In the back room of a dimly lit pub in the rural east German village of Grossbahren, Beatrice Amelie Ehrengard von Storch was busy expounding her theories about how Angela Merkel’s unquestioning support for the euro and the European Union was gradually wrecking the Fatherland.
A group of some 35 citizens of the state of Brandenburg – many of them young men with military-style haircuts – sipped pilsner beer and listened attentively as she outlined the dire prospects in store if Germany continued on its pro-European course.
“Our social security is a luxury that we may soon no longer be able to afford. That’s because Merkel has signed up to a European unemployment benefit scheme,” insisted Ms von Storch, a skinny woman in her forties. “It means that we Germans will have to support jobless Spaniards,” she added.
Ms von Storch, who would have been entitled to call herself Princess of Oldenburg had she not married a commoner, is a Euro MP for Germany’s recently elected new Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany party (AfD). “If you don’t want to live in a centralised European state – then vote for the AfD,” she told her audience on Thursday night.
The AfD is set to enter the parliaments in the German states of Brandenburg and Thuringia in regional elections on Sunday after winning almost 10 per cent of the vote and several seats in the state of Saxony for the first time this month. Ms von Storch’s pub visit was part of her party’s Brandenburg campaign.
With an often bizarre and contradictory mix of right-wing policies, the AfD is in the process of destroying Ms Merkel’s traditional liberal Free Democrat allies. The pro-business liberals were ousted in national government in elections last year. They are now being replaced at regional level by the AfD, which only narrowly missed winning seats in Berlin.
Chancellor Angela Merkel recently admitted that the AfD is a “problem” and most political analysts predict that the party will enter Germany’s federal parliament after the 2017 general election. They say it has the potential to undermine the country’s hitherto cosy political consensus on Europe and swing Germany to the right.
“The AfD is similar to Ukip. It is part of the current renationalisation of politics in Europe,” Professor Werner Patzelt of Dresden’s Institute for Political Science told The Independent. “It has filled a gaping hole on the German political right caused by Merkel shifting her ruling conservative Christian Democrats to the left,” he adds.
Just how far to the right the AfD lies is a matter of intense debate and some alarm in Germany. Professor Patzelt says the party draws its support from disillusioned Christian Democrats, estranged former liberals and even the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party. “The AfD is in puberty and has the potential to become anything on a right-wing political spectrum which ranges from Marine Le Pen’s French Front Nationale to right-wing nationalist Bavarians,” he said.
The AfD’s leadership objects to being linked to the “crude” far right and likes to present the party as the natural home of frustrated yet concerned aristocrats and nationalists like Mrs von Storch. It wants debt-plagued countries such as Greece, Spain and even France to leave the eurozone and aims to claw back powers from Brussels. It insists it is not anti-Europe and that its natural allies are Britain’s Tories, not Ukip.
Bernd Lucke, the AfD’s leader and an economics professor, rejects allegations that his party is a far-right organisation. “This is a deliberate and untrue media slur which is meant to discredit us,” he says. Yet in Brandenburg the party has attracted officials who were previously members of far-right organisations, and the party is campaigning vigorously for tougher immigration controls in the state.
In Saxony, where AfD has already entered the state parliament, the party is calling for a referendum on plans to build mosques with minarets and has advocated tighter controls on abortion to make way for more German children. Mrs von Storch would like to see all Third World refugees obliged to apply for asylum at European embassies in their own countries before being let in. Her answer to Ukraine crisis is for Germany to set up a free trade agreement with Russia to guarantee “German business interests”.
In Thuringia, the AfD’s leader talks about German identity “dying out” because of immigration. A former Muslim member of the AfD was found to have attended a Turkish social occasion and was warned by party officials that she “should never attend multi-cultural events”. She subsequently resigned from the party. Speaking on German TV this week, she told the investigative programme Monitor that Mr Lucke had lost control and that the party was now largely in the hands of far-right activists. Another former liberal AfD member from the state of Lower Saxony told the programme that she left the party after right-wing members threatened her on her Facebook site.
Professor Patzelt says that if the AfD continues its run of electoral successes, it could win seats in national parliament. Under Ms Merkel Germany’s pro-European Christian Democrats have ruled out any coalition with the AfD. But Professor Patzelt is not convinced this will always be the case: “The conservatives may be saying that now, but when politics in Europe are being renationalised, attitudes and policies can change,” he said.
An alternative for Germany? what the AFD wants
The party insists it is not anti-Europe but anti the euro. It
* wants to scrap the euro as a single currency for Europe. It argues that its use fails to take into account Europe’s different traditions and forces Germany to provide financial guarantees for the EU’s debtor nations.
* claims the euro forces Europeans to cede ever more national powers to Brussels.
* wants to claw back these powers from Brussels and bring to an end what it claims is a European super state. Instead it wants a Europe of independent sovereign states which operate in a common economic zone.
* wants referendums to be held regularly before parliament decides on key national issues such as the introduction of the euro and euro rescue packages.
* wants to step up the pay and powers of the police and judiciary to help them combat crime more effectively.
* wants a substantial reform of immigration policies and stresses that immigrants have duties such as learning German, fully integrating themselves and paying taxes.
* wants substantial tax breaks for families with children and says women should be able to chose between a career and raising children.