audience, especially an audience friendly to him and his ideas. He speaks with extreme energy, vigor, and enthusiasm. He also knew exactly on which points to hit in order to strike a chord with his audience Friday. At one point he referenced his experience in the private sector and claimed “there is not a city in the Ruhrgebiet that I have not visited.” He has become a kind of cult hero for those with right-wing populist leanings and sympathies. In previous interviews, Farage called 2016 a “global revolution against global governance,” citing Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and Italy’s removal of their prime minister after a referendum. During his Friday talk, he mentioned multiple times “standing on a stage in Mississippi with that businessman from New York named Donald J. Trump.” Along with campaigning for Trump, Farage backed Marine Le Pen in France, has expressed admiration and respect for Dutch politician Geert Wilders, and is a regular contributor to Fox News.

 

Predictability, Farage checked all the boxes Friday. He harshly criticized the media, which is a common tactic of the AfD. The AfD have brought back the term ‘Lügenpresse,’ which translates to lying press. The term has appeared several times throughout German history, but its use is most commonly associated with the Nazi period. He criticized the political elite and rich Brussels bureaucrats (even though he falls under this very classification himself). He blasted big banks and big multinationals, as well as taking shots at Merkel, Schulz, Juncker, and Obama.

I found myself wondering before, during, and after the event, what was the purpose of Farage’s Berlin visit? Surely he must know that Brexit is simply not a salient issue for most Germans. There are far more pressing matters in German- and geo-politics to deal with. Of course Farage will go anywhere, anytime, to preach the evils of Brussels to anyone who will listen, but the event served another purpose. It was just the latest example of AfD thrusting itself into the public discourse. Alice Weidel debate.pngA common tactic of the AfD is to make headlines by any means necessary. Just a few nights before Friday’s event, AfD party co-head Alice Weidel walked out of a debate, citing biased moderation. Some in Germany suspected the move was staged, in order to grab headlines and push a narrative. It worked, as Weidel was mentioned more than any other candidate on Twitter that night, and many news outlets led with the Weidel story and her prepared statement.

In a campaign dominated by Merkel and Schulz, the other periphery parties are struggling for media attention. Predictability, Farage speaking in Berlin as a guest of the AfD was not only national news, but international news. At the event, I encountered journalists not only from Germany’s largest national publications and outlets, but from international news outlets such as CNN, Reuters, BBC, and The Guardian. Nigel Farage is a poster-boy for the values that the AfD espouses; they knew the event would sell, and they were right.

I had the opportunity to ask Farage a question during the Q&A period. I decided to press him on Russia, since a proper discussion on Russia and Ukraine has been largely absent from the German political debate in recent months, and there are emerging reports of Farage’s dubious ties with Russia. My motivation for asking about the conflict stemmed also from the AfD’s non-committal, non-unified stance on Russia and Ukraine. The relationship between Russia and the AfD has been the topic of much scrutiny, and the ties between the AfD and Moscow are shrouded in secrecy. On this occasion, Farage chose to simply sidestep the question.

 

Alex Baker is a second year MA student in European Studies currently on exchange in Germany at the Free University of Berlin. He completed his BA at Michigan State University’s James Madison College of Public Affairs and International Relations, majoring in Comparative Cultures and Politics and minoring in German. During his undergraduate studies, he spent a year living in Dessau, Germany. Alex has an anticipated graduation date of May 2018.

 

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