BERLIN — A day after the inauguration of Donald Trump, prominent leaders of Europe’s right-wing populist parties will gather in the German city of Koblenz in what observers see as a show of force targeting the European Union. The meeting gained widespread attention in Germany as the first public get-together of Frauke Petry, chairwoman of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), and Marine Le Pen, president of France’s National Front. Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders and Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Northern League are also set to speak at the one-day conference organized by Marcus Pretzell, an AfD member of the European Parliament.
German political commentators consider the meeting a signal of the AfD’s shifting further to the right, since many Germans associate France’s National Front in particular with anti-Semitism and extreme right-wing positions.
The AfD sparked controversy ahead of the event when party officials barred several journalists from attending the summit, a move many say reflected Trump’s attitude to the news media.
In a telephone interview with The Washington Post, conference organizer Pretzell, who is also the husband of party chairwoman Petry, did not attempt to hide his contempt for journalists. “I don’t like how you work! . . . I don’t give a damn what you write!” he said, refusing to answer almost all of The Post’s questions about the meeting. Pretzell then abruptly hung up the phone — but not before pointing out that he wasn’t taking any cues from Trump. “I’ve been doing this longer than Trump . . . treating the press exactly for what they are!”
For Timo Lochocki, an expert on right-wing populist parties, the AfD’s treatment of the news media is part of a clever PR strategy. “If you exclude three media outlets, these three media outlets will cover the event all the more. . . . And if your electorate is generally skeptical anyway whether the so-called quality press is producing quality, this is terrific,” Lochocki said.
And indeed, in what analysts see as another parallel to Trump, stirring controversy appears to be an essential part of the AfD’s strategy for the upcoming German parliamentary elections. As an internal document revealed, the party wants to use “carefully planned provocations” to irritate political opponents. To be unfairly stigmatized by the established parties, according to the AfD’s reasoning, would make the party even more popular with voters.
This week, Björn Höcke, the AfD’s chairman in the German state of Thuringia, sparked outrage by calling the Berlin Holocaust memorial “a memorial of disgrace” and German commemoration culture “stupid.” Höcke defended the statements, which he made in a speech in Dresden, arguing that nothing could be wrong with calling the Nazi genocide a “disgrace.” But even Pretzell and other party colleagues thought it wise to distance themselves from the comments.
Yet Höcke’s speech drew a lot of attention, which, analyst Lochocki believes, is also the main objective of the Koblenz conference. Although the attendees share a general anti-elitist stance , dialogue with their European counterparts is not the most important aspect of the meeting. Instead, according to Lochocki, the aim is to shine a spotlight on the flaws of the established political parties. “The majority of AfD voters don’t vote for the AfD. They vote against the others,” he said.
But although the party’s provocations could backfire in Germany, its strong criticism of Angela Merkel’s refugee policy appears to have been successful. Founded in 2013, the party is already reaching double-digit numbers in the polls and has good prospects of entering the German parliament for the first time in autumn.