The familiar “Get out of the euro!” battle cry echoed once again in Europe yesterday. But this time the call was not directed at the usual suspects, like Cyprus, Greece, or another of the highly indebted economies in Europe’s south.
New German party “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD, Alternative for Germany), which was officially founded in Berlin Sunday, wants Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, to leave the common currency itself. There are reasons to believe its call might have some impact.
“The German population is tired of witnessing ever increasing payments to southern European countries without seeing any of their problems getting solved,” says Bernd Lucke, leader of the AfD. The same argument has been used before by some maverick economists and by far-right populist groups – without much resonance in the wider public.
But when AfD gathered for its first national congress in the German capital on Sunday, the party proudly presented the latest membership figures – more than 7,000 people had joined within a matter of weeks. And a recent poll showed that up to 24 percent of Germans would consider voting for an anti-euro protest party in general elections this coming September.
“We want an organized dismantling of the eurozone and a return to national currencies while keeping the European single market,” says Mr. Lucke, an economist at Hamburg University. Lucke's education is typical of his party, which has an unusually high number of members holding a university degree or even a professorship – earning AfD the nickname “party of wisenheimers.”
The question is just how much damage AfD can inflict on the political establishment even if the new party does not make it past the 5 percent threshold into the Bundestag, the German parliament.
“I don’t think they will threaten the position of the government,” says Michael Fuchs, a senior member of parliament for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party (CDU). “We know that the euro is good for Germany and we should all do our best to keep it stable.”
German government politics have been shaped by party coalitions for decades; observers attribute the relative calm and the success of Germany’s post-war political development to the fine balance created by the need of parties to find consensus in government. Mrs. Merkel’s cabinet consists of a coalition between the conservative CDU, Germany’s strongest party by far, and the Free Democrats (FDP), a free-market liberal party which she would love to keep as a partner, but which has lost so much support in recent months that it must fear for its re-entering the Bundestag.
“In recent years, voter apathy has been a problem, but more so for the parties on the left,” says Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at Berlin’s Free University. “By tapping into unhappiness about the eurozone without sounding overly nationalistic, AfD could mobilize some of these non-voters and also attract wavering coalition supporters. That could really spoil Merkel’s day.”
Few observers see AfD – with its single-issue campaign and its three-page party program – growing into a serious political force any time soon. It's 7,000-plus members are still dwarfed by the CDU and its rival Social Democrats (SPD), each of which count nearly half a million members. Even the CDU's junior partner, the FDP, numbers more than 60,000 members.
But a glance at Italy, where comedian Beppe Grillo and his Five Star protest movement came second in this year's general elections, should be a warning to anyone not to underestimate the effect the eurocrisis can have on national politics.
“The answer to the eurocrisis is a political union in Europe which goes far beyond what we have seen so far,” says Mr. Neugebauer. “Merkel wants this union, but the question is if her voters want it too.”