Guest Host: John Donvan

Representatives from Germany's Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) political party speak at a press conference under a banner that reads: 'This is what winners look like' on September 5 in Berlin, Germany. The AfD, a newcomer populist party, has managed to gain a strong following nationwide with an immigration-critical platform.

Representatives from Germany's Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) political party speak at a press conference under a banner that reads: 'This is what winners look like' on September 5 in Berlin, Germany. The AfD, a newcomer populist party, has managed to gain a strong following nationwide with an immigration-critical platform.

Where there are earthquakes, there are often aftershocks—in geology as in politics. And if Britain’s vote early this summer to break away from Europe was an earthquake, a much smaller scale election in Germany this week represents a clear aftershock. For the first time in post-war history, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party finished behind a populist challenger espousing strong anti-immigrant views in German state elections. The defeat comes a year after Merkel argued for compassion as she opened Germany’s borders to more than a million refugees from the Syrian civil war and North Africa. A panel joins guest host John Donvan to talk about what’s happened since then to tip populist anger, and why nationalism is gaining ground across Europe—from France to Denmark to Poland and the Netherlands—as other countries prepare for elections of their own.


  • Holger Stark Washington bureau chief, Der Spiegel
  • Anton Troianovski Berlin correspondent, The Wall Street Journal
  • Alina Polyakova Deputy director of the Eurasia Center, The Atlantic Council
  • Stephen Szabo Executive director, Transatlantic Academy at the German Marshall Fund
  • Anja Mihr Director, Humboldt-Viadrina Center on Governance through Human Rights in Berlin


  • 10:06:54

    MR. JOHN DONVANHello and thank you for joining us. I'm John Donvan, moderator of The Intelligence Squared US Debate, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And our jumping off point this hour is an election that just took place in a part of Germany that most of us probably know very little about, but where the result is stunning in a way that may say an enormous amount about the way that politics is tipping there in Germany and in other countries of Europe and perhaps with repercussions and echoes here in the United States during campaign 2016.

  • 10:07:26

    MR. JOHN DONVANJust what happened this week, well, we'll get to it in a moment, but I want to say first, we'd love to have you join our conversation. Our number is 1-800-433-8850 or you can email us at and our website is So just what happened, let's get to it. Let's go first to Berlin and bring in Anton Troianovski. He is Berlin correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Anton, thanks for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:07:55

    MR. JOHN DONVANAnd what is it? What happened this week in this election?

  • 10:07:59

    MR. ANTON TROIANOVSKIWell, thanks a lot. Great to be here. Sunday was a really important day in German politics. It was the election for the state legislature and one of Germany's most sparsely populated states, the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania up in the northeast of the country. Only 1.6 million people, but very closely watched because the alternative for Germany, a three-year-old party came in second with almost 21 percent of the vote, defeating the Christian Democrats, Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right party, which only got 19 percent.

  • 10:08:43

    MR. ANTON TROIANOVSKIAnd it was the first time in post war German history that the Christian Democrats finished behind a populist challenger to their right in a state election. And that sent -- yeah, go ahead.

  • 10:08:56

    DONVANAnd Anton, did anyone see this coming?

  • 10:09:00

    TROIANOVSKIThe polls did predict it, but I think a lot of people -- it was such a shocking result that I think a lot of people didn't even really believe it could happen. One of the really the fundamental tenets almost most of German post-war politics is that the Christian Democrats consolidate all of the right wing, all of conservatives in Germany, in part to prevent another populist right-wing movement emerging here.

  • 10:09:38

    DONVANSo it was seen -- the party is seen as a sort of respectable right, you would say?

  • 10:09:44

    TROIANOVSKIThat's certainly how they present themselves.

  • 10:09:47

    DONVANThemselves, okay.

  • 10:09:47

    TROIANOVSKIThey were founded back in 2013 by a group of academics and former journalists initially to oppose Chancellor Merkel's policy of trying to save the euro. Their initial point was we need to get Germany out of the euro and that drew in a lot of the kind of conservative business community, high brow conservatives and whatnot that were critical of the European project and particular of the common currency.

  • 10:10:20

    TROIANOVSKIThen, a year ago, things changed when Merkel decided to make acceptance of refugees the central part of her domestic policy. And then, this alternative for Germany party saw a huge swing upward, was able to consolidate basically the whole vote to the -- not only to the right, mainly to the right, but really across the German political landscape of people who were critical of letting...

  • 10:10:55

    DONVANYeah, let me zero in on the refugee point because it's one that you've written about. And to remind our listeners a year ago, Angela Merkel made the decision that Germany would have a most open border policy for refugees coming in from Syria, North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East. And more than a million people came. It's been enormously disruptive and controversial. Initially, Merkel was widely praised as a humanitarian, but large sections of the German public began to be concerned and then quite negative about it.

  • 10:11:23

    DONVANAnd so the explanation we're hearing on this side of the ocean is that alternative for Germany, this new party you just described who came in second, that this -- that they rode to the second place surprise showing on anti-immigrant sentiment. Is that accurate?

  • 10:11:39

    TROIANOVSKIYes, absolutely. Because what you have in German politics right now and Merkel's opposition in the national parliament is entirely to her left. So, for example, this morning, there was a big debate in parliament where the refugee issue was a big issue and the criticism of Merkel kind of in the political mainstream is actually that Germany needs to be more generous to refugees.

  • 10:12:08

    TROIANOVSKISo that created a situation of where people, especially people on the right who were critical of immigration, who were critical of letting so many refugees in, felt they didn't have a home anymore in the established political system. And that created this opening for this party.

