View from Europe #5
Die Linke and the Demise of German Left-Wing Euroscepticism
13 December 2019
For nearly a decade, left-wing Euroscepticism was championed in Germany by Die Linke. Now, thanks to a liberal-left takeover, Euroscepticism has been abandoned to Germany’s far-right.
In 2007, for the first time since 1953, when the Communist Party of West-Germany (KPD) failed to re-enter the Bundestag and was subsequently banned by the West-German Supreme Court, a national party firmly to the left of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was formed. Die Linke (The Left) was a merger of two smaller left-wing parties: the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the democratic successor of the Communist Socialist Unity Party (SED), which ruled the East German GDR, and Labour and Social Justice – The Electoral Alternative (WASG), founded by former left-wing Social Democrats who were discontented with the neoliberal reforms of SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
Both of Die Linke’s constituent parties, especially the PDS, had platforms that were strongly Euro-sceptic. In 1998 the PDS, led by Gregor Gysi, was the only party in the Bundestag to vote against the introduction of the Euro. Gysi himself stated in the debate that a common currency would not unify the continent but would deepen the divides between the European countries. The PDS MPs feared that the main beneficiaries of the new Euro would be big companies and banks, while the working class, small companies, trade unions and the welfare state would ultimately suffer from it. Gysi’s speech further predicted the rise of right-wing parties all over Europe, foresaw the Euro-crisis, highlighted the contradiction between the European treaties and democracy, anticipated rising tensions between the eastern and western European countries, and criticised the German government for not holding a referendum on the introduction of the Euro. (Unlike in other countries, like Sweden or Norway, there has never been a referendum on the EU or the Euro in Germany.)
Yet while most of Gysi’s predictions came to pass, Euroscepticism lost more and more ground within in his party, and the larger formation of which it is now part. Indeed, Gysi himself, is now one of the most pro-EU members of Die Linke, fully dismissing the few remaining Eurosceptics and their ideas of leaving the Euro and the European Union. Gyisi is now president of the Party of the European Left, an association of pro-EU “socialist” parties, and has committed himself, like many on the British Left, to the flawed project of “Remain and Reform” (see Analysis #23 - The Folly of “Remain and Reform”: Why the EU is Impervious to Change). So, too, have most other prominent figures of Die Linke, like the party’s chairmen Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger, and Dietmar Bartsch, co-leader of the party’s faction in the German Bundestag.
Explaining the Collapse of Euroscepticism in Die Linke
The decline of Euroscepticism within Die Linke reflects two related developments. First, the loss of power of the traditional socialist wing of the party led by Sahra Wagenknecht and Oskar Lafontaine, and the triumph of a left-liberal faction. And secondly, the party’s response to the rise of the right-wing Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), which has sacrificed the cause of Euroscepticism to the right.
Wagenknecht and Lafontaine represent the two Eurosceptic traditions of the party. Wagenknecht was one of the leading figures of the so-called “communist platform” of the PDS, and therefore part of the East German Eurosceptics. Lafontaine, a member of the SPD for 40 years who served as prime minister of the Saarland, SPD chairman and German minister of finance, represented West German Euroscepticism. While they were able to persuade Die Linke to accept a more critical stance towards the EU and the Euro in the run-up to the 2014 European Elections, before the 2019 European Elections the party conference decided to follow every proposal made by the pro-EU wing of the party.
This defeat over EU policy reflected a wider struggle in which Die Linke’s traditional socialist faction has been defeated by its left-liberal wing. Under the chairmanship of Kipping and Riexinger, Die Linke took an increasingly moderate and liberal stance in an attempt to win over young, urban, left-liberal voters, whilst abandoning their traditional working class and rural (often East German) voters. In two out of three East German local elections, Brandenburg and Saxony, the party saw major losses and nearly halved their votes. Only in Thuringia, where the party was leading government, they were able to gain support. Wagenknecht resigned her co-leadership of the Bundestag faction this November and announced she would move to the backbenches.
The liberal-left’s victory in this factional struggle is closely connected to its response to the rise of the right-wing, at least seemingly Eurosceptic, Alternative for Germany (AfD). Instead of strengthening a left-wing critique of the EU, most leading politicians of Die Linke branded Eurosceptic ideas as solely far-right and nationalist. Because of their stance on the EU stance and other differences concerning immigration or climate policies, the liberal-left wing of Die Linke started to smear Wagenknecht and Lafontaine as secret right-wingers, nationalists, ideologically close to the AfD and masterminds of the so called Querfront: an alliance between the radical right and left, initially pursued by the Strasserite wing of the Nazi Party in the early 1930s.
While none of these smears were true, they had a big impact on the German Left and Die Linke itself. An overwhelming majority of German leftists now see Euroscepticism as an exclusively right-wing ideology, which seeks to reintroduce German chauvinism and end the lasting peace in Europe. For many German leftists, membership in the EU is a safeguard against the rise of another fascist regime. This false association of Euroscepticism and neo-Nazism bears a striking parallel to parts of the British Remain establishment, who portray Brexiteers as dangerous right-wingers beholden to nostalgia for the British Empire, conservatism and reactionary nationalism (see Analysis #24 - The Myth of “Weimar Britain”: Why Soubryism, not Fascism, is the Future).
The liberal-left wing of the party also wants to bring Die Linke to power at the federal level as soon as possible, and is willing to sacrifice core values of the party with little hesitation, while Wagenknecht was always against this move. Her successor promptly announced that Die Linke is willing to form a coalition with the SPD and the Greens after the next elections. The SPD and Greens are both staunchly in favour of Euro and EU, and Die Linke’s Euroscepticism had prevented this a left (red-red-green) coalition forming earlier. Now, with Wagenknecht and Lafontaine side-lined, opposition to this project is nearly gone.
The Future of Euroscepticism in Germany
There is now little hope for a revival of a left-wing critique of the EU in Germany in the foreseeable future. Disastrously, as in France, Euroscepticism has now been abandoned to the far-right, who now stand to profit by hoovering up Die Linke’s working-class base. The German trade unions are also strongly in favour of Germany’s EU membership and are committed to remain and reform, as are most German (left-wing) NGOs and media outlets. Sadly, there is no German version of The Full Brexit – yet.
This means that any debate about a German exit from the EU – however remote this possibility seems – will be dominated by the right. Neoliberal policies of low interest rates and a “United States of Europe” are highly unpopular in Germany, and economic nationalism is also strong. Any possible “Dexit” might be pursued by right-wing arguments about what’s economically good or bad for Germany, about the need to preserve the German identity against foreign intruders, but not with left-wing arguments concerning democracy and the interests of the working class.
 The Greens have not been continuously to the left of the SPD and they have never been a traditional socialist/social democratic party.
 Prior to 2005, the WASG had been a civil society organisation; it became a party in 2005 to form a joint list with the PDS.
About the author
Alexander Wimmer is student of political science at the LMU Munich.
This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.