Europe should beware a nationalist Germany

Cheering populists elsewhere should be careful what they wish for

Philip Stephens

Angela Merkel is besieged. The Bavarian sister party of the German chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union wants tougher frontier controls. The anti-migrant pose struck by Horst Seehofer, the Christian Social Union interior minister in Ms Merkel’s coalition, is cheered by populists from Warsaw to Rome, via Vienna and Budapest. Have any of them thought, some of us wonder, what a Germany taking a nationalist turn might actually look like?

Mr Seehofer’s motives are transparent. The CSU suffered a mauling at the hands of the unashamedly xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the 2017 national election. Facing a state poll in October, the party now wants to outflank AfD. EU leaders will discuss a European-wide migration scheme later this month. If he is not happy, Mr Seehofer is threatening unilateral controls.

Many Germans — a majority, the latest poll suggests — remain suspicious of the chancellor’s open borders strategy. Among neighbours, the Visegrad Four — Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary — are fierce critics. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party and Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, scorn efforts to disperse asylum seekers across the union.

Italy’s new government — a populist coalition of the Five Star Movement and the anti-migrant League — is shutting ports to refugees crossing from north Africa. Matteo Salvini, the interior minister and leader of the League, made it an early act to turn away the rescue ship Aquarius. Austrian conservative leader Sebastian Kurz proposes an “axis” with fellow hardliners in Rome and Berlin to seal the frontiers.

The populists are united in their simple sloganising. Hungary’s population is shrinking and ageing, as talented young people seek opportunities elsewhere. Yet Budapest is proud of its barbed-wire camps for asylum seekers and migrants unfortunate enough to cross the border.

The reality, of course, is that no single government can take control of its frontiers. The narrow national interests held dear by populists frequently collide with each other. It is forgotten now, but Ms Merkel kept open Germany’s borders in 2015 to ease pressure on Austria. Vienna risked being overwhelmed by refugees bussed from, well, Mr Orban’s Hungary.

The nationalists’ pitch is to fear and emotion rather than reason. If they thought about it, they would know that beggar-thy-neighbour policies cannot work. Closing a border has a ricochet effect. Mr Kurz must surely realise that Mr Seehofer’s plans would leave Austria to cope with refugees stranded on the wrong side of the German border.

Does Mr Salvini understand, one wonders, that Mr Seehofer wants those arriving at the German frontier to be returned to the place they were first registered? Much of the time, that would be Italy. The Mediterranean front-line states complain their northern partners do not share the migrant burden. Polish and Hungarian nationalists would be the very last to make such an offer.

Untying this Gordian knot with a migration system that is humane, fair and sustainable requires a collective effort to harden the EU’s external borders and equitably accommodate those granted asylum. It demands also more effort — and aid — to help sub-Saharan Africa. This is what Ms Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, the French president, have been discussing. Mr Seehofer has no real alternative.

He is far from alone, however, in selling his party as one that puts Germany First. Nor is a rising nationalist mood confined to hostility towards migration. Markus Söder, the CSU prime minister of Bavaria, thinks the country has broader lessons to learn from Donald Trump’s belligerent unilateralism.

It is not at all hard to imagine where a new German nationalism could lead. The AfD made its name opposing financial support for weaker members of the eurozone — the so-called transfer union that leaves Germans at the mercy of supposedly profligate southern Europeans. As principal EU paymaster, why not extend the principle beyond the single currency to other projects?

Mr Kaczynski is forever hurling insults in the direction of Berlin. Yet Poland is the biggest recipient of EU aid. Why should German taxpayers write large cheques to Warsaw? Likewise for Hungary, where the government is substituting crony capitalism for the market economy — in significant part at Germany’s expense. Berlin could better deploy its economic clout to projects that confer direct national advantage.

Those with dark memories of war have less to fear. There is nothing militaristic about Germany First politics. The impulse, rather, is isolationist. Most Germans would probably spend less on defence. And why not? The nation is too powerful to be threatened by its neighbours. Berlin can always reach an accommodation with Moscow: Russian energy for German technology makes for a natural fit. Let Poland and others on the EU’s eastern frontier pay for Nato if they feel threatened by Russia.

Germany is some way off reaching such judgments. Ms Merkel is still convinced — and rightly so — that the nation’s long-term interests reside in liberal internationalism. The chancellor will not easily surrender her convictions. But she has been weakened. After 12 years, her time is running out. And Mr Seehofer and his allies are setting a different direction of travel. Those cheering populists elsewhere should be careful what they wish for.

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