  • 10:12:24

    DONVANAll right. I want to bring in Elise Vidal (sp?) . She is -- she belongs to this new party, the alternative for Germany party. She's an executive board member, is joining us from Southern Germany. I understand we might have a little bit of a delay on the phone line so please roll with us on that. But Ms. Vidal, thanks very much for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show." Are you surprised by your showing in this election.

  • 10:12:49

    MS. ELISE VIDALThank you, John, for the introduction. Actually, no, I'm not surprised. And Anton rightly labeled it before. It has nothing to do -- because I hear the label populist party, right-wing party. That has nothing or even just, like, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee party. Our party, alternative for Germany has nothing to do with something like that. What we want to have is to have the rule of law back in our country and also of the European level because the entire immigration or what we call refugee policy, it actually has a foundation on the breakage of the breach of law of our Constitution, of our asylum law since our government actually decided not to distinguish between immigration on the one hand and asylum on the other hand. And we feel that we (unintelligible)

  • 10:13:50

    DONVANSo you're -- Elise, sorry, go ahead. You go ahead.

  • 10:13:57

    VIDALWe feel that we need to distinguish between immigration and asylum. And just, like, one more thing, John, if you'll let me.

  • 10:14:06


  • 10:14:06

    VIDALWe didn't have a immigration of two -- of one million people last year. That is just a net figure. We had an immigration of 2.1 million people and actually 1 million people leaving Germany. And the thing about the qualification level of these people is that Germany has come to an immigration county of lower to non-qualified people and actually an emigration country of highly qualified people emigrating to the U.S. and Switzerland. These are based on figures and fact.

  • 10:14:47

    DONVANOkay. And Elise, I apologize for the interruption. It's partly this delay problem and I thought I heard a gap. So I want to bring in now...

  • 10:14:54

    VIDALNo problem.

  • 10:14:55

    DONVAN...Anja Mihr. She is program director for the Berlin-based NGO known as the Center on Governance Through Human Rights, speaking from Berlin. Anja Mihr, as you hear this conversation, you hear Anton Troianovski suggesting this is about the immigrant crisis of the past year. Elise Vidal saying not at all. What is your take on that?

  • 10:15:17

    MS. ANJA MIHRWell, I think I'm somewhere in between there and would say, yes, the AFD certainly rose from this kind of new populist movement in Germany as it was described. And yet, the last year, these migration or refugee, you know, waves, as some people call it, came into Germany and it was sort of something like the drop that (unintelligible) as it spilled the (word?) . It could've been anything else at that time. It could've been another financial crisis. It could've been anything from, let's say, outside that could sort of trigger the debate that we have inside Germany for already many, many years, what you would've described as sort of the populist debate about people that feel marginalized.

  • 10:16:03

    MS. ANJA MIHRThey feel left alone. They think they don't get their share of the overall budget and social welfare here in Germany. And I think this is where they have already detected sort of the root causes for, let's say, the rapid rise also of the AFD because what has just been described from a political agenda point of view of the, let's say, right wing or populist parties all over Europe, and in particular in Germany, too, these are all points that, of course, one can discuss, but it doesn't really explain why a party from basically zero or one percent can rise up to 20 percent and even secede the major conservative party.

  • 10:16:45

    MS. ANJA MIHRSo there is a little bit more behind it. And I would actually not link it too closely to the whole refugee issue. Even so, I absolutely agree this particular campaign has been run on the back of the refugees where there were absolutely not grounds for it, as has already been explained, particularly in that one particular state, Mecklenburg-Pomerania, you have very few refugees. You have actually no housing problem and you have actually a financial, you know, sort of over an economic growth.

  • 10:17:19

    MS. ANJA MIHRSo all these typical stereotypes that refugees would take away housing, they would take away work and labor for the people, that was actually -- the factor, it wasn't true there.

  • 10:17:30

    DONVANAll right.

  • 10:17:30

    MIHRSo the root causes would've been somewhere different.

  • 10:17:31

    DONVANThank you, Anja Mihr. And as we see, it's more complicated than it might look on the surface. I want to thank all three of you for joining us, Anton Troianovski of The Wall Street Journal, Anja Mihr of Center of Governance Through Human Rights, Elise Vidal of the alternative for Germany party. We're going to continue this conversation with three perspectives on the situation from this side of the ocean. Our number is 1-800-433-8850. This is "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm John Donvan.

  • 10:19:59

    DONVANWelcome back. I'm John Donvan, moderator of the Intelligence Squared US debate, sitting in for Diane Rehm, and we are discussing the implications of a surprise showing in a regional election in Germany by a party generally described as a populist party, although there's already been some debate in the program about whether that term applies or not.

  • 10:20:20

    DONVANI want to bring into the conversation now three other observers. First I want to welcome here in the studio the Washington bureau chief for Der Spiegel, Holger Stark.

  • 10:20:28

    MR. HOLGER STARKHello, John.

  • 10:20:29

    DONVANAnd as well, Alina Polyakova, deputy director of the Eurasia Center, at The Atlantic Council.

  • 10:20:33


  • 10:20:34

    DONVANAnd Stephen Szabo, executive director of the Transatlantic Academy at the German Marshall Fund.

  • 10:20:40

    MR. STEPHEN SZABOGlad to be here.

