Towards the European Elections: what is Happening in the German Left

On the 23rd of February, the leadership and delegates of Die Linke (The Left), the German radical left, convened in Bonn to determine their platform for the upcoming EU elections. The meeting produced an openly Europeanist turn for the party, clearly meant to compensate for its past ambivalence about the Union.

Now, all three German left parties — Die Linke, the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) and Die Grünen (The Greens) — will act as Europeanist players in an EU parliament rife with conflict over the destiny of Europe, due to the amount of seats that will likely be won by identitarian – populist forces. But despite their shared rivals in the EU and the common hope of a more social form of European integration, the three political forces of the German left remain ideologically separate from one another. The SPD, Die Linke, and Die Grünen are able to govern together on a local scale — as seen in the states of Berlin and Thuringia — but the idea of a future left-only alliance in Germany seems improbable, and not only because it wouldn’t currently reach the necessary vote threshold of 50%+1.

The three parties, indeed, find themselves in different phases of identity: while Die Linke is putting serious effort into reaching a state of internal unity, the Social Democrats are desperately trying to resuscitate themselves. Die Grünen, meanwhile, is enjoying a moment of political hype.


The SPD back to the left


On the 10th of February, the Social Democrats, under the guide of secretary Andrea Nahles, presented a new concept for the welfare system in Germany, calling it “Sozialstaatskonzept 2025.” The plan represents a clear step to the left and with that, an attempt to stop the consistent decline of the SPD in the polls. Since the last national elections, held in September 2017, the Sozialdemokraten were headed for their own version of “pasokification” (a term that describes the steady decline in popularity of social democratic forces in Europe). However, the proposed set of reforms seem to have made an impact, with the SPD recovering some points in the past weeks (from 14–15% to 18–19% in the polls).

One thing is sure: Nahles and her leading team are trying hard to win back the socially weakest parts of the electorate. As well as having requested a rise in the minimum wage from 9.19 to 12€ per hour, the SPD is also proposing a substantial dismantling of the so-called Hartz IV system of subsidies (which the SPD itself implemented in 2002 under the leadership of Gerhard Schröder). The Social Democrats now want to remove the most severe sanctions of the Hartz IV system, give more benefits to poor families with children, make it easier to work from home and establish a minimum pension for older workers.

Knowing how symbolic the expression “Hartz IV” is, the Social Democrats have even suggested renaming it “Bürgergeld” (“citizen money”), taking roughly the same path as the Italian Movimento 5 Stelle, who tactically branded their guaranteed minimum income with the name “reddito di cittadinanza” (which in theory should refer to a universal “basic income”, unrelated to poverty or unemployment). But the biggest problem for the German SPD isn’t the name that will be given to their potential reform, but rather the budget to make it real. In order to collect the revenue needed for their “Sozialstaatskonzept 2025”, the Social Democrats have discussed increasing taxes on the richest.

However, looking at the numbers, a higher national debt may be required too. This would represent an incredibly significant shift in mindset, considering Germany’s traditional role as the state-debt watchdog in Europe. To make a long story short, a number of factors are steering the SPD away from the German political center and, consequently, from its already fragile coalition with the CDU.


Will the new center be green?


If the Social Democrats are walking away from the center, the Greens may be heading straight for it. Since their success in the Bavarian elections of last October, the Greens are now widely seen as the party of the moment, and as one of the future trendsetters of the (northern) European liberal left. In fact, the Greens’ success is in part proportional to the SPD’s decline in popularity: in recent weeks, as the SPD recovered some support in the polls, the Greens lost points, dropping to 17–18% (compared to 20% at the end of 2018).

But the new hype around the Greens isn’t just a function of the SPD’s trajectory: the party, lead by Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, has also won praise from former supporters of the CDU (especially more moderate voters who dislike the Christian Democrats new right-oriented approach). With a mixture of realpolitik and idealism, a traditionally strong Europeanism, and a decisive focus on environmental and climate change issues, the German Greens have managed to position themselves as a fresh new option for the liberal electorate. In addition, and in contrast with the SPD, the Greens haven’t shied away from the immigration debate, positioning themselves as the more supportive force for multiculturalism on the political spectrum.

This approach has won the approval of the more cosmopolitan and pro-immigration voters, but — at the same time — alienates any German voters who judge multiculturalism a failed model.

Assuming the polls are correct in predicting a stronger populist front, the Greens may now actually look forward to a European Parliament in which the old EPP–PES duopoly will need to actively chase green votes. Still, the next months will be no bed of roses for the German environmentalists, especially on the national level, where the Greens must shake their image as a party for the upper-middle class and urban cosmopolitans. While this is something of a caricature, it is still largely accurate when it comes to the incredibly low approval of the Greens in the economically weaker former East Germany.

