The Effects of Populism on the Transatlantic Alliance – from Friend to Business Partner

Michelle Offik

Foreign Policy Consultant

Michelle Offik is a freelance writer and foreign policy consultant in Washington, DC. She is a Fulbright Scholar to Germany and an alumni of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Transatlantic Master’s Program.

On the issue of countering populist parties and regaining votes from those who defected to extreme candidates in the 2016 U.S. elections and 2017 German elections, there is a silver lining.  After the newly formed far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) saw a 12 percent increase in seats in the Bundestag after the election, an unprecedented feat in modern German history, it became clear to all who follow German politics that they were no longer immune to this trend in populism. The CDU’s inability to form a coalition with two minority parties (the FDP and the Greens) into the so-named “Jamaica” coalition directly after the elections meant that plans to respond to the populist agenda, for example, had to be put on hold a little longer. A referendum to form a Grand Coalition was met with a measured sigh of relief. Though stability remains the protocol du jour, during my conversation[1] with Stephen Szabo of AGI he noted that this will likely be Merkel’s last term in office, as younger members have been least happy with the “GroKo” arrangement, and mainstream parties in general.

The presence of a third Grand Coalition during Merkel’s tenure buys Germany time to stabilize and develop a long-term strategy for countering the AfD and reenergizing its base. With Merkel at the helm, a budget surplus to spend on internal projects, and a solid Franco-German relationship to support the EU during its Brexit negotiations, nothing too drastic is likely to happen that would seriously threaten the long-term stability of Europe (yet).

The biggest challenge for German political parties is to bring in younger members and revamp their message.

The biggest challenge for German political parties is to bring in younger members and revamp their message. The SPD will be well-poised to take on this challenge, as it attempts to distinguish itself from the CDU and strengthen its identity as a worker’s party. Though there is a surface-level calm post referendum, Germany has an opportunity to use these next two years to do some extensive grassroots campaigning with younger members and in regions with disaffected voters. Rather than waiting until the next general election year, when pressure is high and voter fatigue sets in, all parties who lost votes can start setting to work on finding the pulse and listening to voters’ concerns. In other words, there is time to think about the next best action to take. Discussions and debates in Germany and across Europe will likely continue to focus on immigration and the refugee situation, the welfare state, the EU economic market, and foreign policy relations with Russia.

All parties have had to reaffirm their commitment to their values as a result of the AfD’s emergence into parliament. This is actually a good thing, as nothing tests the strength of democracy quite like a stressor such as the AfD. This is arguably Germany’s first stress test, and the 2017 elections show it can manage this stress well enough to secure what is needed going forward, but the real work has only just begun.

The stress test on democratic values and norms seems to be playing out differently in the U.S., but there is a silver lining here as well. There has been a groundswell of grassroots activism on the Democratic side in response to the election of Donald Trump, and this also bodes well for Republicans, as it will similarly encourage them to solidify their message and keep their own base happy. This year’s congressional elections will serve as a litmus test for the depth of commitment to democracy on the American side. Populism in the U.S. has a different feel to it, however, and is rooted in its American exceptionalism narrative. Though European partners may worry from afar about the implications of this, there is a lot of movement internally which helps to counter any negative effects of such decisions as imposing tariffs for national security purposes. The existing checks and balances have motivated some in Congress to step up and do more.

In regard to shared values and norms, Germany and EU partners have already taken a cautious step back and revised their rhetoric in relation to the changes in U.S. foreign policy. It is understandable, but much like cutting through the noise on trade, it is important to look beyond this and recognize how Europe must reaffirm its own values and norms independent of the U.S. As Szabo noted in our discussion, there has been a slow sense of emancipation in Europe from their 1950s and 1960s postwar ties to the Americans, and this is but one more step along that road. Over time, Szabo notes, the relationship may evolve into a more business-like one rather than the soft diplomacy tone it took on during the reconstruction years. This surge in populism on both sides of the Atlantic forces both partners to step back and reassess priorities and positions within the international political arena. The silver lining of this is that it has the potential to strengthen, rather than weaken, their respective democracies and rule of law. It is difficult to disentangle, but creating space may be exactly what Germany and the U.S. need.

This surge in populism on both sides of the Atlantic forces both partners to step back and reassess priorities and positions within the international political arena.

With elections across Europe and in the U.S. these last two years indicating a rise in populist and extremist candidates, it can be premature to prescribe specific policy recommendations at this point. However, shifting the focus onto other areas of the agenda can, for now, assist with the changes to come. For combating populism, focus on the youth. As the malady of the disenfranchised voter sweeps across both continents, including younger generations in the discussion is the best solution for both politically. There is never a true panacea, but for the meantime, focus on tomorrow’s leaders may quell any anxieties about the uncertainty of how the transatlantic alliance will change, as change it inevitably will. 

[1] Discussion with Stephen Szabo in Washington, DC, on February 19, 2018.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.