  • 10:20:41

    DONVANSo let me start with you, Alina. We were just hearing three views from Germany on the meaning of -- I don't want to go too far in this language but the rise of the right or this showing of a head above water by a party described as a right-wing party, perceived here as having ridden to victory on the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. We heard at least one of the -- two of the speakers on the other saying it's more complicated than that, it's not just about the immigrant crisis of the past year in Germany. What's your take on that?

  • 10:21:15

    POLYAKOVAThanks, John. I think going back to one of the points made by one of the earlier speakers, Ms. Mihr, she's right that the situation is much more complicated. But on the other hand, if we look at the recent shocks to Europe more broadly and Germany specifically, you know, this party wasn't gaining at the polls at the same rate after the financial crisis, which happened 2008-2009. The AFD wasn't even founded until 2013, as Anton mentioned.

  • 10:21:42

    POLYAKOVASo the point is that it's -- other shocks could not have produced such a populist rise in a place like Germany, given its particular history, and the economy just wasn't -- even though perhaps the financial crisis caused a sluggish recovery in Germany and other wealthy European countries, and it caused some resentment on the side of Germany towards countries like Greece and others, who needed bailouts from the richer European economies, it didn't provide the powerful frame that far-right parties were able to use to really ride on their electoral success. It really is about the refugee frame and how far-right parties such as the AFD but also others across Western Europe are using that to their advantage.

  • 10:22:26

    DONVANWhere else are you seeing that happening?

  • 10:22:26

    POLYAKOVAOf course in places like Denmark, France, Italy. I mean, you can go on for a long time. What we see now is that across Western Europe, far-right, populist parties that are in their core anti-immigrant, Euro-skeptic parties are -- have become part and parcel of Western European democracies. And this really wasn't the case even five, 10 years ago.

  • 10:22:51

    DONVANOkay, I want to -- I want to bring in Holger Stark. You're based here in Washington, you cover the U.S. for Der Spiegel, but you just were telling me before, you go back and forth a lot. So you're really in touch with what's going on at home. I want to take a listen to something -- a comment made by Frauke Petry, who is the leader of the party that was victorious, came in second this week, but they're claiming it as a victory.

  • 10:23:15

    DONVANShe was being interviewed by Britain's Channel 4, and yes, the interviewer was putting questions to her to provoke a response based on the immigrant question, but here's what she had to say.

  • 10:23:25

    MS. FRAUKE PETRYBut we have to face the fact that we have a clash of cultures not only in Germany, in France, in Belgium.

  • 10:23:33

    INTERVIEWERWhen you talk about a clash of cultures, is there something that you think is intrinsic about Islam that doesn't fit in to German culture?

  • 10:23:39

    PETRYThere's a number of characteristics that do not fit into Europe. First of all, look at how women are treated in Islamic countries. That has nothing to do with the right of the women and girls in Germany and Europe.

  • 10:23:54

    DONVANSo Holger, listening to that, are -- would we be making too much of the case that her party was playing the immigrant card?

  • 10:24:04

    STARKWell, I certainly wouldn't call it a clash of cultures, but there's a certain degree of truth in that, and what we see is a clash between white, predominately Christian majority of societies in Europe, very similar to what we see in the U.S., and new parts of the population coming in from different cultures. We have seen that first in the '60s and '70s, where immigrants from Southern Europe and partly from the African countries came in, and now we see huge, huge figures of people coming in from the Middle East.

  • 10:24:35

    STARKAnd what certainly is true, that the majority feeling challenged in their position as the core of society in Europe, and that is something that we can observe, as Alina pointed out, in Netherlands, in France, in Germany, as well. And I think this is something that is very similar to what we see in the U.S. with Donald Trump.

  • 10:24:52

    DONVANAnd as an example of the kind of reaction we're talking about now, there was this incident that took place over New Year's, where there were reports that on a given evening in the city of Cologne that there was a significant amount at New Year's celebrations on the street, a significant amount of sexual assault of women, allegedly by a disproportionately large number of men of Middle Eastern and North African extraction. I'm putting a lot of allegedlys and reportedlys in front of it because it's somewhat controversial.

  • 10:25:23

    DONVANBut after that there was a reaction in Germany that surprised a lot of observers here. Now Germany is a country with strong gun control, but there's no strong pepper spray control, and this is a report from the BBC.

  • 10:25:35

    REPORTERNon-lethal gas pistols, mace and pepper spray are flying off the shelves here. Customers say they want them for self-defense.

  • 10:25:45

    INTERVIEWEEA lot of women are coming to us and a lot of older people.

  • 10:25:51

    DONVANSo again, Holger, is that typical of the kind of visceral response people are having to the presence of these numbers of migrants in the country all of a sudden?

  • 10:26:00

    STARKUsually not, but it's a perfect example of how overheated the debate has been, and this incident in New Year's eve has been a game-changer in the public debate. After that, a lot of things changed because people really felt like this country isn't secure anymore.

  • 10:26:15

    DONVANDo I have the facts right about what happened on New Year's Eve? Because it's highly, highly inflammatory and controversial, but the reporting that was recently in the Washington Post is that there were more than 1,000 incidents reported on that night by German women of assaults, primarily, not entirely but primarily, by Middle Eastern men. Is that accurate?

  • 10:26:33

    STARKWell there is still a legal question mark because not many of those cases went into court, but it's no doubt that there happened terrible things on a mass scale with sexual assault and women with immigrants, people with immigrant backgrounds, at least. Too many details are still unclear.

