Question of Solidarity Bundestag debate exposes deep divisions over the future of Europe

Angela Merkel led an unruly debate over Europe in Germany’s new parliament that, for the first time, included Alternative for Germany leader Alice Weidel.
Taking disagreement to a new level.

It’s a simple question: Should Germans (and other EU nations) be responsible for helping the more than 30 percent of young people unemployed in Italy?

Andrea Nahles, the new head of the Social Democrats, says yes: More EU funds should be spent to reduce youth unemployment and combat inequality, the biggest problem facing Europe today.

Christian Lindner, head of the Free Democrats, says no: The lack of jobs is the result of years of missed reform opportunities in Italy, particularly under Silvio Berlusconi. Italy needs to solve its own problems rather than demand an EU handout.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, characteristically sits somewhere in the middle. Yes, the EU needs to show solidarity, including more funding, but “solidarity is not a one-way street,” she says.

Alice Weidel, head of the populist Alternative for Germany, says more Europe means handing out more money for a project that “long ago stopped representing the interests of the people.”

Germany’s new parliament held its first major debate on Europe since September’s federal election, and the first with the far-right AfD as a member. That's made it both much more fractured – and a lot more interesting. But when it comes to making policy, lawmakers' views were diverged widely.

We need either a 'liberal' or a 'social' transformation in Europe. Please not both. Dietmar Bartsch, Left Party

Today's debate was held ahead of a key summit of EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday and there was little that all could agree on, aside from Germany's needing to speak louder and stop ceding the high ground to France. Certainly, Ms. Merkel shouldn't be waiting for a call from Emmanuel Macron, Mr. Lindner said.

For that to happen though, German policymakers will need to figure out for themselves what they want. Developing a strong vision for Europe’s future is all the more difficult under a new grand coalition government, complained Dietmar Bartsch of the Left Party. While Ms. Merkel’s new government has made EU reform a priority, such a left-right coalition would never be able to set out a determined path: "We need either a 'liberal' or a 'social' transformation in Europe. Please not both," Mr. Bartsch said.

The Bundestag debate spilled over into plenty of other more specific disagreements. The AfD’s Ms. Weidel, perhaps most surprisingly, offered an impassioned plea for the EU to go easier on Britain. Germany should not distance itself from its biggest trading partner, she argued. Her “simple” solution was that Britain should stay within the European Economic Area (perhaps conveniently ignoring the fact that this idea, often called the "Norway solution," has been hotly debated in Britain for months).

There was an equally impassioned debate about immigration in Europe. Alexander Gauland, a senior leader of the AfD, offered the darkest version: EU nations that had suffered under the occupation of the Ottomans, the Nazis and the USSR were now determined to chart their own course. That included the right to determine who enters their borders.

That vision was sharply rejected by other quarters. Nationalism posed one of the greatest threats to Europe future, agreed even Mr. Lindner of the pro-business FDP (probably the party closest in its immigration policies to the far-right AfD). Volker Kauder of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats urged all sides not to forget the “unbelievable success” of the EU in guaranteeing peace on the continent over the past six decades. National borders should be protected by increased funding for the EU’s common border, he added.

But that’s where the common front stops. Ms. Merkel focused on increased funding to protect the EU’s common external border; Ms. Nahles argued migration was best limited by more EU funding and a social safety net for weaker EU members; and Mr. Linder countered that a deeper EU “social union” would merely start another wave of euro-skepticism.

And above all this, there is the question of money: With Britain leaving the European Union, Germany will be expected to contribute more to the EU’s budget. Ms. Merkel’s new coalition has promised to fill the gap. But opposition parties on the left and right suggested money should only be promised once it was clear what the funding would be used for. The AfD’s Ms. Weidel proposed the simpler solution of merely shrinking the budget down to size.

How to bridge all these differences? Ms. Merkel proposed asking the people, through a series of national civil-society dialogues across Europe. That, at least, is something all political parties managed to agree on.

Christopher Cermak is an editor for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]