On the UK, EU and Germany

One of the many ironies of the desire by so many in the UK to vote to leave the EU.

A common line of reasoning I have heard is that the EU is like a dictatorship run by Germany. This obviously links with collective historical memories of Nazi Germany trying to conquer Europe in World War II (most British people have only ever learnt about that part of Germany’s history during their education, and this is reinforced in popular culture). The argument is therefore that we should stand up for Britain in the same way we did then, and leave the EU, therefore diluting Germany’s dictatorial power.

While the dictatorship argument is one among many, it seems the overwhelming force behind leaving the EU is the distrust of those in power, largely as a result of, “…stagnant living standards, widening income inequality and disillusionment with conventional politicians who have failed to respond adequately to a once-in-a-liefetime economic crisis.” (Anatole Kaletsky in Prospect magazine, July 2016). Fair enough, you might say: this lot have failed us, and they all say we should stay in the EU, so they’re probably lying to us again. Let’s vote out.

What fewer British voters know is the political situation in Germany right now. The anti-establishment revolt embodied by the desire of many to leave the EU (and growing support for UKIP) is mirrored by the rising popularity of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, founded on a eurosceptic platform in 2013. In Germany’s last parliamentary election, the party gained 4.3% of the vote – just short of the 5% threshold that would have given them a seat in parliament. As with UKIP,  they saw success at the European election in 2014, gaining 7 out of Germany’s 96 seats in the European Parliament.

The AfD’s slogan is Mut zur Wahrheit (“courage under fire!” or “telling it like it is”). The party was founded on economic eurosceptic principles, campaigning to stay in the EU but get rid of the euro. In a parallel with UKIP, the party seems to have had a pretty turbulent and chaotic history so far, with continual disagreements and miscommunications. This does not seem to have stemmed their popularity. Since summer 2015 the party line has shifted, after its original leader was toppled by Frauke Petry. Their ‘basic programme’ includes: re-introducing conscription while refusing a european army; denying climate change while encouraging research into GMOs; removing support for gender research while aiming to promote knowledge and motivation in school; and most controversially stating that “Islam does not belong in Germany.” The AfD would ban all foreign funding of mosques, and require imams to preach in German.

When Petry took over, 5 out of the 7 MEPs left the party. Despite this turmoil in the party, recent polls put their support in Germany at around 10% of the vote. This page shows how the poll ratings have changed over the last few years.

In short: a xenophobic, populist, right wing party continues to gain traction in Germany.

What does that have to do with the EU referendum?

As Kaletsky points out, the anti-establishment revolts in the UK and Germany are based on the feelings of similar people responding in a similar way to similar conditions. The same could be said for the growth in support for Donald Trump in the USA. So the outcome of our referendum will be a measure of how these people are really willing to vote. A vote for Britain to leave the EU will signify that voters backing this movement are willing to  vote for something that they know is not collaborative or tolerant, and is potentially harmful the country, as a protest against the power of the day. This would suggest that voters in Germany would likely be similarly motivated, increasing the probability of the AfD gaining one or more seats in the German parliament next year (and similarly, increasing the chance of a Trump victory). One might also argue that a vote to leave  would embolden those on both sides of the Atlantic to ‘stick it to the Man’ by voting against the establishment (i.e. for the AfD or Trump). These outcomes in turn would undoubtedly lead to more international tensions and potentially to further conflict between countries that have remained cordial for decades.

On the other, more optimistic side, a vote to remain in the EU would show that the majority wish to cooperate, defy xenophobia, and to put some trust in the systems that have maintained peace and cooperation in Europe for the last half century. However, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that American voters would have any interest in the choices of European voters!

So, to the irony. Many who want to vote out of the EU think it is a dictatorship run by Germany. If we leave the EU, it will increase the chance of the AfD gaining influence in Germany, bringing the far right into the mainstream in Germany.

To further simplify and caricature: voting because of a fear of the Nazis in Germany will in fact promote the rise of Nazis in Germany.


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