  • 10:26:52

    DONVANStephen Szabo, so from -- it sounds like, and Holger's helping to make the case, and these facts are making the case, that you don't have to have been a rabid anti-immigrant German citizen to be upset by what's happened in the past year and that perhaps all of those people going out to buy pepper spray are not simply, you know, ignorant people with small world views but that they're actually being scared by something, rationally or not, and it may be irrational. What about that?

  • 10:27:24

    SZABOYou know, I think if you look at the recent election we're just discussing, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, if you look at the results of the election, you see in the polling that a lot of people were linking criminality to the immigrants in Eastern Germany. So I do think it was a factor.

  • 10:27:37

    DONVANLegitimately, though?

  • 10:27:39

    SZABONo, I don't think so. And I think -- I mean, certainly that case in Cologne was very bad, but there's been very few kind of terrorist attacks compared to what you've had, say, in France or in other parts of Europe. So I think that point of view, it's overblown. However, it's interesting because this is the part of Germany that has the least amount of asylum-seekers. Eastern Germany is like -- they're basically people who have lost out because of unification, people who don't have jobs, people -- a lot of sort of middle-aged males who have got no future.

  • 10:28:08

    SZABOSo you see kind of a reaction against that, but if you look at the numbers, they did 20 percent or so in Eastern Germany in this election. Nationwide, they are only about 10 to 11 percent.

  • 10:28:18

    DONVANBut growing?

  • 10:28:18

    SZABOWe'll see. I think they're going to actually diminish because I think the problem itself has been -- is less severe than it was a year ago in terms of the number of people coming in and in terms of the fact that the German government is getting control of the situation.

  • 10:28:31

    DONVANWhat I found interesting in listening to Frauke Petry -- am I pronouncing her name close enough?

  • 10:28:35


  • 10:28:36

    STARKPretty close.

  • 10:28:37

    DONVANOkay, thank you. The leader of the party, she's a very, very sophisticated, well-educated individual, young. She studied in the United Kingdom. Her English is brilliant. If one wants to have a stereotype of the German far right as being potbellied old men nostalgic for 50 years ago, that's just not accurate. I mean, she's a very, very worldly, worldly person. How typical is that of the party? I'll take that to Alina.

  • 10:29:07

    POLYAKOVASure. I mean what we've seen over the last, you know, decade, even longer, is that these far-right parties have become incredibly agile and savvy in the political space. And if you look at other leaders of similar parties, like the French National Front, for example, who is headed now by Marine Le Pen, she's also a very worldly, cosmopolitan politician. And I think she's been extremely politically savvy in separating the modern National Front, as I think they like to think of themselves, from the old legacy of racism, fascism that in many ways her father represented, who she essentially pushed out of the party a few years ago.

  • 10:29:42

    POLYAKOVAAnd if we look a little further out, you know, in the Netherlands for example, Geert Wilders I think is a bit more of a typical character, you could say. But still, you know, his views on family values, for example, are not so traditional. He is not -- he's relatively liberal, socially, you could say, which aligns with some of the sort of Dutch values, European values more broadly, yet he's still very anti-immigrant, very anti-EU.

  • 10:30:08

    POLYAKOVASo if we look across the spectrum, the fact is that these right-wing politicians, the populists, whatever you want to refer to them as, are not fitting a stereotype that we feel comfortable with because it kind of helps us box people as, you know, the crazies on the right, but this is certainly not what we're seeing today.

  • 10:30:26


  • 10:30:27

    SZABOYeah, just want to point out on (word?) interesting point because this party does not have a unified, charismatic leader. They don't have a Le Pen or even a Nigel Farage from the UKIP. So Petry is not the undisputed leader right now, and secondly, if you look at the vote in -- for parliament, only about 19 percent of women voted for this party. So women are still not big supporters, I think of AfD.

  • 10:30:50

    DONVANHolger, who are the supporters? I mean, who is the likely demographic to move to these parties?

  • 10:30:56

    STARKWell, first it's important to distinguish in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern that half of the 20 percent, around 10 percent, have been diehard right-wing voters for a long time. We had the neo-Nazi party, the NPD, being in the parliament since many years, and they always hit around nine to 10 percent. So what we see is we have, like, 10 percent in that part of the country really supporting right-wing extremism, and the other 10 percent vote is coming from (unintelligible) partly also from the social democrats, who do not feel at home represented anymore.

  • 10:31:27

    STARKThey are the middle of Germany. That's represented through the German society.

  • 10:31:33

    DONVANSo you think their separation from the CDU is more or less permanent, it's not just -- they're not just registering a protest vote one time only?

  • 10:31:40

    STARKWell, the polls indicate that they well can land at around 10 percent next fall in the fall of 2017, when the German national election takes place. So what we are facing is the first time since World War II that a right-wing party, right on the question, conservative union, will establish themselves in the German parliament. That's something that we all have to take into account.

  • 10:32:03

    POLYAKOVATo go back to that point, to how the AfD will do in the national elections next year, even if they gain 10 to 12 percent, this will still make Germany in many ways an outlier. Over the last 15 years, Germany has been an outlier as other far-right populist parties have gained upwards of 20, 25, 30 percent and have been coalition partners. For example in Denmark the People's Party, the Danish People's Party, has been a coalition, non-official, but a coalition partner for several governments now.

  • 10:32:34

    POLYAKOVASo in many ways if the AfD does gain this 10 to 12 percent in the national elections, that will still be a relatively low gain compared to other similar Western European countries.

