January 24, 2024 - 7:30am

Talking about the EU has never been regarded as an election-winner in Germany. Until now. Ahead of the European polls later this year, the Right-wing Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) has ramped up its Euroscepticism. Perhaps more surprisingly, pressure from the Left is also mounting as Germany’s newest political party takes aim at Brussels.

Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW) was only founded a couple of weeks ago by the eponymous MP and her allies. A hastily assembled skeleton manifesto promised a new kind of politics: Left-wing on economics, Right-wing on social issues such as immigration. 

So far, survey results fluctuate wildly, predicting between 3 and 17% of the vote for BSW as Germans are as yet unsure what the party stands for. Its baptism of fire will be the European Parliament elections in June this year, for which it has just unveiled its manifesto, one that is deeply critical of the EU.

The 20-page document doesn’t hold back. It slams Brussels for its “Kafkaesque bureaucratic zeal”, calls Europe an “El Dorado for lobbyists”, and demands an end to “uncontrolled migration”. Wagenknecht and her colleagues argue that they speak for many people when they condemn the “lofty politics of detached EU technocrats who are barely checked by democratic principles” as an “attack on democracy and a threat to their culture and identity”.

This will sound very Right-wing to British ears. Brexiteers have long made similar arguments about taking back control of borders and decision-making processes. The AfD was also founded on similar principles in 2013 when centre-right politicians and journalists formed an interest group against Germany’s intervention in the eurozone crisis, arguing for the abolition of the euro as a common currency. 

The AfD’s stance has since become more broadly and sharply Eurosceptic. Co-leader Alice Weidel told the FT this week that her party would offer the German public a Brexit-style referendum if “reform isn’t possible, if we fail to rebuild the sovereignty of the EU member states”. Like the Wagenknecht party, it wants more power for European nation states. 

But there are sharp differences between Germany’s political Right and Left when it comes to their shared Euroscepticism. Like many British Brexiteers, the AfD follows a neoliberal line, arguing for economic deregulation. By contrast, BSW wants stronger regulation of the labour market with a view to improving wages and work conditions. It supports the EU’s directive on minimum wage, for instance, which suggests that member states ensure all workers are paid at least 60% of the country’s median wage. 

Wagenknecht also wants the EU to resume oil and gas imports from Russia while Europe as “one common house” should push for “constructive peace negotiations” to end the war in Ukraine. BSW would retain the bloc to lend weight to a foreign policy based on disarmament and distance from the US, including the removal of American nuclear weapons from the continent. 

Bullish and anti-establishment as such rhetoric may be, it remains to be seen how effective the vocal Euroscepticism of Germany’s political fringes is as an election strategy. Some studies have shown that Germans have become more critical of Brussels than they used to be. In a survey last year, 56% said they didn’t feel the phrase “We as Europeans” included them personally. But another poll showed that three-quarters still think being in the EU is a good thing and fewer than 10% said they don’t want the EU to get involved in areas such as the economy, climate policy, defence, immigration and refugees. 

Whether German Euroscepticism has any political legs is doubtful. Yes, immigration, a dysfunctional economy, working poverty and many other issues BSW and AfD lay at the EU’s door are things Germans are deeply concerned about. But so far, their anger has primarily been directed at Berlin, not Brussels.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.