Germany’s Merz moves right, but enough or too much?

Merz goes very German (Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images)


When Germany extended the franchise for June’s EU Parliamentary elections to 16-year-olds, it did not anticipate that some of these new voters would express their political sentiments with fists and boots.

Earlier this month in Dresden, four youths severely beat Matthias Ecke, a Social Democratic (SPD) MEP. Ecke was left with serious injuries and required surgery.  Then the teenagers turned on a group of Green party activists.

A 17-year-old has turned himself into police for the assault on Ecke. Three more young men have been identified and are being investigated.

Ecke’s SPD is the centre-left party led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Attacks on politicians have doubled since the 2019 EU elections.

The attack on Ecke was in the eastern state of Saxony, the centre of far-right support in Germany, where there is strong support for AfD (Alternative for Germany). So far, the popularity of the AfD is unaffected by claims of foreign subversion of the party.

The popularity of the AfD among young voters in Germany is puzzling for Chancellor Scholz and the rest of the boomer generation. They had assumed, based on their personal history, that young voters gravitate to the far left.

But youthful radicalism is fundamentally anti-establishment, and today the AfD offers young voters the chance to resist the governing establishment, much as the upstart Greens did in the 1980s.

Friedrich Merz, leader of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was quick to condemn the violence. He is moving to the right in the run-up to June’s vote but needs to disassociate his party from street mobs.

Although the CDU sits comfortably atop the polls and expects to claim the lion’s share of Germany’s 96 seats in the EU Parliament, Merz, like all of Europe’s centre-right leaders, is working to stop any of his party’s support bleeding to the far-right.

Meanwhile, the AfD is polling ahead of Scholz’s SDP nationally. This would put new AfD MEPs into the far-right Identity and Democracy group in the European Parliament.

That would be a problem for Merz, even if his CDU candidates do well. They will sit in the European People’s Party (EPP) group in the parliament. Merz wants enough strength in that group to avoid negotiations with the Identity and Democracy group over any number of contentious issues facing the assembly.

The comfortable center-right-center-left duopoly that dominated the EU Parliament until the last election is unlikely to return, with polls showing the combined seats of the EPP and the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group falling well short of a majority in the 705-seat chamber.

Merz has been busy snaffling up support to his right with a harsher tone on migration, including an endorsement of the UK’s plan to send failed asylum seekers to Rwanda.

To consider how far this takes the CDU to the right, remember the former party leader Angela Merkel’s enthusiastic phrase from the 2015 immigrant surge in Germany, opening her country and Europe to a million immigrants: “We can do this!”

Merz now appears to say, “No we cannot do this, go to Rwanda.”

This does mean Merz is risking support in the traditional centre of German politics. One of the reasons is because of the odd regional basis of the CDU vote in the June election.

Because of the coalition with the Christian Social Union (CSU), a sister party operating only in Bavaria, the Christian Democrats submit separate lists for each Bundestaat other than Bavaria. There the CSU submits its own list.

By contrast, the Social Democrats and other parties submit a single national list for June’s election and are thus somewhat insulated from regional variability in their support.

Matthias Ecke is at number ten out of ninety-six on the SPD’s national list. Whatever his popularity as his native Saxony shifts to the right, Ecke is likely to return to the European Parliament.

Meantime, the fortunes of the CDU’s five candidates in Saxony very much depend on the Merz’s energetic ability to draw support away from the AfD.

Yet most German voters prefer calm, even boring stability in their leaders, and Merz’s moves to protect his right flank in Saxony put his national appeal at risk.

More, his endorsement of economic deregulation does little to reassure voters anxious about the declining fortunes of the German economy. Deregulation may only appeal to the small number of Free Democrats abandoning their moribund party.

The CDU leader takes comfort in his party’s strong polling position, which should help his EPP group dominate the next EU Parliament, and firm up support for the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

What remains to be seen is whether Merz’s support for the firewall meant to isolate the AfD from cooperation with other parties in domestic politics will manage to resist cooperation between the EPP and the AfD’s Identity and Democracy faction in Strasbourg.

Identity and Democracy could eclipse the European Conservatives and Reformists, a centre-right group which includes MEPs from Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia party and Poland’s Law and Justice party, as the largest group to the EPP’s right.

That would mean the EPP may need to cut deals with Identity and Democracy to gain majority support on any number of votes in the assembly.

That kind of cooperation would not sit well with CDU’s traditional centre-right base back home in Germany. One cannot build a firewall against AfD in Berlin to keep the base happy, then tear it down in Strasbourg.

Whether such cooperation would threaten Merz’s election prospects in Germany’s 2025 national vote remains to be seen.