  • 10:32:45

    DONVANI'm John Donvan, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Steven, in retrospect did Angela Merkel make a mistake allowing in 1.1 million refugees? And as we heard from Anja earlier, I'm sorry, Elise Vidal earlier, she said actually when you count the people who have come and gone, it's more like 2.3 million people, which is an enormous transition to take place.

  • 10:33:10

    SZABOWell that's an exaggeration, I think, of the numbers. And a good number of the people who have come in are not even Syrians, or they came from places like Kosovo and the Balkans, as well. And I think she did not make a mistake. I think she may have made a mistake in moving so quickly on her own and not getting more -- building up more of a support within her own party. But I mean, her coalition partners supported this, the German public supported this, and I think that no, overall, she did not make a mistake, and I don't think you're going to see her change her rhetoric.

  • 10:33:38

    SZABOThey are certainly going to be tightening up and making -- I think the real problem that the public is seeing is that they don't feel they can control this, that it hasn't been administered very well. But I think that now -- that's now being taken care of, so no, I think she'll get through this.

  • 10:33:50

    DONVANLet's bring in some callers, and our number again is 1-800-433-8850. And Richard from Hampton, Virginia, welcome to the Diane Rehm Show.

  • 10:33:57

    RICHARDThank you.

  • 10:33:58

    DONVANSure. What's your question?

  • 10:34:02

    RICHARDWell it's not so much a question, I guess, as a comment. I mean, for example the last speaker there said she didn't make a mistake, you know, but I mean -- the German people supported what she had done. Apparently, if you look at everything that's happening over there right now, there's a movement to the right saying we don't support what she's done, we don't want this to occur, and, you know, we can sit on there, we can say all day long that hey, I think that this is good and this is -- but in reality if you look at what's occurring, it's not good.

  • 10:34:28

    RICHARDEverywhere we look, I mean if you look even here in the United States, I mean, we're having issues with those also coming across. I mean, those people that go into those countries, they are going to take jobs away from somebody, and it's going to be one of the local citizens that's going to lose a job, that can't find a job. There's just no way that that's not going to happen.

  • 10:34:44

    DONVANAll right, let me let -- let me let Holger respond to some of that in terms of -- in terms of the ability to integrate that many people without hurting the population that was there in the first place.

  • 10:34:53

    STARKWell let me first underline one important point, and there is a guaranteed right, guaranteed in the German constitution, for political asylum. And that's a lesson from World War II. Germans relied heavily on other countries letting them in, providing political asylum in the terrible Nazi past. So this is something that our constitution in Germany guarantees other people, and we see more than 500,000 people coming from Syria and fleeing from the terrible ISIS regime. They are now in Germany, and I think it's a German duty to provide that kind of shelter.

  • 10:35:20

    DONVANMerkel had no choice, you're saying?

  • 10:35:23

    STARKI think she had no choice, yeah.

  • 10:35:28


  • 10:35:29

    POLYAKOVABut on the other hand, I think what this demonstrates is that the ethical or moral choice is not always the most politically savvy one. And I think you can't dispute that given the German context and German history, she absolutely made the right decision. She was in a difficult position, yet she has been losing support because of the refugee policy.

  • 10:35:47

    DONVANSteve, where -- go ahead.

  • 10:35:48

    SZABOYeah, I was just going to say one point is -- that's important to keep in mind that makes Germany different, let's say, than France or these other countries that have populist issues, they're doing very well economically, and you don't -- you have a very low unemployment rate. Except for Eastern Germany, you have a very low unemployment rate. So that I think limits the amount of damage that this is doing. And also to some extent Germany needs people to come in. They need immigrants to come in. These are asylum-seekers, but they could become immigrants in the future, and I think they're integrating these people pretty well considering the amount of money -- the amount of people that are coming in.

  • 10:36:17

    SZABOThe last point, going back to the caller, just think about what was her choice. Hungary opened the border. You had hundreds of thousands of people pouring in. She really was under a lot of pressure to have to do something. I don't know what other alternative she really had back then.

  • 10:36:31

    STARKWell, she very well described that, the pictures of having, like, police, tanks at the border, beating people who were literally physically crossing the border or taking them and trying to vet them and try to embrace them, and she decided for the second.

  • 10:36:44

    DONVANWell, we saw that for example Hungary got very negative publicity when it did exactly that, and Germany's historically always going to be in a position where it doesn't have that option whatsoever.

  • 10:36:55

    DONVANRight. Alina?

  • 10:36:57

    POLYAKOVATo follow up on Steve's point regarding the economy, actually it's interesting, the facts on the ground in terms of the economic growth and even the numbers of immigrants that enter a certain region of a certain country, don't determine political outcomes for the far right. Austria is a very wealthy country, very low unemployment, has had a huge leap in the far right, and we're seeing this across the board in wealthy European countries.

  • 10:37:19

    DONVANAll right, we're going to continue our conversation after the break on the impact of this election in the -- on the optics of what's happening in Germany, where it's going to go next, and repercussions, perhaps, for events here in country. I'm John Donvan. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:40:01

    DONVANWelcome back. I'm John Donvan, moderator of the Intelligence Squared US Debate, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we are discussing the rise of populism, Populist parties in Europe. Our guests are Holger Stark, the Washington Bureau Chief of Der Spiegel. Alina Polyakova, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Center at Atlantic Council. And Stephen Szabo, Executive Director of the Transatlantic Academy at the German Marshall Fund. And Stephen, we've been talking about this one, from our point of view, rather obscure, but actually quite important election in Germany. What other elections are coming up that we should watch?

