Thursday, 4 September 2014

Merkel's CDU and Alternativ fuer Deutschland: the Saxon result

The euro-skeptic (rather than Euroskeptic) German party Alternativ fuer Deutschland won almost 10% of the vote in the state elections in Saxony, coming in ahead of the Green Party. The win has been a big boost for the party, propelling it into the Saxon Landtag while the liberal FDP and far-right NDP drop out as they didn't win enough votes to clear the threshold for entry.

The rise of the AfD has been reported on elsewhere on how it could impact Angela Merkel's CDU and her EU policy (it's hard to imagine even 5 years ago so much interest being shown in a German state election). But I don't see the result as one that would pressure the CDU to take a more Euroskeptic stance. It's important to note two facts when thinking about the AfD's impact on the CDU: that the CDU has retained almost 40% of the vote, its percentage dropping only slightly since the last election, and the turnout was very low at 49%.

Concern over the "splintering of the right" in Germany is another angle that's being reported on, but it also looks a bit overblown - the last federal elections saw the economically right-wing FDP party lose all their seats, with the CDU the largest beneficiary - a huge consolidation on the right, at least federally. In some ways the AfD, with its economically right-wing positions, is starting to fill the political vacuum left by the decline of the FDP.

Of course, the AfD is not the FDP: it's a protest party and hard to pin down on many of its positions, but its leadership is on the economic right and it has attracted a socially conservative membership who may have been former CDU supporters disappointed that the CDU has become socially more centrist (though there are still plenty of socially conservative voices in the CDU too). Saxony is also a state that has seen support for the far-right NDP, a nationalist party that is periodically the subject of banning attempts. So it makes sense that the AfD took votes from the FDP and a small number from the NDP (not to mention that it would be more respectable to vote for the AfD than the nationalist NDP). Oddly for a protest party, it looks like those who voted for it in Saxony are largely satisfied with their own economic position.

The CDU has kept its distance from the AfD, leaving the Social Democrats and the Greens as its two possible coalition partners for the state government, and a similar stance is being taken on the federal level. Its euro-skeptic stance and protest party style makes it an unsuitable and probably unstable coalition partner, and a coalition with it could toxify the CDU when it is the biggest of the 2 big tent parties and is comfortable with coalitions with the centre-left. The rising profile of the AfD could boost the socially conservative and anti-transfer union voices in the CDU, but at the moment the AfD hasn't actually eaten into the CDU's vote to a significant degree. And it should be remembered that the CDU is in coalition with the Social Democrats at the moment - a party that would like to ease austerity in Europe - so Merkel's government is probably relatively insulated from the AfD's politics.

Monday, 1 September 2014

President Tusk and High Representative Mogherini

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini are set to take two of the top EU posts: European Council President and the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs respectively. So what does this choice tell us about the EU's direction?

President Tusk

The choice of Tusk for EC President is being hailed as demonstrating the importance of Poland - and the growing integration of the new Member States within the EU (apparently former Polish PM Jerzy Buzek being President of the European Parliament back in 2009 doesn't count anymore). Politically, Tusk is part of the centre-right European People's Party and has a close relationship with Germany. But in the UK Tusk is seen as a counter-weight to Juncker's federalism; it's reported that Cameron and Tusk have agreed on the need for welfare reform within the EU despite their previous bust-up over free movement rights.

In terms of treaty-change and EU reform, having a sympathetic EC President will be worth more to Cameron than a sympathetic Commission President. As EC President, Van Rompuy was often asked to look into economic and institutional solutions to the various crises over the last 5 years, so the EC President is well placed to influence the EU's institutional direction. However issues like welfare are largely controlled by the Member States, which is why the UK can change its laws in the way it wants already, even if there isn't that much of a problem to begin with.

High Representative

Mogherini was the most controversial choice. Like her predecessor, Catherine Ashton, back in 2009, Mogherini's great political strengths are that she balances out Tusk and Juncker as a (PES) woman in one of the top EU jobs. However, while she hasn't had much more than 6 months ministerial experience, unlike Ashton, foreign policy seems to be her area of study and expertise. How good she will be in the job remains to be seen, but it is worth remembering that it's hard to really use the office to great effect during a crisis. Ashton's foreign policy achievements - apart from trying to build up the External Action Service - were mostly where she undertook unglamourous and time-consuming negotiations, such as with Iran and Serbia and Kosovo.

So when concerns were voiced over Mogherini's actions in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, we should remember that the Council has taken the lead on this - and the Iraq/Syria crisis - rather than Ashton. The High Representative has a coordinating role, and Mogherini's background and linguistic skills appear to make her better suited to the job than Ashton when she first took the post. The office needs time and hard work to build up its effectiveness: under Ashton institution-building was the priority. Mogherini will probably be a more publicly active High Representative, and could help build the credibility of the office further - depending, of course, on how good she is at bringing the Member States together.