German opposition to euro zone bailout starts to gather momentum


A regional political party is trying to capitalise on hostility to the bailout plan, writes DEREK SCALLYin Berlin

AS PRESSURE builds around Europe for German chancellor Angela Merkel to give ground on further euro zone rescue measures, protest against anything of the sort is gaining ground in Germany

Ahead of next week’s Bundestag vote on the European Stability Mechanism bailout fund, an anti-bailout campaign is building across the German media landscape – from the usual tabloid suspects to the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine daily to the centre-left Die Zeit weekly, which warned on last week’s cover: “The whole world is after our money.”

After four years of diffuse anti-bailout protest, German political opposition is consolidating too. The Freie Wähler (FW, free voters), a regional force in southern Germany and home to prominent German bailout critics is planning a general election bid next year to attract bailout-critical voters.

It’s a daunting challenge in an increasingly crowded German party landscape. The burgeoning Pirate Party is likely to attract significant anti-establishment support among younger, left-wing voters. But the FW sees huge potential for stealing voters from the right wing of Dr Merkel’s CDU and her Free Democrat (FDP) coalition partners.

“We are of interest to voters from the sensible conservative centre – the tradesmen, self-employed, civil servants and farmers,” said party leader Hubert Aiwanger in his office in the Munich Landtag. Four years ago the 41-year-old farmer and engineer led his party to a record 19 per cent vote in the Bavarian state election, making it the third-largest party.

Ostensibly conservative, its policies cross the political spectrum – from rural support programmes to immigration rules. Its local appeal is as a people-first alternative to established parties it claims are beholden to big business. The party has now adapted this message to a national audience, presenting the euro and its crisis as the logical conclusion of politics for business and banks but not voters.

Days after the party announced its national campaign, a poll for Stern magazine suggested one in four Germans could imagine voting for the party. It’s a long way from firm support, Aiwanger conceded, but a sign of growing awareness and acceptance of the party.

Now he plans to “turn the tables” on Germany’s pro-EU, pro-bailout political establishment by suggesting the two policies are incompatible. “The enemies of Europe are not those who criticise but those who say we have to drive on a central union of debt,” he said. “More and more, people are noticing the train is going in the wrong direction.”

So what separates the FW from the common-or-garden Eurosceptic, particularly of the British variety? “The English Eurosceptic is more nationalist than us and is happy to retreat to his island,” he said.

“We are worried about this Europe. We want that it keeps working and that citizens can live in peace and prosperity. We are concerned at the danger of civil war-like conditions developing.”

The FW both taps and feeds an influential euro zone crisis narrative here, in which Germans fear being held financial hostage by countries that borrowed heavily from Germany to buy German products and that now want Germany to shoulder the losses caused by their excess with pooled sovereign debt.

The crisis has, Aiwanger said, exposed the euro zone as a “clever game of hide-and-seek to mask a systematic transfer of prosperity” that benefited German banks and exporting corporations but not its people.

“To a certain degree I can accept this transfer if it leads to widespread contentment,” he said. “But if we throw everything into one pot, Europe is on the road to communism with everyone liable for everyone.”

The party programme is clear: no pooled sovereignty or banking union but greater EU bank supervision and even limited EU fiscal union – to prevent distorting tax competition, such as Ireland’s corporate tax rate.

A striking difference to other parties is its readiness to make an explicit link between German banks and Ireland’s property bubble – and the need for banking debt relief.

“It is an illusion to think we will ever see this money again . . . there’s no way around debt forgiveness,” said Aiwanger.

So how does he plan to win hearts and votes from German savers by promising them losses for unwittingly inflating the Irish property bubble? “Naturally the customers of the banks are involved,” he said. “But they are more people with money.”

According to Forsa, which carried out the Stern poll, potential support for the FW is more a protest at established parties. “It won’t transfer into votes,” said the agency’s chief, Manfred Güllner.

Unsurprisingly, Aiwanger is more optimistic. At the very least, he hopes to force a debate with established political players over unpopular bailout policies.

As the crisis rolls on, and as it readies a constitutional challenge to the ESM, the FW plans to be both catalyst for and primary beneficiary of a shift in how Germany talks about Europe.

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