  • 10:40:32

    SZABOWell, within Germany, there's an election coming up in about two weeks in the city of Berlin, or city/state of Berlin, and the AFD will probably do all right -- all right there, but not as well as they did, I think, in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, but the big series comes -- Italy has a Constitutional referendum coming up this fall. The US, of course, election, which could have a major impact back in Europe, depending on the outcome. Spain may have to go to another election.

  • 10:40:56

    SZABOThere, the left is more of the issue than the right. France, of course, is, I think the big one, next spring. April, the French will have the Presidential and Parliamentary elections and Le Pen is going to do very well. And, you, so that's gonna be, I think, an important factor in Europe. And then we have, of course, in September, the German elections. And so, I think Merkel has a breathing space. She has this election in Berlin coming up in two weeks. She has a big state elections in the spring in North Rhine-Westphalia, but she's got about a year to get ready for the elections next September. And I think that she will continue to be Chancellor, even, you know, all things being equal.

  • 10:41:30

    DONVANHolger, do you think so as well?

  • 10:41:31

    STARKI agree, but the underlying question is a bigger one. I think the whole perspective of the modern Europe is at stake. Imagine where Europe comes from after having created two terrible world wars. World War I and World War II. The idea in the '50s and '60s was to unify Europe, to bring it together to avoid any kind of military conflicts between European countries. So, step by step, the countries get -- got closer together. Finally, the borders have been not neutralized, but at least lowered, so no country is protecting its own borders.

  • 10:42:04

    STARKBut the European borders in total. We have a common currency, the Euro. All that is at stake. Parties like the AFD want to challenge all that.

  • 10:42:12

    DONVANSo, you're sounding an alarm, in a sense.

  • 10:42:14

    STARKI think so. I think the bigger vision of modern Europe is at stake.

  • 10:42:18

    DONVANAnother kind of alarm was sound just this week in a speech by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein. Now Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein himself is -- his father is an Arab, he's a member of the Jordanian royal family. His mother is Swedish. He's lived all over the world. And he is spokesman for human rights and he was talking about his concern about what he's seeing happening in Europe.

  • 10:42:41

    MR. ZEID RA'AD AL HUSSEINXenophobia and bigotry can be weaponized. Communities will barricade themselves into fearful, hostile camps with populists like them and the extremists as the commandants. The atmosphere will become thick with hate. At this point, it can descend rapidly into colossal violence. We must pull back from this trajectory.

  • 10:43:06

    DONVANAlina Polyakova, there is a man sounding an alarm. Is -- we've been talking about the success and the vocalization, in a sense, of the right. Is there a pushback and is there this sort of alarm that Holger's talking about? Is that very much part of the conversation?

  • 10:43:21

    POLYAKOVAI think that's absolutely right. And look at a country like Germany, which has really staked its future, its post-World War II future on the success of the European project. Germany was one of the founding members, West Germany, of the EU, back in the -- well, become the EU back in the 1950s. France, as well. And these, you know, particularly for Germany, European integration, success of that large economic and political project is part and parcel German identity as such.

  • 10:43:50

    POLYAKOVAAnd I think, you know, talking about sounding the alarms and these populist parties kind of being symbols of that, I think that's absolutely right. Because what we've seen in Europe since World War II is rapid economic and political integration, which has not been followed by (word?) cultural integration. And I think what we're seeing now, what these parties are very well and very savvy way of picking up on, is this sense of cultural loss that many Europeans are experiencing that's being just fomented by economic crisis.

  • 10:44:21

    POLYAKOVAEurozone crises, refugee crises, and of course, you know, the crises that we are going to see grow and grow from the security threats and terrorism.

  • 10:44:30

    DONVANBut does that mean that the sense of loss is not well founded, that, that, that real changes, a real loss of the familiar is something that's really happening to people in the places where they live?

  • 10:44:40

    POLYAKOVAIt's hard to say. It's a really tricky question, because as we were saying earlier, you know, if we look at numbers of immigrants in particular communities, that doesn't necessarily correspond to support for the far right. So, for example, in Austria, that we mentioned before, has one of the lowest immigration rates. And one of the most successful far right parties. The leader of the far right Freedom Party now could potentially become the next President of Austria in October. Those are elections we haven't mentioned yet.

  • 10:45:09

    POLYAKOVASo, it's a tricky question. It's much more about the cultural framing than about the reality on the ground. Where we see some of the highest rates of immigration, at the regional level in Germany, we haven't seen a party like the AFD do that well.

  • 10:45:21

    DONVANSo, and the bottom line where I'm having trouble figuring out what the consensus is here. In terms of, for want of a better term, assigning blame for what's happening. Does blame lie at the feet of the immigrants for showing up? Does blame lie at the feet of Angela Merkel for saying, come on in. Or does blame lie among the German people for not liking it?

  • 10:45:46

    SZABOI would say, I would apportion blame to Europe as a whole. Don't forget, Merkel tried to create a policy where all of Europe could sort of share in the burden of the refugees. And she was rejected by many of her European partners. So I think the Europeans have really let her down and let Europe down. I think Holger's point's a very good point. We're facing the danger now of a closing of Europe, of a renationalization of borders and a renationalization of Europe. And I think that would be, certainly, bad news for Europe and bad news for Germany.

  • 10:46:17

    DONVANAnybody else want to take on my question, as well?