Three eastern regions — Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia — will see pivotal state elections in September and October of 2019. The Greens have seen what happened with the yellow vests in France — a movement originally born against ‘green’ fuel price hikes — and seem to be aware that they must refute the idea that the liberal way to ecological reforms comes at the cost of the poorest. An example of this awareness is the Greens’ EU program, which proposes to redistribute part of the revenue from anti-CO2 taxes to citizens.

The Greens’ overall goal — both in Germany and Europe more broadly — is to reunite the ecological with the social. While not impossible, this goal will become more difficult to defend when, sooner or later, the party assumes direct governing responsibilities. This may come sooner, if — as expected — the Greens are called on to help choose the new President of the European Commission or, even more concretely, to join the CDU-CSU in creating the first post-Merkel government.


Die Linke and the national state


Returning to Die Linke, the party’s new program for the EU elections represents a clear victory of the current leadership, spearheaded by party chair Katja Kipping, who is in long-term conflict with the more heretical sections of the party, especially the one led by the charismatic Sahra Wagenknecht. With the creation of the ‘Aufstehen’ (stand up) movement in summer 2018, Wagenknecht looked to build an inter-party movement for a more populist left.

This approach is critical of the EU, seeks a national and souverainist path to social democracy and is, notably, against immigration (based on an anti-capitalist critique, for example, on topics such as wage dumping). On many occasions, Wagenknecht, who has also publicly supported the French yellow vests, positioned herself against the idea of open borders and condemned pro-immigration politics as being “out of touch with reality.”

But two weeks ago, Wagenknecht announced personal health problems and stepped down from the Aufstehen movement, which had already been losing steam. A few days later, the left-wing politician also announced her retirement, starting next autumn, from her position as one of the two parliamentary chairs of Die Linke. In the meantime, during the Bonn convention (Wagenknecht wasn’t in attendance), the majority of the party positioned itself as pro-immigration and open borders, with warm applause for invited speaker, Sea Watch captain Pia Klemp.

This step back from Wagenknecht and the apparent failure of Aufstehen, however, don’t cancel out the support of a section of Die Linke’s electorate for more national and identitarian policies, especially when it comes to supporters from the former DDR, a region which, as mentioned, will capture the national spotlight in 2019.

On top of this, Die Linke — which bounces around 8–9% approval in public polls — still struggles with conflicting ideas when it comes to geo- and international politics. Before the switch to a more Europeanist wording, the first draft of its EU elections platform described the European Union as “neoliberal, authoritarian and militaristic.”

During the Bonn meeting, however, the party chose to distinguish between the EU as an idea and a project and its traditional leadership, allowing them to be pro-European, but still extremely critical of current social and economic politics (especially on issues such as workers rights, European welfare, environmentalism and weapon exports from EU countries.)

Die Linke’s new Europeanism also comes across as an internationalist attempt to mitigate German nationalism and economic hegemony on the continent. As Gregor Gysi, one of Die Linke’s founding fathers highlighted in Bonn: the party does not want a “German Europe, but a European Germany.” Die Grünen and the SPD would surely agree with Gysi’s statement, and may even endorse it, but when it comes to Germany’s economic realpolitik, the two less radical parties are much more cautious than Die Linke.

Therefore, on the German left spectrum, some unresolved issues continue to be divisive: how should German strength in Europe be handled? What is Germany ready to concede to its partners for the sake of keeping the Union together? Should Berlin take on a stronger leadership role, or should the opposite happen?


A geopolitical divide


Geopolitics is another prism through which it is possible to see other critical differences among the three German left outfits. While Die Linke, for example, still has deep historical connections with Russia and remains generally hostile to NATO, the Greens are arguably the most anti-Russian force in Germany. On this question, the SPD remains stuck in the middle. The Social Democrats literally invented Ostpolitik and have maintained a strong tradition of economic collaboration with Russia.

The political dynamics around the development of the strategic North Stream pipeline —initiated by Gerhard Schröder, still a close friend of Vladimir Putin—is a case in point. At the same time, Heiko Maas, the current German Foreign Minister, is much less accommodating of the Kremlin. Of course, Germany’s geopolitics is not defined only in relation to Russia, but in a period when Berlin and Washington are quarreling all too frequently, the German relationship to Moscow will become even more decisive. And when it comes to heightened geopolitical tensions, the differences between the three German left parties will likely deepen further.


Photo: Sascha Schuermann /AFP  

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