A series of far-right protests have roiled the eastern German city of Chemnitz in recent weeks — and shocked the rest of the nation. Sparked by the fatal stabbing of a German national during an alleged brawl with migrants, the demonstrations featured Hitler salutes and violent attacks on immigrant bystanders. The scenes of unrest prompted Chancellor Angela Merkel to denounce “mob-like behavior” and the “persecution of innocent people.”
But the events seemed to lay down a new marker in Germany's increasingly fractious domestic politics. The ability of the far right to sustain such mobilization, combined with the relatively weak response of local authorities, alarmed many of the cognoscenti in Berlin.
“When the state is losing control — and this is what the far right is provoking — then their message becomes reality,” said Andreas Zick, who studies extremist groups at Bielefeld University, to my colleagues last week. “They’re feeling better than they have in months.”
The furor over the protests also highlighted a palpable divide in German politics between the affluent west and its poorer east, which has become the heartland of Germany's far-right AfD party. “Viewed from the big western cities of Hamburg, Munich or Frankfurt, these places seem infinitely remote. When Berlin-based journalists want to feel like foreign correspondents, they go for a day and talk to an academic who has done some research on right-wing extremism,” noted German writer Konstantin Richter in Politico. “Then they file a story that sounds as alien to their readers as any news item from Gaza, Pyongyang or, for that matter, the Trump-voting states of the Rust Belt.”
This dissonance between centers of power and the hinterlands exists in various Western democracies. But the tensions within Germany underscore a broader challenge for Europe: Leaders like Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have been urging greater geopolitical unity, spurred in part by the erratic behavior of President Trump and the authoritarian challenges posed by Russia and China. But they can barely muster a united front at home.
"Germany now finds itself in the worst security dilemma since it rejoined the West in the 1950s by becoming a member of NATO and the E.U. Its hoped-for strategic partners, Russia and China, are increasingly aggressive players in Europe,” explained Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution. “Within the E.U., populists and authoritarians are challenging the liberal, postwar consensus. Even countries that share that ideal, such as France, Spain and the Baltic states, disagree about the future of the European project. America’s elites stand firm in defense of U.S. security guarantees for Europe — but their president misses no opportunity to side with autocrats and show contempt for a rules-based order. "
Last month, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas voiced the growing conviction within the European establishment that it needs to step up and confront Trump. He called on European nations to “form a counterweight when the U.S. crosses the line” and to "[apply] our weight when America retreats.” This included proposals to protect European companies doing business with Iran — a riposte to Trump's unraveling of the nuclear deal with Tehran — calls for greater European military cooperation and a campaign to snuff out fake news, including some of the White House's own misleading talking points.
Not unlike Europe's far right, Maas suggested the Cold War-era values that shaped transatlantic relations are fading. “The binding force of the East-West conflict is history,” he wrote. “These changes began well before Trump’s election — and will survive his presidency well into the future.”
The continent's foreign policy elites are grappling with the implications of this shift. “This relatively harmonious relationship between the superpower and its voluntarily subordinate European partners is coming to an end and will not return in its erstwhile form,” Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to Washington, told Der Spiegel. “And it's not a bad thing that a process of emancipation has begun. Trump is forcing us to grow up.”
In an essay written in July for Foreign Affairs, Washington-based analysts Alina Polyakova and Benjamin Haddad examined what a “grown-up” Europe would look like: “Ambitious countries such as France could take a more assertive role in regional conflicts such as the Syrian civil war, rather than waiting for U.S. leadership. Germany, which is Russia’s largest trade partner, could flex its economic muscle to push back against Putin. Europe should continue to engage the United States and push for its interests, but first and foremost, it should seize the moment to develop a vision for Europe’s role in the world.”
But it's become abundantly clear that Europe has no united vision for its role in the world. Merkel heads an unhappy centrist coalition being buffeted on both flanks by populist forces. Anti-immigrant, far-right factions — including a number of Euroskeptic, pro-Kremlin parties — hope to score historic gains in next year’s European elections (not to mention this weekend's vote in Sweden). And France and Germany, the two supposed bulwarks of continental unity, are hardly on the same page when it comes to key aspects of security and fiscal policy.
Right-wing nationalist governments in Hungary and Poland, meanwhile, are steadily undermining the liberal consensus in Brussels, buoyed in part by the nationalism of the Trump administration. “The central and eastern European countries continue to see the US as the most important and irreplaceable guarantee of their security, as the partner they do not want to alienate under any circumstances,” wrote Jana Puglierin of the German Council on Foreign Relations. In many places in Europe, she added, “the readiness to step up as a ‘counterweight’ to the U.S. is not very pronounced.”
What is becoming more pronounced is the challenge posed by the far right. A poll in August found support for Merkel's ruling coalition at a record low and support for the AfD at a record high. Any vision for Europe will first have to look squarely at the gathering storm clouds.
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