  • 10:46:19

    STARKWell, I think Merkel's big failure is that she's not explaining enough what she's doing. People feel left behind because they do not get a vision of where Germany is going, where Europe is going. And if Merkel is the leader of a free Europe, then she has to explain where the future of Europe lies. If she's the Chancellor of Germany and takes a million people into the country, then she has to explain how German society shall deal with that. And she -- there's a huge lack. She's great in administrating, but she's not very good in communicating.

  • 10:46:48


  • 10:46:48

    POLYAKOVAAnd I think Holger points to the bigger problem that we see at the EU level, as well. Which is in many ways, the entire EU project has been an elite project over the many decades.

  • 10:46:57

    DONVANDid you say elite?

  • 10:46:58

    POLYAKOVAElite project. Pushed through by political and economic elites who had a very grand vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace. And in many ways, that has become true. Europe has not been at war since World War II. And that's a huge accomplishment of the entire European project. But on the other hand, the benefits that individuals reap from open borders, from having the same currency, so that the daily benefits have not been communicated. And I think are now being taken for granted.

  • 10:47:26

    DONVANWell, and as we saw Brit -- the British, you know, decided it wasn't worth it.

  • 10:47:30

    POLYAKOVAThat's right.

  • 10:47:31

    DONVANAnd they're on their way out. Let's bring in Frank from Troy, Michigan. Frank, thanks for waiting and welcome to the Diane Rehm Show.

  • 10:47:38

    FRANKThank you very much, and once again, an absolutely terrific discussion. My question relates to this whole issue of internal immigration inside the European Union amongst various (unintelligible) countries. How much of the rise of the populist parties in one country is being driven by this anti-immigration from inside of the European Union? For example, the situation with Great Britain, a lot of it was driven by the...

  • 10:48:09


  • 10:48:09

    FRANK...immigration of the Poles, for example, into Great Britain. I'll go offline now and listen to what you have to say.

  • 10:48:15

    DONVANAll right, yeah. Great question, Frank. Thank you for that. Alina, why don't you take that?

  • 10:48:18

    POLYAKOVASure. I think that's a great point. You know, what we saw happening after the big expansion boom in 2004, many of the post-socialist countries joined the EU. And in many ways, this was an unintended consequence. The numbers of people that sought economic opportunities in the richer western countries, I think was something that the west didn't really expect. And in many ways, some of this anti-immigrant sentiment started brewing at that time already, but didn't really come to the fore until recently.

  • 10:48:49

    DONVANLet's bring in Wynn from Portsmouth, Virginia. Wynn, welcome to the Diane Rehm Show.

  • 10:48:52

    WYNNHey there. My question is kind of similar to something that's being talked about right now, but I'm curious as to -- you've talked about the history and the development of Europe since the 1960s and the 1950s and I'm curious if -- we've been observing all of these things for so long, why was this conservative populist movement so unexpected?

  • 10:49:11

    DONVANSteve, why don't you take that? Was it unexpected?

  • 10:49:13

    SZABOYes and...

  • 10:49:14

    DONVANSounds like it. That's why we're talking about it.

  • 10:49:15

    SZABOI think so. I think what the big factor is -- the real change now from the period you're talking about is the lack of real economic growth and economic opportunity. And as in this country, a lot of people have been left behind. And I think that -- so, we have a situation now where we're going to be seeing can democracy survive in a period of austerity, unemployment and difficult times? Look at Greece, for example, as one -- as probably the extreme case. So I think this is the real question. The linkage between democracy and economic growth.

  • 10:49:44

    SZABOAnd I think that's what's been changing in Europe. Not to mention just the influx, the globalization and the influx of all these other, sort of, what they would consider foreign groups.

  • 10:49:53

    DONVANHolger, we have an email from Laura I think you can take. How many political parties are viable competitors in a German election and how does that compare to the basically two party system in the US?

  • 10:50:04

    STARKWell, that's a whole different thing compared to the United States. So we have like the traditional two peoples' party, if you want to say, so the conservatives and the social Democrats, traditionally between 20 and 40 percent each. Then we have the Green Party, which is around roughly 10 percent. We have the left, leftists coming from the GDR history, also around 8,9, 10 percent. And then we have the liberals, who are supporting free market in a Libertarian way. They are around five percent.

  • 10:50:35

    STARKSo, what we might face next September is like a six party system where it, on one hand will be hard to form a coalition. And on the other hand, it will play into Merkel's cards as well. Because at the end, she will be the strongest party leader and she will form the new government, almost certainly.

  • 10:50:50

    DONVANOkay, let's bring in Mark from Birmingham, Michigan. Mark, welcome to The Diane Rehm Show.

  • 10:50:56

    MARKYeah, thanks for having me.

  • 10:50:57


  • 10:50:57

    MARKYou know, I think when we don't learn from history, we do so at our own peril. No one would look at the rise of the far right in World War II, for example. Hitler, without looking at the previous administration, the Weimar government. Similarly, to not blame Merkel and to say she had no choice but to, as if it's a deterministic development of the far right. And similarly, in our country, we give the Obama Administration a pass for his culpability in exacerbating the anti-immigration and economic dislocation issues that have plagued his two term administration for the rise of Trump.

  • 10:51:43

    MARKI think it's anti-intellectual not to use the same analysis to our political situation.

  • 10:51:53

    DONVANAll right, Mark. Thanks for your comment. I'm John Donvan. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. And Alina, your response to Mark's comment?

