Published April 14, 2013
BERLIN – It's a spectacle that Germans are getting tired of: southern European protesters burning their flags and waving placards comparing Chancellor Angela Merkel to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, all in reaction to Berlin's insistence on reforms and austerity in return for bailout funds.
And it's enough to make people like Berlin businessman Horst Freiberg, who never felt much love for the euro currency, pine more than ever for the return of the German mark.
"I'd immediately vote for a party that wants to abolish the euro," said Freiberg, who has run a small business selling ink stamps in central Berlin for more than 40 years. "How can you have one currency with banana republics like Cyprus and Greece? And they always accuse us of being Nazis. It's sick."
Such sentiments are still the exception in Germany, where a sense of obligation to help fellow Europeans in distress is rooted in shame for the crimes of the Third Reich. But a new political party hopes to capitalize on simmering fears that the euro crisis could deepen and drag down Europe's biggest economy. It aims to garner enough votes from people like Freiberg in September elections to reach the 5 percent minimum needed for seats in Parliament.
Called Alternative for Germany, the main goal of the party founded by academics and economists is the "orderly dissolution" of the euro, said Frauke Petry, a business owner and party spokeswoman. The stance puts the party in sharp opposition to Merkel's insistence that there can be no Europe without the preservation of the single currency, repeatedly saying "if the euro fails, Europe will fail." While still a fledgling movement, the new party could hurt Merkel by sapping support from her main coalition partner — which she has relied on for a stable government.
"For us the euro is at the heart of many problems," Petry told The Associated Press. "The way decisions are being made in Europe right now shows that many democratic mechanisms don't work anymore," she said. Alternative for Germany wants to introduce Swiss-style national referendums so voters can have a say on important matters — including economic rescue packages.
For all the talk about what they don't like, however, the party has been short on what they do like and its leaders were slammed in an editorial this week in the top-selling Bild newspaper as "political amateurs."
The conservative tabloid has never shied away from accusing southern Europeans of being lazy, nor has it stopped deploring the cost Germany shoulders to bail out other nations, but turning against the euro itself remains unthinkable.
"They can craftily explain what is wrong with rescuing the euro, but they have no concept on how the future of Europe should look," Bild wrote.
Experts believe the party has little chance of garnering enough of the protest vote to reach the 5 percent threshold. But it could draw enough voters away from Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition to force her into an alliance with the opposition or give the opposition an outright majority.
More than 7,000 people have applied to join the party even before its founding congress in Berlin on Sunday, said Petry.
"There is space for an anti-euro party in Germany," said Oskar Niedermayer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University. "So far this position hasn't really been represented in the German party system."
Underlining the potential appeal, a recent poll showed that even though 69 percent of Germans now back the euro — up from about 50 percent last year — a significant minority of 27 percent said they'd like to see a return to the mark. The survey of 1,003 people was conducted April 2-3 for the business daily Handelsblatt.
Abandoning the euro currency would have significant costs, especially for Germany as a heavily export-oriented economy. According to analysts' estimates, it could easily knock down the country's annual output by a double digit percentage figure.
"I think the Germans know, and to some extent accept, that they have to pay the bill for saving the euro," said Ursula Weidenfeld, an economist and author. "They just want to make sure that they aren't paying more than necessary."
Other nations like the Netherlands, Austria and Finland have also insisted on the same austerity measures that Germany has demanded in exchange for European bailouts, but as the bloc's largest economy and the largest single contributor to the funds, most of the anger has been directed at Germany and Merkel.
Some of Merkel's voters are now beginning to wonder whether their country — and their savings — should be tied to the struggling euro project, and Weidenfeld said support for the euro "could quickly change if a new rescue package has to be negotiated."
Should the eurozone's woes spread to fully engulf Italy or Spain — the bloc's third- and fourth-largest economies — and require them to ask for a bailout, German voters could panic, said Niedermayer.
In Germany's election in September, the issue poses the greatest threat to the Free Democratic Party, Merkel's junior coalition partner which has a pro-business platform. Because the party has polled only slightly above five percent, even the loss of a few thousand voters could mean disaster.
"It's not impossible that this new party could sap half a percent from the FDP and thereby kick them out of parliament," said Niedermayer. That could create a huge headache for Merkel, who may find it hard to form a workable majority in parliament without the FDP.
Merkel's own party, too, could suffer if conservative voters see Alternative for Germany as a credible way to express their frustration about her leadership.
Economist Rudolf Hickel told Germany's Deutsche Welle, however, that even though there is anti-euro sentiment out there, Alternative for Germany doesn't have broad enough appeal to effectively tap it.
"They are professors and frustrated economists," he said. "If the party were headed by a populist, I'd consider them dangerous."