Despite the growth of the Eurosceptic AfD, most young East Germans support European solidarity, explain Dr Marius Guderjan and Dr Robert Grimm.
Eurosceptic parties, including UKIP, made major gains across the EU in the 2014 European Parliament elections. In Germany, a traditionally Europhile nation, the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) made substantial gains and received over 7% of the vote.
The AfD’s success was nowhere near as big as that of UKIP or France’s Front National, but it is the first time in Germany’s history that a Eurosceptic party received significant support.
Germany’s state identity since the Second World War has been associated with European integration. Patriotic sentiment has often been stigmatised as neo-Fascist. The focus has always been to make Germany more European, rather than making Europe more German.
However, German re-unification, demographic change and the withdrawal of the post-war generation from public life have contributed to a re-evaluation of Germany’s collective identity. The vote for the AfD may be indicative of the internal pressures to recalibrate the country’s foreign politics to pursue national rather than European interests more vigorously.
The position of young people towards the EU is ambiguous. The AfD is particularly successful in mobilising young followers. Some 36% of AfD supporters are under the age of 30. According to a study by YouGov, UKIP draws its support predominantly from older voters.
Data from MYPLACE – a research project examining the social and civic attitudes and engagement of young people across Europe – provide detailed insights into the views of young Germans. Our findings are based on a representative quantitative survey conducted between October 2012 and May 2013 of over 2,200 respondents aged 16 to 25 and 120 qualitative interviews.
The surveys and interviews were carried out in two East German cities, Jena and Rostock. The AfD received 6.8% of the vote in Jena and 7.4% in Rostock.
Our study found that young people in East Germany believe that the EU is advantageous for Germany. Only 10% disagreed (see Chart 1). Young people valued economic benefits, peace, solidarity, a common culture, currency and the freedom of movement within the EU, which provides them with the opportunities to live and work in other countries without restrictions.
Young Germans see the EU as positive for their personal future and a source for cultural stimulation and innovation. For many young Germans, the EU continues to have multi-faceted utilitarian value.
Jens, a 24 year old student from Jena, said: “It has personally become easier to study or live in another country. Germany benefits from the EU by getting new input in terms of culture and politically.”
Udo, an 18 year old apprentice from Rostock, told us: “Germany benefits from the common currency, because whoever wants to travel to another country doesn’t have to exchange money… Particularly, freedom of trade and travel are the biggest advantages that you’ve got.”
Tina, another 18 year old apprentice in Rostock, feared that without the EU Germany again become authoritarian: “If Germany wasn’t part of the EU, it would be an independent state and something would go wrong again and we would get a dictatorship.”
As the EU’s largest economy and biggest contributor to bail-out funds, the European sovereign debt crisis put Germany in a peculiar situation. Germany is committed to European integration and is expected to show leadership. But strategies to overcome the crisis conflict with Germany’s national political and economic priorities.
Young people are aware of Germany’s important role in Europe. Many strongly believe that Germany should act responsibly and not unilaterally to safeguard the future of the Euro and the EU. Almost half of those interviewed believed Germany should not follow its own interest if this clashes with the interests of other countries (Chart 2).
Respondents supported cross-European solidarity and Germany’s contribution to European bail-out funds rather than a break-up of the EU.
Johanna, a 23 year old apprentice in Jena, did not want to “kick out a state, just because it becomes inconvenient”. And 21 year old student Peter from Rostock said: “Germany is a country that carries Europe, but it is also carried by Europe. An EU without Germany and a Germany without the EU – neither would work out.”
Interviewees expressed discomfort with Germany’s dominant role, which they believe undermines European ideals. Judith, a19 year old pupil in Jena, pointed out: “I know of many people in Greece who are against Germany because they’re always coming up with austerity measures. And some countries perceived this dominance as disproportional.”
Linda, a 24 year old student in Jena, said: “If it’s all about who owns whom and who’s got the say, it’s against the European idea which was originally built on reconciliation between European nations in conflict.”
The crisis has been a test for German solidarity with weaker Member States. Many respondents were concerned about future results of the crisis and advocated a foreign policy skewed towards national German interests. Just under one third of our respondents thought that Germany should pursue its interests even if these conflict with other countries’ interests (Chart 2).
Emil, a 16 year old pupil in Jena, suggested: “Sometimes the German government should look a bit more after Germany. Sometimes it’s the case that we invest so much into Europe that our own population falls a bit by the wayside.”
The MYPLACE data confirms some scepticism about Germany’s support for struggling European Member States, with concerns about the extent to which Germans have become liable for ‘other people’s’ debt’. This may explain why the Eurosceptic AfD was able to mobilise young voters, though support for the AfD remains marginal.
Most young Germans believe that solidarity with weaker Member States is in German interests and are sympathetic to balancing German and European interests.
- This work is part of the FP7 research project MYPLACE.