  • 10:52:02

    POLYAKOVAWell, I think the interesting point that Mark brings up -- we've been dancing around this a little bit. One is the question of blame that we brought up already, and the other is this question of how should the center respond? And I think what we've seen happen in Europe and in Germany and across the board is that the center, both left and right, has not figured out how to strategically respond to the challenge from the right and from the left in some countries. And we've seen them kind of fuddle around a bit.

  • 10:52:29

    POLYAKOVABut mainly, the center has been ignoring some of the issues that the far right has been bringing up. For, in some countries like France, and Austria, for many years. The immigration question. And they haven't been able to provide a more strategic policy that could still capture the hearts and minds of the people who are not satisfied with the centrist solution, which has essentially been, you know, more EU integration, the path forward toward the European project. And that's just simply not an answer that's capturing peoples' support anymore.

  • 10:53:02

    DONVANSo Mark has a point, you think?

  • 10:53:04

    POLYAKOVAI think he has a point to an extent. I think that we have to place some blame on the centrist politicians, on both sides, left and right. For not really speaking to their constituencies and not taking their grievances seriously.

  • 10:53:15

    DONVANLet's bring in Josh from Crofton, Maryland. Josh, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:53:19

    JOSHHi, how are you doing?

  • 10:53:20

    DONVANGood, thank you.

  • 10:53:21

    JOSHMy question is part question, part comment, I guess. There is some mention that one of the accomplishments of the EU was that you don't have war essentially, because there's no -- not borders in the traditional sense. I don't understand why that's considered -- or why it's considered the EU is the reason that happened. I mean...

  • 10:53:40

    DONVANWhy does the EU get the credit? You mean why should...

  • 10:53:41

    JOSHWhy is the EU getting the credit for something -- I don't think there's any suggestion that the entire Europe would fall back into war just because national borders are reinstituted.

  • 10:53:49

    DONVANLet's ask the European in our group, Holger Stark.

  • 10:53:51

    STARKWell, I wouldn't go so far and say that we're falling back into the next war if the borders would be reinstated, but it's a great accomplishment to have one currency. It's a great accomplishment to protect the external borders of Europe but not the borders within two different states. So I can travel without documents between France and Germany because there is no border control. But the borders at France's edges and the borders in Germany, they are controlled.

  • 10:54:16

    STARKSo that, that brought the overwhelming idea of a unified space -- a political space, if you want to say...

  • 10:54:23

    DONVANBut I think Josh is not only saying -- is not only challenging the notion that Europe would fall into disarray. He's also asking why give the EU project credit for the peace of the last 45 years, well, 45 plus years? Alina.

  • 10:54:35

    POLYAKOVAWell, I think it's not so much about political borders. It's really, if you look at the founding organization, which was the EU, the European Coal and Steel community, the idea there was that we need to get rid of competition for resources, which is why wars were fought. Coal and steel, the big natural resources of the time, and this was really the economic integration question, was what was supposed to prevent future wars in Europe? And that has been successful. It was only afterwards all these political processes came into being and the EU became a bit more like a state than it perhaps was intentionally intended in that founding organization.

  • 10:55:09

    DONVANLet's bring in Tyler from Jacksonville, Florida. Tyler, welcome to the Diane Rehm Show.

  • 10:55:14

    TYLERHi, thanks for taking my call.

  • 10:55:14


  • 10:55:14

    TYLERMy question is, so the right has very passionate and vocal individuals leading it. Is there someone on the left that could theoretically counter that and paint that vision of the unified Europe and share that to the masses and help get people behind that vision?

  • 10:55:29

    DONVANSteve Szabo.

  • 10:55:30

    SZABOThat's a good question. I -- this is an interesting issue, because the left is really -- there are some countries, of course, that the left is playing this role. In Greece and in Spain are two examples where the left has taken on more of this kind of populist approach -- opposition to the establishment. But overall, what's kind of interesting is that the left in Europe, and the social democratic left has been in serious decline. Look at the Labor Party in the UK. Look at the SPD right now in Germany. The socialists in France.

  • 10:55:56

    SZABOSo this is an interesting point. I don't -- the left is splintered, and if you look, even at this AFD vote, five percent of that vote in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern came from the -- there was a five percent drop of the SPD's vote. There was a drop in the left party's vote. And a drop in the NPD's vote. So you kind of have the left losing people to the right, to the extreme right.

  • 10:56:19

    DONVANOne more question. Let's go to Jenna in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jenna, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," and I need you to be very brief.

  • 10:56:28

    JENNAHi. Yeah, my question was about the fact that we were putting blame on politicians and other people. And I don't think blame should be put on like immigrants that come in from other countries. Blame should be put on the people who force those people to leave when they obviously don't want to. And I don't understand why the blame is being put on...

  • 10:56:48

    DONVANJenna, it's such an excellent point. Let me just tell you that all three of the panelists are sitting around the desk nodding in complete agreement and it's a great way to finish up the discussion. So thank you for bringing that comment to our attention. I want to thank our three guests. Thank you, Holger Stark, Washington Bureau Chief for Der Spiegel. Alina Polyakova, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. And Stephen Szabo, Executive Director of Transatlantic Academy at the German Marshall Fund. Thanks to all three of you.

  • 10:57:13

    SZABOThank you.

  • 10:57:13

    POLYAKOVAThank you.

  • 10:57:13

    STARKThank you, John.

  • 10:57:14

    DONVANAnd thank you for listening. Thanks to all of our callers. I'm John Donvan, host and moderator of Intelligence Squared US Debate. I've been sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you so much for listening.

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