The Rise of Populism: Germany’s Far-Right AfD and the EU Elections

By Kaitlin Drape

When the EU Parliamentary elections took place on May 23, they took place in a different environment than those of the previous elections. With the growth of populist rhetoric and far-right-wing parties across Europe, the election served as a sign of things to come. Right-wing parties in Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Finland, and Denmark are attempting to become a more influential force. EU countries will soon have to get to grips with the fact that far-right leaders will have more power in the EU Parliament. This electoral shift will influence long-standing policies and obstruct any centrist agenda. 

A change throughout Europe

After 60 years of relative stability, the rise of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party threatens to upend the nation’s predictable politics. In a 2016 setback for Chancellor Angela Merkel, her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party only garnered 19 percent in her home state, while the AfD received approximately 21 percent. This was later considered a protest vote in response to Merkel’s liberal migration policies and support for the EU’s bailout of Greece. A year later, the AfD won its first seats in the German federal parliament with 13 percent of the total vote and is now represented in all 16 state legislatures. 

With the AfD’s anti-immigrant, nativist, and, some say, anti-constitutional stance, Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), launched an investigation claiming elements of the party threaten democracy. Gauland, a former member of the CDU and founder of the AfD, has been criticized for his comments about the country’s wartime history, including his statements that Germany should not be ashamed of its Nazi past. The nativist sentiments that Germany had been able to silence since the post-World War II era have found a haven again within the AfD party. Moreover, since Brexit, the stakes have only increased. And it is troublesome to think that any EU citizen might presuppose that past events could dissuade them from their worst proclivities. 

This change runs deeper than the recent challenges to Merkel’s immigration policies. Ironically, the reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall has fueled right-wing sentiment. Some of the AfD’s most substantial support is in the area which used to be East Germany. It is a place where people feel left behind and believe the government, and the EU, to favor the “elites,” multi-national corporations, and the banks. NBC reports that “The AfD plundered votes across Germany, but its stronghold was undoubtedly in the east,” which included 27 percent of the vote in Saxony and 19 percent in neighboring Saxony-Anhalt. This unrest and populist rhetoric, “has proved fertile ground for the AfD.” The AfD’s alliance with far-right parties across Europe is concerning, especially with the population’s current attitude towards establishment parties. The League in Italy and National Rally in France use similar anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-establishment rhetoric. They stoke fear and anger among a large segment of Europeans that feel left behind during a decade of economic crises and forced migration. These trends have given space for nascent Euroscepticism to metastasize in some areas. All this, combined with the Trump administration’s policies, shift the balance of power in Europe. 

Troubling election outcomes

Recently, there has been a significant effort by Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the far-right Northern League, to unite Europe’s right-wing parties. Under the tutelage of Steven Bannon, Salvini has joined the AfD in Germany with the National Rally party in France, Austria’s Freedom Party, the Finns Party in Finland and the Danish People’s Party.   

Though overall gains for far-right parties was less than hoped for, results for Matteo Salvini’s Italian Northern League Party still grew from six percent of the vote in 2014 to 34 percent in this election, and populist/nationalist parties are expected to hold 25 percent of the seats in parliament. But left-wing green parties, particularly in Germany, showed surprising strength by increasing their members by 40 percent. For the first time in 40 years, the long-established centrist coalition will no longer hold a majority in the EU Parliament. The number of seats held by the center-right European Peoples’ Parliament and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats will decrease from 54 percent to 43 percent, a clear sign that voters across the political spectrum are demanding change. This has become complicated even further as the far left and far right are both determined to change the EU fundamentally. It will be up to the centrists to find what little common ground still exists to address trade policy, climate change, and security. 

Salvini’s new alliance could create a power bloc and impact EU governance. Even as a minority, they could undermine centrist interests within the EU Parliament. The European Council on Foreign Affairs recently detailed the damage that such an alliance could do. If these parties united, they could, for example, block the election of an EU President or obstruct the passage of legislation. Though these parties disagree on issues, such as their basic positions on immigration and local governments could make them strong allies. The European Council on Foreign Affairs reports that “For anti-European parties winning more seats in the May 2019 election should be understood as a means to an end. The bigger prize for them is a position from which they can challenge pro-Europeans in a wider battle of ideas. They mean to use this as a springboard for fighting national elections across Europe in the coming years.” 


There is skepticism surrounding the success of a populist alliance, as they often have different agendas. However, there are a growing number of Europeans who support right-wing parties and their anti-globalist message. At present, Europe is recovering from a decade of economic and political impermanence. And a not-so-unfamiliar political landscape is taking shape, upending the grand centrist coalition that has anchored Europe’s values of democracy and liberalism for decades. 

Kaitlin Drape currently works as a fellow and associate producer at the Foreign Policy Association where she assists with their annual foreign policy series on PBS titled Great Decisions. Aside from helping to produce an episode on populism in Europe, she is also a volunteer with the YPFP membership team.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.